Now that the smoke has settled, now that the champagne-soaked firesuits have found their proper next homes in washing machines or fancy display cases, now that all the tears — both glad and sad — have dried, and all the vocal chords have gone hoarse, now we can crack open a discussion about NASCAR’s Cup Series championship race this weekend.
Because boy, is there a lot to discuss.
Even going into Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, we knew the results — and the quality of the race — would reverberate beyond that one weekend. The stakes, with all NASCAR has endured this season and now must adapt to in 2019, were high.
And no, I won’t just tout “all NASCAR has endured” without proper explanation. But when the list stacks up, the gravity of the challenges facing stock car racing is no hyperbole.
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We’re in uncharted waters, folks.
Sponsorship in a tailspin, and no one is safe
The two deepest gashes inflicted on the sport this season were, as many gashes are, about money. Longtime sponsors departed the sport in waves, everyone from Lowe’s leaving Jimmie Johnson — after 17 years and an unthinkable seven Cup championships — to 5-hour Energy dumping the then-reigning Cup champ Martin Truex Jr.
Think about that: The reigning champion of the most prestigious, competitive brand of racing in the United States couldn’t find a willing partner. Businesses saw a true championship contender in a sport that emphasizes not only brand awareness but widespread promotion, and decided, “Nah, we’re better off investing elsewhere.”
That is damning.
And to make matters worse, that then forced Truex’s entire team to fold? Just to close up shop, spray down the entire Furniture Row Racing warehouse in Denver and scatter into the wind? Well, yeah, sort of. It’s just more real when you actually see that spelled out, instead of dressed in niceties about “future opportunities elsewhere.”
Yeah, because — cue sarcasm — who wouldn’t want to up and quit after three championship appearances and one title in a four-year span?
No one raised their hand? I’m shocked.
Now, after finishing second to Joey Logano on Sunday night, Truex will move to Joe Gibbs Racing, joining forces with fellow championship loser Kyle Busch.
As for the Lowe’s move, it signifies that no one is safe. If Truex’s loss of 5-hour Energy taught us that even consistent performance is no guarantee of sponsorship, the Lowe’s loss proves even historical production means nothing anymore. That Johnson’s team at Hendrick Motorsports could still procure a season-long sponsor for Johnson is 2019 speaks volumes to his stature within the sports world ... but it also doesn’t erase the shock of losing the only partner he’s ever known.
NASCAR’s sponsorship struggles are not new, or unique in sports, but in 2018, they became greatly exacerbated. The final dominoes started to fall, bringing us to the verge of a radically different business model. More, smaller partners might allow NASCAR to flaunt a “noticeable growth in the number of sponsors” involved in racing, but that’s not the full picture.
Quality is falling by the wayside in favor of quantity. Adding two new eggs doesn’t compensate for dropping a whole carton.
TV ratings keep slipping, too
Then there’s the other nightmare for NASCAR’s wallet — declining TV viewership.
And those numbers are staggering. Of the 31 non-delayed Cup races this season, 27 saw ratings declines from the season prior and 26 posted decade-low or all-time low numbers, per Sports Media Watch. Longtime staples, races such as the Daytona 500 that draw even non-NASCAR fans, saw ratings dips, too.
The “Super Bowl of NASCAR” wasn’t immune. Short tracks and road courses, the two types of races NASCAR fans continually clamor for, weren’t immune. Heck, the championship race wasn’t immune, registering a 2.5 overnight score after a 2.7 in 2017 and a 3.3 the year before that.
Like with sponsorship, no one was spared.
Of course sports viewership across the board, and television viewership in general, is down year after year, but that doesn’t explain NASCAR’s especially putrid decline at such a consistent pace. That tickets to Sunday’s championship race were available for as little as $9 an hour before the race — which was supposedly sold-out — isn’t just a bad look for the sport, but it’s flat out bad. So the question becomes obvious.
Why aren’t fans tuning in? Why aren’t they showing up to the race track in droves anymore? What changed, what went awry, and how do you keep any more sand from slipping though the hourglass?
What’s the root of the problem?
Bring out the finger-pointing extraordinaires:
It’s NASCAR’s fault. They change the rules every year, races are too long, and nobody knows what’s going on anymore.
It’s the drivers’ fault. They’re boring, not like the “good ol‘ days’” when drivers were down-to-earth and chock full of personality.
It’s the racing’s fault. There’s no passing, no wrecks, no reason to watch anything but the last 20 laps.
