With appreciable enthusiasm, NBC Sports reported Tuesday that 2.919 million watched Kevin Harvick win the NASCAR Cup race at Michigan on Sunday, a notable and impressive 14% increase over the 2.566 million that watched same race in 2018 -- and the biggest audience for a Cup race on cable in nearly two years.
Besides that, the race from Michigan was also the most-watched sporting event of the week, and NBCSN was the most-watched network on television during the race.
Now it should be noted that the August race in 2018 at Michigan went heads up against the PGA Championship on CBS, and the 2019 PGA Championship was held back in May, but 14% is still 14%. It is not a big drop, or a little drop, or about the same. It is a nice, fat pickup. An NBC official could not immediately recall the last time a race telecast gained 14% over one year.
NBC has televised seven Cup races in 2019, but the race from Michigan was only the third in which viewership results could be matched apples-to-apples -- on the same channel and without weather disruptions.
The Saturday night race from Kentucky on July 13 drew 2.075 million on NBCSN, down 8% from the 2.264 million that watched in 2018. But the race at Pocono two weeks later on NBCSN drew 2.705 million, down less than 2% from the 2.749 million that watched in 2018. (The viewership for that Pocono race dropped 25% between 2017 and 2018.)
So NBC, and NASCAR by extension, would appear to be gaining ground during the dog-days part of the too-dadgum-long season that is the hardest to sell. The number NBCSN will try to top this week for the popular night race at Bristol is 2.326 million viewers, the 2018 total.
The last NASCAR Cup race from Bristol on April 7 was a stunning visual disaster, with only 35,000 to 40,000 people coming to watch a Sunday afternoon event in which both ends of the 160,000-seat speed bowl were closed to spectators.
The night race at Bristol used to be a spectacle -- selling out for years, with a lengthy waiting list for tickets. Bristol has been a showcase for crowd-pleasing, short-track stock-car racing, with cars often thumping into each other to gain one position on the floodlit track.
Only nine drivers have effectively earned spots in the 16-driver, 10-week playoffs, so this race, added to the fact that cars are more tightly packed and harder to pass, could be especially testy, which is the best thing about stock-car racing by far. The more bile, the merrier.
“If these guys are beating and banging at all of these other tracks, what is it going to be like at Bristol?” NBC analyst Steve Letarte asked on the air during the Michigan race.
“I think we’re going to be doing some screaming,” replied Dale Earnhardt Jr., the driver turned NBC analyst.
The Cup drivers are to take next weekend off before racing on Labor Day Weekend at Darlington, S.C., another track with a great reputation that stretches back seven decades, before ending the “regular season” with the race at Indianapolis that used to just be known as the Brickyard 400 and was a far bigger deal.
It is possible that about 10 drivers -- including Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time series champ -- could be racing for as many as six playoff spots at Indianapolis, which should make for a more exciting race on a flat track that is not really conducive to stock-car racing.
So NBC could have some decent story lines to sell in the next month, before the playoffs start. In 2020, the night race at Bristol will be run as a playoff race on Sept. 19, so this could also be the last race at Bristol to be run in the dog days of the season. It has been reported that ticket sales have increased slightly as a result.
But NASCAR is entering this race after a rare and appreciable viewership bump, and college football does not start for another week. It is too early to declare that NASCAR has finally hit bottom, and NASCAR won’t ever be what it was. And not slamming up against pro golf helped. But a 14% bump is still a 14% bump.