Jimmie Johnson: in a world of his own (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Okay, wake up now. The chase is on…and how is it playing out in TV-land?
How is NASCAR itself doing on television in this second half of the long, long season?
OBTW, is there much at all happening right now in this sport anyway?
What do you think is the top story at the moment on the Sprint Cup stock car tour?
Unfortunately it looks like too many drivers and teams are – as in the first half of the season – trying their hardest not to make mistakes, not to make waves, not to do anything very exciting, to be honest.
Add in all the economic angst throughout the garage, even typically squirrelly drivers are trying to be on their best behavior, to keep a job or land a job, to keep a sponsor or land a sponsor.
Meanwhile the amazing Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut just keeps steam-rolling along.
Let's say it flatly and see if it plays out like this: Either Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski or Tony Stewart will win this year's championship.
But then maybe the championship itself is one of the big problems here.
Yes, a great championship battle is exciting, like the classic 1992 fight with Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki, that 1979 duel between Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty, the 1973 desperation charge by Benny Parson over Cale Yarborough, those bitterly hard fought title battles by Bobby Allison (who did put that sugar in the gas tank?), and all those Dale Earnhardt bids, some lost, most won…
There was a lot of raw emotion in those….tricky head games too. And it was all fun to watch.
Okay, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has made the chase. What's he going to do with it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Would someone please poke Kyle Busch or Kurt Busch with a big stick?
Would someone please page Robby Gordon and tell him we need him back?
This sport is begging for something to light the fires.
Is it time for somebody to put the racing back in the racing?
Can we suit up Ricky 'Rooster' Rudd, and Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough and generate some genuine emotion out on the track?
To put it bluntly, NASCAR sometimes seems to be racing on flats these days.
Maybe Bruton Smith is right – give bonus points for donuts on the doors.
Denny Hamlin: time to get 'er done. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Okay, let's go to the chalkboard and look at some TV numbers:
Directly comparing this Chicagoland opener – viewed by 3.9M on ESPN -- to last season's 2.2M viewers isn't easy, because last September's 400 was delayed till Monday by rain.
-- the Richmond race a week earlier might give a better benchmark. This season's regular season finale, albeit slowed by Saturday night rain, drew 5.0M viewers on ABC, compared to 2011's 6.2M (also on ABC).
-- the July Chicago events also give some idea of how that market has been working for this sport. In 2010 it drew 4.6M, in 2009 4.8M, in 2008 5.1M, and in 2007 6.3M. All four of those races were on Turner cable, with the (much higher rated) Daytona 400 a week earlier as lead-in. This past July's New Hampshire 300, on the same weekend Chicago formerly held, drew 4.8M on Turner.
-- the September chase kickoff here at New Hampshire gives more clues too. In 2010 this event drew 3.7M viewers on ESPN; in 2009, on ABC, it drew 5M, in 2008 (ABC) 6.1M, and in 2007 (ABC) 5.2M.
Remember Kyle Busch? Maybe Joe Gibbs can kick him back in gear (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Let's look at the bigger picture. Fox carried most of the first half of the NASCAR season, and viewership was down nearly 10 percent, with the coveted 18-35 male demographic getting a big hit. That, of course, was our spring of boring, no-action, no-yellow racing.
"My gas mileage is better than your gas mileage." How many fans will that put in the stands or on the couch in front of TVs.
This was an Olympic summer, and the first three NASCAR events of the season's second half played against London.
The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, Jimmie Johnson's rout, was down in viewers from last summer, drawing 5M to 2011's 6.3M.
Pocono the following week was likewise also down, to 4.4M, from 2011's 5.5M.
Watkins Glen this summer drew about the same, 4.5M. Last summer's Glen event was rain-delayed, but the 2010 race drew 4.9M.
Since then, though, things have picked up.
The Michigan 400, on new asphalt, was up to 5.2M, from 2011's 5M. (It averaged 5.3M from 2008-2010.)
Bristol, on the new grind, was up to 5.9M, from 2011's 5M. (It was averaging 5.4M from 2007-2010.)
Atlanta (rained out till Tuesday in 2011) drew 5.5M this past Labor Day weekend. (It averaged 5.6M in 2010 and 2009, after being moved from California, where that NASCAR weekend averaged 6M.)
Those are the numbers.
What do they really say about this sport?
Is NASCAR racing still spinning its wheels, or is it starting to regain traction?
Well, out in Vegas Jimmie Johnson is still a prohibitive favorite to win the championship.
And if this Sunday's 300 comes down again to a fuel mileage finish……
Jeff Gordon, on the pole. Hoping for a miracle rally in the championship chase. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)