ONE: The Earnhardt Factor
The TV ratings numbers for NASCAR have been far from pretty during the playoffs. In fact, downright horrible might be a better description. We’ve seen significant drops in every race so far but please note at the time of writing Martinsville numbers were not available. The Chase opener at Chicagoland saw a 17% drop from last year, New Hampshire Motor Speedway a 15% drop, Dover International Speedway suffered a 21% reduction, Charlotte Motor Speedway a 14% decrease, Kansas Speedway a 9% drop with Talladega SuperSpeedway seeing shrinkage in results of some 16%. All told, give or take a percentage point at Kansas, each race has suffered double digit losses in TV audience. Now on the one hand this continues a trend we’ve witnessed for several years now. But on the other hand, even the mighty NFL is suffering: Monday Night Football is 24% down, year on year while Sunday and Thursday night prime time games are down 19% and 18%. So it’s not like this is happening in a vacuum. One thought I did have, though, is how would these numbers have changed had Dale Earnhardt, Jr. been competing in the Chase (as he likely would have been had he not suffered the concussion related injury)? Would the #88 have boosted numbers? Quite possibly, I’d posit. Of course there’s no way to find out but it can at least been seen as a mitigating factor, if nothing else.
TWO: Three to Go
It’s hard to believe that 33 races are in the books and just three races remain in 2016. We have 500 miles on the high banks of Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday, 312 miles at Phoenix International Raceway a week later before we finish up with 400 title deciding miles at Homestead-Miami Raceway. Then it’s a full two months of the off-season before we get back it, once again, with the curtain raising season opener — the Daytona 500 on Sunday February 26th, 2017. So all told, we have just 1,212 miles of competitive racing between now and a champion being crowned on November 20 which also happens to be my birthday. So there is that, too. Feel free to send gifts to Frontstretch HQ. Anyway, back to my main point which is simply this: now is the time for the seven drivers still in contention for the final four (and more on the eight, Jimmie Johnson, below). We still haven’t seen anything like the level of drama we have in the previous two iterations of this playoff format but there’s still time for that to be the case. Perhaps even more so if Johnson wins at Texas meaning more places would be available on points standings. Should be fun to watch.
THREE: Seven Up
Despite the mutterings of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch to the contrary, Jimmie Johnson put something of a beat down on the field at one of his very best tracks. Johnson tied his car owner (and sixth place finisher) Jeff Gordon with nine – count ‘em – wins at the little old paperclip. Johnson’s victory was career win number 79, his fourth victory of the year, and his second of the Chase — the first of which came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in race number five of the playoffs. In short, the six-time champion is very much putting down a marker as being the driver to beat this season. Given the dominance we’ve seen from the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet and the satellite JGR team of Martin Truex, Jr., Johnson’s smooth path through to the final round has to be worrying for the rest of the field. Not least because for much of the early to middle part of the season, the Hendrick Motorsports team looked off the pace. “I’m way impressed with, especially from where we came from to where we’ve ended up,” said Johnson post-race of the turnaround. “It’s one thing to see progress, but to advance and go back to leading a lot of laps and contending for many wins is very, very impressive.” And impressive it is, and terrifying for the three other drivers who will make up the final four at Homestead.
FOUR: Gordon’s Last Hurrah?
In the end it was a very solid sixth place finish for Jeff Gordon in what “may” be his final top echelon race of a 25-year, 805-race career. This time last year, Gordon won this race, punching his ticket for a final four spot at Homestead-Miami Raceway in ebullient style. And were it not for the concussion related issues suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr, we wouldn’t have seen him a Cup car again. So was that really the last run for the four-time champion. “Or is it?” said Gordon post-race. “Based on the information I have in front of me [it was his final race] But I didn’t see me running eight races this year, either.” So maybe it’s a case of “Never Say Never Again” as the old James Bond movie title goes. But it does seem, assuming Junior is back in full health for 2017, that this was indeed the last hurrah for the surefire first ballot NASCAR Hall of Fame driver. It has been fun to watch Gordon playing with house money over the eight races he’s contended in 2016. So if Sunday’s 500-lapper at Martinsville Speedway was indeed the final run of his illustrious career, it was a pretty good way to go out. Enjoy your retirement, Jeff. Or maybe not. We shall see.
FIVE: And finally….
In yet another reminder that anything can happen in NASCAR we saw another bizarre incident on Sunday when NASCAR took a whopping 29 laps of caution (and 20 minutes of actual time) to sort out the running order after a blown tire for Carl Edwards brought out the caution on lap 356 of 500. Now it is easy in hindsight to say NASCAR should have thrown a red flag but Monday morning quarterbacking always has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
Frustrated it took as long as it did on lineup. Unique circumstance but Understand frustration from fans and can only work to be quicker
— Steve O'Donnell (@odsteve) October 30, 2016
“Frustrated it took as long as it did on lineup. Unique circumstance but Understand frustration from fans and can only work to be quicker.” Noted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer on Twitter in the aftermath of Sunday’s race. Given the unique and mitigating circumstances it’s hard to be too critical of NASCAR. But heaven forbid the chaos that would ensue should something similar transpire in the final race. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again.