The last time Alex Bowman was in Martinsville Speedway on a weekend when the NASCAR Cup Series came to town, he announced that he was returning from a concussion in time for last season’s finale.
His return announcement was a big deal, surely.
But Bowman was under no illusion on Saturday: The return of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott this weekend is getting attention he never got.
“Obviously he’s the most popular driver,” Bowman told reporters in the Martinsville Speedway media center on Saturday. He then shed a self-effacing smile: “I mean, you didn’t see me get a TV commercial when I came back.”
Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver five years running and one of the sport’s few superstars, announced on Thursday that he’d return to Cup Series competition at Martinsville. He’s spent the past six races out of the Cup car, recovering from a broken tibia in his left leg after a snowboarding accident that required immediate surgery.
And NASCAR has made quite a stir about it. Among the promotional materials it has used ahead of Sunday’s race (3 p.m., FS1, Sirius XM Radio) include targeted tweets, promotional emails — and, as Bowman mentioned, a TV commercial that premiered on Friday night and will surely make its rounds throughout the weekend.
It’s not just Elliott’s teammates and the sanctioning body that is excited about Elliott’s return to the No. 9 Cup car.
It’s most of the garage area, too.
“Well, it impacts our TV ratings, I know that for sure,” Kevin Harvick said in response to a question about Elliott’s return. “There are more people who want to watch when Chase Elliott is here. And I think we’re all thankful he’s back.
“Whether you like somebody, don’t like somebody, get along with somebody or don’t — everybody has a piece of the puzzle that they fall into. And Chase, for us, he’s our biggest star, and he’s the guy who needs to be here every week for it all to make sense currently.”
TV ratings have been top-of-mind in the NASCAR world this season. The Cup race on Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt track last weekend averaged a 1.88 Nielsen rating and 3.45 million viewers on FOX, per a report from ShowBuzzDaily.com. That was down from a 2.19 rating and 4.007 million viewership of the same race last year.
Every other race this season, in fact, has been down in viewership in comparison to last year’s numbers, according to sportsnaut.com. The worst downfall was a 41.8% decrease in viewership in Richmond (though this year’s run was on FS1 while 2022’s race was on FOX).
It’s worth saying still, though, that NASCAR had a banner year in 2022, bringing in 114.231 million viewers throughout last season. It’s also worth saying that NASCAR isn’t alone in seeing this dip in numbers.
Per a report from Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal, the three major motorsports from the races on March 5 saw a decrease in viewership: Fox earned 3.991 million viewers at Las Vegas’s NASCAR race (down from 4.544 million last year); ESPN got 1.318 million for the Formula 1 opener (down slightly from 1.353 million last year); and NBC got 1.189 million for the IndyCar opener (down from 1.405 million last year).
“The TV ratings are so weird to look at, right?” Harvick continued. “Let’s just exclude the NFL, and you look at everything else, it just looks like people are watching less TV, and they consume things in different ways.
“And so you really want to concentrate on keeping things fresh, and I think that’s just what we need to do: Keep working on the product, and try to make sure that we have stars.”
Denny Hamlin, between his ownership responsibilities with 23XI Racing and his driving prowess for Joe Gibbs Racing, is one of the sport’s codified stars, too. He even has his own podcast with the goal of rising a NASCAR audience that lifts all boats.
He shared his thoughts on the sport’s TV ratings dip on Saturday.
“I think there’s a lot of room we can improve on a lot of fronts,” Hamlin said. “I think that the on-track product has been about what it’s been in other years. I can’t say it’s been better/worse, maybe a little better on the short-track stuff. A lot of the stuff you can’t really see from a TV standpoint. We can get better with everything: educating the fans, production, all of that can all be better.”
It’s possible that Elliott’s return is a triumphant one considering he’s won at Martinsville before. And a good run for the 27-year-old star would be good for the sport: His popularity is more attributed to his success more so than his personality — and the 2020 Cup Series champion was briefly knocked out of competition while he was near the height of his powers after a second-place finish at Auto Club Speedway.
But him being good at Martinsville in previous runs might not be a great indicator for Sunday’s results. The 0.526-mile track is undeniably a “tough” racetrack to come back from injury on: It features a lot of braking (which his left leg will have to bear), a lot of bumping.
“He picked a hard one to come back to!” Bubba Wallace said with a chuckle. “Man was getting bored on the couch, I guess. I think it’s good for the sport to have him back.
“He’s everybody’s favorite for a reason.”
This story was originally published April 16, 2023, 6:00 AM.