Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 26, 2018

Rainy Today But Sunny Tomorrow For NASCAR

When Speedway Motorsports opted to move NASCAR’s fall date at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to Las Vegas and one of the corporation’s seven other racetracks, company founder Bruton Smith no doubt hoped that the contraction of stock car racing dates in New England would lead to larger crowds and greater enthusiasm for the remaining July NASCAR weekend at the central New Hampshire oval. To be fair, the first year of the new schedule was beset by poor weather for the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301. But the yawning acres of unoccupied grandstands on a beautiful Saturday for races in NASCAR’s lower series, followed by the rows upon rows of open seats for Sunday’s rain-delayed main event, combined to suggest that the recent pattern at every NASCAR venue of one-time racing fans taking their sporting allegiances and their wallets elsewhere continues to accelerate.

By now the steady decline in attendance at NASCAR races is an old story. When it began a decade ago the conventional wisdom was that the no-shows were a reflection of the economy. But the steady slide has not abated with better economic times, and the diminishing number of paying fans in the seats, whether at New Hampshire or Talladega, is now mirrored in declining television ratings. Earlier this year the 500 mile race at the latter track drew 4.7 million viewers to Fox, a drop of 1.2 million from 2017, and fully 2 million fewer than just two years ago. The Daytona 500 was watched by 23% fewer viewers than last year’s race, and less than half the number of a decade ago. Ratings for lesser races have suffered even more precipitous declines.

No longer able to blame the recession, analysts have pointed to NASCAR’s frequent rules changes such as dividing every Monster Energy Cup Series race into multiple stages and tinkering with the season-long points system that gets drivers into the Cup playoff as turning off some fans. While the stages make for greater interest in the early parts of a race, the fact that NASCAR mandates several laps under caution at the end of each stage decreases the action on the track. It also lengthens the time to complete a race, with some now lasting more than three and one-half hours. As for the points system, there are so many ways in which drivers can earn points that the only way to be sure of the standings each week is to wait until the list is updated after the checkered flag flies.

Whatever its source, the drop in enthusiasm has been exacerbated this season by the lack of competitiveness in NASCAR’s top series. The New Hampshire race was the twentieth in the Monster Energy Cup Series’ thirty-six race schedule, and so far just seven drivers have gone to victory lane. The season has been dominated by Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and defending champion Martin Truex Jr., who have fifteen victories between them. When Harvick bumped Busch out of the way and sped to the finish line on Sunday, it was his sixth win of the year. Busch is right behind him with five, and Truex has won four times. Not surprisingly, the latter two were close to the winner at Loudon, with Busch in second place and Truex Jr. in fourth.

With teammates of Harvick and Busch also winning, the disparity between teams is even greater. Stewart-Haas Racing (Harvick and Clint Bowyer), Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch and Erik Jones), and the one-car team of Furniture Row Racing (Truex Jr.), own eighteen of the season’s twenty wins. One can’t expect fans to purchase tickets or turn on the TV if they think their favorite driver has little chance of winning.

This is especially true for fans of any driver who sits behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. Long NASCAR’s dominant manufacturer and still the nameplate with the most wins and manufacturer championships with 779 and 39, respectively, Chevy has fallen on hard times this year with its switch to a body style based on the Camaro ZL1. Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 in the number 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing to get the season off to a good start, but Chevys haven’t seen a checkered flag since. This even though there are more full-time Monster Energy Cup teams putting more Chevrolets on the track each week than is the case for either Toyota or Ford. Those teams include Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing, both well-established stalwarts of the sport, and the four-car team of Hendrick Motorsports, long the premier garage in NASCAR.

It is not unheard of for drivers to struggle for a time with a new car. When Toyota first joined NASCAR’s top series in 2007, the brand went winless. But that season only two small teams ran the new nameplate. A year later, when Joe Gibbs Racing came on board, the manufacturer won eleven times. With the season more than half over and even deep-pocketed garages still struggling, it’s looking increasingly like Chevrolet has given NASCAR a product that is a notch below those of the other two manufacturers.

Those facts, a three and one-half hour rain delay, and a predictable finish combined to make last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway less than exhilarating. The low cloud cover even prevented the usual flyover during the pre-race ceremony. And yet lurking behind all the negatives at Loudon’s sold NASCAR weekend were signs of a brighter future for stock car racing. The sport is in transition, with a bevy of fan favorites having climbed out of their cars for the final time in recent years. Gone are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin, while Matt Kenseth is running just a part-time schedule. In their place a new generation of young drivers is rising, but to all but these future stars have yet to establish a clear identity for most fans.

On Sunday 22-year-old Chase Elliott, son of 1998 champion Bill Elliott, blew by Truex Jr. and teammate Jimmie Johnson, led for 23 laps and won the race’s second stage. It was the first stage win of the season for Elliott, two weeks after he won his first pole at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. At Loudon the Hendrick driver eventually finished fifth, which qualifies as a good day for a Chevy driver. Along with Elliott, who is currently 13th in the season’s points standings, Erik Jones, also 22, and 25-year old Alex Bowman stand a good chance of making the ten-race playoffs.

Even more promising was Saturday’s performance by 23-year-old Christopher Bell. He runs full-time in the developmental Xfinity Series, driving the number 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. The very purpose of the Xfinity Series, to give young drivers experience and groom them for eventual promotion to the Monster Energy Series, if always thwarted in part when both series run at the same track. Several Monster Energy drivers always step down to drive in the Xfinity race, supplanting a potential future star for at least that race and usually winning because of their greater experience and more fully developed skill. Saturday both Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski opted to run in the Lakes Region 200. Keselowski won the pole but was forced to start at the back of the pack after missing the mandatory pre-race drivers meeting. By the end of the first stage he had climbed all the way back to fifth place, and the 2012 NASCAR champion went on to win the second stage. But Bell took the lead on a restart with eighteen laps to go, and then drove beautifully to hold off repeated charges from Keselowski over the remainder of the race, taking his third checkered flag of the Xfinity Series season.

For all the negatives hounding NASCAR, a weekend at the oval known as the “Magic Mile” also reminded one that stock car racing’s kids are all right. It’s just not clear who will be around to see them when they are ready to stand in the spotlight.

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Responses

  1. A very interesting look at this sport, Mike. Has someone figured out if the ex-NASCAR fans are buying tickets to other sports or just staying home?
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I haven’t seen any studies, but my gut tells me that many devoted fans have gone from incurring the expense of attending races to watching at home. Meanwhile a host of casual fans who used to watch have drifted off to any number of other diversions.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • Good point. 4K TV + Surround Sound does seem like a more attractive alternative.
        Ω


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