Did You Notice? … NASCAR is halfway through the 26-race regular season? Year one post-Dale Earnhardt Jr. has come with an expected ratings and attendance decline. But as the sport attempts to move forward, perhaps its biggest 2018 storyline is stagnancy at the top.
Three of last year’s Championship 4: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and reigning champion Martin Truex Jr. have won 10 of the first 13 races. Combined, they had led 45.8 percent of all laps run this season (1,972 of 4,302) and collected 56 of a possible 85 NASCAR playoff points.
In short, three of the last four series champions are still riding high in a year where NASCAR marketed its young guns. Add in a strong season from Brad Keselowski and the Championship 4 this November could look identical. Their average age of 36.8 by Homestead is also outside the 18-34 audience NASCAR covets.
Charlotte was the latest example of how this trio has dominated the sport. Busch led 377 laps from the pole in the Coca-Cola 600 in a truly dominating performance. Truex was the only car to finish within 10 seconds while the only other driver who had the speed to contend with both was… Harvick. If not for an early wreck, the No. 4 may have challenged the No. 18 and led to a 1-2-3 finish among them.
It’s hard to build a new audience when old faces are riding at the top, right? To be fair, Harvick is having what could become the best season in NASCAR’s modern era. And Busch, whose polarizing personality has always been a hot topic in the sport, has risen in popularity in 2018. But the sport’s fresh faces are languishing in mid-pack, fighting for positions the FOX TV cameras simply will not cover.
Here are some other storylines to consider 13 races in.
Hendrick Motorsports has struggled. Jimmie Johnson, despite showing some signs of life as of late hasn’t led a single lap. It’s easily the worst season of the seven-time champion’s career. And yet… he’s still solidly in NASCAR playoff position and could easily earn title number eight.
In that group, Alex Bowman has quietly put together the best performance of the HMS quartet. He’s got a top-five finish and four top 10s in the first 12 races, sitting 14th in points with a car Dale Jr. never got a handle on last season. In fact, he, Johnson, and a struggling Chase Elliott would all qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. NASCAR’s generous 16-driver format means all is not lost as HMS looks to decode the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
Old is new again. 10 of the 13 races have been won by last year’s Championship 4 (see above). 39-year-old Clint Bowyer (Happy Birthday, Clint!) has had a renaissance year with the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. 46-year-old Matt Kenseth is back racing with Roush Fenway while the future of their 20-something talent, Trevor Bayne, remains murky.
The sport’s oldest body style, Ford’s Fusion has run roughshod over the competition. And the two point leaders in the sport’s XFINITY and Truck series are 43-year-old Elliott Sadler and 40-year-old Johnny Sauter, respectively.
Young is … inconsistent. The sport’s young talent, by comparison, has been unable to close the deal. Ryan Blaney had the first misfire, leading the most laps during February’s Daytona 500 before falling victim to a late-race accident. He was also in position to win Bristol before getting caught up in a wreck not of his making. The driver who has led the most laps behind Kyle Busch and Harvick sits a disappointing 11th in the standings.
Chase Elliott has been hit with multiple L1 penalties, has led just eight laps all year and sits on the playoff bubble. Austin Dillon led the final lap of the Daytona 500 to win it but hasn’t been heard from since (best finish over the last 12 races: 10th). Rookies Darrell Wallace Jr. and William Byron have had flashes of brilliance but are also making typical freshman mistakes.
Add it all up and just two drivers under 30: Joey Logano, who also has 10+ years of experience and Kyle Larson sit inside the top 10 in points. One (Bayne) appears to be looking for a job in 2019 and the group as a whole has underachieved.
NASCAR’s playoffs is … set? 13 races in, the list of drivers in playoff position reads exactly like who you’d expect.
Combined, that list has just four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winners on it. (And one of them, Menard, hasn’t cashed in since 2011). Byron and Wallace, despite long-term upside shouldn’t be expected to make the postseason in their first year on tour.
Of this group, Stenhouse and Suarez have the best chance to work their way inside the top 16. But the most likely shake-up inside the playoffs may come from a random upset at Sonoma or Daytona. AJ Allmendinger is still capable of winning on a road course while David Ragan showed the speed his little Front Row Motorsports team needs to win a plate track.
