Like the Chicago Cubs, whose 108-year run of futility ended in a dramatic, extra-inning Game 7 finish NASCAR is going to need a small miracle of its own to turn 2016 around. Sadly, there’s no curse here; just fans leaving in droves. A phenomenon once blamed on the economy, the natural ebb-and-flow of sports clearly cannot be ignored as an otherwise competitive season comes to a close.
Take a look at these numbers from the big events of other major sports this season.
TV Viewers (Overnights)
MLB: Game 7, Cubs-Indians, 40.0 million
NBA: Game 7, Cavs-Warriors, 31.0 million
NFL: Super Bowl, Broncos-Panthers, 111.9 million
NHL: Game 6, Penguins-Sharks, 5.4 million
NASCAR: Daytona 500, 11.4 million
Martinsville: Playoff race, 2.7 million
You don’t need percentage signs to see how those numbers pale in comparison to three of the four major sports. But in a tough 2016 for racing you can’t stop there. The Olympics, The Masters, even horse racing’s Kentucky Derby blew stock car racing out of the water this year in viewership. For the first time in a decade, even IndyCar pushed NASCAR aside with the Indy 500, scoring a rating that sat 20 percent higher than Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600.
These alarming trends make it easy to see why the sport has struggled to land a title sponsor for 2017. CEO Brian France claims the series is close but with the 2017 Daytona 500 just three short months away it’s becoming clear either the asking price is higher than companies are willing to pay or there just aren’t as many high-level suitors as they want at this stage. Either way, a cut in support is coming after a 13-year deal with Sprint that was once worth $75 million a year.
Will Jimmie Johnson’s breakthrough to Homestead, the driver’s first Championship 4 appearance as he goes for a record-tying seventh title, move the needle? It’s possible but not likely. There’s unfortunately no driver in the final eight whose storyline matches Jeff Gordon’s retirement-turned-title fight last year; ratings this month at Homestead will most certainly go down. Even Martinsville last week was a bit subdued, the biggest storyline a 30-minute caution that called NASCAR’s officiating and scoring into question.
It’s the roughest time in the sport’s modern history, paired with problems not easily fixed just like the 2016 election. As the season winds down, the third year of a controversial Chase format, the sport heads to one its best 1.5-mile ovals in Texas simply looking for any storyline to cling onto in order to turn things around.
AAA Texas 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Jimmie Johnson
Turns out the rumors of Johnson’s demise over the summer were greatly exaggerated – again. The No. 48 team put the finishing touches on mastering the new Chase format by winning Martinsville going away, earning their first Championship 4 appearance and a chance for that seventh title at Homestead. Only Martin Truex Jr. has led more laps this postseason than Johnson’s 455. Johnson, Truex, and Kevin Harvick are tied for the Chase lead with two victories apiece.
If those numbers don’t leave Johnson’s competition on their heels, consider these numbers happened despite a pit penalty at Chicagoland that cost the No. 48 a shot at a third win. Add in a conservative run at Talladega, where Johnson had no incentive to perform (he had already advanced), and this team could have been an even bigger standout.
Who’s at the Back: Jeffrey Earnhardt
The grandson of the great Dale Earnhardt Sr. has hardly been intimidating during his rookie season. Earnhardt, driving underfunded equipment, was 33rd at Martinsville and has a nightmarish average finish of 34.0 in 19 starts. Earning only one lead-lap finish, at Talladega last month, he’s yet to crack the top 25 in any Sprint Cup event; in fact, he doesn’t have a top-10 result in any of the sport’s top three series since 2011. While Earnhardt is expected back in Cup next season you’ve got to wonder how much longer that famous last name will keep him in a seat.
How will Joe Gibbs Racing handle Chase strategy this week? The four-car organization was dealt a blow at Martinsville when Johnson won, stealing a Chase spot, and Carl Edwards wrecked to bring out the fifth and final caution. Now, despite three JGR drivers currently positioned within the Championship 4 several are openly questioning their strategy of everyone running nose-to-tail, as a team and trying to operate as one larger unit. Reigning champion Kyle Busch in particular has been vocal and may be the first to start leaning back toward “every man for himself.”
The future of HScott Motorsports in in question after Michael Annett announced Friday he’ll be driving for JR Motorsports full-time in 2017. Annett, who’s struggled during his two-year tenure driving the No. 46, chose top-tier XFINITY equipment over trying to jump to another low-level Cup team considering his limited level of funding.
The move leaves HScott with two cars, no sponsors and no drivers for 2017. Rumors are building that the team will close up shop after the season and sell their charter to the highest bidder. Perhaps the No. 77 of Furniture Row Racing will be interested? Or maybe whatever team Ty Dillon ends up driving for next season? We’ll have to wait and see.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne 33 starts into the season. Both drive for top-tier teams in Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, respectively. (And in McMurray’s case, he made the Chase).
Cautions Sunday at Martinsville, the fewest for any Cup Series race there since 1989.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Jimmie Johnson, now armed with nothing to lose, has an impeccable record during the Texas fall race. He’s captured the trophy four straight years, leading 620 laps in the process and making it look easy along the way. While the streak is bound to break at some point you’d be silly to pick against the No. 48.
Brad Keselowski may not have led a lap at Martinsville but the second-place finish made a statement the No. 2 team will finish the season strong. Keselowski, looking to end the year as the wins leader, heads to Texas holding a streak of eight straight top-20 finishes there. No, he hasn’t won but should have last fall before getting snookered by Johnson on a late restart (keep in mind he led 312 of 334 laps that day). Expect Team Penske to be a contender all day; it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep teammate Joey Logano on the radar screen, too.
Kasey Kahne has had a difficult season (see: zero laps led above, no Chase appearance) but the No. 5 team has turned it around in recent weeks. He’s earned 10 top-15 finishes in the last 11 races, the lone blip being a wreck at Talladega and 1.5-mile tracks are typically a source of strength for him. Kahne’s last win here came in 2006, so that’s a long shot but two top 10s in the last three races at TMS makes him a solid pick.
Michael McDowell’s 2017 future driving the No. 95 car remains uncertain as Silly Season within the sport heats up. But with three top-20 finishes in the last four races the driver is on arguably the best run of a difficult Cup Series career. Texas is the home track for Leavine Family Racing and they were 20th in the spring with Ty Dillon, making this team a dark-horse contender to run on the lead lap and continue their late season run of strong performances. Former championship crew chief Todd Parrott has clearly made a difference here after being named the full-time head wrench last month.
What Vegas Thinks
What I Think
There are plenty of reasons to think Joe Gibbs Racing is reeling a bit. But after Kyle Busch got vocal at Martinsville I think the reigning champ is out to prove he’s still a major factor in this championship. JGR will win their first Chase race of the postseason with Busch edging out all comers at Texas.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)