Dale Earnhardt Jr. is unmistakably NASCAR’s most popular driver; Jimmie Johnson is unmistakably NASCAR’s most successful driver. One is more charismatic, one more successful. Both are playing a role in why NASCAR is seemingly dwindling in popularity these days.
There’s been a lot written in the past several weeks about NASCAR’s poor showings in the television ratings. According to jayski.com, the Chase opener at New Hampshire was ESPN’s lowest rated Chase race to date and the ratings for all of the Chase races have been down from last year. This represents a precipitous drop over the last four years during the Jimmie Johnson era.
The fall has brought suggestions from NASCAR fans to alter the Chase format, somehow spice it up or create more drama as the season enters its final act. ESPN has reportedly recently advocated changes that may involve some sort of elimination format.
NASCAR CEO Brian France has conceded that the sanctioning body is entertaining the idea of a restructuring for next season. “We're going to look at that. If we can make it a better format, we will, with protecting the credibility of crowning our champion”, France told espn.com back in August. In that statement you see one of the problems with the current Chase: Jimmie Johnson.
Before everyone goes nuts and accuses me of being a Johnson detractor, understand that the problem is just that the No. 48 team is just that good. No matter what system you use, as long as they run the way they have run in the past four seasons, they will win. Most proposed revisions to the Chase (including mine) are conceived with the purpose of closing the gap among the Chasers.
The gap is closed with any proposal except the one that seemingly has existed between the 48 and everyone else. They just run better than other teams in the Chase. No matter what format you use, whether it’s changing the points, eliminating drivers, even awarding a boiled chicken for a win, if you’re going to “protect the credibility of crowning the champion,” Johnson will win if he does what he’s always done. The No. 48 team has figured out how to win titles, and you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to fix that. They certainly have earned their four championships.
Years ago, Jeff Gordon was concerned when he noticed that fans were booing him at the racetrack. The late Dale Earnhardt offered a bit of wisdom: If they’re booing you, you know you’re winning a lot.
That is what has happened with the No. 48 team. Its driver isn’t the most charismatic guy in the world, but he’s hard to dislike either. He’s your yuppie neighbor with the minivan who you see every Saturday morning watering his flowers. He’s affable enough, but white bread. His success has appealed to his fans, and there are a lot of them. But his success has wearied and come at the expense of every other fan’s driver.
Just like his teammate Jeff Gordon, he’s immensely talented and barely has a cross word for anyone. As talented as he is behind the wheel, he’s seemingly just as talented at avoiding being provocative.
He just wins too much, but has too little charisma. He’s far removed from the red clay and white lightning South from which the sport anchors its history. As a result, he’s far removed from the sport’s Southern fan base.
As for the fans, it’s no question that the crowd favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has been NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last seven years. A son of the South, he’s the kid on every block dreaming of the day to take on the high banks. I was one of them, and I wasn’t alone in South Carolina.
Several years ago, with great equipment, seemingly limitless talent, and a personality that could light up Daytona International Speedway, expectations were high. He captured the imagination of the racing world, but the larger population as well because of the loss of his famous father.
His story is universal: The son of the fallen father struggles to reclaim the throne. It has resonance outside the NASCAR world, but seems particularly poignant to the fans of the late Dale Earnhardt. The entire drama was played out on CNN, and the world got to know him.
As it turns out, it grew to love him.
America cheered when he returned to Daytona in July of 2001 and tamed the monster that took his father. It roared again when he came back and won the Daytona 500 in 2004, capturing the prize that eluded his father for 20 years.
Earnhardt’s life and career has been chronicled over the years in everything from books, television shows, magazines, and the supermarket tabloids. He was, and still is, the face of NASCAR. His famous name has made him the most recognizable face in the sport.
That is until the green flag drops. When the race begins, he’s just a face in a crowd of 43 drivers.
Dale Jr. has become a mid-packer. He’s currently mired in 17th place in the standings between Juan Montoya and David Reutimann. He hasn’t won in more than two years, and he’s headed to Fontana where his average finish is 22.6. It’s no place for the most famous last name currently in the sport, and one of the few tangible links to its past.
He hasn’t made the Chase since 2008, despite driving the same equipment as the champion. That year, he finished dead last among Chasers, 557 markers behind Jimmie Johnson after the Ford 400 at Homestead.
Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s Tiger Woods. He’s the spark that gives the sport its popularity. Just like in golf with Tiger, when he’s down, the sport is down. When he’s up, the sport is up.
NASCAR knows that.
When the largest number of your fans (as evidenced by his Most Popular Driver awards) isn’t excited about watching their driver run 18th (his average finish this season is 17.6) with only three top fives, it puts a dent in the number of people watching.
Just like Jimmie Johnson winning championships, losing ratings is simple: It’s just math. When the fans proclaim that their most popular driver is a guy who doesn’t win very much anymore, they tune out.
NASCAR is a sport that has marked most of its time partly by eras dominated by drivers: Petty, Pearson, Allison, Waltrip, Wallace, and Earnhardt. All of these men had that unique combination of copious charisma and tons of talent. That recipe helped the sport build its popularity over the first 40 of its 60 years.
The money monster has created a time more recently where winning is everything, but personality is a liability. Nobody wants to make a sponsor uncomfortable when they’re handing over a $25 million check. As a result, Gordon became the standard, Johnson is the improved version. Get the sponsor on TV by winning, but don’t make waves in front of the microphone.
The combination of charisma and success has now been separated.
After all of NASCAR’s work from “have at it, boys” to Chase revisions to realigning the schedule, it may have a problem it just can’t fix with a philosophical or rules change: Its most successful driver just isn’t very charismatic, and its most charismatic driver just isn’t very successful.