Sponsorship troubles. What else is new? Johnson has lost longtime backer Lowe’s after the season and, while several companies seem willing to step up, no official replacement has been announced. The sport struggled to announce a renewal with Monster Energy and then said their “title sponsorship” model will change when the deal ends in 2019.
One team, BK Racing, was taken to bankruptcy court as the long-term future of its charter hangs in the balance. Fields have struggled to reach 40 cars at the MENCS level while teams of all sizes (rich, middle class, poor) feel the financial pinch.
Companies remain less likely to sign full-season deals and instead see their NASCAR marketing in the form of a small subset of races. It’s a challenge the Race Team Alliance, jostling for position and power this season, has yet to overcome. That makes it more difficult for teams to drum up the money needed to compete in an era of wind tunnel testing and engineering overload.
As The Chevy Crumbles. Yet despite the millions spent in testing and support, Chevy’s new Camaro model has fallen flat. Dillon’s Daytona 500 still stands as the only win for the new model while only Larson sits inside the top 10 in points. The manufacturer fields more cars than any other on the Cup tour yet is running like it’s down a cylinder.
But for those worried about the Bowtie Brigade, there is hope. Remember how Toyota’s new Camry model slumped when it was first introduced? By the end of the season, they were lapping the field. The manufacturer put up two of the last three champions (Truex and Busch) while at times dominating XFINITY and Camping World Trucks.
Chevy’s strongest teams, as mentioned earlier, remain solidly in playoff position without a win and are unlikely to be challenged during the summer months. The Camaro could easily be cruising to the front in September with just a few more tweaks; Johnson, in particular, has shown an uptick in speed over the last month. Stay tuned.
NASCAR’s Sale. Of course, the cloud hanging over all these storylines is if/when/how the biggest racing series in America will be sold. The bombshell report has come with a dearth of news since it was uncovered the middle of spring. Sources tell me all involved are just waiting for a proper valuation before assessing the next move. (Goldman Sachs has been hired to assist in prepping for a sale).
Through it all, ratings are down to an ebb we haven’t seen since the first national TV contract signed in 2001. While declines were expected this year, Earnhardt’s first as a broadcaster (he’ll debut with NBC this summer) the timing is bad.
NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs have their highest level of viewership since 1997 while both the NBA’s regular season and playoff ratings are up. PGA Tour audiences have also risen with the return of Tiger Woods to weekly contention. That’s left NASCAR picking up the scraps, simply struggling to hold on to the top five in terms of overall viewership in sports.
Long-term, the sport feels like the changes it’s made will put it on solid footing. But the question of who will lead them going forward hangs heavy as we wait for the next generation to step forward.
Did You Notice? … Danica Patrick a NASCAR Hall of Famer?
Bob Pockrass and our own Danny Peters have offered interesting takes. My own opinion is Patrick’s candidacy (if it would even exist) is hurt precipitously by how Aric Almirola has performed in her No. 10 car this year. Already, he has 11 top-15 finishes in 13 races and is a dark horse candidate to run deep into the playoffs.
Of course, we’ve seen situations like Logano where a driver just needs a change of scenery to be successful. But a look at Patrick’s overall record makes the difference between her and Almirola crystal clear. No doubt the fit just wasn’t right for her at Stewart-Haas Racing, whatever the reason.
That said, I think her poor performances plus good looks made people think she had it easy. That her ride was guaranteed in the sport because she was a woman. It wasn’t. Patrick may have had marketability but she still struggled to fight inequality stereotypes behind the wheel. She still stands as the first woman to accomplish plenty: a Daytona 500 pole, a top-10 finish in that race, a victory in INDYCAR. The fact no one was able to do it until she entered the scene means something.
Sure, her results as a whole were not a top-level performance. I don’t think it’s Hall of Fame worthy. But I also don’t think you discount what she meant to so many young girls trying to make it in racing. There were and are so many people rooting for NASCAR these days because of her.
Sometimes, the one who breaks the diversity wall isn’t the LeBron of their sport. But they lay the baseline for someone to get there. For that alone, we should be thankful and appreciative of Patrick’s impact on racing over the long-term.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.