NASCAR officials never have been held hostage by tradition when it comes to selling their sport. From stock-car racing's humble beginnings on small, Southern dirt tracks, promoters have poured as much effort into generating fan interest as they have horsepower.
So one would expect that NASCAR brass would be smarting from self-congratulatory pats on the back as the third installment of the sport's postseason draws to a close. Five drivers are in the mix for NASCAR's 2006 championship entering Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Among them is the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was shut out of the 10-race postseason in 2005.
But now that NASCAR finally has delivered its coveted postseason story line — one with the potential of last-lap drama over which of its superstars will win the championship — TV ratings for the Chase for the Nextel Cup have sputtered after two years of steady growth. And the development has several drivers, car owners and even NASCAR officials debating how to tweak the fledgling championship format — and even the sport itself —to jump-start enthusiasm.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France launched the Chase in 2004 as an antidote for the slide in TV ratings that occurred each fall, principally because of competition from the NFL and exacerbated by runaway seasons in which a driver clinched the title well before the season's end, either by sheer dominance or mind-numbing consistency.
Traditionalists balked at France's radical idea, which restricted the Chase to the top 10 drivers in the standings after the first 26 races (as well as any driver within 400 points of the leader). But viewers tuned in. Television ratings jumped more than 10 percent the first year, from 4.1 in 2003 to 4.6 in 2004. They inched up to 4.7 in 2005. But this year, ratings dipped to roughly 4.1 despite the fact that Earnhardt and four-time champion Jeff Gordon both qualified for the Chase.
Car owner Rick Hendrick, whose driver Jimmie Johnson will clinch the 2006 championship with a 12th-place finish Sunday, doubts the slide has anything to do with the quality of racing. It's possible, he suggests, that NASCAR is showing signs of maturing as an industry.
"Sometimes, you just can't sustain a rocket ride all the time," Hendrick said this week. "Sooner or later, it's got to peak."
Dick Glover, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting and new media, sees no cause for alarm.
"You have to look at ratings like the stock market," Glover said Thursday. "If you look at it day-to-day, week-to-week, you're going to go crazy. You have to look at trends. . . . Every number is part of the report card, and we look at it. But we're looking at things over a much longer term. Obviously, every year you wish every number was up, and this year the numbers have been off a little. But we don't see anything in our indicators that gives us pause."
Earnhardt, a third-generation racer, suspects that NASCAR has thrown off some of its longtime fans by moving the starting time of several of its races to the midafternoon in an effort to capture more West Coast viewers.
"You had the traditional Sunday-after-church starting time," Earnhardt said. "I think it'd be a good idea, if you're not racing on Saturday night, to try to be consistent with your starting times on Sunday."
France has suggested that ratings have suffered in part because NBC, which has aired the second half of the 2006 season, is in the final year of its contract to broadcast stock-car racing's top series and, consequently, hasn't promoted racing with the same zeal.
On the flip side, several drivers and owners are predicting that NASCAR's return to ESPN in 2007 (ABC/ESPN will air the second half of the season, with all 10 Chase races broadcast on ABC) will boost the sport's popularity among the young, hip, sports-savvy audience advertisers covet. ESPN already has started airing promo spots featuring Johnson and Earnhardt.
With an eye toward spicing up the Chase, France has said he'll tweak the Chase formula during the offseason. Among the changes drivers and owners are most eager to see is more points for winning races.
While as few as five points currently separate the winner from the second-place finisher, Hendrick would like to see at least 10 more points go to the race winner.
"I think that's what it's all about: winning races," he said.
Earnhardt agrees and suggests adding extra points for winning poles, which currently rewards a driver with nothing but first dibs on his race-day pit stall. Earnhardt might go even further, agreeing Thursday that shorter races would make a more compelling show.
"If you made these races anywhere from 250 to 350 miles [as opposed to 500 or 600], you wouldn't have to captivate the attention span over such a long period of time," Earnhardt said. "There's a big chunk in the race that's really pointless to be running. You're just making laps; you're not really accomplishing anything. And you could make the races a little shorter, give the fans a little more of a sprint-type feel, a little more urgency throughout the whole telecast."