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Is NASCAR Still Relevant? Many Wondering as Brad Keselowski (Who?) Wins Cup Title

NASCAR ratings continue to slide in 2012
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

A dozen years ago or more, NASCAR Cup racing was the hot ticket in sports.While the ratings are still “healthy” (in the eyes of the sport) they are nowhere near where they used to be.

Brad Keselowski won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title last weekend besting five-time champion Jimmy Johnson. Most people outside the sport — and some inside — ask, “Who?”

Keselowski is the driver who ended up with Rusty Wallace’s old ride, the No. 2 Miller Beer car. While Wallace is known to legions of fans inside and outside the sport… Keselowski not so much.

Overall television ratings for the sport continue to slip. Fox saw declines in its coverage of the first 13 races — its portion of the season (NASCAR divides the season up amongst several networks including Fox, TBS and ESPN-ABC).

While some blame the sliding (and empty seats at races) on the economy, a very sensible column was written by Michael Bradley at the National Sports Journalism Center in June. He accurately points out that while NASCAR is better off than it was 25-30 years ago, it is starting to return to its place as a second-tier sport behind football, baseball and even basketball.

In the 1990s, due to increased television contracts, some very recognizable drivers and exciting races, the sport exploded to heights it had never seen. At one point, it was the No. 2 television and spectator sport behind football (NFL + college). But perhaps NASCAR and the television companies got greedy.

In their efforts to steal even more shares from the NFL, they created the unpopular “chase” playoff format where only 12 drivers compete for the title in the final ten races of the season. The rest of the guys are just along for the ride.

Throw in the 2001 untimely death of its greatest figure, Dale Earnhardt, plus the retirement of most of its famous names (Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace) and colorful personalities (Jimmy Spencer, Sterling Marlin) and the sport sustained some hits.

While he did win five titles in a row, Jimmy Johnson ( No. 48 Lowes) has been viewed as a vanilla-flavored, politically-correct version of his car owner Jeff Gordon. Johnson was discovered by Gordon, and is generally considered to be not that great of a driver — certainly not up to the “oh-wow” skills of a Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards.

But as one publication put it (The Virginian-Pilot), what NASCAR has been missing is some of the old-school fire, rivalries, and spunk-fighting, if you will. 

The political correctness, greediness and polish have turned off many fans. NASCAR used to allow drivers to “have at it” on and off the track. Under its former leader, the late Bill France Sr. (who founded NASCAR), the circuit always seemed to know when to let the drivers get after it, and when to police them.

Under Bill France Jr., the rivalries, fights and controversy all seem staged in an effort to copy the old school rumblings.

Whatever the reasons are, NASCAR is having to come to grips with fact that its drivers with household names (Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr.) are not winning as much or are in the decline.

Whatever your thoughts, it’s sad assessment of a sport when the champion is someone most Americans have never heard of.

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