It’s been a tense three weeks as the first round of NASCAR’s First But Still the Best Ever Playoffs kicked off igniting a nationwide frenzy unlike anything since the Pet Rock. Tempers flared at water coolers around the country as employees loudly defended their picks to advance to the Round of 12 or belittled their co-workers’ choices as proof they were differently abled intellectually.
NASCAR playoff-branded commemorative bags of Cheezy-Poofs, Doritos, and Rice Cakes with Ranch Flavor flew off the shelves, the rarest of them showing up on eBay at hugely inflated prices. So did Bud’s new gluten-free, sustainably sourced, free trade, low-calorie high protein dark beer with a hint of raspberry-replaced bottled water as the nation’s top drink.
Even the President weighed in with an early morning tweet predicting with absolute certainty that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be this year’s champion. While that may seem unlikely, nobody thought he was going to win the election last November either. Tragedy was narrowly averted when a bar patron who felt bullied by others who called his pick of “The House” for the Cup champion “hugely stupid.” Had the gun not jammed, there could have been a senseless incident. (Can we at least agree that nobody should call Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “the House?” It’s about the stupidest nickname I’ve ever heard. Just call him Mr. Patrick.)
OK, so none of that happened. The NASCAR playoffs remained a mere blip on the national consciousness, flying so far under the radar it has to be considered a crop duster. Football season started and for all the uproar and outrage that went with it, people still tuned in. And in short order the MLB playoffs will begin, culminating in the World Series. I’m not sure how long that process drags on this year but I wouldn’t be surprised if Game 7 of the Series was played on Christmas Eve. And doubtless that Game 7 will have its “moment.”
Ratings for Sunday’s round from Dover aren’t in as I write but if they’re anything like the first two races of this round NASCAR’s playoffs are off to a horrific start. The Chicagoland broadcast drew a 1.4 overnight Nielsen rating. The New Hampshire tedium earned just a 1.3. Those are what could be considered equivalent to ratings generated by bored housecats rolling around on the couch and accidentally triggering the remote. It also equates to about 2.5 million viewers watching the races.
Let’s compare that total to last week’s season debut of The Big Bang Theory, a show that drew 17 million viewers. At the current pace, it ought to take the combined viewers of seven to eight NASCAR playoff races to equal that one episode of the popular TV comedy.
By comparison, the top-rated NFL game in week three was the Bengals-Packers game which drew a 13.8 rating. That was said to be down somewhat due to the national anthem controversy. To be fair, that game was on CBS while the races were on NBCSN, a second rank cable channel. But ESPN’s Monday night football game last week earned a 9.3 rating for the Cowboys-Cardinals contest.
Also, to be fair the perception of how good a race was has a lot to do with the broadcast the presenting network gives fans at home. Had there been TV back then I am convinced NBC could have presented the D-Day invasion live and it would have bored viewers to sleep. But perhaps the bovine ruminations of NBCSN’s flannelled filosopher, Rutledge Wood will catch on someday.
You can’t blame the local media completely for the dearth of race coverage during the news at 6 and 11. If NASCAR decides to change the method of choosing a champion every year making the process ever more complex you can’t expect sports anchors weaned on the stick and ball sports at local news affiliates to take the time to try to figure out what’s going on.
The fact that NASCAR changes rules on a whim and a prayer practically weekly doesn’t hurt either. Given a 60-second slot, just try explaining to viewers how a driver won that day’s race but he didn’t really win because the win was encumbered and doesn’t count except that he gets to keep the trophy anyhow. But yes, this is a legitimate sport not scripted like the old WWE stuff. My home market, Philadelphia is fairly large but I can forgive local sports fans for thinking the following.
A) NASCAR holds four races a year, two at Dover and two at Pocono
B) They’re typically not very good
C) It’s likely to rain for at least two of them
D) Martin Truex Jr. is going to win them all
Even if we were somehow able to drag the sports media to our playoff races there’s little arguing this first round of races hasn’t been very good. Martin Truex Jr. led all but one of the final 76 laps at Chicago. He finished over seven seconds ahead of second place Chase Elliott, a virtual lifetime in auto racing.
Only Elliott didn’t actually finish second. His Chevy was all bitched up during the race and so that second-place finish was encumbered. Only NASCAR didn’t catch the violation at the track. Some folks snapped pictures of the No. 24 car and posted them on the internet. My guess is Jeff Gordon is greatly relieved that cell phones with cameras weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today back when he was running that same numbered car.
I suppose in New England, they could have made a story about that Sunday’s race being the last ever fall race at New Hampshire, followed by a two hour and 55 minute graphic display of why that’s the case. Truex and Kyle Busch combined to lead 299 of 300 laps. It appeared that Truex was going to win going away again (winner Kyle Busch admitted as much and modesty isn’t his strong point).
But a backmarker (who incidentally is a playoff contender too) Austin Dillon managed to wreck his old buddy Kevin Harvick in the only Ford that showed any speed during the race. The resultant mess claimed five cars and drivers qualified for the playoffs.
