Another Jimmie Johnson championship? Hey, he hasn't won this thing since 2010: overdue? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
So let the chase begin!
Hope this sport doesn't get lost in the football crush these next few weeks.
Now anyone who can persuade people to write $8.2 Billion in checks over the next 10 years probably is doing a pretty darned good job.
And maybe now nothing else matters.
After watching the National Football League season opener Thursday night, Baltimore at Denver, an impressive show, some things to ponder:
Not that NASCAR can beat the NFL head-to-head, even in the best of times, but as the football season opens, there is the sense that the NFL and college football and their TV partners are taking their game to the next level.
Will NASCAR be able to keep up?
There are two aspects to this story: one, this looming chase, which opens next weekend in Chicago; two, next season's chase, which may need tweaks or more, maybe even some different tracks for the playoffs.
Chicagoland at night (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One current issue: Does lame duck ABC/ESPN care any more, now that it lost the battle for more NASCAR seasons?
Someone just watched SportsCenter -- something of a baseline for the American sports scene -- for the full 2012 and analyzed how much time was spent on just which sports. That report showed NASCAR, even though it's been a major line item budget number for the Disney operation since 2007, got only two percent of the attention. Less than even the National Hockey League.
If that's the case, how much coverage can NASCAR expect now that it's moving its product to NBC in 2015? Or maybe even 2014, if those reports about secret negotiations for an early changeover are true.
Keep an eye on NASCAR sponsorships, one of the truest benchmarks.
Is the NASCAR glass half-full and filling back up....or still just half-full?
Things could be at a crossroads.
How good is this sport really doing right now?
How many outside the circle will be paying attention this fall?
What in the world did NBC execs see that made them rush to write such a big check?
More to the point here: Just how relevant is the chase?
Just how relevant is NASCAR Sprint Cup racing to the sports world at large?
Will these next few weeks -- the opening weeks for the NFL and the opening weeks of NASCAR's chase -- be telling, or are we just biding time till the NFL and the chase both really take some shape this fall...or till NBC kicks in?
Last fall's chase, remember, played to the smallest TV audience in five years. The significant 18-34 demographic was down a whopping 25 percent.
The 10-race 2012 playoffs, despite the Brad Keselowski-Jimmie Johnson drama, saw ratings down or flat for all 10.
The Homestead finale last fall was far off the mark, 3.5 million viewers, compared to 6.7 million in 2011 and 5.6 million in 2010. That might be impetus for suggestions that tracks bid for the finale.
Overall last season ratings were down five percent from 2011, viewers down 10 percent. (Not counting rain issues)
(Specifically Richmond last September: a two-hour delay in the start, because of rain, then a one-hour red flag for more rain, cut the viewership to 5 million, down from the 6.1 million in 2011.)
Brad Keselowski, after winning the 2012 championship at Homestead (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That $8.2 Billion in TV deals notwithstanding, this sport hasn't been a hot burner item the last few years. No big breaking news here: Sluggish TV ratings, mediocre crowds, painfully weak story lines...
Hey, just what are the hot story lines as the chase cranks up?
-- Will Jimmie Johnson win a sixth championship?
-- Will Kyle Busch finally break his playoff jinx?
-- Will Matt Kenseth, at 42, give Toyota its first Sprint Cup championship, and become the oldest champion since Bobby Allison's 1983 triumph?
-- Will Joey Logano, at 23, become the youngest Cup champion since Jeff Gordon in 1995?
How compelling are these, really?
How much play in, say, Los Angeles this fall -- a market where it should be noted this sport is not playing this fall.
TV viewers for the Chase
Chicagoland 3.9 2.1 (Monday)
Loudon NH 3.5 4.2
Dover 3.5 4.0
Talladega 5.1 5.4
Charlotte 5.0 5.4
Kansas 3.9 4.1
Martinsville 3.6 4.9
Texas 3.9 4.7
Phoenix 4.4 4.7
Homestead 3.4 6.8
Average 4.2 4.7
(Note: 2012 Loudon and Dover playoff races drew the lowest TV ratings of the 90 chase events since that championship format was introduced in 2004, each drawing 2.2s. An earlier version incorrectly listed the 2012 Martinsville playoff race, which drew a 2.4 rating)
NASCAR's Mike Helton (L) and ESPN/ABC's Marty Smith (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
If these new 2013 model stockers are supposed to be a big new link between this sport and Detroit, how is that marketing project going? Where are the TV ads?
How much NASCAR racing matter to the sports world at large? Pick a sports bar, any sports bar in any big city, and check out how many TV sets are tuned to the race.
Is this going to be the turnabout season that was hoped for back in the spring?
It may be about time for report cards.
Will this fall's chase be a hot one? Will it catch fire?
Or is it time to change up the chase? Has it become too tired a format?
It could use some pizzazz.
Remember how fickle TV viewers are generally: so are these 3-1/2-hour to 4-hour racing marathons going to keep anyone's attention.
It might be interesting if NASCAR and its TV partners would release detailed demographics of its viewers weekly. ESPN has been giving out some top-10 market reviews, but there is much more that needs to put on the table for consideration -- how is the Los Angeles market viewing NASCAR, the New York market, the Boston market....
California: the Los Angeles market certainly needs a spot in the NASCAR playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
This part of the 10-month stock car tour is typically the weakest part of the season.
Once the football is teed up for real, NASCAR loses traction like a rookie spinning tires on a restart.
And maybe, once again, it's time to rethink the chase. Not that anything much has changed....
Of course now that Fox and NBC have signed up to pay $8.2 Billion or so over the next 10 years to carry this sport, maybe nothing else really matters.
