Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Jeff Gordon’s Return Reveals NASCAR’s Need for Star Power

Did You Notice? …  The television audience for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 increased despite one of the least competitive races in the track’s stock car history? NASCAR pulled a 3.1 Nielsen rating, up 3 percent, while viewership increased 11 percent to 5.21 million. That came despite a record-low four lead changes, all of which occurred through pit stops, and Kyle Busch dominating to the tune of 149 laps led out of 170.

An Indiana heat wave didn’t help things, either. A heat index of 103, plus the knowledge of little passing, created another downturn in at-track attendance (estimated as low as 50,000). You also had the absence of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

How in the world did more people wind up watching this race on television?

The answer’s easy: Jeff Gordon.

Pressed into action through Earnhardt’s concussion issues, Gordon slid behind the wheel of the No. 88 just eight months after “retiring for good” following a riveting 2015 season finale. He was part of NASCAR’s final four competing for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, running sixth in what was supposed to become a career swan song. The push to go out on top produced a 4.4 Nielsen rating and the highest viewership for NASCAR’s Chase finale since 2006.

Now, NASCAR is singing the praises of Gordon returning to competition once again. Sunday was just one of a handful of times television viewership has increased; it helped ease the bleeding from an awful display of empty seats on a track that housed 350,000 for May’s Indianapolis 500. It makes you wonder what the audience would have been like at the track without Gordon; Indy reported a late surge in ticket sales once he announced the comeback.

Can one driver make that much of a difference? Check out golf without superstar Tiger Woods. While the sport has rebounded with time, the 2014 edition of the Masters produced some of its lowest ratings in 50 years when Woods’ injuries and star power remained fresh.

Therein lies NASCAR’s biggest problem. Gordon’s followers, for better or worse, seem to have simply left the sport rather than picked up a new driver. The improved quality of competition appears irrelevant if there’s no personality through which they could relate. The time-honored tradition of transitioning from one driver to another – say, from Cale Yarborough to Dale Earnhardt to Tony Stewart – has slowed. NASCAR is in need of a big name, a star 20- or 30-something draw that can captivate a generation.

The numbers make you feel like we’re still looking.

(Photo: Yvonne Leonard)
Kyle Busch’s dominant performance had him bowing down before the Indy crowd. But are NASCAR fans truly gravitating his way? (Photo: Yvonne Leonard)

Many hoped Busch’s 2015 championship, done on the back of both physical and image rehabilitation, would make him “the guy.” But Busch, despite another dominant season on tour, lags behind several other drivers in popularity. His 658,000 Twitter followers as of this writing pales in comparison to Jimmie Johnson‘s 2.09 million. Johnson will be 41 this year, nearly a full decade older than Busch, and in theory should be behind the social media curve. Instead, he, 45-year-old Gordon (954,000) and 40-year-old Earnhardt (1.59 million) have the market roped off.

It’s the one area where change hasn’t come. Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have won 21 of the last 56 races, a fact NASCAR loves to trumpet. Their average age of 29.7 leaves them well positioned to be the stars of the next generation; among them, only Logano has yet to win a Cup title.

But they have yet to break through nationally. Keselowski, with 677,000 Twitter followers, claims to be a social media master; the use of his phone to Tweet during a Daytona 500 rain delay has been well documented. His beer drinking on SportsCenter following a 2012 championship has also become a story of legend. So then why does he, Logano and Busch have over 400,000 fewer followers combined than Johnson, the sport’s six-time champ? Why do all of them individually trail Gordon, who will presumably be retired once again within the next few weeks? Logano even trails Tony Stewart, one of the last to embrace Twitter, who’s accumulated 538,000 followers (Logano has 349,000).

Behind them, there’s up-and-comers like Kyle Larson. The Eldora Speedway Truck Series winner, on the verge of his first NASCAR Chase, has only 159,000 followers. Heck, some beat reporters are in the 110,000 range. Marketers have spent so much time trying to plug names like Larson, Chase Elliott (309,000) and Ryan Blaney (75,000), but a post-Gordon fan base just hasn’t bit.

