One race in to the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup - one race into the most gripping part of NASCAR's schedule - and the sport's marketing machine looks to be succeeding. On cable news outlets and local newscasts across the land, NASCAR's weekend at Chicagoland Speedway earned space this week thanks to quite a highlight.
Yep, Tony Stewart's goose of Delana Harvick that was inadvertently caught on camera during Sunday's pre-race show has been the biggest national takeaway from the first round of NASCAR's playoffs. It was innocent and all in good fun - Stewart, Harvick and her husband Kevin Harvick say it's been a running gag between them - and certainly worth a laugh.
Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski won Sunday's race in impressive fashion - a 400-mile statement of championship capability - to little acclaim and the second-fewest television viewers of a regular season NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this year.
You didn't read that wrong: NASCAR's postseason opener Sunday (averaging 3,948,966 viewers) on ESPN generated just under 100,000 more viewers than the Saturday night race in June at Kentucky that garnered the Sprint Cup Series' lowest rating so far in 2012.
That's been a trend, too, in three of the last four years when the Chase opener wasn't delayed to Monday by rain like last year's event in Chicago was. The 2010 Chase opener at New Hampshire earned 3.67 million viewers - good for NASCAR's lowest rated Sprint Cup Series race telecast of 2010 not delayed by rain - and 2009's Chase opener also produced the season's second lowest viewer numbers.
Certainly, the NFL's monstrous reign on television ratings has an drastic effect on the ratings NASCAR pulls. That force was perhaps the biggest instigating factor in NASCAR's controversial push to a playoff format in 2004. When the factor is considered, Sunday's low number induces plenty of head-scratching.
Finding the blame for it, though, isn't hard. No, we can't blame a funny video going viral for the relative lack of interest that NASCAR's opening postseason weekend generated. But we can credit NASCAR's insistence of opening the championship stretch at a track routinely lacking drama and highlight-worthy moments as one issue. Opening with a short track would be ideal.
More than my typical issue with NASCAR's 1.5-mile tracks, though, is how the sport should really try some out of the box scheduling. It's hard not to think the first race of the Chase would be the best time for NASCAR to try a weeknight race. Monday at this point in the year would be a possibility, but Monday Night Football would likely dominate. A Thursday night event - against one NFL Network game - might be the real ticket to increase NASCAR's viewership. It's a slot that could work with Chicago (the track has lights that now go unused for Sprint Cup events) but that would be magic with either a restrictor plate or short track event.
Just think about it: lining 'em up for 400 miles at Daytona on a Thursday night would be can't-miss TV.
In the meantime, it appears NASCAR feels no drastic need to shift the Chase opener. If the race is working to meet their objectives, more power to them. But from a person who watched every lap Sunday, I'm hard-pressed to find anything from that race that makes Sunday at New Hampshire feel like the continuing of a can't-miss TV series.
From the looks of the television rating, I'm not alone.
HOT: Sunday's race for Brad Keselowski felt like a microcosm of his season to date. He improved all day and finally had a car that just ran away from Jimmie Johnson on the final cycle. Will that be how the Chase goes?
NOT: Jeff Gordon's stuck throttle means he's an entire race win (47 points) behind Keselowski. That race is only a mulligan if every other driver suffers one week of bad luck. Otherwise, Gordon's title hopes are (already) toast.
HOT: Ryan Blaney scored his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win over the weekend at Iowa. Kudos.
NEUTRAL: Kevin Harvick never had a car to compete with in Chicagoland, but he wound up 12th. Greg Biffle, with a 13th-place finish, was much the same. Both, however, didn't lose the Chase in week one.
NOT: Carl Edwards finished 19th Sunday, a lap down. Is that indicative of how his final stretch will go?
NOT: It's becoming clear that Kurt Busch is no perfect antidote for an underfunded team in the NASCAR's top division. It was mostly bad luck Sunday - they suffered consecutive broken axles during a pit stop sequence - but even without being suspended earlier in the year, Kurt would be no higher than 25th in points.
HOT: Leaving NASCAR's mostly bland weekend in the dust, IndyCar had a really good one to close the season for the IZOD IndyCar Series. They managed to put a race together at California's Auto Club Speedway that wasn't absurdly dangerous and that required drivers really drive on an oval for 500 miles. That Will Power wrecked away his championship hopes during an unimportant point in the race was telling of how tough those cars were to drive.
Congratulations to Ryan Hunter-Reay on the come-from-behind title, and to the series for putting on one of its best seasons in recent memory.
Enjoy New Hampshire.