The hangover from Sunday night's Miller Lite-soaked celebration of NASCAR's new brash champion came in a form Monday that no amount of water and Goody's can cure: yet another disappointing television rating.
Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway lost roughly half of it's total audience from one year ago (6.799 million in 2011 vs. 3.445 million Sunday) and left NASCAR's television ratings for the made-for-TV Chase for the Sprint Cup down from 2011 in nine of the ten races. Even from a three-year average, NASCAR has lost almost two million viewers for the race that has decided the 36-race series champion. Over two-thirds of the series' race broadcasts in 2012 lost viewers year over year, and track grandstands showed many of the same results.
Fortunately for the sport's stakeholders, one television partner has already placed a huge insurance blanket around the sport and its tracks for the forseeable future. Continuing the trend of television rights fees setting direction across all sports, FOX announced in October an eight-year extension of their commitment to broadcast the first third of NASCAR's season for $300 million annually - a deal now good through 2022. All told, the sport will take in and distribute close to $1 billion a year from television rights fees in coming years.
But in a sport still driven by corporate attention to individual teams, increased television money only goes so far. It takes plenty more than money won from individual race to go fast, and those team sponsors need to show a return on their marketing investment. Television ratings dropping by double-digits while more and more seats sit empty don't help that cause. It's far from a disaster for NASCAR, but it's certainly adding pressure to an offseason already full of change.
Already deep in testing and approved for 2013, NASCAR has mandated a new generation of race car - nicknamed "Gen-6" during a Homestead press conference - for the series that could hopefully be an antidote for waning interest and entirely too much forgettable on-track action. It's designed to bring back a "stock" feel to the sport and provide a better connection for manufacturers who spend millions in the sport.
It may be the most important piece of NASCAR's puzzle in figuring how to bring back the hordes who couldn't get enough of the sport in the early 2000s. Will it race better? Will it race closer?
Should the on-track product improve, the list of fan complaints (both real and exaggerated) could shorten immensely. It won't, however, ease to issues of lackluster television product (too many commercials) and an inability to nix tracks (or at least twice-visited ones) that have long produced decidely similar racing.
NASCAR and it's tracks may not be fretting the numbers, but there's little doubt that this offseason could play a large role in NASCAR's future - even if the results aren't felt for years to come. Here's to hoping they get that right.
HOT: Congratulations, Mr. Keselowski. That celebration was epic.
NOT: There are grave and gruesome stories that could have been much worse, but the timing of the annoucement of Danica Patrick's unfortunate divorce was a stomach punch to the momentum Keselowski's championship had gained for the sport. Suddenly, Danica is front and center and Brad has been relegated to the backburner. At least it wasn't announced before Sunday's race.
HOT: I'm happy to see the end of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow (COT) chassis, if only for competitive reasons. We can't forget the number of drivers that the safety innovations inside it helped immensely during its use, however. Michael McDowell and his 2008 Texas qualifying crash is Example A.
NOT: I understand that winning a second championship in the Nationwide Series may feel less important than winning a random Saturday round of golf against your buddies, but come on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., can't you at least try a bit harder to enjoy it?
HOT: Friday night's Camping World Truck Series race was by the best race of the weekend.
NEUTRAL: Just 16 drivers competed in 31 of 33 Nationwide Series races this year. That sure seems low for a series trying to build an independent identity.
HOT: Kurt Busch reeled off three top-10s to finish the season with Furniture Row Racing, the best stretch ever for that team.
HOT: Raise your hand if you had Michael Waltrip Racing placing a car second in points this year. Anyone?
NOT: Carl Edwards finished the year with three top-5 finishes. How does that happen? Can he rebound in 2013?
HOT: Aric Almirola, seventh Sunday after running out of gas on the final lap, finished the season placing 19th or better in seven of the last eight races.
FINAL: Enjoy the offseason, won't you? Daytona will be here soon.