Compare that to some up-and-coming stars in other genres. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 NBA draft pick? He has 168,000 followers on Twitter and hasn’t played an NBA game yet. Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in the NFL (No. 2 overall), has 101,000 followers and isn’t even expected to play much until 2017, maybe even 2018. That’s the comparison NASCAR must recognize and react to, especially in trying to court a generation who communicates through Instagram pictures and 140 characters or less.

(Now you see why they’ve been on the front lines of pushing Twitter in recent years.)

It took time for golf to recover from Woods, but now, other young stars like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have finally transitioned into the minds and hearts of fans. Maybe all NASCAR needs is time? That’s the hope.

The problem is men like Busch, Logano and Keselowski have all been a part of the NASCAR scene for nearly a decade now — in Busch’s case, far longer than that. Wouldn’t you think by now the fan base would have gravitated to them? That they would have inherited the star power left behind by Gordon and (soon) Stewart?

Perhaps all they need is a few retirements and a signature moment to turn attention their way.

Or perhaps NASCAR may need to turn its attention to finding another Gordon-like savior in the farm system, one that provides a can’t-miss attraction for a national audience.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Think Gordon can’t win Pocono? Especially considering the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports? Think again. Earnhardt was runner-up in the No. 88 car in June there, and Gordon was third at Pocono last July. Even with the new rules, this triangular-shaped track offers a road-course feel that puts handling and speed back in the driver’s hands. On a side note, if there’s one place HMS is going to get its act together, this race would be it. Johnson’s third-place result at Indy avoided an embarrassing stat for the organization: the first four-race stretch without a top-10 finish since 1984, its first year in NASCAR as a single-car team.
  • Despite a downturn in ticket revenue of roughly 10 percent, both SMI and ISC continued to report a profit this year on the backs of television cash. With that contract offering a safety blanket through 2024, does that reduce a sense of urgency on improvements? And will that type of revenue be enough to keep IMS (an independent) and the Brickyard 400 around if attendance keeps declining?
  • The announcement Stewart-Haas Racing is starting an XFINITY team next season, pushing down further the independent owners in that series struggling for cash, had me thinking about the sport’s future. We’re 20 races into the season and NASCAR’s franchise system, offering four spots for teams looking to qualify on a race weekend that have not attracted additional ownership. Only 45 cars have attempted at least one event through Indianapolis — three of them have done so only once (the No. 40 of Hillman Racing, the No. 26 of BK Racing and the No. 59 of Leavine Family Racing were Daytona 500 only). The charter system was designed to stabilize those owners already in place but can NASCAR get new ones interested? Or is their plan simply to flush the independents out, go with what they have and then just hope others will be interested when those owners want to sell?

About the author

Tom Bowles
 | Website

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.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

A lot of fans don’t feel that Kyle’s championship in 2015 was legitimate with all the races he missed. Heck, many don’t weigh any championship in the Chase era the way do championships earned in the pre-Chase era.
You can even go back to guys that retired before Jeff Gordon, whether it be Mark Martin or Rusty Wallace to name a couple. A lot of their fans moved on, not to another driver but rather to doing something else on Sundays. People don’t identify most of these guys today. While we know many of them (and their families) struggled on the way up, the perception is that most of today’s drivers are spoiled.


But it would be different if Tony Stewart were to win this year, watch and see.

BTW I was a Martin fan and moved on to Kyle Busch. Just think he has amazing talent. But I record the races and watch later because the show is crap.

