Still, it's indisputable that the NASCAR ratings are down for the Chase, to a significant degree over last year. Through the first four races, the Chase races on ESPN were down a staggering 27 percent over last season.
But hey, good news: Saturday night's race in Charlotte was down less than 10 percent! The race drew a 3.2 rating, down from a 3.5 last year. So what was different?
First, the race was on ABC, not ESPN. The broadcast-versus-cable is a handy scapegoat, but the truth is that ABC is on 116 million homes and ESPN is on 100 million. Even assuming that all 16 million of those ESPN-less homes would be watching the race in proportionate numbers, that still doesn't account for the drop. (ESPN has said the broadcast destination is not a factor, but that's what you would expect them to say, to quote the conspiracy theorists.)
Next, this race wasn't at the usual start time of 1 p.m. Eastern on a Sunday. While uniform start times were supposed to strengthen ratings because people weren't trying to figure out which of the 14 different start times the race would go green this week, in fact the opposite may have been the case. The start time puts NASCAR right in the teeth of the early Sunday NFL games, and since there's only a finite number of sports fans, NASCAR is losing out hard.
It's worth noting that the NFL is a behemoth that's pulverizing everything in its path, not just NASCAR. Monday night, one of the worst "Monday Night Football" games in recent memory absolutely crushed an outstanding baseball playoff game in the ratings. (Link may be NSFW because of some outraged language.)
Is it worth continuing to knock heads against that kind of juggernaut, or should NASCAR consider punting to a different start time or a different schedule? Ratings are flawed at their core because of their sampling, and reacting too sharply to them would be a mistake, but clearly there's something not quite right here. The question is, would NASCAR turn off its loyal core by chasing the fickle few?