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.
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.
Kyle Busch won a decent race in just his second official start with Richard Childress Racing.
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.
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?
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 email@example.com.
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