For the second year in a row, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs kicked off at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Last year’s race turned out to be a brutal war of attrition run during the heat of the afternoon, with temperatures easily reaching into the triple digits.
To make things more comfortable for the drivers and fans, NASCAR pushed the race back to later in the day. The race began at 4 p.m. local time (7 p.m. ET) and finished just after the sun had set.
Running this race on a Sunday evening presented an interesting challenge for NASCAR. The playoff opening race was in direct competition for viewers with Sunday Night Football. This week’s matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons got rolling about one hour and 15 minutes after the South Point 400 began. Of course, the Eagles-Falcons game aired on NBC, with NASCAR taking its customary slot on NBCSN, football or not.
Perhaps NASCAR lost some viewers to the NFL Sunday evening, but that’s OK. In making a decision about what time to start the race, the sanctioning body put the needs of its drivers and fans first.
It’s refreshing to see NASCAR, for once, not so worked up about whatever the NFL is doing. Professional stock car racing and professional football have cultivated a complicated relationship in the last 20 years. Depending on the situation, NASCAR’s leadership has looked to the NFL as both a competitor and a rival, yet also a league worthy of admiration and emulation.
As autumn arrives and NASCAR’s playoffs run concurrently with the first three quarters of NFL’s regular season, NASCAR’s ratings and programming schedule versus the NFL will continue to be a topic of discussion. Yet NASCAR is at its best when its leaders don’t pay attention to the NFL, something which has not happened enough in recent years.
Back in the mid-1990s, NASCAR’s popularity grew at a rate it never experienced before. The growth continued for about 10 years until stock car racing was the second most-watched sport in America. Only professional football had more viewership. Racetrack attendance seemed to increase year over year, as did TV ratings. Corporate sponsors couldn’t get enough of NASCAR. Taking on the NFL’s dominance would have been a tough task, but there was no reason why the NASCAR of 15 years ago couldn’t have been the most popular sport in the country.
Instead, NASCAR entered a period of decline. Ratings dropped at a rapid pace and have only stabilized in the last year or two. Most tracks have large swaths of empty seats even during Cup Series races. Sponsorship is harder to come by, and costs to compete in NASCAR are only rising. In many ways, NASCAR has dropped out of the mainstream of American sports and reverted back to the niche sport it was prior to the 1990s.
NASCAR’s decline is due to several factors. None of them are solely to blame. Yet one factor that doesn’t get enough attention is the attitude of NASCAR’s leadership when many of the recent changes were enacted. It often felt like the sanctioning body’s solution to beating the NFL was to copy it, especially during Brian France’s tenure as the CEO of NASCAR. Nevermind that the NFL faced its own share of controversies and poor leadership during the same time frame.
Between playoff events, stage races and overtime rules, it’s no secret that France was trying to make NASCAR more like the NFL. But this mentality has had disastrous results for NASCAR and has contributed more to the decline of the sport than many people realize.
The playoffs are a perfect example. The current elimination-style format, like the Chase before it, was a way to ensure close championship battles and keep fans engaged in NASCAR through the autumn months (while competing against the NFL for viewers). Of course, playoffs make sense for a sport like football, where every team plays a different schedule each year and plays only one team at a time. In an environment like the NFL’s, it’s beneficial to have the best teams from each division play each other at the end of the season to determine a champion.
NASCAR’s playoffs are nothing like that.
Every driver and team still compete in all the playoff races at the same time. Those who are eliminated from the playoffs, or who didn’t qualify in the first place, are able to affect the outcomes of playoff races. Considering the fact that NASCAR has no conferences, divisions or differences in strength of schedule, it does not make sense to have playoffs in the first place. A full season championship format with no points resets or eliminations is a perfectly fine way to determine a champion in NASCAR.
Nevertheless, France and his associates only doubled down on defending the playoffs whenever objections were raised. France himself was determined to put his own personal stamp on NASCAR, and the playoffs became that stamp. It never seemed to occur to him that by trying to adopt the NFL’s championship format to stock car racing, he was only hurting NASCAR. Taking cues from professional football felt like the sanctioning body tacitly admitting that NASCAR could not compete with the NFL, that stock car racing was not good enough on its own merits to take on America’s most popular sport.
France never seemed to realize that what made NASCAR boom in popularity was the fact that stock car racing, by its nature, is different from football. Having drivers compete against each other in marathon races over the length of a whole season is compelling, and it produces a worthy champion. If France and his associates had embraced NASCAR’s uniqueness instead of trying to imitate their competition, the decline of the last 15 years would not have been so steep.
Brian France is no longer in charge of NASCAR, but the playoffs remain.
The 2019 championship battle will once again test how effective NASCAR’s playoffs are in drawing viewers away from the very league that inspired them. The sanctioning body’s track record of trying to beat the NFL at its own game is not a good one, but at least the sanctioning body is not so afraid of competing with Sunday Night Football this week. It’s just another story in the complicated relationship between NASCAR and the NFL.