Did You Notice?… How ratings keep declining in this Chase? Talladega, the Russian Roulette 500-miler of the playoffs should have been a “can’t miss” race for those interested in the sport’s new format. There’s no event more unpredictable for an “elimination” event, whereby the checkered flag Sprint Cup’s postseason field was trimmed from twelve to a more manageable eight.
Instead, what we found most notably trimmed was the audience sitting in front of their television sets. Viewership declined half a million compared to the Talladega race a year ago, with the GEICO 500 drawing only a 2.7 Nielsen rating. That’s not only a 13 percent decline from last year, when NASCAR used a more conventional Chase, but it’s the smallest audience for a plate race in eight years. Only a rain-delayed Talladega event, held on a Monday in 2006 has pulled fewer viewers since NASCAR went to a national TV contract in 2001.
Those hard numbers, the type that make the sport and its television partners money (it is a business, after all) contradict the endless stories written proclaiming the “excitement” of NASCAR’s elimination system. Sure, there are plenty of media members who have warmed up to the way things have changed, but doesn’t the bottom line point to the bottom falling out? Somebody better remind half the media center of facts, the type that print out on paper because too many stories these days call this new format an unparalleled success.
Here’s what I see: for those who stuck with it, NASCAR’s changes have delivered an interesting twist on what otherwise would be some boring races at tracks like Dover, Charlotte, and even Loudon. But for the fans who didn’t care, in the first place playing “math” and “strategy” over a title they feel is permanently cheapened has them turning off the television in record numbers. The sport’s decline hasn’t stopped, according to the stats sheet; if anything, it’s going at a faster pace.
Unfortunately, there’s going to be a subset of fans that believe Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch were eliminated somewhat unfairly. Busch had five straight top-10 finishes, this Chase for the first time in his career before one ‘Dega wreck snuffed out his chances. Johnson, meanwhile, along with Earnhardt, Jr., had three wins apiece before seeing their playoff bids go up in smoke. Both dominated Sunday’s restrictor plate race, running like men on a mission but wind up on the outside looking in, this week despite remaining title contenders Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin totaling three 2014 wins combined. Newman has one more top-5 finish (three) all season than Mr. Johnson earned throughout the first six Chase races.
Some within that group will turn off NASCAR the rest of the season while building anger over their driver getting knocked out. And what if a winless driver, like Newman or Kenseth wins the title? There’s officially a 25 percent chance of that happening. Will those remaining fans in front of the television be “sucked into” the drama of the sport?
The answer, of course, is probably not, while the bigger problems surely remain. Fake debris cautions, done simply to bunch up the field at random are more prominent than ever, to the point one feels like a green-white-checkered finish is already preordained come Homestead. The dreaded “aero push” still makes passing near-impossible, especially at the beginning of a green-flag run and is more noticeable than ever when cars battle for the lead. Double-file restarts, once a nice perk, are now a necessity in order to keep fans – and teams – on their toes.
Give NASCAR this much credit; they’ve done a great job of pushing positive public perception. But officials down in Daytona Beach, especially the ones in charge of bookkeeping, can’t be looking at these trends through rose-colored glasses. Should the Chase audience decline by 10 percent or more, are we facing a whole new round of playoff changes in 2015? Or even the system scrapped completely altogether? My gut says no, that the sport will stubbornly stick with its decision even if the unthinkable happens – like Newman winning the title.
I hope I’m right.
Did You Notice?… It was much ado about nothing in terms of Ryan Newman’s car failing post-race inspection at Talladega? With crash damage altering the No. 31 Chevy, the car was measured in as too low Sunday night. Past history, especially recently has tabbed that penalty as 15 points.
NASCAR could have done the same, to make a statement toward Newman’s team but the final results would not have changed. Newman would be comfortably in the Chase, still with a 12-point lead on Kasey Kahne so there’s little they could do, apart from a fine to truly harm Richard Childress Racing. Not only that, but a penalty would get the critics out in force; any belief the team had altered the car, to the point it was raced illegally would cause a large group of individuals crying foul Newman was allowed to advance. In this case, I actually agree with NASCAR… why risk it? Why paint a picture of wrongdoing if crash damage was actually the cause of the problem? Officials made the right call on this one, and I commend them for it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
– Don’t think those underdogs, led by Hamlin, Kenseth, Edwards and Newman can advance to the Final Four? Each one has won a race at Martinsville, Texas, or Phoenix within the last two seasons. Hamlin owns this weekend’s Virginia short track, while Kenseth was the king of 1.5-milers last season. Add in an Edwards victory at Phoenix and suddenly, it’s not so hard to see three of these underdogs keeping these hopes alive until Homestead.
– Roush Fenway Racing? What is happening? Yes, Edwards remains in title contention but Greg Biffle has been a wrecking ball this Chase while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. failed to qualify at Talladega. New Cup teammate Trevor Bayne? He DNQ’d, too turning the return of the No. 6 car into a nightmare. Is it time for Mark Martin to travel up from Florida, get into the shop and give out his motivational speech yet? There’s a lot of work that needs to be done here for 2015.
– Martinsville has always been the track to settle feuds. The one right now, on everyone’s mind concerns the Chaser saga surrounding Kenseth, Keselowski, and Hamlin. But remember, each one of those guys is running for a title, in a format that doesn’t really allow for mulligans. Chances are everyone will play nice. And that whole Joey Logano – Danica Patrick thing? The two claim to have kissed and made up.
Instead, I have my eye on two feuds that no longer have anything to do with the postseason. Kyle Busch, still livid over having his title dreams crushed might go seeking out rookie Austin Dillon. After all, with a new crew chief coming in 2015 Rowdy has nothing to lose by enacting payback, right? Ditto for Marcos Ambrose, winding down his Cup career before heading back to Australia to run stock cars there. We’ve seen him spar with Casey Mears and Ambrose typically gets himself into trouble at the paperclip. It makes Sunday’s race much more intriguing to watch beyond simple championship implications.
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.
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