HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — 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.
“If we alienated some fans over the last three years, for whatever reason … they’re not going to come back overnight,” said veteran driver Jeff Burton. “When you lose people, they don’t pick up the paper one day and say, ‘It is a good points race, let’s start watching again.'”
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, and said the fan reaction to this three-man title race “has been something we haven’t seen in several years.
“As a driver, as a fan of the sport, it’s been something that’s fun to see and exciting to see,” Harvick said. “You see a lot of fans talk about not being interested in racing over the past couple of years and all of a sudden they’re popping up on Twitter, they’re popping up on your website, they’re calling the shop, and those are the people that we need back interested in the sport.
“I vote for somebody else to win. Jimmie’s a friend and I think that they’ve had a great run and done a great job, but there’s nothing more that anybody else wants to do, and that’s beat them right now.”
Johnson, irked for so many years at being labeled a vanilla corporate spokesman, finally learned to accept the negative characterizations that go with being the champ. His dominance has allowed to him let his guard down, and those in the industry know the California native lives by a “work hard, play hard,” code.
Not convinced? Last year, the car service sent to take him to the airport the morning after his record-setting fourth title found the driver asleep on the curb outside his hotel. He later admitted on live television he was struggling through a hangover, earning raves not for his on-track feat, but at his ability to weather a full schedule of media commitments with such aplomb.
So, maybe unsurprisingly, he just shrugs when people want to blame him for NASCAR’s decline.
“I don’t care what people have to say. I just care about how our team performs and what we do,” Johnson said. “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.
“But I think the problem was there before I came.”
NASCAR’s done its best over the last 15 months to lure fans back through a series of on and off track adjustments. Among them were universal start times, the return of the traditional spoiler to the race cars, and a loosened governing policy this season that’s encouraged a show of personality through a “Boys, have at it,” mentality.
It hasn’t mattered, though, as ESPN’s ratings for the eight Chase races it aired — one was on ABC — are down 24.7 percent this season. The entire season, which is shared by Fox, TNT, ABC and ESPN, is down approximately 9 percent.
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. “We did some things to try to help in one area that might have had an effect in another.”
Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions, said a variety of factors contributed to the decline in ratings, and NASCAR’s drop is on par with the NFL’s increase this season.
“The NFL has been up about the same amount that we’ve been down in these windows, they are up a full rating point and we’re down about .9,” she said. “We’re looking at everything and obviously want ratings to be going up and everything to be climbing. But we’ve got the best competition coming down this weekend, that’s all we can ask for.
“I really feel like if people aren’t watching it, they are just missing it.”