Is NASCAR in Viewership Free Fall Again?

Martin Truex, Jr. may have a well-deserved 2016 season.

Martin Truex, Jr. may have a well-deserved 2016 season.

Yes, NASCAR is in free fall once again. Before you break out the pitchforks or water-board, it’s happening to motorsports all across the globe. However, for the purpose of this writing, I’ll restrict it to NASCAR.

To date, which is only two races in, the racing itself seems to be good. The low down-force package that I witnessed at Atlanta made for good solid racing. Those of you expecting to see passing for the lead on every lap will be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be, it’s never been that way.

It will undoubtedly be four to five races in before a verdict can be reached as to whether or not NASCAR has achieved what it set out to do. Make the racing better. In the meantime, expect to see the old familiar faces at the front and why not? They should be, they are the best and they have been the best for the past few seasons whether they’re your favorite driver or not.

The big surprise for me, and a pleasant one, is that Martin Truex was able to be competitive at the front in both Daytona, a restrictor plate track, and Atlanta, a fast slick and difficult track. If he stays on that pace at Las Vegas, it will be real. Hopefully we see that same attack at Phoenix.

NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from Atlanta earned a 3.7 overnight rating on FOX Sunday afternoon, down 27% from last year (5.1) and the lowest overnight for the second race of the season since FOX began airing races in 2001. That’s not good.

As long as Earnhardt, Jr. remains in the sport, it will remain popular. Even he may not be capable of keeping it going at present levels.

As long as Earnhardt, Jr. remains in the sport, it will remain popular. Even he may not be capable of keeping it going at present levels.

It appeared last season that the bleeding had been slowed to a mild hemorrhage, but that’s not the case. People are not responding to NASCAR as they did in the past and probably won’t in the future. Is it a sport in decline and doomed to fail? No.

My opinion is that we can expect that it will fall to a level that the hardcore fan will keep close to it’s chest. Does that mean it’s doomed to fall back to a regional Southern sport? Again, no. But it will retract to a point where certain demographics may become more dominant than we had seen in it’s hey day. It may not be a true National Sport within a decade.

So what to do? Absolutely nothing. NASCAR has to keep a solid product and remain as hands off as possible in order to keep the fans interest. Tinkering with it any more than they have will be to their detriment.

Moving to a ‘detrimental to the sport’ type of rules packages involving drivers criticizing the sanctioning body only minimizes more of the very thing that made NASCAR unique in the first place and that was out-spoken, bigger than life drivers who were daredevils and rough and tumble, take no prisoners competitors.

That’s gone and that’s too bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Awakens ‘The Downforce’ with Atlanta Win

Johnson's victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Johnson’s victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Jimmie Johnson is back, prevailing in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, even though he never truly left. Johnson’s win is his 76th career Sprint Cup Series victory, placing him in rarified air by tying with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time win list.

In 2015, Johnson also won the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, albeit with a different downforce package.

On Sunday, NASCAR debuted this season’s lower aerodynamic downforce package at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the goal of making the racing better. And this race appeared to showcase the drivers’ talents, in spite of a “racers’ race”, with lengthy green flag runs and only one caution flag, prior to Ryan Newman’s tire detonation with three laps to go, which set up the overtime finish.

With 200 plus laps of green flag racing, cars naturally are going to get spread out on the track. With such clean racing, there is virtually no package that NASCAR could develop that could make this type of race much better. For the majority of the race, the lower downforce pack created an atypical kind of racing than previously seen on most intermediate speedways like Atlanta. Managing tire wear triggered drivers to wrestle their cars throughout the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. evidently endorsed the low downforce package, along with Atlanta’s worn track surface. After the race, Earnhardt proclaimed “these cars are fun to drive, sliding around…Driving the hell out of the cars, I had a blast!”

But surely, the story is the reemergence of Jimmie Johnson, who in spite of amassing five wins last season, was the first big name eliminated from the Chase, when he suffered a rear axle seal failure at Dover Speedway. As a result, we were relegated to not debating whether Johnson would achieve his record-setting quest for seven championships, showcasing that there is no such thing as a lock since NASCAR created its elimination-style playoff format.

28 Apr 2000:  A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey  /Allsport

28 Apr 2000: A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey /Allsport

“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt Sr.’s career win total. “With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”

Then again, Johnson defines greatness. After the race, ESPN reporter Marty Smith tweeted out a testimonial from Johnson’s Hendrick teammate Earnhardt Jr., “He went 3-wide in the middle of 3&4 & turned sideways & never lifted. Amazing the car control he has.” – Jr., when he knew (Jimmie Johnson) was special.