Dave in Ohio

In reply to your Stewart-Haas Xfinity comments, you cannot blame SHR for “pushing down further the independent owners in that series struggling for cash”. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of NaScar and rules in place to “save teams money” in Cup. No one can argue that all the Cup teams, and particularly the teams with four seats to fill, need a driver development program to find and train up and coming drivers to fill those seats as drivers retire or move on. The need for new talent and personalities is a constant buzz in the racing press. Yet how is a team to develop these drivers? The teams are not allowed to field a fifth team to give a potential new rookie driver any more in a actual race, so that’s out. They are not allowed to even take a car to a track Na$car runs on to try out a driver, as all testing is banned at Na$car tracks regardless of who is in the seat. So they can take an actual cup car to someplace silly (no offense to track) like New Smryna Speedway or a track no longer on the circuit like Gateway, but that seems a waste of time. Or stick a driver in a lower series like ARCA which at least races on some of the same tracks, but the equipment is barely comparable. That leaves the only logical thing to do, run an in house Xfinity or Truck team, or both, for those new drivers to learn in and progress. And since the teams are businesses without infinitely deep pockets, those very very expensive Xfinity teams must pay for themselves, which takes sponsor dollars. To get the sponsor dollars you are going to have to guarantee the sponsor a big name driver in the seat from time to time to pony up those very big bucks. And now we are back to the media and fans hating on the “buschwackers”. But it’s root is really in Na$car’s rules on team limits and testing ban.


How do you define a coward? It’s a little boy (or old man), who, in the midst of losing a fight runs behind his mother’s skirts for protection.

How do you define a liar? It’s someone who uses a particular set of trumped-up statistics to prove a falsity.

Matt McLaughlin and Tom Bowles have their pictures displayed prominently in the dictionary next to the definitions of these words. Both of these men have lost jobs over ethical misconduct in the past. Now they have joined in an unholy alliance to promote their own agenda of lies and deceit.

However, there are stats to prove any case. Twitter accounts are free. The top four drivers in merchandise sales this year are actually: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. As they say, money talks, BS walks. Be sure to get your daily dose of BS from Bowles and McLaughlin. But look at the WHOLE picture before you draw any conclusions from these snake-oil salesmen.

Bill B

Sorry that I’m too slow to connect the dots to see the conspiracy, but for those of us that are blind, what exactly is the agenda that they are promoting?


Drats. Foiled again just as my latest plot to blow up the Internet was about to come to fruition. It was HUGE. As you’ve all already figured out by now thanks to the pithy insights of our old friend Sue, I’ve been leading the charge to ban internet access in the Wisconsin State Library System to the Grotesquely Socially Retarded. If they don’t comply we will have no choice but to trade Wisconsin to Canada for a Rocky Mountain double full of BC Hydro.

Yes, Sue, I know you think Tom and I work at the same FS high rise where every morning I toss the keys to my corporate Hellcat to my personal assistant to have it fueled up and detailed while shaking my head at Tom’s obcession with having the latest Italian exotic as his company car but truth is we haven’t been in the same room in a year. It’s tough, what with him having been kidnapped by alien skinhead lesbians from Mars on Christmas Eve last year and what not.

Perhaps a better definition of a coward is someone who continuously posts outrageous comments meant only to enrage hiding behind a series of fake names. If you’re going to spew stupidity….own it. Start your own website.


I would never have changed my user name if you and your mommy Tommy hadn’t blocked my access every time I disagreed with you. The pattern is clear: you post some nostalgic BS; I respond that you are living in a past that never existed; you respond with some irrelevant stats or more emotional BS and have me blocked from continuing the conversation.

THAT is what I mean by cowardice and deceit.


Jeez Tom, if you want to unravel a couple of conspiracy theories, lets pick good ones.

#1 How big a check did Rick Hendrick write to the Clinton Library to get a Presidential pardon?

#2 If Mr. Hendricks leukemia diagnosis was legit is he the first patient to gain 50 lbs while on Chemo?

Oh, and by the way, what unethical thing could a journalist do that would get him fired? Even Brian Williams only got suspended.


I believe you should look in the mirror to see the source of the hatred, Mr. Bowles. You and Matt (and Amy) all foster an atmosphere of hatred toward NASCAR, its officials, its rules, its drivers and its remaining fans. You want things to be “the way they used to be” and refuse to accept the reality that NASCAR is a niche sport that is one of many that are struggling to find its identity in the current economic environment where entertainment dollars are at a premium.

