Nov 152008
Last Sunday, with more than 30 laps remaining in NASCAR’s Phoenix race, ABC cut away to America’s Funniest Home Videos, shifting the race to ESPN2. Many fans of the stock car racing series were up in arms, comparing the move to the infamous “Heidi game” of 1968. The comparison is inapt: despite some exciting wrecks, Jimmy Johnson continued to lead and win the race. He continued to lead the championship too, and therein lies NASCAR’s real problem. It’s not just that ratings are declining and the individual races don’t make compelling television; the championship doesn’t make compelling television either.

It’s popular to villify the superfluous and artificial “Chase” playoff format, but that’s not really the problem. This championship would be a snoozer under the old points system, too. Nonetheless, the goals of the Chase were to make the championship more exciting and increase interest in the sport for the end of the season. In these regards it has failed repeatedly (though not always). Ongoing efforts to make things work better have resulted in constant tinkering with the format, emphasizing its silly, artificial, ad hoc nature.

Despite its structural problems, the failure of the Chase system owes just as much to the man who is almost certainly going to win his third straight championship this weekend: Jimmie Johnson. The Chase format rewards winning, which Johnson can do, but it also rewards error-free racing. The short, ten-race span of the Chase means that there just isn’t enough time for a driver to recover from two bad races, or even one bad race if it’s a real disaster. Winning, and not making serious mistakes, are hallmarks of Johnson’s racing style. He and pit crew chief Chad Knaus tinker around a bit early in the season, then put together flawless packages and flawless racing for the end of the year. That doesn’t mean Johnson is boring — his late-race dash through the pack at Atlanta to maintain his points lead was scintillating — but drama is almost impossible to sustain in the face of Johnson’s bland superiority.

What Johnson lacks is a clearly discernable weakness. He’s not overly aggressive, and doesn’t seem to have any problems with his temper. He’s intelligent, mature, and affable — but he’s the sort of person you’d spend a pleasant evening with and not particularly remember afterwards. He leaves name-calling, fighting, and spinning out competitors to the Stewarts, Harvicks, and Busches of the world. Would NASCAR be shedding as many viewers if one of those men were as far ahead as Johnson is now? Perhaps not. Their aggressiveness and occasional foolhardiness endears them to their fans and inspires hatred in their competitor’s adherents. There’s no such handle with Johnson — it’s almost as tough to hate him as it is to love him.

NASCAR’s struggle in the ratings isn’t just because of the Chase, and it isn’t just because of Johnson (or any other driver, for that matter). There are a variety of factors contributing to the decline, not least of them the economic climate. The races and the season are both too long. The choice to spread the season across practically every channel on the dial sometimes makes it difficult to find the race even when you know what time it will be on, and weakens the relationship with the broadcast partners. The characteristics of the new car, especially the significant advantage conferred by clean air and the commensurate increase in the importance of track position, have made pit performance disproportionately important. Although the new car can be (and has been) driven effectively through traffic, many crew chiefs are having a difficult time getting it there.

But Johnson and Knaus have figured out the car, the pits, and the Chase. Johnson’s strength of focus and will is ideally suited to stringing together the chain of strong finishes, including wins, that’s necessary to take the title in this format. Had it been Tony Stewart, Dale Junior, or even Jeff Gordon who solved the Chase then perhaps this level of dominance would not have been as damaging to NASCAR. But NASCAR is stuck with Johnson, and as long as it emphasizes the championship over the individual races then it will have to accept the risk that an unpopular or uninteresting champion will cause people to tune out, including their broadcast partners.

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