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Pedley: Will Stewart’s Reign Help Revive NASCAR?

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 23 2011

Champ Tony Stewart talked NASCAR during a lively swing through the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., this week. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Jimmie Johnson was still a couple of championships shy of the five in a row he would eventually win when a couple of reporters approached Richard Petty in the infield at Daytona.

Petty was, as absolutely always, unconcerned about how his answers to questions would be received by the rest of racing community that day. Kings be like that.

Because of the dark glasses it’s impossible to swear to this, but the guess is he didn’t blink when he was asked if he thought Johnson’s domination of the Sprint Cup Series was a good thing for NASCAR. Petty certainly didn’t hesitate with his answer.

No, he said. The King, the winner of seven Cup championships and 200 races, went on to explain that he thought new blood was needed at the top of the standings.

NASCAR now has that new blood – OK, recycled blood – at the top and this week and this weekend and next February, it will be interesting to see how the sport reacts.

The owner of that new blood was asked during the annual champions teleconference on Tuesday if he thinks having an SOTJ – somebody other than Jimmie – as Sprint Cup champion will be as refreshing

Tony Stewart takes a parade lap around Phoenix International Raceway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

as many have been forecasting that it will be.

Tony Stewart, who won the season-ending race and the 2011 Chase championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, had to think about his answer for a bit.

“I’m not really sure I understand what it will do,” Stewart, who also won the last championship before Johnson’s reign began in 2005, said. “Obviously, it’s been a long reign the last five years of having Jimmie win the championship. Obviously we’re not oblivious to listening to the fans and them saying they want to see somebody else win.”

No doubt: During Johnson’s reign, interest in the NASAR began to slide.

But the big question is, was it because of Johnson’s domination, or in spite of it?

Perhaps the correct answer is: Both.

For whatever reason, Johnson just never earned the love of racing fans. Not like Petty and certainly not like Earnhardt, both of whom dominated on track during their eras.

While dang-good drivers like Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip also did not reach the heights of fan-base passion as did Earnhardt and the King, they did evoke more reaction than has Johnson.

But were NASCAR fans staying away from race tracks and switching off their big screens on Sunday afternoon just because Johnson was winning championships? Was his personality too bland, his driving style to surgical, his crew chief so aloof that it caused thoe fans who have traditionally been among the most passionate in all of American sports, to say: Screw it?

Obviously not.

When people ask why NASCAR has dipped in popularity in recent years, the continually issued answer

Jimmie Johnson did a burnout on the Strip in Las Vegas last year. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

is: There is no single, simple answer. It is a variety of things. Dozens of things. To blame it all on Johnson, a driver of absolutely top-notch driving skill, would be a slap in the faces of true racing fans. See, true racing fans appreciate skillful wheelmen no matter how exciting (Tim Richmond) or bland (Mark Martin) they may be.

Still, the ratings for this year’s Chase – the Stewart vs. Carl Edwards Chase – spiked upward.

ESPN announced this week that:

“With a peak audience of 10.5 million when the checkered flag fell on champion Tony Stewart at 8:08 p.m. ET, ESPN’s telecast of the Ford 400 from Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Nov. 20, averaged 6,799,000 viewers and earned a 4.6 household coverage rating (4.0 U.S. rating), according to the Nielsen Company. The viewership average broke ESPN’s previous record of 6,668,000 viewers for the 2008 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Final figures do not include a rain delay from 4:45-6 p.m.

“Viewership was up 21 percent and the rating was up 18 percent from last year’s event, which also aired on ESPN and earned a 3.9 coverage rating and averaged 5,605,000 viewers. In addition, the 2011 race out-delivered the 2009 race that aired on ABC and earned 5,607,000 viewers and a 3.6 U.S. rating.

