Did You Notice? … The television audience for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 increased despite one of the least competitive races in the track’s stock car history? NASCAR pulled a 3.1 Nielsen rating, up 3 percent, while viewership increased 11 percent to 5.21 million. That came despite a record-low four lead changes, all of which occurred through pit stops, and Kyle Busch dominating to the tune of 149 laps led out of 170.
An Indiana heat wave didn’t help things, either. A heat index of 103, plus the knowledge of little passing, created another downturn in at-track attendance (estimated as low as 50,000). You also had the absence of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
How in the world did more people wind up watching this race on television?
The answer’s easy: Jeff Gordon.
Pressed into action through Earnhardt’s concussion issues, Gordon slid behind the wheel of the No. 88 just eight months after “retiring for good” following a riveting 2015 season finale. He was part of NASCAR’s final four competing for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, running sixth in what was supposed to become a career swan song. The push to go out on top produced a 4.4 Nielsen rating and the highest viewership for NASCAR’s Chase finale since 2006.
Now, NASCAR is singing the praises of Gordon returning to competition once again. Sunday was just one of a handful of times television viewership has increased; it helped ease the bleeding from an awful display of empty seats on a track that housed 350,000 for May’s Indianapolis 500. It makes you wonder what the audience would have been like at the track without Gordon; Indy reported a late surge in ticket sales once he announced the comeback.
Can one driver make that much of a difference? Check out golf without superstar Tiger Woods. While the sport has rebounded with time, the 2014 edition of the Masters produced some of its lowest ratings in 50 years when Woods’ injuries and star power remained fresh.
Therein lies NASCAR’s biggest problem. Gordon’s followers, for better or worse, seem to have simply left the sport rather than picked up a new driver. The improved quality of competition appears irrelevant if there’s no personality through which they could relate. The time-honored tradition of transitioning from one driver to another – say, from Cale Yarborough to Dale Earnhardt to Tony Stewart – has slowed. NASCAR is in need of a big name, a star 20- or 30-something draw that can captivate a generation.
The numbers make you feel like we’re still looking.
Many hoped Busch’s 2015 championship, done on the back of both physical and image rehabilitation, would make him “the guy.” But Busch, despite another dominant season on tour, lags behind several other drivers in popularity. His 658,000 Twitter followers as of this writing pales in comparison to Jimmie Johnson‘s 2.09 million. Johnson will be 41 this year, nearly a full decade older than Busch, and in theory should be behind the social media curve. Instead, he, 45-year-old Gordon (954,000) and 40-year-old Earnhardt (1.59 million) have the market roped off.
It’s the one area where change hasn’t come. Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have won 21 of the last 56 races, a fact NASCAR loves to trumpet. Their average age of 29.7 leaves them well positioned to be the stars of the next generation; among them, only Logano has yet to win a Cup title.
But they have yet to break through nationally. Keselowski, with 677,000 Twitter followers, claims to be a social media master; the use of his phone to Tweet during a Daytona 500 rain delay has been well documented. His beer drinking on SportsCenter following a 2012 championship has also become a story of legend. So then why does he, Logano and Busch have over 400,000 fewer followers combined than Johnson, the sport’s six-time champ? Why do all of them individually trail Gordon, who will presumably be retired once again within the next few weeks? Logano even trails Tony Stewart, one of the last to embrace Twitter, who’s accumulated 538,000 followers (Logano has 349,000).
Behind them, there’s up-and-comers like Kyle Larson. The Eldora Speedway Truck Series winner, on the verge of his first NASCAR Chase, has only 159,000 followers. Heck, some beat reporters are in the 110,000 range. Marketers have spent so much time trying to plug names like Larson, Chase Elliott (309,000) and Ryan Blaney (75,000), but a post-Gordon fan base just hasn’t bit.
Compare that to some up-and-coming stars in other genres. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 NBA draft pick? He has 168,000 followers on Twitter and hasn’t played an NBA game yet. Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in the NFL (No. 2 overall), has 101,000 followers and isn’t even expected to play much until 2017, maybe even 2018. That’s the comparison NASCAR must recognize and react to, especially in trying to court a generation who communicates through Instagram pictures and 140 characters or less.
(Now you see why they’ve been on the front lines of pushing Twitter in recent years.)
It took time for golf to recover from Woods, but now, other young stars like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have finally transitioned into the minds and hearts of fans. Maybe all NASCAR needs is time? That’s the hope.
The problem is men like Busch, Logano and Keselowski have all been a part of the NASCAR scene for nearly a decade now — in Busch’s case, far longer than that. Wouldn’t you think by now the fan base would have gravitated to them? That they would have inherited the star power left behind by Gordon and (soon) Stewart?
Perhaps all they need is a few retirements and a signature moment to turn attention their way.
Or perhaps NASCAR may need to turn its attention to finding another Gordon-like savior in the farm system, one that provides a can’t-miss attraction for a national audience.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Think Gordon can’t win Pocono? Especially considering the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports? Think again. Earnhardt was runner-up in the No. 88 car in June there, and Gordon was third at Pocono last July. Even with the new rules, this triangular-shaped track offers a road-course feel that puts handling and speed back in the driver’s hands. On a side note, if there’s one place HMS is going to get its act together, this race would be it. Johnson’s third-place result at Indy avoided an embarrassing stat for the organization: the first four-race stretch without a top-10 finish since 1984, its first year in NASCAR as a single-car team.
- Despite a downturn in ticket revenue of roughly 10 percent, both SMI and ISC continued to report a profit this year on the backs of television cash. With that contract offering a safety blanket through 2024, does that reduce a sense of urgency on improvements? And will that type of revenue be enough to keep IMS (an independent) and the Brickyard 400 around if attendance keeps declining?
- The announcement Stewart-Haas Racing is starting an XFINITY team next season, pushing down further the independent owners in that series struggling for cash, had me thinking about the sport’s future. We’re 20 races into the season and NASCAR’s franchise system, offering four spots for teams looking to qualify on a race weekend that have not attracted additional ownership. Only 45 cars have attempted at least one event through Indianapolis — three of them have done so only once (the No. 40 of Hillman Racing, the No. 26 of BK Racing and the No. 59 of Leavine Family Racing were Daytona 500 only). The charter system was designed to stabilize those owners already in place but can NASCAR get new ones interested? Or is their plan simply to flush the independents out, go with what they have and then just hope others will be interested when those owners want to sell?