Indianapolis conflict highlights NASCAR's fall issue with the NFL

A general view of the speedway during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The NASCAR Cup Series visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a 2 p.m. ET race on Sunday that likely will take place in temperatures 10 to 15 degrees cooler than a typical July race.

In that respect, it's mission accomplished when it comes to moving the Indy date.

But the race also will run at the same time as the 1 p.m. ET home opener of the Indianapolis Colts, which takes place 5 miles down the road.

Mission not so accomplished.

Not only will NASCAR visit a market and go head-to-head with the NFL, but it has scheduled a race opposite NFL's opening Sunday for the first time since 2000. For nearly 20 years, NASCAR has avoided a conflict with the NFL opening Sunday by staging a race at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night.

"It's going to be a tough road, we know that, when football season starts," said NASCAR veteran Denny Hamlin. "It's a frenzy, right? People have not had football for seven, eight months, so they're anxious for it.

"Racing, when the season's over, you're going to have it again in two months, three months. You don't build a frenzy up [like] what football does. It's a big sport, but NASCAR has been big for many, many years and it can hold its own and it has for many years."

NASCAR is in a bit of a quandary when it comes to going up against the NFL.

A NASCAR race that goes up against the NFL might not have the greatest rating, but a rating from 1.3 to 1.7, as it often did last year in head-to-head situations during the NASCAR playoffs, is better than nearly all other non-NFL programming.

So a non-NFL television network is willing to pay more for NASCAR to fill that time slot because the rating is so much better than the alternative. In general, Sunday afternoons are better than Saturday nights when it comes to television audiences.

NASCAR has historically raced on Sunday afternoons and loves the dollars it can get in that time slot, so it fits. But with NASCAR team sponsorships relying on eyeballs, those numbers can impact the overall revenue of a team.

"I don't think we lose our die-hards," Cup veteran Brad Keselowski said. "I think we lose some of our casuals."

While drivers understand the philosophy, they also feel NASCAR could draw more attention during the summer. They think of the sprint-car races ESPN used to televise 30 years ago and wonder if a "Thursday Night Thunder" type of series would work for them.

"Midweek summer when you're essentially going up against baseball only is a prime time for us to be killing it in the ratings," Hamlin said. "[That] is when we should be killing it."

Keselowski suggested NASCAR go to more markets and race more often -- and end earlier instead of going into mid-November.

"We need to race more and we need to race in a smaller window of time," Keselowski said. "We should be racing, in my opinion, twice a week and we should be ending in October. ... Fifty [races] would be a good number."

"If guys have time to run sprint-car races, that should tell you something. We're capable of doing more."

Considering he often is working midweek, Keselowski would rather that work be racing.

"I'm doing a sponsor appearance in West Virginia on a Wednesday when we could be racing to a sold-out crowd of 20,000 or 30,000 people and we could be pulling a 2 or 3 rating pretty easily on a summer night," he said.

"That's pretty strong. But instead we're sitting on our thumbs and it seems like a tremendous waste of an opportunity."

Some probably will view the speedway's move to September as a wasted opportunity due to the conflict with the Colts. Racetracks often ask their NFL counterparts in their respective markets to see if they can avoid having a home game going up against race day.

The issue for the Colts was that Taylor Swift already had booked their home stadium for a concert Sept. 15, meaning the Colts couldn't play a home game Sept. 16. So the Colts didn't want to request two away games to open the season.

The Brickyard 400 has struggled to attract fans in recent years, and the track is hoping the change in the date will help. IMS has built a dirt track in Turn 3 for a big USAC Midget race that took place Thursday night and hopes that its sponsorship from Big Machine Records and a Florida Georgia Line concert the night before the race will translate into a successful weekend.

"We're confident in our ongoing efforts to refresh the event and engage with our fan base," IMS president Doug Boles said when the schedule was released. "We knew this would happen one year or another when we made the switch and it doesn't alter our approach or positive attitude.

"The cooler weather, a regular-season championship to wrap up and our partnership with a major record label are some of several reasons to feel optimistic about the race."

NASCAR actually doesn't have it too bad this year when it comes to going against the NFL head-to-head.

There are races in the playoffs that have some degree of conflict. Kansas City is home the day of the Kansas race (Oct. 21) and that is the only true head-to-head conflict. There are a few semi-conflicts: Philadelphia is home the same day as the Dover race, which is 80 miles away. Atlanta is home the day of the Talladega race (102 miles), and Carolina is home the day of the Martinsville race (125 miles).

Conflicts completely avoided: Charlotte (Carolina off week), Texas (Dallas home Monday night), Phoenix (Arizona away) and Homestead (Miami off week).

"NASCAR's core base of fans always shows up for our races and is there," Austin Dillon said. "The NFL has a great fan base also, but I enjoy our fan base because they are so loyal. They never waver.

"I'm a huge NFL fan and when I'm not racing, I'll be at an NFL game. But ... the fans that are here are our fans and that's why our sport has been here for so long is the loyalty our fans have shown our sport."