The Daytona 500 takes place today and the racing world is in a frenzy with Danica Patrick starting The Great American Race from pole position. Patrick is of course the first female driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup pole, continuing a career of trailblazing and breaking down barriers that began in IndyCar. With Patrick making the move from IndyCar racing to NASCAR, her story (and celebrity) is being brought to a wider fanbase. Dare I say it (and with apologies to Tim Tebow), today's Daytona 500 represents new heights for DanicaMania, even compared to when she was leading the Indy 500 once upon a time.
Patrick has been everywhere this week from SportsCenter to the Today Show and countless stops in between. She was certainly a star in the IndyCar world and has been a crossover celebrity (think Maxim, GoDaddy and more) for some time, but being in NASCAR has only increased her profile. Let's face the facts, Danica Patrick was perhaps the last attention grabbing element open wheel racing had left... if you don't count Helio Castroneves' Dancing With the Stars appearances that is. NASCAR has long since lapped open wheel racing several times over in the battle for American racing supremacy and Danica needed to make the switch to continue to grow her own brand and compete in the nation's number one racing series.
Today's Daytona 500 doesn't just represent an opportunity for Danica Patrick though, it also represents a huge opportunity for NASCAR. Patrick's success on the track at Daytona is happening at just the right time for a sport that badly needs to be reinvigorated and reach a new audience once again.
NASCAR has suffered from flagging ratings for the last several years after an enormous rise in popularity at the turn of the millenium. Last season NASCAR posted its worst viewership numbers since the sport signed its current television deals with Fox, ESPN, and Turner in 2007. Only once since 2005 has the sport drawn a year to year viewership increase. Once. NASCAR has lost more than a quarter of its audience since 2006. It was that year the Daytona 500 drew its highest rating ever - an 11.3 rating for Jimmie Johnson's victory. The last three years, Daytona 500 overnights have averaged a 7.6, more than a 30% decrease.
Can Patrick draw a ratings increase? It's impossible to quantify what effect she alone can bring to NASCAR's ratings. The conversation around today's race though hasn't been higher for a decade, though. Of course, with Patrick comes a double edged sword. She receives so much media attention and hype it often turns off more hardcore racing fans while networks seek to draw in casual ones. "Danica fatigue" has even been discussed in the latter portions of this week as the race approaches today. Sure there are even those that consider Patrick the "Anna Kournikova of racing" but that's not fair to either athlete. Kournikova had a moderate amount of success on the tennis court and Patrick already has one IndyCar victory to her name and a promising NASCAR career ahead of her.
Despite grumbles from dedicated race fans upset with Patrick overshadowing the sport and the other 42 drivers, NASCAR badly needs a jump start in the ratings. But it will only happen if Patrick can contend on the racetrack. That crossover audience isn't going to tune in to watch Danica go through the motions several laps down. She needs to be at the front of the field.
For too long, the sport has been dormant. Whether that be the tinkering with the rules, Jimmie Johnson's run of dominance, or a lack of drivers that can connect with fans, or even race start times the reasons are many for NASCAR's decline on television. Last year's champ Brad Keselowski is great for the sport, but he can't do what Danica Patrick does in breaking through with fans. Nobody in the racing world can. Danica Patrick can provide the boost NASCAR needs to turn around their flagging viewership and decreasing ratings. If she contends throughout the race today and is a threat to win, you will see a significant increase in viewership versus the last several Daytona races. If she remains a contender, or at the very least a story throughout the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, she still has the capability to bring new fans to the sport at a time when NASCAR needs them most.
The key for Fox today will be balancing their coverage of the Daytona 500 to draw in those casual fans watching for Patrick while also not alienating the faithful NASCAR following. If Fox and NASCAR's other television partners can find that right tone throughout the season and appeal to new fans through Patrick while serving NASCAR's core audience, the sport may finally be able to turn back in the right direction in ratings once again.