Of course, Dillon had some need to drive urgently. He entered the NHMS event right at the cutoff line and needed to garner some points. (By points, in this case I mean regular season points not the playoff kind of points, a reasonable definition of which I have yet to read. Even NASCAR admits the bonus points thing is kind of a work in progress. Here’s a hint. Finish your work in progress before entering the playoffs.)
Harvick and Truex didn’t have to push things too hard, They are both comfortably ahead in regular season points (and in Truex’s case, locked in with a win) and have amassed enough bonus points as a comfortable backup.) Any points system that discourages some of the most-talented big name drivers from having to drive WFO every race is fatally flawed. Yep, every race ought to count equally towards the championship and they did, in fact, do just that not all that many years ago. But someone said that was boring and the Latford points system was confusing. So now we’ve got the current, more boring method and dramatically more confusing points system instead.
Overall, Dover was arguably the best race of Round One. The margin of victory, .357 seconds, was the far and away the closest of the round. Six different drivers took a turn at the lead and there were unique winners at the end of each of the three segments. But Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson combined to lead 275 of 400 laps and at times the leader had the field gapped by over five seconds.
It might have made for a better story if the scion of a famous racing family claimed his first Cup win rather than the Dick Dastardly of NASCAR but this is, after all stock car racing (not a fairy tale) and so it goes. So after countless breathless exhortations about what the championship lineup would look like “if the race ended right now” after all the cutting and thrusting was done the exact same 12 drivers who entered Dover qualified for the next round left after the race still qualified for the title. Can we get a do-over at Dover perhaps?
After the race a former four-time Cup champion and one of the four drivers ousted from the playoffs exchanged biting words in sharp tones. Film at 11. I suppose it could have turned physical but I heard somewhere every time Jeff Gordon gets in a physical fight another Barbie doll blushes crimson.
About the only blip that appeared on the radar screens of the populace concerning NASCAR during the playoffs to date was inadvertent if not outright unfortunate. While it had been laying almost dormant for months the issue of NFL players taking a knee rather than standing during the national anthem resurfaced. I forget what stirred the matter up again. Seems like it might have happened on Tweeter.
The resultant controversy led to more players, I’d say a majority of them, joining the protest. And someone, likely the copy boy reading a year old copy of Hot Rod in some media outlet break room at the time wondered aloud how does NASCAR handle the national anthem? No problem there, folks. Nothing to see here. Keep on moving. This is NASCAR and we’ve always said the prayer, sang the song and then started the engines. You couldn’t get any more patriotic driving a red, white, and blue Corvette through the drive-thru lane at KFC on the Fourth of July and saying grace with the order lady over the intercom.
Only somehow that got to be an issue. ‘Cause if nobody was protesting that meant that everyone not protesting was a racist. Huh? It’s like the logical equivalent of “nobody protesting is a racist. They don’t protest. They must be racists.” No, I stayed awake just enough classes in logic at Villanova that you can’t prove the positive by denying the negative. Unless you’re running for political office.
To torture a sport’s analogy, I don’t suppose the first round of the playoffs are supposed to be the best and most exciting events. I’d compare NASCAR’s first round (The Round of Six Teens Four of Whom Are Messing With Their Cell Phones or whatever they call it) to that round in the NFL playoffs where the division winners get a week off and they get to take on a wild card team in what is typically a rout. So maybe NASCAR could do something there. Start the playoffs at Talladega and give the top four teams a week off so they don’t have to risk death and dismemberment at the plate track round.
So what lurks ahead in the next “round of races?” Charlotte, Talladega, and Kansas City. Talladega is the wild card. Anything can happen at Talladega and it usually does. At Charlotte and Kansas anything could potentially happen but rarely does. Next year’s playoff round at Charlotte is slated to run on the road course. I fear that will be a bigger boondoggle than the current race. But maybe the fine folks at CMS can levigate the road course prior to the event and smear the corners with Crazy-Glue. And Chicagoland joins New Hampshire in losing its place in next year’s playoffs.
I’m guessing they won’t be missed.
As much as I despise NASCAR’s annual game of “flavor of the month” in deciding how to crown a champion this current “playoff” system can’t be allowed to continue into next year. For all you read about how much “fans” love the playoffs (and the race segments of course) the TV ratings and attendance at the track are pretty fair indicators whoever is running the polls is making stuff up out of whole thread. The apologist elements of the NASCAR media can obfuscate, exaggerate, denigrate and homologate to their hearts’ content but the current situation is beyond crossed-fingers and rose-colored glasses. Every year about this time, I wage an internal debate how much longer I want to continue writing about NASCAR.
As of late, I’ve been wondering how much longer NASCAR is going to be around to report on instead.
Round, round robin run round, got to get back to where you belong,
Little bit harder, just a little bit more,
A little bit further than you gone before
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.