Denny Hamlin (11) wins the Daytona 500 by inches over Martin Truex Jr (78), the closest Daytona 500 ever. Kyle Busch (18) was third at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona, Florida. Photo by Mike Gentry/UPI | License Photo
The racing statistics are favorable for the NASCAR Sprint Cup through the first five races, the TV ratings are down and ticket sales are ambling along.
First the statistics, which are said to follow directly after "lies and damned lies." In the case of NASCAR's new rules package the statistics look good.
The average margin of victory in the first five races was 0.367 seconds, which is the best since electronic timing and scoring began in 1993. That includes two races decided by 0.10 seconds at the Daytona International Raceway and the Phoenix International Raceway.
The Daytona 500 had its closest finish ever. And though many thought the first 199 laps were dull and uneventful, the closing lap with Denny Hamlin vaulting to victory from three positions behind leader Matt Kenseth made it a memorable day at the races. The Phoenix event was decided by 0.10 seconds in favor of Kevin Harvick after contact three times in the last two turns between his Chevy and the Toyota of Carl Edwards.
These are the kind of events that usually drive fan interest. Also, the fact everybody has been getting into the act, hence unpredictability, usually helps hold fans' attention.
Three different manufacturers won the first three races and four different drivers and teams won the first four. The new low downforce package has been praised ad infinitum by drivers and its benefit show up in statistical data. In Atlanta, a record 44 passes for the lead under green took place (in part due to pit stops, of course). In Fontana, where Jimmie Johnson became the first two-time winner, there were a record 51 green flag passes for the lead, also a record since the loop data reports first started in 2005.
Toyota won its first Daytona 500, Harvick recorded an eighth career victory in Phoenix and Johnson surpassed Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s career victories with his 77th in Fontana.
Yet, the TV ratings for all five of the season's races have been down. So, what else is new? Clearly the viewing habits are changing. Older fans may be dropping out and younger fans are not sitting in front of TVs for three-hour spans. Evidently, the NCAA Tournament, one of TV's all-time best sports properties, is suffering from the same trend -- its opening round games also dropped in the ratings this year.
Some perspective is in order. The Fontana race drew a 4.0 final rating, according to Sports Media Watch, and a viewing audience of 6.8 million, certainly strong numbers. But those ratings are down 9 percent from 2014 and 7 percent from 2015. On the other hand, the NASCAR race was the highest-rated sports event other than the NCAA Tournament and the California race easily outpaced its competition from the NBA. The Warriors vs. the Spurs, according to SMW, drew a 3.1 rating and viewership of 5.2 million.
The worst news for NASCAR might be that the NBA has enjoyed increased ratings on ABC, which is averaging a 3.7 rating and 6.37 million viewers -- very likely due to the rise of Stephen Curry and the final season of Kobe Bryant. That's nearly 50 percent better than last year on ratings and 57 percent better in viewership. It was the highest-ever average for NBA telecasts for ABC through February, according to SMW, since the network took over from NBC in 2002. Some of this may be driven by scheduling, but not everybody, it seems, is bleeding TV ratings due to changing viewing habits.
It could be worse for NASCAR. Formula 1, the world's longtime leader in motorsports TV viewership, is on the verge of crisis over dwindling TV ratings and poor ticket sales just one race into the season. Commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, a billionaire, has been quoted saying the racing is so bad he wouldn't buy tickets and take his family to see it. The teams are constantly bickering about rules, a process that includes sanctioning body FIA and its committees.
The Grand Prix Drivers Association has recently gotten into the act by complaining about the series' rules process. Former champions Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, plus current champion Lewis Hamilton have spoken out, too. None of the participating parties, it seems, believe Formula 1 has the right formula for sustaining its fan base following several years of downward trends and ever-shifting race locations.
By comparison, NASCAR has undergone a successful makeover of its rules by instituting a low downforce package that has drivers, teams and manufacturers working together effectively, possibly even happily. The statistical results in terms of the competition support that point of view. Granted, five races do not a season make, but why don't the TV ratings follow suit?
One point of view is that NASCAR resembles the current political realm, where opinions about candidates are formed less by actual facts and evidence and more by perception.
Given the new charter system, which guarantees a starting spot to 36 drivers and teams, NASCAR and its drivers may no longer perceived as an everyman sport. While the reduction of the field to a maximum of 40 cars and only four positions available for non-charter teams has added to the quality of competition, it's also added to the perception that the little guy no longer has a chance to go from rags to riches by showing more skill and bravery.
Historically, NASCAR fans have identified with drivers they perceive being much like themselves, guys from working class backgrounds who have earned their success. There was always fluidity to opportunity in racing, because all drivers were free agents and once upon a time guys like Alan Kulwicki could control their own destiny by racing their own cars. Now there are a fixed number of successful, well-moneyed teams and drivers invariably have long-term contracts. If drivers don't have a deal with one of the established teams while racing in the minor leagues, they aren't likely to be a star of the future. It's all relatively formatted -- unlike the free agency and non-contract players vying for starting positions in the other major leagues.
Most of the current NASCAR regulars may also have come from modest, working-class backgrounds. And they had to work their way up by demonstrating their talent. But fans don't seem to identify with the sport as a path to the American dream as much anymore -- even if they can acknowledge that most of the successful drivers had to prove themselves much like their predecessors.
Three cases in point are Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson is a phenomenal talent, one of the greatest the sport will ever know and worth the price of admission. But he doesn't have the popularity to show for it. Patrick has consistently raced better than half the field, including her team co-owner and three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. But she is often regarded as just another pretty face who doesn't belong. Each driver came from middle class backgrounds and like most of their peers had to work their way up.
Earnhardt Jr., by contrast, is the sport's most popular driver by a long shot and yet probably had the easiest path to the Sprint Cup relative to any of his peers by virtue of breaking in with the team of his famous and rich-from-racing father.
So the perception of deserved opportunity is one thing, popularity among fans another. It will be interesting to see if the actual racing begins to draw more fans on TV and in grandstands as the season progresses -- or if NASCAR's popularity is tied to something more illusory than outstanding racing.