Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: After Rough 2023 Start, NASCAR Needs a Win

The feel good vibes to start NASCAR’s 2023 season didn’t last very long.

But they did exist.

When covering the opening slate of races at Daytona International Speedway in February, you could feel them and literally see them

There was just more of everything, specifically the people.

The Craftsman Truck Series opener on the Friday night before the Daytona 500 boasted an eye-popping best attendance for the race since 2011.

Greg Van Alst added to the party on Saturday when the 41-year-old Indiana native managed to win the ARCA Menards Series race.

Then came Sunday and the main event: the sold out Daytona 500.

People. Were. Everywhere.

It took me and Fronstretch owner Tom Bowles about an hour to make it from the the off ramp for International Speedway Blvd. to the area of the strip in front of the fan zone.

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I got out and walked the rest of the way to the interior of the track.

The good vibes started to end when the race did — when it ended not in a natural finish at the finish line, but under caution in turn 2.

It doesn’t matter who wins, a race ending under yellow dampens the mood (unless of course it’s 1998 and Dale Earnhardt wins).

Then came the first ratings report of the regular season: the “Great American Race” averaged a 4.4 rating and 8.17 million viewers on FOX, down 7% in ratings and 8% in viewership from 2022 (4.7, 8.87M) and the third-smallest audience ever for the race.

And it didn’t even rain.

So far, all eight points races this season have been down in ratings, culminating in Sunday’s (April 9) Bristol Dirt Race averaging about 500,000 less viewers than in 2022.

Now let’s get to the bigger headlines, at least in the short term.

After Daytona came Auto Club Speedway’s final two-mile bow, a weekend plagued by — of all things — a historic snow fall in the area around Fontana.

Bad headline!

Kyle Busch won a decent race in just his second official start with Richard Childress Racing.

Good headline!

Five days later came the Chase Elliott news. NASCAR’s most popular driver would be out multiple weeks after breaking his leg in a snowboarding accident in Colorado.

Really bad headline!

Instead of the discussion revolving around William Byron‘s victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the following Sunday, the next week’s news cycle focused mostly on what NASCAR drivers do and don’t do recreationally in the time between races.

How much of the ratings hits for NASCAR over the last two months are due to Elliott’s absence vs. broadcasts going against Easter, March Madness, the Masters and the continuing trend of TV cord cutting?

We’ll never really know, but with Elliott back in the No. 9 this weekend at Martinsville, the ensuing rating’s report will be fascinating.

Then came Phoenix Raceway.

In case you needed a reminder, Byron won that race too. However, all that weekend will be remembered for is Louvers and Denny Hamlin‘s podcast two days later.

The Saga of the Illegal Hood Vents — as presented by Hendrick Motorsports and Kaulig Racing — is still ongoing a month later. That’s thanks to an opaque appeals process that’s dominated headlines more than the races themselves and has resulted in reforms that should have happened years ago.

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Throw in the apparent “boycott” of a quarterly meeting between NASCAR and team executives last week over the ongoing charter / TV revenue negotiations and the streets are covered in dirty laundry that nobody — outside journalists like me — likely want to see.

That said, according to Hamlin on this week’s “Actions Detrimental” it wasn’t a coordinated boycott. Team officials were left to make up their own mind on whether to attend. According to FOX Sports, NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell said one team executive did make the effort.

That’s all in addition to the pearl clutching over aggressive racing during overtime finishes at Circuit of the Americas — which overshadowed what was an exceptional race, one that included two former Formula One champions and IMSA ace Jordan Taylor.

Another serious headline arrived Monday (April 10), with news that Cody Ware, driver of Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car, was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR after he was arrested on a felony charge for assault by strangulation, as well as misdemeanor assault on a woman. 

No matter how Ware’s allegations play out, it’s a serious situation and one that will be in the headlines through at least Ware’s next court appearance on May 1.

Right now, NASCAR needs a win.

At this point last year, the Cup Series was riding high on an exceptional debut of the Next Gen car, improved ratings, three first-time winners in the first eight races and a revival in quality racing on intermediate tracks.

The first dent came in race No. 8 at Martinsville Speedway, which was a profound disappointment.

The bottom didn’t really start to fall out until Kurt Busch was sidelined due to a concussion in July.

So far in 2023, the best headline for the sport since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing won the Daytona 500 was the release of the format for the May 21 All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

A 200-lap feature event with just one break at lap 100 and teams only allowed to change to one set of sticker tires in the final segment?

Hell, yes.

But NASCAR’s official return to the short track that time almost forgot isn’t for another month.

A lot can happen in that time.

Let’s hope some of it’s good.

2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com. 

The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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16 Comments
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Christopher

It’s ‘cutting the CORD’, not ‘cutting the CHORD’.

DoninAjax

Duly “noted”!

