With 38 race weekends, NASCAR doesn’t take too many in-season breaks, but the NASCAR Cup Series had a one-week break to unofficially signal the halfway point in the season.
At the halfway point, there’s much for NASCAR to be happy about on the television side. Viewership has continued a steady climb; the Fox half of the season averaged 3,696,000 viewers for points races. Up 6% from 2021, it’s also the highest since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup season in 2017. Certainly, having an uninterrupted Daytona 500 helps with viewership, but it’s more than that. Talking to Brian Herbst, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Media and Productions, it’s all about putting races on during times that can maximize viewership. And maybe getting a little lucky with the weather.
“We’re definitely encouraged by the numbers,” Herbst said. “I think coming out of the gates hot with Clash at the Coliseum doing 4.3 million viewers and then having a clean (in terms of weather) Daytona 500 for the first time in a while and getting back to 9 million viewers on the ‘500, I think when you have that sort of lift coming out of the gate, there was a fair amount of momentum for those first four or five races on big Fox. We kind of rode that momentum through the rest of the season.”
“We posted a good number at Bristol Dirt on Easter Sunday as well, which was a strong number, especially given that the rain impacted that race. But also it was a really strong number in terms of 18-49. That demo peaked a little bit for Bristol Dirt. So outside of the Daytona 500, that younger fanbase, they watch Bristol Dirt on Easter Sunday more than any other race other than the Daytona 500 during the Fox portion of the season.”
“So I think that’s a lot of that. We did, I think, a pretty good job working with Fox to optimize some of our more tentpole events for the windows that work best for TV. I think the viewership results kind of bear that out.”
The Bristol Dirt race is an interesting topic. The jury is out among the wider fanbase about whether or not putting dirt on a track that already had great racing is a good thing, but it has gotten young people to watch. In fact, on top of it being one of the most-watched non-Daytona Cup races, the Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol (1.167 million, 317k in 18-49) did better than the Truck race at Daytona (1.016 million, 235k in 18-49). It might not be traditional dirt track racing, but it’s unique, it’s fun, and people are tuning in.
With the departure of Jeff Gordon, Fox did something unique this season and had a rotating panel of commentators to join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer. Some people did better than others, but the concept kept things fresh every week.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” Herbst said. “There were some great personalities in there. I thought the chemistry between Clint and Tony Stewart was great. I thought the analysis from some of the more analytical folks like Chad Knaus or Jamie McMurray really brought a different perspective to the broadcast as well. I found it kind of exciting to tune in each week to see what each one of those guest analysts was going to give us. Not taking anything away from the three-man booth that we’ve seen in the past.”
Like in past years, Fox is passing the torch to NBC for the second half of the Cup Series and Xfinity Series season. NBC’s season begins at Nashville Superspeedway, and even though this is just the second year that NBC has been in Nashville, both NBC and NASCAR like the energy of the Nashville market. It’s rapidly becoming a popular part of the schedule for everyone.
“The market Nashville itself has improved in terms of their local ratings around NASCAR,” Herbst said. “Each one of the last three years. So we’re seeing increased fan interest in NASCAR in Nashville. We obviously had the sellout last year at Nashville Superspeedway, so it feels like a big event, and nothing is a more natural promotional tie-in to NASCAR than country music and Nashville.”
It will be interesting to see how NBC’s half of the season compares to previous years in terms of viewership. With NBCSN shut down, NASCAR is moving over to USA. While USA isn’t a sports network, it does have wider distribution than NBCSN and is one of the most widely distributed channels on cable. With other properties seeing viewership increases moving from NBCSN to USA and the airing of two new reality series during the week, Herbst seems optimistic that viewership will continue its upward trajectory.
“We’re pretty excited about it… we’ve seen a lift in essentially a lot of NBC sports properties that move from NBCSN to USA… just based on how well distributed the USA channel is.”
“The other thing I would mention too is we’re working really closely with NBC’s entertainment group to run two different shows on USA during the NBC half of the season. We have a lifestyle show, behind-the-scenes show, featuring Austin Dillon that launches on June 23.”
“And then there’s been a crew following all of our key drivers throughout the season. A USA show called Race to the Championship that’s going to run in September. So those programs will air during the week, like on a Thursday night for example, to help tell the story and take the helmets off of the drivers. So that when you see those characters come alive on the weekend, it’s a familiar face.”
While things aren’t perfect and can certainly be improved, the future is bright and NASCAR should be able to build on what they have so far. Thanks to the Next Gen car, the level of parity is higher than it’s ever been. There have been 12 different winners in the first 16 points races. Eight of those are 30-years-old or younger and four of them are first-time winners. And thanks to victories from Bubba Wallace last year and Daniel Suárez this year, NASCAR has seen its highest African American and Hispanic viewership in the first half of this season since 2015.
Additionally, with initiatives like Trackhouse Racing’s “Project 91” which will have Formula 1 champ Kimi Räikkönen racing at Watkins Glen, next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans project with Hendrick Motorsports, and the rumored Chicago street race for 2023, it’s an exciting time for NASCAR as they enter the second half of the season.