JOLIET, IL – SEPTEMBER 17: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 17, 2017 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR made it a point to improve its television ratings this season. After years and years of prolonged decline on television, the sport has thrown everything they can at trying to reverse the slide. While NASCAR has tinkered with its rules and how it decides a champion in the past, this season NASCAR took maybe its boldest step yet.

In the hopes of getting fans to stick around and watch more racing, NASCAR completely restructured how races are run this year and are doing it in stages. Stage racing certainly has its fans and its detractors, but for NASCAR the success of this initiative and so many others comes down to their ratings.

Unfortunately, they are still going in the wrong direction. Just how bad are NASCAR’s ratings right now? According to Sports Media Watch, this weekend’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway was the lowest rated and least watched playoff race on record. Are you ready for even worse news for NASCAR? This week’s race in Chicago and last week’s final regular season race at Richmond are the two lowest rated NASCAR races this millennium.

NASCAR Cup Series racing from Chicagoland, the first race of the playoffs (nee Chase For the Cup), had a 1.4 rating and 2.3 million viewers on NBCSN Sunday — down 13% in ratings and 14% in viewership from last year (1.6, 2.7M) and down 26% and 28% respectively from 2015 (1.9, 3.2M).

Excluding rainouts, Martin Truex Jr.‘s win ranks as the lowest rated and least-watched Cup Series race at Chicagoland (dates back to 2001) and the lowest rated and least-watched playoff race at any track (dates back to 2004).

The 1.4 is also the second-lowest for any Cup Series race since at least 2000, ahead of only a 1.2 for Richmond the previous week.

Yikes. Sure, maybe there are some outside extenuating factors with these sinking numbers, whether it’s the return of football or many eyeballs tuning to monitoring significant weather events or politics.

However, we’re not just talking about a fluky downturn in viewership when everything else is going well. We’re talking about some of the lowest ratings the sport has drawn since the turn of the century 17 years ago. And most troubling thing for NASCAR is that these are supposed to be some of the most important races of the season. Imagine college football’s rivalry weekend or championship weekend drawing record low ratings going back to 2000. There would be a widespread panic.

SMW reports that 22 of 26 NASCAR races have declined in ratings and viewership this year, leading one to wonder what stone is left for NASCAR to overturn in their increasingly futile quest to improve their ratings.

[Sports Media Watch]