NASCAR drivers don’t need to be reminded what Chase Elliott’s return to racing on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway means to those associated with the sport.
When Elliott is racing, everyone wins.
Voted NASCAR’s most popular driver the past five seasons — a title inherited after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement — Elliott and his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports car have become the face of the sport. When he’s competing, more stock car racing fans are watching. And when he’s not, fans seem be tuning out in big numbers.
It’s like stock racing’s version of the Tiger Woods effect.
The dramatic drop in TV ratings in the six races Elliott missed after breaking his tibia in a snowboarding accident are indicative of the impact he has on the sport.
The percentage of television viewers dropped by 12.2% at Las Vegas, 15.1% at Phoenix, 14.5% at Atlanta, 16.1% at Austin, 41.8% at Richmond and 13.9% at Bristol compared to last year’s numbers, according to sportnaut.com. About 3.45 million people tuned into this year’s spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway, down from slightly more than 4 million viewers in 2022.
“It impacts our TV ratings, I know that for sure,” No. 4 Ford driver Kevin Harvick said of Elliott’s absence. “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, is our biggest star and he’s the guy who needs to be here every week for it all to make sense currently.”
That’s why NASCAR went to great lengths last week to promote Elliott’s return to the track. quickly putting together a commercial after he announced last Wednesday he would race at Martinsville.
“Obviously he’s the most popular driver. I mean you didn’t see me get a TV commercial when I came back,” quipped Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
The TV ratings for the Martinsville race haven’t been announced, but several drivers said there was a noticeable uptick in the excitement level at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped course with Elliott’s return.
Elliott received the loudest ovation during introductions.
And while he wasn’t much of a factor in the race, finishing in 10th place after a late-race push, it was clear he was thrilled to be back in his comfort zone after watching the last six weeks as a spectator.
“Really nice to be back and appreciate the warm welcome this weekend by everybody, so I appreciate that,” Elliott said. “It definitely didn’t go unnoticed.”
Now the big question becomes if Elliott can race his way into the playoffs — something that NASCAR frankly needs to keep drawing fans. He has plenty of chances left, including this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where he won last fall.
He was encouraged by his ability to complete the 400-lap race on a surgically-repaired left leg that now has multiple screws holding it together. He views that as a positive sign moving forward.
“Yeah, it was pretty good, honestly,” Elliott said. “It was about what I expected, so that’s a good thing. It was warm. I’ve been sitting on the couch for six weeks, so I think that probably hurt me more than anything.”
Teammate Kyle Larson, who won his first race at Martinsville on Sunday, was thrilled to have Elliott back. He believes it will help the entire Hendrick Motorsports team.
“He is very good at feeling his car, and I feel like he is pretty confident and usually the majority of the time right about the changes,” Larson said. “I think when he can explain his car and say, ‘hey, this was better for us,’ the crew chiefs on the other teams can really look at that change and look at how it might work on our cars and apply it to it. So, he is definitely an asset for sure.
“He is one of the best drivers in the sport.”
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