Before Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s NASCAR race in Texas that ended with a wild post-race fight on pit road, the six-time champion was asked what most fans want to see in a NASCAR race.
“They want to see arguments,” Johnson replied. “They want to see pushing and shoving after the race, bump and runs. The physical side, the raw emotion is what the majority are after.”
They were handed just that on a silver platter in Texas.
Jeff Gordon, angry at how Brad Keselowski made a daring move for the win that knocked Keselowski’s car into Gordon’s, causing Gordon’s car to cut a tire and spin, went after Keselowski after they climbed from their cars.
At first it seemed both drivers’ crews might keep them apart. But after Kevin Harvick joined in by shoving Keselowski, the melee was on, leaving Gordon and Keselowski with cut lips and scratches.
Afterward, everyone talked about how the brawl illustrated the ramped-up intensity of the new format for the 10-race Chase title playoff, which has elimination rounds until only four of the original 16 Chase drivers are left to battle it out in the season’s last race.
But the question is, how many fans are watching?
Despite the new Chase format and the heated emotions -- there was another post-race altercation between Keselowski and Matt Kenseth three weeks ago at Charlotte -- the television ratings for each of the last six Chase races have dropped roughly 6% on average from a year ago.
ESPN, which is carrying the Chase races, typically releases the Nielsen ratings for each race the following Tuesday. So we’ll likely see Tuesday whether the Texas race snapped the downward pattern.
NASCAR remains one of the most popular sports on TV, averaging 4 million or more viewers for the Chase races. NASCAR, ESPN and others also argue that the TV ratings don’t entirely reflect fan interest in the new Chase format or the sport overall.
Among other things, they note that many fans now track races in other ways, notably on NASCAR’s own digital-media platforms.
But if Johnson is right, and it’s the drivers’ raw emotions and feuding that appeal to many NASCAR fans, how well is that experience realized on a smartphone?
There are two races left in the Chase: This weekend in Phoenix, where the field of the eight remaining Chase eligible drivers will be cut to four, and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 16.
Who knows how much the bad blood at Texas will carry over to the Arizona desert. And there’s a bit of a dilemma for NASCAR. It’s likely to issue penalties related to the Texas brawl, but it doesn’t want to compromise the “boys, have at it” precept it adopted a few years ago to give drivers more leeway to blow off steam.
Some are likely to agree with veteran motorsports writer Bob Margolis, now with Bleacher Report, who wrote after the Texas race that “the outpouring of passion by the drivers involved with the 2014 Chase is just plain remarkable and should in no way be abated or restricted.”
What remains to be seen is how much of the country is paying attention, on TV at least.
Follow @PeltzLATimes for more motor racing news