The Coke Zero Sugar 400 marks the midpoint of the 36-race 2019 NASCAR season. A new rules package has produced plenty of dramatic racing and an uptick in TV ratings. The sport expected Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway to be no different.
Heading into the final 400-mile race at Daytona on Fourth of July weekend before next seasonâs schedule shake-up, here are four takeaways from the NASCAR seasonâs first half.
â More eyes on NASCAR: Lagging TV ratings have been one of the key indicators of the sportâs recent decline in popularity. Even a modest uptick, then, is cause for celebration.
With Fox televising the seasonâs opening 17 races, ratings were up 3% from 2018, with an average of 4.07 million viewers. This is an increase from 3.98 million viewers for the same races in 2018, but still down 17% from the sportâs rating in 2017 â Dale Earnhardt Jr.âs final season. Earnhardt now will look to lift NASCARâs TV ratings during the seasonâs second half from the TV booth.
NBC Sports has taken over the coverage from Fox, with Earnhardt taking center stage as a color analyst. Earnhardtâs 2018 debut was a success by any measure due to his quick wit, authentic personality and incredible popularity. Junior kicking off his second season in the booth on a holiday weekend at Daytona International Speedway could be the recipe for another ratings boost.
Either way, reversing the ratings plunge has ignited optimism.
âI donât think the ratings are a storyline anymore,â driver Aric Almirola said. âWeâre trending upwards. Itâs nice to see more eyeballs are on the sport.â
â New rules rule: Drivers understandably were taking a wait-and-see attitude this season with the Cup Seriesâ new rules package. The results now speak for themselves. The first 16 races of the season produced the highest amount of green flag passes for the lead (568) during the past five seasons while the average number of lead changes per race (18.69) is the most in four years.
Last Sundayâs race in Chicago set a track record with 34 lead changes on the 1.5-mile oval.
âI think itâs been really good, especially the mile-and-a-halfs,â driver Austin Dillon said. âThe mile-and-a-half is what this package was supposed to help. This past weekend was a crazy one. It was pretty wild.â
The package was designed to create more side-by-side action and opportunity for passing while lessening single-file racing that leads to limited action. Horsepower was decreased from 750 to 550 at tracks larger than 1.2 miles. A bigger rear spoiler and more pronounced front splitter increased downforce and drag.
Most race teams have adjusted to the changes, said Dillon, who won the pole last week.
âWeâve come a long way from the beginning of the year,â he said.
â Showman takes center stage: Alex Bowmanâs breakthrough win this past Sunday in Chicago validated the high expectations for the 26-year-old and secured his place among the sportâs rising stars.
A year after he posted 11 top-10s, Bowman had been inching closer to victory lane during his second full season behind the wheel of the No. 88 car made famous by Earnhardt Jr. Bowmanâs three straight runner-up finishes earlier this season showed his ability to contend on super-speedways (Talladega), 1.5-mile layouts (Kansas) and shorter tracks (Dover).
Back-to-back wins would not be out of the question for Bowman, who has proven to be comfortable at Daytona International Speedway. He was the pole-sitter at the 500-mile race in 2018 and was outside in the front row in July and again in February.
Whatever happens this week for Bowman, the Chicago win effectively locked up his spot in the Cup playoffs and proved he belonged in the conversation with fellow rising stars Kyle Larson, defending Coke Zero Sugar 400 winner Erik Jones and Hendricks Motorsports teammates William Byron and Chase Elliott.
Cream rises to top: The list of winners this season have been a whoâs-who of NASCAR. Former season champions have won 13 of 17 races â Kyle Busch (four), Martin Truex Jr. (four), Brad Keselowski (three) and Joey Logano (two).
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin also has two wins while Bowman and Elliott each has one. Busch, Truex and Hamlin are teammates with Joe Gibbs Racing and are showcasing the continued strength of Toyotas. Bowman and Elliottâs wins bode well for the future of Hendricks Motorsports and its once-struggling Chevrolets.
Meanwhile, a year after piling up a dozen wins, Stewart-Haas racing has been shut out in 2019.
Kevin Harvick, the 2014 season champion, is winless following an eight-victory season. Another shock is the continued struggles of seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. The 43-year-old has not won since 2017 at Dover â a career-long drought of 76 races. Johnson, though, does have two top-five finishes, including in Chicago, and earlier this season in Texas won his first pole since 2016.