If the low downforce races proceed like what we saw in Atlanta on Sunday, expect Johnson to definitely be a key favorite in this year’s Sprint Cup Chase. These intermediate races play right into the hands of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus: Long green flag runs to wear out the car and the driver – check. Strategy-based calls on a 1.5-mile speedway by Knaus – check. More importantly, when does Johnson not win such races?

In victory lane, Johnson comes across as polished, corporate, and gracious in thanking all of his team and sponsors. Perhaps a driver becomes comfortable after winning as many championships and career races as Johnson has, including five trips to Atlanta’s victory lane during his career.

However, just once, I would love to see Johnson stand up and acknowledge the greatness that we are all seeing. He exudes excellence and should not be embarrassed to tell the world. Johnson works so hard to stay physically fit, mentally prepared, and knows when to take the right calculated risks on the track for the win.

Then again, should Johnson accomplish his quest for seven championships, his greatness will be undisputed.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now begins its West Coast swing to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon, where Johnson has won four times in the last eleven races. Look for him to be running up front again.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

NASCAR Atlanta: The Phoenix Finally Rises From The Ashes

Retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney and young Jacob Green

Retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney and young Jacob Green

Atlanta is one of those tracks that if I never have to see the inside of the facility again as long as I live, I’ll die a happy man. It never sold out, even in the halcyon days of NASCAR and the weather was always unpredictable. It was fast, but not particularly engaging racing. This weekend was different.

This year, the weather was unpredictable and so was the racing. The Folds of Honor/Quik Trip 500 turned out to be quite the follow up to the race in Daytona. It had the distinction of having a fantastic sponsor/co-sponsor arrangement and one hell of a great spokesman in retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney. One of the best ‘Start Your Engine’ commands yet.

It’s a shame that in a country as great as America that it takes the efforts of charity to support those families who were killed in action. Frankly it’s inexcusable, but for the honor and sense of duty by warriors such as Major Rooney.

What made this Atlanta race so unusual is that it wasn’t a complete snoozer.

NASCAR seems to have moved into that realm of getting it mostly right, mostly right being the race itself. Some of the controversy’s occurred prior to the race with many cars not making it through qualifying inspection. That is not all to be laid at NASCAR’s feet despite the howling by many of the top teams who didn’t make the qualifying round.

The chain reaction crashes were more reminiscent of restrictor palate races than 1.5 mile tracks.

The chain reaction crashes were more reminiscent of restrictor palate races than 1.5 mile tracks.

The teams know what the rules are and if they can’t build the cars to make it through inspection, then the bitching should be checked at the door.

The news rules took effect at Atlanta and the played right into the hands of the usual suspects. Jimmy Johnson looks to have found the perfect combination of a loose car and the appropriate horsepower to make it interesting.

He didn’t, however, run away with the race but rather showed his actual driving prowess as did Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt was a threat all day and should quiet down some of the double wide, white lacquer furniture crowd that seems so intent on destroying all things Junior.

It was evident at the start of the race that the cars were harder to handle, particularly after the tires had a few laps on them. No one looked comfortable as the cars moved around more than Asian massage parlors in Kansas City. It was a pleasure to finally see the ability of the drivers on display.

It was an impressive run by the young driver, Brett Moffitt, subbing for Brian Vickers. The kid finished 8th at Atlanta with wicked handling Sprint Cup cars. Very impressive.

It could very well be that Atlanta Motor Speedways surface itself caused the phenomenon of having to pit for tires before fuel, as the track hasn’t been surfaced in years, but it added to the evolving dynamics of the race and the ever changing strategies that had to be employed.

It was no surprise that the last half of the race showed the most caution periods, that is, after all, the nature of Sprint Cup. What was unusual was the way those cautions came about. It was more about the cars and the drivers learning the new formula rather than the divers egregious errors. It was obvious that certain moves took air off of these cars in ways that simply sent them spinning.

It won’t take these drivers long to figure out how to use this to their advantage, another arrow in their dirty little bag of tricks quiver. From this race forward, It will all depend on the track, temperature and tire compounds.

One thing things for sure, they will have to drive these cars, no cruising.

Several of the accidents were reminiscent of plate track racing collecting cars like a Godzilla film. It was slick, hard to predict when a car was going to lose grip and took all the skills that Jimmie Johnson had to hold off Harvick and Earnhardt.

Perhaps Johnson and Knaus have figured it out and are “Back” and perhaps not. One thing is for certain, it was a better show than Atlanta’s seen since Carl Edwards took his first Cup series win in 2005.

 

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