Bill B

Bad ratings = NASCAR getting their “reward” for bad decisions.

janice

i briefly listened to hamlin’s podcast. he kept telling the other person there not to refer to the “boycott” as boycott. when i heard that i figured he was being muzzled because of his comments that got him fined.

jim

When I do turn on a race, after the start and restarts I see a lot of single file racing.
Maybe Nascar needs some more gimmicks. I don’t get the choose part neither, nor do I want to. That also goes for stage racing, wave arounds, lucky dogs, and the chase.
Cookie cutter tracks and drivers. Sorry but drivers like Rusty abd Dale might not make it in today’s Nascar not for lack of talent but they didn’t have the look at the beginning of their careers.
Ticket prices and driver access ….

Kurt Smith

It doesn’t matter who wins, a race ending under yellow dampens the mood (unless of course it’s 1998 and Dale Earnhardt wins).

Yes, exactly. Fans were fine with races ending under yellow whenever their driver won. The biggest reason we have these green-white-wrecker messes nearly every week now is because Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fan base was outraged when Jeff Gordon passed their hero just before a caution came out and won the race.

I never had a problem with races ending under yellow, it was part of the game. But if NASCAR is desperate to have drivers race to the checkered flag, they should have ONE attempt to finish the race under green. That’s it. COTA put the problem with overtime finishes on full display…drivers who ran great all day and battled for a top five finish ended up in the 30s because EVERY driver was going for it. Keep trying these multiple restarts at a pack racing track and someone is liable to get killed.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Smith
Bill B

Amen. Endless GWC finishes result in drivers that deserved good finishes having their positions taken by someone less deserving, in the name of entertainment. Why should the final 2 laps of the race undermine everything that happened in the first 198 laps.

jdquick

Kind of like the “chase” isn’t it…..work hard all year and get screwed in the end….

WJW Motorsports

No, no Kurt.. NASCAR is all about safety. But of course, to your other comment – using ones car as a weapon is not as serious to NASCAR compared to altering one of their precious parts. So – just going to guess here – maybe NASCAR’s safety mantra may just be fictional? On the yellow issue, a foul in the first minute of a basketball game should be a foul in the last minute. The strike-zone in the first inning, the same as the last. A pass interference call on the first play – same as the last in football. Caution on lap 1? No different from caution on the last lap. It used to be called “sports” and if any of these idiots trying to fix what was never broken simply focus on the “sports” and ignore the “entertainment product” part of the phrase, everything will be fine again.

JKO75

NASCAR set themselves up for this 1995, when they created the Truck Series & allowed G-W-C finishes. That’s when fans began to gripe more. Before that NASCAR had the policy of running the advertised distance & that was it. Fans would gripe a little, but they always knew that was the way it always been. Then they started saying, “You do it for the Truck Series, why not Cup?” When they first started doing G-W-C finishes in Cup, I too was perfectly fine with one attempt. The race has to end at some point. I went into it knowing, “At least they’ll try to have a green flag finish.” One attempt is what they need to go back to.

Steve

And these guys might race a little cleaner if there was only 1 GWC attempt. As it is now, they can pile drive their way to the front causing multiple cautions, which only help their cause. Totally agree with you.

John

Great summary article and it will be interesting to see if Chase is worth the 8% in viewership that Dale Jr used to be worth. Funny thing about the March Madness argument…it happens every March…same with the Masters. The high percentage drop in viewership should keep all the BS behind closed doors if everyone making money on this sport is smart (pause for laughter). I am concerned for the sport. Nascar won’t give up any of their margin, tracks are going to single dates for the most part, so their margins aren’t good either. Today’s workers in all areas are going to have to take it in the caboose to pay for social programs and neglected infrastructure and hopefully not a war. Yep, its going to be a tough year.

Rg72

I guess March Madness and The Masters were never televised until this year?

Christopher

Became the most popular motor sports series in the US and then NASCAR threw it all away, ignoring year-after-year evidence of the decline and their own disastrous decisions that made it so. Would not be surprised to see it end up like IndyCar did, a shadow of what was that is still digging out of the hole it dug for itself.

Last edited 1 year ago by Christopher
wildcats2016

Absolutely agree with you Christopher. Made stupid decisions and then double down on them.

Jeremy

At least Indycar is putting on a good show again, and has several strong teams and young talent racing hard. Would be nice to have more engine manufacturers join the series, but Honda and Chevrolet have been keeping the cars circling the track pretty well.

I just can’t stand na$car anymore. I forgot about the Bristol race until it was almost over. Tuned in and caught the restart with 9 to go, and they had Bell’s wife/girlfriend taking up more screen than the race. I watched a few laps and turned it off before they even got the white flag. That’s the first, and probably last, na$car laps I’ll watch this season.

Sure wish I had some good, local dirt tracks nearby. I miss those Saturday night races.

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