Did You Notice? … NASCAR fans who tuned in to the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night were treated to an entertaining race, one that rewarded those who persevered and watched the whole thing with a mad scramble to the checkered flag that featured a four-wide pass for the lead with just a handful of laps left. Early indications are that despite stock car’s longest race running long enough for eventual winner Martin Truex Jr. to give his victory lane interview well past 11 p.m. ET — thanks in no small part to 16 cautions — more people watched on TV than last year, with Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal reporting an 8% increase compared to 2018 in the overnight numbers.
The knee jerk reaction is to credit the better racing on display this Memorial Day weekend for the bump. It’s very easy to point to things like actual passes for the lead as being more conducive than what the Coca-Cola 600 served up last year, when the race averaged less than a lead change an hour and Kyle Busch swept all three stages, or in 2016, when Truex led a ludicrous 392 of 400 laps.
Two things suggest it’s probably not that simple. The first is that NASCAR fans didn’t know the race would be exciting when they tuned in, because as the examples above prove, there was no recent history to expect anything but a snoozer. Yes, the much discussed 2019 rules package was always going to mean something different at Charlotte, but new doesn’t always translate directly to improved.
The other factor assigns less credit to Charlotte specifically but could be even better for the sport as a whole: The Coca-Cola 600 wasn’t the first race this season to have a ratings increase. According to our own TV ratings page (which in turn owes a debt of gratitude to ShowBuzzDaily), Charlotte should be the sixth points-paying Cup Series race of 2019 to show an increase in both ratings and total viewers year-to-year:
- Las Vegas (up 0.16 ratings points and 383,000 viewers)
- Phoenix (up 0.05 and 218,000)
- California (up 0.1 and 149,000)
- Martinsville (up 0.31 and 1,264,000)
- Texas (up 0.55 and 829,000)
- Charlotte (up 0.2 in overnight numbers, total viewers still TBD)
It’s not all roses, because six races still declined in both metrics versus 2018 (including Daytona, Talladega and poor Bristol), with Kansas the oddball as it enjoyed a slight uptick in viewers but actually slid slightly in rating points. That’s a .500 record after more than a third of the season, and considering the dizzying downward spiral in NASCAR TV audiences during this decade, it’s a positive sign, if not necessarily cause for celebration just yet.
At-track attendance is even trickier to analyze because NASCAR and its tracks haven’t provided numbers for quite some time. It’s obvious that few races are true sellouts (don’t @ me please, Watkins Glen, I see you), and that even with racing venues removing seats instead of adding them, one could pretty easily roll up to a Cup Series on any given race day and still get a ticket.
Anecdotally, though, there are hints that the bottom might not be falling out of the live gate any longer. Charlotte Motor Speedway definitely passed the eyeball test on Sunday night, appearing to be the biggest crowd on Memorial Day weekend in several years. I’ve only attended one race in person, and it was the eventual rainout in Dover, but even with a dreadful forecast, it felt like there were more people at the Monster Mile than you’d expect — and a fair number of them stuck around for when the race was run on Monday, too.
Taken all together, this mix of stats and observations isn’t conclusive, but it feels like after years of declines, NASCAR has found its equilibrium, a point past which it won’t fall, either continuing on a flat line or showing occasional upward trends in fan interest. It has many similarities to one of my other passions, pro wrestling, where WWE fell back from its heady peak of the late ’90s and early 2000s and stabilized with a core group of fans that continues to make it profitable. It’s not the sexy rebound narrative the powers that be would prefer, but it’s unquestionably better than “the sport is dying and nothing can save it” thinking that still echoes around in some places.
If there’s any downside to this apparent trend, it’s that even NASCAR itself can’t be sure what’s driving it, because out of necessity, the governing body has been throwing many different things at the wall to see what sticks: new rules packages, schedule changes, and more. The tracks have also been forced to get increasingly creative regarding offers and promotions, offering more entertainment and food options to make a day or weekend about more than just racing. It’s almost the exact opposite of the scientific method we were all taught in school, where a change in one variable while keeping everything else constant guaranteed you’d find the cause of whatever resulted from your experiment. Maybe there’s a magic single solution in all that’s been attempted to drag NASCAR out of this decade’s doldrums, or perhaps all of it was needed.
In any case, it’s getting a little easier to believe execs like Steve O’Donnell say they’re pleased at the moment. The lasting memories from this Coca-Cola 600 will be how everything was bigger and better than the year before: the crowd, the TV ratings, and of course, the racing. It’s a pretty good perception to have from Charlotte as the NASCAR season rolls into the summer months.
Did You Notice? … There might actually be real drama in how the Cup Series playoff field comes together this year. Only six drivers are locked in so far with wins, and while at least a handful more should join them, there’s some real intrigue for everyone below Aric Almirola, who is 12th in points.
A group of five drivers from William Byron down to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is separated by just 13 points. Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson aren’t so far above them that they’re safe, and Paul Menard could be one top-five away from being in the mix as well.
But let’s focus on just that group of five, who are right now jostling for just two playoff spots. A quick case can be made for all of them:
- Byron – The Hendrick cars have been faster lately, and having Chad Knaus on the box isn’t too shabby.
- Kyle Larson – His mix of bad luck and self-inflicted calamities can’t last forever, right?
- Erik Jones – Driving Joe Gibbs Racing equipment is working out pretty well for all of his teammates.
- Ryan Newman – Considering the state of Roush Fenway Racing the last few years, is already doing better than one might have thought.
- Stenhouse – Ran toward the front on the 1.5-mile Charlotte track, a mini-revelation.
It’s possible that the summer will throw this situation completely out the window. Two or three drivers could win from this group, grabbing life rafts and leaving the others to float to the postseason without much stress.
Or it might not, which would make the Brickyard mighty tense. Unless you’re a fan of someone in this group, seeing these guys driving the wheels off at Indy with just a couple of playoff spots up for grabs has to sound pretty appealing. Fingers crossed.