HAMPTON, Ga. — The drivers keep saying how much the racing has improved in the first month of the NASCAR season, yet all sorts of evidence defies their optimism.
Television ratings? Down. Empty seats? Plenty. Potholes and errant caution lights? Those, too.
And look who has won two of the first three races: Jimmie Johnson, the guy who has won an unprecedented four straight Sprint Cup championships.
Johnson’s fast start heading into Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway has further dampened enthusiasm for a sport that once appeared on the verge of carving out its place among the Big Three of American sports: NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has noticed the warning signs.
"Yeah, you recognize it," he said Friday before time trials for the Kobalt Tools 500. "When you go through driver introductions and wave to all those people, it’s hard not to recognize where we’re at."
While the struggling economy has certainly affected all sports at the ticket office, NASCAR’s once-booming TV ratings might be the most troubling trend.
The rating for the season-opening Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest event, dipped more than 16 percent from 2009, hurt by two hours of delays caused by a pothole problem. California’s TV numbers were similarly off (and actual attendance was worse). The rating for last week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the caution lights came on twice for no reason, suffered a 37 percent plunge.
Of course, it must be recognized that all three races went up against the Winter Olympics, with Las Vegas facing the stiffest competition from a stirring U.S-Canada gold-medal hockey game on the final day of the Vancouver Games. But some major sports have actually seen an increase in ratings, including a record audience for this year’s Super Bowl.
"There’s a lot more to watch on television," Gordon said. "But then you look at the NFL, they have the best ratings they’ve ever had. Obviously, there’s something we can do. We’ve got to try to tap into that."
Maybe it would help if someone could beat Johnson.
His two victories this season leave him one from the 50th of his career, and he is doing his best to snuff out any hope for the rest of the garage before the weather heats up.
"We got into this position by not letting up," said Johnson, poised to reach the 50-win landmark win faster than all but three drivers — Gordon, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip. "We’re keeping our heads down. We don’t pay attention to the outside stuff."
But his rivals are sure taking note, and they’re not happy that one driver seems to have such an edge on everyone else.
"When someone wins that much, it (ticks) everybody else off," Gordon said. "We all have to work harder. We all have to get fired up to go out there and try to knock that guy off. You can’t blame (Johnson’s team) for wanting to dominate and keep doing the things they’re doing."
Gordon said the sport needs some riveting rivalries, but it’s hard for anyone to get too mad at Johnson. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy who goes about his business in a workmanlike fashion, failing to stir either over-the-top support or raging animosity.
"I just think it depends on the rivalries and the stories," Gordon said. "If you’re dominating, but you’re battling a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or a Tony Stewart, maybe a Kevin Harvick, you can build that rivalry. The good guy-bad guy kind of thing, the Ford-Chevy thing, all that stuff.
"I think the stories are still there, the interest is still there. But when you’re out there dominating and no one is really you’re enemy, then it pulls away from it a little bit. What we need is Kyle Busch and Stewart to be butting heads, banging one another and talking trash. That would be good television."EARNHARDT JR. SETS FAST PACE, WINS ATLANTA POLE
HAMPTON, Ga. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured the pole for the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a blistering speed of 192.761 mph.
Earnhardt’s lap Friday was faster than any other pole-winning speed for a Sprint Cup race in 2009. Mark Martin was the pole sitter last year in the spring race with a speed of 187.045.
Martin went much faster this time (191.814), but it was only good enough for fourth. Kyle Busch will start from the outside of the front row, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya. Jeff Gordon was fifth, giving Hendrick Motorsports three of the top five spots.
The fourth Hendrick driver, Jimmie Johnson, managed only the 16th-best speed on the 1.54-mile tri-oval.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS