Finally! For the enduring fans wondering where the drama had gone in NASCAR’s Chase elimination playoff, the penultimate Phoenix Raceway CanAm 500 delivered. It only took eight snoozer races prior to Phoenix to wake the Sprint Cup contenders up.
With the Championship 4 now set, Joey Logano vs. Jimmie Johnson vs. Carl Edwards vs. Kyle Busch is the best final roster yet under the new playoff format instituted in 2014. Two previous Champions, and two top stars who each fell just short in prior seasons.
Having shed the “Sliced Bread” moniker, Logano delivered the goods, being one cool customer by holding off former Champion Kevin Harvick, who had advanced in every Chase elimination cut-off until this year. By winning in Phoenix, Logano became the winningest driver under the current Chase format, having amassed 7 wins in the 28 Chase races since 2014.
Heading to Homestead, the script is solid with Logano looking to give Captain Roger his second NASCAR title to celebrate Team Penske’s 50th Anniversary, complementing the IndyCar title that Team Penske captured earlier this year. In Johnson, we have the perennial six-time Champion who will polarize the sport even more if he nabs his seventh, thereby binding his legacy with the two immortal icons of Petty and Earnhardt in career titles.
Yet, why was the build-up to this point so tedious? Fans have wholeheartedly ignored most of this year’s Chase playoff, which was intended to bring excitement and ramp-up intensity. Just look at the last three races: Compared to 2014, television viewership ratings have nosedived with Talladega off 28%, Martinsville off 35%, and Texas off more than 50% (partially forgettable due to a six-hour rain delay).
My suppositions on the biggest pain points are:
- No Cinderella Story Left in Play. Marveling at how the Cubs vs. Indians World Series doubled viewership to 50MM viewers for Game 7? In contrast, halfway through this Chase, NASCAR’s playoff had eliminated all the potential surprise contenders, including four Chase rookies.
- Established Superstars are Vanishing. Having Jeff Gordon make the Championship 4 in his final season in 2015 juiced up fan interest. Although Tony Stewart will bid farewell in next week’s race at Homestead, Stewart was not a factor in this Chase with his early elimination.
- The Earnhardt Jr Effect. Having the sport’s biggest star yanked away for ½ of the season due to his prolonged recovery from concussion symptoms has devastated fan interest. Fans are intensely loyal, and losing the sport’s most popular driver for 13 years in a row is a heavy blow to the body.
- The Return of the Downforce. The legion of race teams’ engineers has recovered the much of the downforce package reduction instituted at the start of the 2016 season. Teams now lock in their grip on the track, thereby relegating many races to single file parades and few cautions. Optimistically, the 2017 Sprint cup rules package, already tested this year, conceivably could have commenced early at the outset of the Chase to put more action on the track back in the drivers’ hands.
- No Game 7 Moments or On-Track Feuds. Through the first three rounds of the Chase, the biggest battles were fought by the teams not beating themselves with untimely pit calls, on-track penalties, or mechanical detonations (Martin Truex, Jr., anyone). Sadly, with Joe Gibbs Racing having four qualified drivers in the final round of 8, their idiosyncratic personalities were handcuffed by “team orders”.
These disturbing headwinds make it easy to see why NASCAR has struggled to land a title sponsor for 2017. It’s obvious that the asking price is too high or that a consortium of entitlement sponsors may be necessary to cover the cost. Either way, a cut is coming after a 13-year deal with Sprint that generated a $75 million influx per year.
NASCAR is going to need a sizable miracle of its own to turn 2016 around. Will Jimmie Johnson’s breakthrough to Homestead, his first Championship 4 appearance in three years, move the ratings needle? Hard to say, but Gordon’s final Championship appearance last year captured the imagination more than Johnson has. But then again, if Johnson wins, will lingering fans deem the fix is in?
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.