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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Going Back to the Drawing Board

OK, let’s admit it. Something is wrong. It’s not that this year’s Cup racing has been mediocre. NASCAR fans – those that haven’t chosen to leave the sport – have come to accept mediocrity as the norm over the last few years. To be frank, this season as a whole has featured boring races, though there have been occasional great finishes like the final laps at Kansas a few weeks back.

The Chase was supposed to add some excitement to the season, particularly at the end of the year as NASCAR spars with the NFL, college football, and the World Series for the attention of sports fans. But with four races left to run, the Chase is arguably over. Jimmie Johnson is going to win it, and we’re not going to head into Homestead with three or four drivers having a good shot at the Championship. Ironically, under the old points system, the battle for top spot would actually be closer – if still somewhat lopsided. From a fairness standpoint, Kyle Busch, the driver who has won the most Cup races this season, would actually still be hanging on by his fingernails with a shot at the title after dominating much of the season.

Ultimately, the Chase was destined to fail. Fans attend a race, or watch it on TV, hoping to see a good event that day – not one piece of a 10-piece puzzle that will later determine the title. And no matter what, fans want to see a great finish. They may be tangentially aware of the championship implications of the race results afterwards (or the networks will be happy to hammer them over their heads with it to alert them), but they just want to see good racing.

In my mind, the root of the problem is the damn new Car of Horror. OK, it’s ugly, but that’s not the main point. Pretty is as pretty does. The cars were supposed to be harder to drive; but by and large, they have appeared to be impossible to drive. It’s clear to me that at this point, they’re just not working out. There’s been little side-by-side racing and numerous times where tire problems have made a mess of the entire event – most notably the debacle at the Brickyard. With their high centers of gravity, weight distribution and aerodynamics, the new cars have seemed to throw a curveball at Goodyear that they just can’t hit. And in the height of irony, the problem the “new car” was intended to solve was aerodynamic issues. Remember when the old car lost the air off its nose and began plowing to the point that passing was nearly impossible? If anything, the new car has just made the problem worse.

Despite a season of boring races, NASCAR still clings to their new mount like a stage mom trying to get her ugly teenage daughter entered in a beauty contest. Officials have refused to consider any changes to make the cars more drivable. In fact, they’ve already announced that the teams should expect no such changes next year. The smart guys and engineers have tried to convince NASCAR officials they need wider tires and wheels, and to raise the front valence up off the racetrack to make for a more drivable car. That can only lead to better racing, but NASCAR officials don’t want to hear it. “Yeah, she’s ugly, but wait until you hear her belt out ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie.” The question is, will anyone be left in the stands to listen if NASCAR officials continue to micromanage the inspection process of the car to eliminate innovation?

There’s another problem here. Given the ability to tweak on the cars a little, there’s some real smart crew chiefs and mechanics in the garage area who could make these new cars drive better. But by stifling that “shade-tree” mechanical ability, NASCAR isn’t limiting the costs of running a competitive car – they’re actually raising it. Since no significant improvements can be made, team owners in search of better performance need to find a whole lot of minor tweaks that will fly under NASCAR’s radar. Hideously expensive seven-post shaker rigs have now become a necessity for a successful team. And to interpret that data and incorporate the improvements on the cars, teams need a flock of highly compensated engineers. The multi-car team owners with the deepest pockets can afford that sort of research, but the lower-funded single-car teams cannot. Thus, our sport has been the stomping ground of four “super-teams” (Roush, Childress, Hendrick and Gibbs) while the rest of the cars are becoming little more than field fillers. The power shift also means the same drivers are winning races week in and week out; and frankly, that’s boring. The last time a driver from a team outside the top four even won a Cup race was when Kurt Busch took the 17th race of the season at Loudon.

That sort of domination leads to even more problems. Even once proud organizations like Robert Yates Racing and DEI are now in danger of falling out of the sport due to both competitive and financial concerns. You see, the rest of the teams need to find high-dollar sponsorship to compete with the Big Four, which is especially difficult in today’s economy. But with less success to show a sponsor they are worthy of backing, there’s less opportunities to get a decent funding package from corporate America. And with less sponsorship (or at times no sponsors), the lesser teams can’t succeed to draw that corporate backing. It’s a vicious, downward spiral.

Yes, to some degree the driver is still part of the equation. In days of yore, aspiring Cup drivers (think Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace here) had to spend several years toiling for one of the lesser teams when they entered the sport. If they ran better than the quality of their equipment indicated they should, those men then moved up the ladder to the bigger rides they deserved. But in the process, they gave the smaller operations a brief shot at success. As those successful drivers moved up, they also left open seats for others wanting to get in the game. Nowadays, superstars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Johnson have started their Cup careers with the Big Four, enjoying nearly instant success. Having seen their career path, is it any wonder other new drivers are courting rides with the Big Four and their development programs?

Add it all up, and the gap between the “Haves” and “Have Nots” has become such a huge chasm this season that in the next year or so, it will become a matter of the “Still Heres” and “Have Gones.” There likely won’t be enough field fillers to fill the fields, and the competition will be further diminished.

Trace the problem back to its root, and it’s still the new cars. Yet NASCAR steadfastly refuses to address the issue, even as TV ratings tumble and empty seats have become an embarrassment at most tracks. I guess the question here is by the time NASCAR finally pulls their corporate heads out of the sand and admits there’s a problem, is there going to be anyone left who gives a damn?

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