We've seen years of declining television ratings. Longtime sponsors have made their way out of the sport during the economic struggles of the past few years. There aren't 43 cars running the full race anymore, sometimes even in the Daytona 500, the sport's most marquee event.
So how is NASCAR well positioned among the rest of the major leagues heading into next season?
The answer isn't too complex. It's got a little to do with outdoing some other sports in big ways, and a lot to do with its use of Twitter.
Social Media Mavens
Here's NASCAR's biggest advantage over the rest of the sports world—the way the sport and its fans have embraced social media makes it the most fan-friendly of any professional sport in America.
When Twitter released its lists of the top trending topics of 2012, NASCAR fell second to only one sport, the NFL. In a way, that's not a surprise, given that NASCAR was the first sport to receive its own Twitter landing page (an infrastructure later utilized for the Olympic Games) and was the first sport with which Twitter aired television commercials.
But if potential sponsors were listening then, they'll be sure to be even more in tune with the new Nielsen Twitter TV Rating. It's exactly what it sounds like—a measurement of television viewers' social interaction with any given program. NASCAR, with its already strong base of teams and fans chatting during every race, will be sure to post high numbers there.
In short, NASCAR's advantage over most other professional sports—and it could prove to be a massive one—lies in its successful embrace of social media long before the introduction of these metrics, and the sport is about to reap the rewards.
Taking On The Big Four
At this point, NASCAR has basically replaced the NHL in the "Big Four" of American professional sports, since the powers that be in hockey can't seem to set aside their differences and actually begin their season. So how does it hold up against the other three?
Like the NBA, NASCAR has seen some issues with officiating integrity. When Jeff Gordon deliberately wrecked Clint Bowyer in the season's penultimate race at Phoenix and was not suspended for it, many fans decried the decision as coming because of who Gordon is.
That's similar to many fans' perception of the NBA, where it's widely believed that superstars often get the benefit of the doubt on foul calls.
But unlike the NBA, NASCAR has a much more fan-friendly and popular champion at the helm now. Unlike LeBron James, who many NBA fans despise for his decision to leave his hometown team in Cleveland and join a loaded roster in Miami, Brad Keselowski is liked for his throwback personality and strong-willed perseverance in climbing to the upper echelons of the sport.
It also helps that he's built a fan-friendly personality on Twitter, which started when he tweeted from inside the car during the red flag at this year's Daytona 500.
NASCAR and the MLB both share one thing in common about their regular seasons: they're too long. With 162 games on the schedule, MLB teams play twice as many games as any other professional sports team, often playing almost every night. NASCAR, on the other hand, has a 10-month season, by far the longest in professional sports, and with 38 race weekends, Sundays off are few and far between.
However, NASCAR's advantage over the MLB lies in its much more effective playoff system. After a 162-game regular season, the fact that a team only needs to win 11 (or 12, if they're a wild card) games to take home World Series honors feels almost inconsequential. In NASCAR, the 10-race playoff ensures that three months' worth of racing is handled with extra urgency, and the payoff has been three consecutive years of memorable playoff battles.
Only One Sport To Beat
That leaves the NFL as the only sport that NASCAR has yet to topple in the "Big Four." Doing so is not an easy task.
With the shortest season of any major pro sport, the NFL's niche has always been to leave its fans wanting more. That's why only one or two teams ever have to deal with TV blackouts per season—because stadiums are normally packed.
Pre-game tailgates are one day as opposed to two or three-day camping outings at NASCAR events, while the Super Bowl broadcast brings in millions of dollars per commercial. It also doesn't help that the bulk of the NFL regular season and NASCAR playoffs overlap, and while NFL games are mostly on broadcast TV, NASCAR is now competing on cable.
How the heck is anybody supposed to compete with that?
More of the same on the social media front is a good start. The Tweetups before every NASCAR race are a good way to get fans engaged not only with the sport's personalities, but with each other, a sort of camaraderie that NFL fans certainly have.
The amount of access that fans have to the inner workings of the sport during competition is also unparalleled, with fans able to follow each team's Twitter account and access teams' radio frequencies for updates.
But while that may be enough to remain in second place, getting to No. 1 could require some more creativity. One thought is to schedule races, when possible, so they won't be directly opposed to NFL games, and rely on a better on-track product with the Generation Six car to pull in fans when football and racing do clash. Another is to cut down on the schedule to create more off weeks, which are thought to increase interest in the remaining events.
That being said, second place isn't a bad thing in the pro sports world. It also gives NASCAR something to shoot for, even if it may be impossible: taking on the NFL and eventually eclipsing it in popularity. They're on the right track, so to speak, but there's still some work to be done.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.