Sometimes you hear these complaints from keyboard warriors on social media and Internet threads.
But the reason for NASCAR’s declining viewership — and the reason sponsors aren’t pumping tens of millions of dollars into these cars — comes with a sad realization.
NASCAR, speaking strictly of the on-track product, just doesn’t square with modern sports fandom.
In the NFL, there’s RedZone to drag viewers from touchdown to touchdown to touchdown, force-feeding fans a steady diet of deep passes and pick sixes and other unthinkable feats of human athleticism.
In the NBA, same thing, with vicious dunks and 3-point barrages constantly going viral on social media and television.
Even Major League Baseball, which rivals NASCAR and sometimes surpasses racing in terms of event length, has its moments, its window-shattering home runs and cross-field throws with amazing accuracy.
In NASCAR, how do you reduce a 500 lap race to a 10-second highlight? With 40 drivers all doing their own things, all engaged in their own unique battles for track position and points, how do you judge who gets into the highlight, and when?
Simply put, as American sports fandom evolves — or devolves, depending on whom you ask — from a complex, comprehensive look at sporting events to a scoring-happy, fantasy-driven mindset, the product NASCAR delivers isn’t built to adjust.
Rather than watch a three-hour race in its entirety, like Homestead for example, fans want the highlights. The Cliff’s Notes version of sports, if you will. We want water cooler conversation points, easily observed arguments we can then take and propagate to our friends and colleagues.
We watch games for fantasy scoring updates and memes on social media as much as for the sake of taking in the entire event — if not more so.
NASCAR’s final championship race in old era delivers ...
All of these ongoing problems — sponsorship, ratings, marketability and ease of consumption — were swirling at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And the weekend will likely serve as a sort of turning point for NASCAR.
And unfortunately for the legions of loyal race fans in Florida this weekend, Homestead might be something of a condemnation of the sport’s future.
NASCAR got as good a final four of drivers as it could have hoped for. Kevin Harvick, Truex and Busch were by far the best Cup drivers this season, accruing 20 wins in 36 races between them and morphing into “The Big 3” along the way. In the playoffs, Joey Logano proved himself more than deserving of joining their company, scoring as many wins and points as any other playoff driver.
Some experts called it the best Championship 4 in NASCAR history.
They’re probably not wrong.
And then we finally got the race. After two fairly caution-free stages, the final segment of the championship turned into first a pit strategy race and then ultimately a short run vs. long run event. Logano’s short burst of speed carried him to his first Cup title, while Truex’s faster car over a longer stretch simply ran out of laps.
Nobody wrecked anyone. It was just good, hard, fun, exciting racing. The exact sort of racing NASCAR should have hoped for, barring a last-lap battle for lead, and also the exact sort of race the sanctioning body got.
It was thrilling throughout, an epic yo-yoing of four Hall of Famers all clawing for centimeters at a time in the warm Florida night.
And you know what else it was?
Not good enough.
Lacking an iconic video loop
For as enjoyable as Sunday’s race was to watch, was it more enjoyable than the slate of NFL games on at the same time? It certainly had the same level of star power, but the itty-bitty morsels of action? The exact turning point cut down to a 10-second video loop?
Not at all.
Was it unpredictable? Certainly. Even Logano himself said that 10, 15 races ago he wouldn’t have thought him winning the title was possible, especially not against the three giants of the sport he eventually toppled.
But even with a terrific title race, with terrific contenders and storylines and stakes, the ratings still dropped.
And that fact is the most unfortunate one of all.
Yahoo! Sports published an excellent column before the championship race, hailing it as “one of NASCAR’s most important races in decades.” Completely spot on. With all the issues plaguing the sport, NASCAR needed Sunday’s championship to deliver a slam dunk (no pun intended) to prove that yes, if you give racing fans a good race, they will always come.
That’s exactly what NASCAR gave its fans ... and as the ratings prove, they didn’t come.
Given the absolute best of the best, top-of-the-line racing with top-of-the-line drivers, they didn’t come.
NASCAR will significantly alter its rules package next year in an effort to promote closer racing. Good on it for being willing to try something so extreme, even at the risk of alienating more core fans.
But after Sunday’s race, and the subsequent lack of response from its fans as a whole, there’s only one unfortunate inference that can be made about NASCAR’s future, both in 2019 and however many years it lasts after that:
The fans still won’t come — or come back.
And no matter how good the racing gets, there’s not much NASCAR can do to fix that.