After a decade-long drop in attendance and television ratings, Sunday’s race at Michigan drew a 1.81 television rating, the highest-rated cable Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race since 2017. It was also the highest-rated sports event of the weekend.
Both numbers are expected to increase Saturday with the running of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Petty, whose 829 Cup Series starts rank sixth on the all-time list, sees people more excited about the sport than in a while.
“I think there’s more excitement because of what we’re seeing on the racetrack,” Petty said Tuesday during an appearance at the Johnson City Farmers Market for the BMS race week party. “Michigan was a good race and there were times when the first four cars were within a second and a half of each other. We’ve seen times in Michigan when the first four cars weren’t within 15 seconds of each other.
“The (NASCAR rules) package has closed things up and the engine package has changed things. It’s the second go-round at a lot of these racetracks and the teams are getting better.”
The racing is certainly more competitive and now the series shifts to one of its marquee events: Bristol’s night race.
After drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske won the season’s first nine races and 15 of the first 16, they’ve won just one of the last seven. Beyond the wins, Petty looks at the guys battling to make the playoffs as another reason Saturday’s race could produce fireworks.
“Jimmie Johnson is having a crummy year and then you have Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and all those guys on the bubble,” said Petty, now an NBC Sports analyst. “Then you’ve got the ‘King of Bristol’ Kyle Busch coming in here leading the regular season, but right there with him is Joey Logano. There is so much on the line — the championship, the playoffs and legitimate guys like (Ricky) Stenhouse and (Daniel) Suarez who can come here and win the race. It creates tension in the garage area and excitement for fans.”
The past five races produced close finishes. It started with Kurt Busch outdueling his brother Kyle to win at Kentucky and included Kevin Harvick holding off Denny Hamlin for wins at New Hampshire and Michigan.
“It’s great racing on the racetrack and if you don’t believe that, look at the arguments that go on after the race,” Petty said. “You can judge really good racing by how upset the drivers are with each other when the race is over. That means you had to run hard all night. We’ve seen guys like Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez, who always seem calm, cool and collected, get upset.”
Petty is a veteran of 50 BMS starts whose best finish was a third in the 1993 Food City 500. He misses driving — but not all the aspects that come with being a driver.
“I do miss sitting in a race car and driving,” Petty said. “I don’t miss having to find a sponsor, having to make 1,000 appearances and all those things. But I physically miss sitting in a race car and I think I will always miss that.”