You were fired from Sports Illustrated for openly cheering for Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500 he won and your agenda since then has been to use whatever website you can co-opt to get back at the sport and anyone who dares to disagree with you.

What you and the rest of the haters don’t accept is that Dale Earnhardt is dead, the Chase is here to stay, and the good old days (which were never that good) are never coming back. The biggest problem with NASCAR is not Brian France or the Chase or Kyle Busch (who is only my second favorite driver). It is the so-called fans who hate and the media who feed that hatred. I would turn your question to me around – if you hate NASCAR so much, why do you continue to write about it? You certainly don’t think you are going to change anything. You are simply pathetic and beneath contempt in your efforts at vengeance.

And I only use different names because you ban my posts when the heat gets to be too much for you and your little band of hate-spewing hacks.

And again you are coming very close to libel in your treatment of me personally. Be very careful.

Bill B

RE “Therein lies NASCAR’s biggest problem. Gordon’s followers, for better or worse, seem to have simply left the sport rather than picked up a new driver. The improved quality of competition appears irrelevant if there’s no personality through which they could relate. ”

I still watch the races but the reason I won’t pick a new drivers is because of the crapshoot nature of the rules. Why should I get emotionally invested in a driver when races are often determined by mayhem in the last few laps? You watch a 3 hour race, your driver has run in the top 10 all day, then a fake caution comes out, breeding a few more cautions. A bunch of guys take wave arounds, a bunch of double file restarts re-shuffle the order repeatedly. All the sudden my driver, who ran in the top 10 all day, gets shuffled back to 20th (or worse gets caught up in a wreck due to the mayhem). It’s just not worth it.

Now I can watch a race and feel 1/10th of the rage I used to feel when NASCAR manipulates the race or a bunch of restarts during the last 20 laps make the finishing order randomized. Plus I save a lot of money not buying t-shirts, hats and diecasts.

You want me to pick another driver, start making rules that minimize the luck factor in both race wins and the championship. No chase, no wave arounds, no fake cautions, no double file restarts.

Bill B

I’ll also add that I bet a lot of those Gordon fans wanted to stop watching a decade ago but their loyalty to Gordon kept them coming back.


Wow, what the hell happened on here?

I got one thing to say. “THE CHASE” was created and can be “uncreated”. Just like a signature with the Obama Pen. I refuse to believe that this abortion cannot be undone. Not wanting to undo this abortion and not being able to undo this abortion are two entirely different things. Fans are leaving, in large part due to this crappy, contrived, false way of crowning a “season long champ”. IE CHAMPION!. What is that so hard for some people to get and understand the top reward for a 36 race effort? It should be crystal clear!!! Spin it all you want for the morons, the fans with brains don’t buy it. Can’t stand the rah rah for certain people, the dismissive attitude for others, the outright bias and HYPOCRISY, repetitive monologue and the crappy racing. NASCAR IS IN TROUBLE, no doubt about it. And the blind cannot see….



Oh and I know Tom Bowles lives and breaths the wonder of social media. He seems to poop it after his morning coffee, whatever. I disagree with how he uses those numbers to equate success or lack of the “popularity” of a driver. Many, many people just don’t give a good God damn regarding social media, I am one…and I know many who laugh at the whole BS of it all. While this absolutism of this mindset carries on, it can and often does shoot itself in the foot regarding true value and true fans regarding social media. As if this is the only barometer of anything, what the hell did us poor dumb asses do before social media? Who told us what to do and what to think. SMH. Better get the social media police to equip us all and make us use it regarding our likes and dislikes, cause while the world is going to hell, the only thing that really matters is that I and others MUST PUT OUR LIKES AND DISLIKES out to total strangers 24/7. Or sign up and follow total strangers….amazing!

Share via