In recent years, NASCAR officials have offered a variety of reasons for declining television ratings, ranging from competition from the NFL, an overall decline for most top-rated shows, boring finishes and the lack of wins by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After four races this year, the sanctioning body doesn’t have all the answers as to why this year’s ratings have fallen at a record pace.
According to Nielsen Media Research, ratings have dropped in all four races this year compared to numbers of a year ago.
And it comes without any competition from football, new rules that make winning important at all costs and the best start in Earnhardt’s career.
“I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle,” Earnhardt said. “I think that goes outside of my comfort zone and what I feel is and what I think you need to concern yourself with if you’re as an individual. It’s relevant to me of course but not important to me.
“I want the sport to be healthy. And I want to do things that help the sport and make an impact on the sport. I try to do those things always taking opinions and advice on what I can do better and what I’m not doing that I could be doing to help the sport.”
In fairness to NASCAR, two races – the season-opening Daytona 500 and last Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway – had long rain delays. But that doesn’t explain why ratings dropped by five percent at Phoenix and 11 percent at Las Vegas.
Even with the drop, the two races were the highest-rated national sporting events on television, Nielsen reported.
Earnhardt won the Daytona 500, but that didn’t create any headway for the next two races at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Neither did the fact he finished second in both of those races.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said ratings were affected in 2009 and 2010 when Earnhardt didn’t win a race or qualify for the Chase for the Championship.
“It would have helped if he would have been competitive,” France said at the time. “He didn’t win an event and he certainly didn't make our playoffs. And that’s unhelpful if you’re trying to build ratings.”
Much like Tiger Woods in golf, Earnhardt understands he helps drive interest in his sport. While he sometimes struggles with that pressure, he accepts the additional challenges.
“It’s just very uncomfortable because I don’t have the accolades and the hardware that a lot of these guys have, like a championship and things like that,” Earnhardt said. “I’m comfortable with the popularity and things like that because I feel like that we do a lot and we have a great fan base and we do a lot to engage with them.
“But carrying the sport is a whole other conversation or being the face of the sport is a whole other conversation. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be put in. I don’t think it’s realistic.”
NASCAR will try again to get its television numbers up to speed with this Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, Calif. While it will go head-to-head with the NCAA Tournament, racing finally could catch the wave created by Earnhardt's fast start.