HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Kevin Harvick said it. A lot of other people, maybe even some in NASCAR’s front office, are thinking it.
Anybody but Jimmie.
NASCAR has one of the tightest championship races in its history going into Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Denny Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick separated by only 46 points in the standings. Problem is, there aren’t enough people paying attention.
While there are plenty of reasons why attendance and television ratings are down for NASCAR – which not so long ago billed itself as the fastest-growing sport in the country – there are some who want to pin the sport’s popularity decline on Johnson’s dominant run of four straight championships.
Never mind that the economy tanked, sponsorships became scarce and NASCAR’s traditionally blue-collar fan base found itself unable to pay the bills, let alone travel to a race.
A season-long downward slide in television ratings has everyone in the industry concerned, and not even a thrilling Chase for the Sprint Cup has helped. ESPN’s ratings have been down for all nine of the Chase races so far.
Those not watching are missing a title race that rivals the epic 1992 struggle between Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and Bill Elliott. Kulwicki trailed Allison by 30 points heading into the finale, and won the title by 10 over Elliott.
Only one title race since had similar suspense, in 2004, the debut year of the Chase format, when Kurt Busch edged Johnson by eight points.
Johnson lost to Tony Stewart the next year, but he’s owned the Chase system since. Of Johnson’s 35 victories over the past four seasons, 14 wins came in Chase races. Except for 2007, when he and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon raced down to the wire, he’s had the championship well in hand long before the season finale.
So Harvick was only slightly kidding when he said last month, while sitting next to Johnson, that NASCAR needs a new champion. He reiterated the sentiment Friday.
“I don’t care what people have to say,” Johnson said. “I just care about how our team performs and what we do.
“We certainly have our issues and it is what it is and there are so many ideas of what it might be that I can’t sit here and say it’s because of me.
“If we’re trying to blame someone, we can pick someone. I can be that guy if everybody wants me to be that guy.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France believes a portion of the ratings decline can be blamed on shifting a bulk of races to ESPN this year.
Last season, ABC aired 11 of the 17 races it owns while ESPN had six. This year, ESPN took 14 of the 17, including nine of the 10 Chase races.
“We took ourselves out of some more homes by doing that,” France said.