Still, NBC, with the weaker half of the schedule, the fall stretch, is paying so much ($420 million a year, or so, it appears), and so much more than even ESPN/ABC figured made much business sense, that it seems highly likely that NBC execs are going to want the strongest possible 10-event chase lineup when they take over in 2015.
NASCAR opens the 10-race playoffs Sunday Sept. 15th at Chicagoland Speedway. Joliet, Il., is still a good hour's drive from Chicago's Soldier Field, where Da Bears will be hosting the Vikings.
Yes, Chicago is the third-biggest market in the U.S. -- and the biggest market in this sport's 10-track chase.
But going up against fall football is hard enough without taking on the Bears like this, some might point out.
Wonder how many NASCAR banners will be flying along South Michigan Avenue? How will NASCAR program Chicago for the chase?
The 12 men in the 2012 playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The chase was created to keep NBC interested in this sport when TV contract renegotiations began back in 2004.
In a sense, the chase -- as a 'national' playoff series -- should have something of an edge over football's generally 'regional' format.
However the chase has not provided any significant increase in TV ratings.
And the chase has had its denigrators, to put it mildly.
Now it looks like the NFL is really stepping things up. With its wider ranging TV approach (consider that NFL Sunday Ticket package of every single game), the NFL is no longer a package of regional games.
And TV is taking college football to saturation levels.
Is NASCAR going to be able to keep up, or will it get lost in the prop rush?
How is NASCAR going to try to keep up?
It will be interesting to see how this sport promotes the next few weeks.
Richmond at night, with the final chase spots on the line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Bullet point: The NFL season kickoff Thursday evening was splashy, flashy. NASCAR's counterpoint that day was a nine-driver interview session with those who still hadn't locked in the chase.
The chase, with 12 drivers whose points have essentially been rezeroed for the last three months of the season, may now be outmoded.
Plus, if you're a driver who didn't make the cut, sorry, you just don't count any more. Only 12 teams are important; the other 31, take a hike. Field fillers like that might as well simply start-and-park.....
That's not a particularly good marketing plan...
Throw in TV's generally inept broadcasts, with a cast of announcers who too much sound like house shills, and who are usually much too scared to take on any controversial issues, and this could be a mess.
It is simply astounding how poorly NASCAR races are produced. Check out any NFL game, and you'll see quite a difference.
Clint Bowyer, the 2012 Richmond winner, and on his way to challenging for the Sprint Cup championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
On top of that, ESPN/ABC is now officially a lame duck NASCAR network, and it's already cut back significantly on its NASCAR program...reassigning journalists to the NFL, no less, as if to make the point quite clear.
Some might argue that a major negative here is NASCAR's over-emphasis on the championship itself, to the detriment of the individual races. Does it really matter who wins, or just who gets the most points?
Drivers say they have learned how to 'game' the system during the first 26 events, essentially 'stroking' at times, in their plan to make the chase.
Maybe only winners should be in the playoffs? You win, you make the chase, period. You don't win, well, thanks for playing the game.
Marketing aside, NASCAR's regular season winner certainly needs a bigger points award than the piddling few now. And it is an embarrassment that executives still haven't accepted that.
It is bad enough that this sport has degenerated to such a technology-driven game, where computers and engineers and engineering means more sometimes than jumping restarts or playing those good ol' racing games.
Why has NASCAR turned this sport into some big aerodynamic game, where a banged up fender is all but the kiss of death? Michael Waltrip, who well remembers those days, was recalling some of it the other day.
Last summer here Clint Bowyer had just enough fuel for this victory burnout...and then he had to be pushed into victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR's stars too may be a problem here. Which of them really has 'star' appeal? That sexy star appeal that can transcend the game itself?
Maybe Jeff Gordon, even at 42, and probably nearing the end of his active racing career. (How did that New York City condo sale go, btw?)
But generally drivers have been so 'sanitized' that how many could walk through an airport (other than Charlotte) and even be recognized?
Now Jimmie Johnson is one of the best racers the sport has ever seen, and he's a really good guy too, down to earth, and genuine. But how well are his marketing people marketing him?
And if a driver dares to stand up and speak his peace -- where's our latest picture of Brad Keselowski here? -- he can expect to be slapped down.
Little wonder these guys are widely seen as cookie-cutter, plain vanilla.
And the tracks -- how about playing the chase on the best tracks this sport has to offer? Why so many cutter-cutter 1-1/2-milers?
And is it really necessary for this sport's season to drag on for 10 months, starting Valentines Day and running through Thanksgiving?
Do fans at the track even count for much any more, other than as props for the TV cameras?
Should the champion be set on points? Why not wins? The idea that a team can win the championship without even winning a race is curious?
Lights -- NASCAR should require every track to have lights, no excuses.
Commercials -- the flood of commercials has degraded the product of NASCAR racing significantly, and yet no one has addressed that. Split screens are obvious. TV timeouts may be a concept whose time has come. Missing restarts and wrecks is simply unacceptable.
Maybe counterprogramming starting times to trip the NFL -- the Chicago 400 is set for a 2pm ET start, and how does that stack up against the other sports channels? (Bears-Vikings 12 noon CT)
Hey, maybe even reopen North Wilkesboro Speedway, for a catchy change of pace....
Maybe sports execs need to review how things were running back in the mid-to-late 1990s when this sport went on such a tear.
But then, with $8.2 Billion in the bank, maybe none of this really matters.
One thing for sure, over the next week or so NASCAR's indefatigable marketeers will be trying to throw a full court press on America.
Let's see how it plays out....
Will Mr. Five-time become Mr. Six-time? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)