“Ratings for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on ESPN and ABC increased 14.8 percent from 2010,

Jimmie Johnson passes the torch to Tony Stewart after Sunday's race at Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

averaging a 3.1 U.S. rating compared to 2.7 for last year (not including the rain-delayed Chicagoland Speedway event, which was run on a Monday). Also, excluding rainout races, ESPN and ABC’s NASCAR Sprint Cup coverage for 2011 averaged a 3.2 U.S. rating, up more than six percent from a 3.0 for last year.”

Stewart was asked about the spike in TV numbers Tuesday.

“Hopefully no matter who it was,” Stewart said, “it is the shot in the arm the sport needs right now. I think looking at TV ratings from this weekend and the attendance numbers the last couple of weeks, I think it’s hopefully a sign that we’re starting that road of recovery.

“Not that we were in dire straits by any means, but I’m glad to see the numbers going back up again, and I don’t know if we’re going to be responsible for it because of winning a championship. But we’re all just hopeful that it’s going to keep going the direction it’s going right now.”

Like Stewart or not like him, like Johnson or not like Johnson, one thing can probably said with reasonable certainty.

Stewart’s inauguration in Las Vegas, and his swing through the national media outlets, will be livelier than have Johnson’s in the past.

Stewart is just plain edgier than Johnson and in this day of sizzle over substance – people respect Guy Fieri and Simon Cowell, for God’s sake – edgy reigns.

It will be interesting – and important – to see if Stewart’s edge will arrive at Daytona in tact next February.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 23 2011
5 Comments

5 Comments »

  • Mr. Tony Geinzer says:

    I know folks like Tony a ton, but, he is not in tune with the Sports History like Dale or King Richard,and in other words, the vanquishment of the Chase needs to be P1.

  • mr clause says:

    It maybe that the ratings and attendance will take a swing upwards but for a different reason than most think. Jimmy has been a great champion for our sport, he’s done all the right things. The problem may have been that he is viewed as being corporate. This has pretty much been a blue collar sport, no, not redneck, blue collar. Tony is seen as blue collar no matter what he owns. He’s seen as a bit of a rebel and certainly not any shade of conformist. This sport has a history of down in the dirt, fingernails dirty, champions that were revered by the fans. Tony is the everyman like him or not. He is a winner in anything you put him in. He is simply Tony with all the good and the bad, he is real, he can be identified with in ways Jimmy couldn’t. We have so few of those like Tony in the sport. Give me the Tony’s, the Brad’s, the Clint’s, without them NASCAR is not much at all. What we don’t need is people like the Busch babies. But yes, we also need the Jimmy’s, the Jeff’s, the Rootie’s. Tony is the champ and yet he will always be the everyman.

  • Charlie says:

    Tony Stewart will be bad for NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, even Carl Edwards would be much better. Tony Stewart is a very selfish, self-centered, childish, SOB, who thinks of no one but Tony. It will be kind of like having Kurt Busch as champion again. It cheapens the award.
    And now people are trying to equate this with Alan Kulwicki’s championship. Geez, Stewart may be the owner in name, but those are Rick Hendrick’s cars and basically the engineering. Besides, Haas is a convicted Federal Felon. Nice to have around.

    • the amazing smoke says:

      Don’t forget hendrick has plead guilty to bribery charges himself. i don’t think it’s jimmy or anyother driver for that matter that has pushed fan’s away from the sport. i see people getting tired of nascar catering to rick hendrick and chevy. ever notice that since ratings have droped it’s been hendrick cars on top the most awsome cars on track are allways from or by hendrick. remember a couple years ago when jimmy could’nt drive his cars all season and then came the chase and no one could catch him. allmost a rerun to this year. i think fans want other manufactures to have a chance to be great instead of everyone being basically even except one hendrick car running away with everything. [ LEVEL PLAYINGFIELD] if a ford starts dominating the rules are changed if a hendrick chevy dominates its a great team. make them even nascar and the fans might come back.

    • Dave says:

      Sounds like sour grapes Chuck, To bad your guy couldn’t step up to the plate.