Did You Notice? … NASCAR has not received over a 3.0 television rating since Memorial Day Weekend? This stretch of two months is unprecedented, a viewership slump we simply haven’t seen since the sport signed its first national TV contract in 2001. New Hampshire, whose overnight ratings saw a 12 percent decline, came as the latest in a long string of races disappearing from the national consciousness. New rules haven’t fixed it (Kentucky reached a new low) nor has a heavy bout of advertising and promotion from NBC.
I mention this point because Indy this weekend is poised to follow a similar trend. Every Indianapolis race under the modern NASCAR TV contracts has received a 3.0 rating or higher. Drivers and teams still perceive a trophy there as one of the crown jewel races within the sport, on par with winning at Talladega or the 600-miler in Charlotte. But Indy’s slump has been well documented in recent years, with the declining attendance on par with parade-style racing. Another attendance decline, combined with a drop in a rating under 3.0 would be an embarrassing moment for a race that once helped put NASCAR on the national landscape.
So is it time to drop racing at Indianapolis? Absolutely not. It may be a track built for IndyCar but it’s also the most revered oval track in America outside of Daytona Beach. As long as the track welcomes NASCAR into the fold, NASCAR should welcome them with open arms. It’s the XFINITY Series race that should be removed, if anything; it’s time to put them back at the short track of Lucas Oil Raceway down the road. More events over the course of the weekend make the Cup race less special, not more so. Do what you can to increase the quality of competition (see: high-drag package) while packaging incentives to remind everyone of Indy’s prestige. Back in the day, drivers from open-wheel and other series would do what they could to make the Brickyard 400 and the purse made it well worth the effort. What NASCAR needs to do is find a way to bring these one-off participants – a Juan Pablo Montoya, say – back to the entry list in order to increase interest. It has to find a way, even if it means spending out of their own pocket to bring these part-time deals back into the sport. We suffer when it’s the same faces every week qualifying for the most prestigious races. That doesn’t make Indy special… and Indy should be considered special.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- Looking for Kyle Busch to win four out of five Cup races? Don’t bet on it. Not only has a Toyota never visited Victory Lane at Indy but the past 12 Brickyard 400s have all been won by Chevrolet drivers. While Busch has come close, finishing runner-up on multiple occasions, his bid has been stymied by Hendrick chassis and engines. Expect it to happen again as….
- One would think, even with the new high-drag downforce rules HMS will put extra effort behind Jeff Gordon in his final Brickyard 400. Gordon, the defending champion of this race, has struggled on track this season but still has more Indy victories (five) than anyone else in NASCAR history. I can’t imagine Gordon missing the Chase at this point, over 70 points behind the cutoff, but I equally can’t imagine zero victories during the regular season. The breakthrough has to happen somewhere….
- Steve Letarte is the most refreshing voice in the broadcast booth I’ve heard in ages. During an otherwise mediocre New Hampshire race, he was on top of the strategy every caution, playing out the crew chief choices for viewers and making you feel like you were on top of the pit box. You can tell Letarte relishes the role and at times he sounds like a 10-year-old kid on Christmas; it’s a very important boost to a sport that needs more energy and enthusiasm. Larry McReynolds, leaving the FOX booth, was always knowledgeable but his work experience had become rather dated. It’s clear within the first month of NBC coverage that Letarte, who still has several connections within the sport, takes the mechanical perspective to a whole new level, similar to how the crew chief role has grown from the time McReynolds left the box in 2000 to now.
- It’s amazing to me Jimmie Johnson’s contract extension has become such an issue this week. Where else do you think the driver is going to go? BK Racing? Remember, Gordon had a lifetime contract with Hendrick and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar one drawn up for Johnson. The delay in announcing could have to do more with the future of sponsor Lowe’s than anything else. The home improvement company, Johnson’s exclusive backer since 2002, is unlikely to keep up a 36-race schedule going forward with major rivals like Home Depot leaving NASCAR entirely.
- Stewart-Haas Racing marketers are getting more desperate in trying to fill the schedule for Danica Patrick. The deal for the No. 10 car, if it gets done, will be a patchwork of different sponsors which brings a simple question: how much longer do they wait before poaching a driver (and another sponsor) from elsewhere? It was at or around the Brickyard 400 a few years ago where Gene Haas pulled the trigger on Kurt Busch. I would imagine we’ll have an answer, then, as to who is in the No. 10 car for 2016 by the end of August. Danica backers, it’s now or never to try and step to the plate….