CONCORD, N.C. —An exciting start to NASCAR's championship series has boosted ESPN's ratings over the last month, a positive turnaround after a lengthy decline in television viewers.
The first four races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship are up 11 percent compared to the first four races of last season. The numbers don't include the Chase opener at Chicago, which was rained out and held a day later. But an 18 percent boost at Dover and a 13 percent increase at Kansas have the overall numbers up.
Julie Sobieski, vice president of programming and acquisitions, said the on-track competition will be critical in keeping the ratings up through the Nov. 20 finale.
"The story lines are what drives it, and there has been great story lines all year," she said. "There's been great momentum, great competition and these tremendous story lines."
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Tony Stewart, who had said he wasn't running well enough to contend for the championship, won the opening two Chase races while five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson struggled. Kurt Busch, his rival, then beat Johnson in a race to the finish at Dover, and Johnson got back into the title hunt with a win last weekend at Kansas.
Sobieski also said the ratings have been helped by the Chase races starting at 2 p.m., an hour later than last year. The earlier starts put the end of the races up against the end of the early NFL games, and the network believed that head-to-head competition hurt the ratings.
"The 2 o'clock starts have made a nice difference," she said. "That was a smart decision that we all discussed in the offseason and that was definitely the right way to go."
Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the fifth in the Chase, was aired on ABC. It's the only one of the 10 Chase races not broadcast on ESPN, and it gave ABC a strong opportunity to promote Sunday's airing of the IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has said repeatedly that he will resign if the finale does not draw a .8 rating. Sobieski laughed about Bernard's promise, and said she hopes there's no chance to find out if he was serious.
"You've got to love somebody who believes that passionately about what they do and is willing to put themselves out on a limb like that," she said. "But we think he's done a great job and there's a ton of story lines that give plenty of reason to watch that race."