2016 Daytona Speedweeks was defined by the words “drama free.” Those are not bad words, not when such negative news can dominate the headlines. Consider that last Daytona 500 eve was spent writing about one driver’s suspension for domestic violence and another’s extended hospital stay (Kurt and Kyle Busch, respectively).
Instead, what we got this year was a plethora of positive storylines. Chief among them was the closest finish in Daytona 500 history (0.010 seconds); a close second was the completion of Daytona Rising. Going through the stands Sunday was truly an impressive experience, showcasing everything from Toyota’s virtual reality booth to a jarring old vs. new display of Jeff Gordon and Chase Elliott’s No. 24. It’s likely the first and only time in my life I’d consider uttering the words “that was $400 million well spent.”
Yet all the Denny Hamlin appearances, SportsCenter stories and class displayed by photo finish loser Martin Truex, Jr. did little to move the needle of Nielsen Ratings. The sport scored an ugly 6.14 overnight Sunday, marking a 39 percent decline from when Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500 just three short years ago. It’s a rating that, last decade would have been bested by races at Bristol or Martinsville; it’s only reasonably better than last year’s 4.4 season finale at Homestead. The cherry on top was that every single Daytona Speedweeks event, from the Sprint Unlimited to Trucks to XFINITY to the Duels suffered at least slight declines despite perfect weather and a perfect safety record (Christopher Bell’s flip notwithstanding).
Is it time to sound the alarm? Well, yes and no. There’s plenty of rational reasons to explain the early dip in viewership, the most glaring being the absence of two of NASCAR’s Most Popular stars from the grid: Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Sure, Chase Elliott is great but he’s also age 20 and hasn’t come in prepackaged with millions of fans. Gordon & Stewart combined brought us seven championships, multiple victories in big races (Stewart’s Daytona 500 0-for notwithstanding) and on-track personalities that stood out. Losing that duo is the first in a generation of drivers about to retire; as I wrote last week, hanging onto the past is dangerous. We should embrace the future.
Fans were also frustrated with the way in which the last plate race, Talladega, came to an end last fall. A last-lap caution that froze the field and gave Joey Logano the victory over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the result of a comedy of errors; Kevin Harvick’s seemingly intentional contact pushed some fans over the edge. Even the drivers and teams themselves made a subtle statement throughout Speedweeks as a bare minimum participated in many of the prerace practices leading up to the race. Indeed, they could have used the extra track time as so many (Earnhardt the most notable) grossly underestimated the degree handling would influence the competition.
The common theme among those in the garage was, “Why risk it when all the driver has to do is run wide open?” Truck Series rookie Cody Coughlin said as much in his postrace interview Friday night; when asked what he learned in his first Daytona race he simply shrugged shoulders and sounded bored. The problem with creating everyone equal, the end result of NASCAR’s rules is you take away the ability to feel challenged.
I do think some of that will change; racing is a copycat business and how Daytona unfolded, especially with the lack of a “Big One” in this year’s 500 will put teams on the track during practices. This mode of staying positive within NASCAR circles remains important; it’s much harder to climb back up the mountain then slide down it.
And yet, even in a race as clean as Sundays the challenges ahead were revealed for all to see. The twentysomething “changing of the guard” didn’t come to fruition; Elliott crashed and names like Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson won’t ping outside any of the sport’s hardcore fans. Clearly, Rome wasn’t built in a day but we’re still waiting for this rush of new kids to lay the groundwork. Hamlin winning is nice but he’s well-known, unlikely to win over/win back a chunk of potential fans. Known commodities don’t often produce rabid new fans if you’ve had more than a decade to discover them.
Then there’s the final laps themselves, a five-car breakaway up front led by a Toyota quintet who refused to pass each other until the white flag flew. In one sense, you can understand their position and it didn’t really matter the way the field turned into a side-by-side melee at the end. But in an individual sport the charters, more than ever highlight the desire for owners and manufacturers to glue as many cars together as possible. A sport scored on individuality must balance the increasing pressure for all multi-car teams to “get in line” and let whomever gets out of the pits first win this week.
Add in the nuances of plate racing, the fact all 40 cars are superglued to each other with little chance of mechanical failure anymore and for some it’s no longer the competition they want to see. Yet the finish for NASCAR gives hope. It’s being played on repeat everywhere and potential new fans don’t care or understand how the first 198 laps played out; they’re just obsessed with how cool the last two were. The way handling comes into play also bodes well for Atlanta and beyond as the new 2016 rules package takes hold.
As much as we don’t like to admit it, “clean” doesn’t play as well as “crisis” or “drama” in a sport fueled by personalities. The sport can use “clean” to propel itself over time, and hopefully this package will solve a lot of handling problems going forward. 101,000 fans will undoubtedly be back after an incredible experience in a new arena. But it takes time for word to spread, time for trust to be administered once again in an era where fans have been burned so many times.
Surely, Sunday’s racing offers hope certain fans will stick around. But it’s a long road ahead for NASCAR to come even relatively close to sustaining momentum in a positive direction.