ON NASCAR: Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Is Must-See, Non-Stop Drama

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
There was an interesting conversation on Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio recently on the topic of TV ratings for the races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. They’re up. Way up. 

NASCAR viewership in general has been on the upswing this season, but the September 25 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in particular, garnered ratings that were higher than last year by double digits. It’s significant to mention the increase on a day locked and loaded with key NFL matchups and tight baseball wild card races in both the American and National Leagues is really something to write home about. 

It is the nature of the sports broadcasting beast, when something overwhelmingly positive happens, to acknowledge it, applaud it, and then try to figure it out. Why did hundreds of thousands of people tune out the Bears, Braves and BoSox – losers all, by the way – in favor of a very early Chase race? 

Like dumping a jigsaw puzzle out of a box with no picture on the front, the pieces must be individually examined, sorted into categories, and then firmly interlocked before the final image is revealed. 

An old truism reminds us that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. First, you have to make him thirsty. Publicity for NASCAR racing has been nothing short of terrific this season; you probably remember watching promos for the Daytona 500 all the way back in January during the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl, for example. It’s always fun to hear respected announcers from other sports – FOX’s Joe Buck is one good example – commenting excitedly about NASCAR during a baseball or football game. 

I don’t recall the last time I watched “SportsCenter” on ESPN and didn’t see some type of NASCAR segment, and the network even showcased the sport on “Pardon the Interruption” recently by allowing lovable curmudgeon Tony Kornheiser to wear a firesuit on the air after attending the final race before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Richmond International Raceway. 

During the Chase, ESPN has also introduced the wildly popular “ESPN NonStop” feature which uses a split screen to simultaneously air commercials and the second half of the race. In a sport which doesn’t rely on a game clock and has no built-in timeouts, important developments often occur during commercial breaks and fans can miss seeing them live. “NonStop” has taken that worry away. Watch ESPN and NASCAR.COM’s RaceBuddy have also allowed fans to watch the race and 10 views online during the Chase races as well.

Fans might be electing to watch more races because NASCAR has entered its postseason. 

Even the most diehard baseball fan has a tough time slogging through the 162 games that comprise the regular season, and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competes 10 months a year. Crunch time, however, is also tune-in time. Heaven forbid we should have enjoyed Evan Longoria’s walk-off home run in the 12th inning to propel the Tampa Rays to the A.L. playoffs only through highlights, or not have seen Tony Stewart emerge victorious from the first two Chase races after going winless all season, or miss whatever Chase-changing maneuver might take place at Talladega. Postseasons are rife with can’t-miss moments, and NASCAR offers more than most. 

Another important factor in NASCAR’s increasing popularity is the product itself. 

A field is a field and a court is a court, but a racetrack is another matter entirely. Each track in the Chase comes complete with its own unique quirks and characteristics, offering a different viewing experience each week. Who will bang fenders – and tempers – at Martinsville? Who can wring the last drop of fuel out of a depleted tank for a critical intermediate-track win?

Who will be the conductor of the winning freight train at Talladega, and how many cars will that train have? We just don’t know. NASCAR’s very lack of uniformity is one of its most interesting attributes. 

The border that holds everything together, of course, is NASCAR’s personalities. 

Jimmie Johnson has been the constant and classy face of the sport for five consecutive seasons. Lots of people are watching the Chase in hopes of seeing history made yet again, while lots more are praying for the end of a stellar reign. 

Undoubtedly, a large portion of the viewership is keeping its eye on Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver and a Chase contender at last after a couple of seasons spent on the outside looking in. 

Can former wonder boy turned canny veteran Jeff Gordon finally win his fifth championship? Can affable Carl Edwards finally win his first? How bad might bad boys Kurt and Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski actually behave between now and November? 

When 12 teams are vying for a championship rather than just two, anything can happen. And in NASCAR, anything – and everything – does happen. 

All these pieces, once assembled, form an ever-changing image of frustration and celebration, excitement and uncertainty. It is NASCAR’s big picture, and it is one that the American viewing public realizes what the rest of us have known all along; it is most definitely something to see. 
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