ONE: Daytona’s Repave Is Not Warranted… and the Racing Will Suffer
For all the nostalgia drummed up with the return of the No. 3 to Daytona International Speedway on Friday night, there was just as much focus turned towards the 30-plus year old surface of the high-banked facility that has seen some of the sport’s greatest moments and darkest hours transpire upon it. Just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. adamantly stated he would never again race the No. 3, NASCAR’s national touring series will never again take to the gritty, slippery surface that has characterized Daytona as the ultimate handling track, with a repaving project to completely redo the 2.5-mile oval finished in time for the Daytona 500 next February.
The question has to be begged… why?! That surface is the exact reason why the racing at Daytona never fails to disappoint. It’s why at Daytona, even with restrictor plates, the field manages to string itself out on the long runs, that even with horsepower sapped away, comers and goers are the story of the event. It’s why there’s more to running the facility than the right motor and a brick for a right foot. It’s why tires actually mean something when it comes time to pit. It’s that weathered, crumbling asphalt that has made the World’s Center of Racing not only a famous name, but a thrilling venue for race fans and drivers alike.
However, all because of a pothole, those positives are going out the window in favor of new asphalt. No matter how the repave is handled, new asphalt means more grip and years before weathering can set in. Just take a look at Talladega to figure out what that means on a lengthy superspeedway. No need for handling, no need for tires – just big lead feet and big wrecks. I wouldn’t trade the current Daytona for that, even if that means an eight-hour Daytona 500 here and there to put epoxy in a hole.
There is no justification for it… and to prove my point, I turn your attention to the ARCA Racing Series and the Salem Speedway, a track that I paid my first visit to this April. High-banked with uneven concrete walls, the asphalt there has divots six inches wide. Turn 3 resembles marbles from top to bottom, because the asphalt is crumbling with every car that passes. The surface is among the most abrasive I’ve seen any sort of motor vehicle drive on… and the racing is fantastic. Plus, you won’t find one driver, or fan for that matter, on that circuit bitching and moaning about “the state of the surface.”
If the price of thrilling racing is enduring a pothole here and there, I’ll gladly pay it. Daytona delivered yet again this weekend, and the asphalt was largely to thank. Seeing it go is about the equivalent of taking this track off the schedule.
TWO: Hope and Change We Can Believe In… To The Chase
Perhaps the only leader more clueless in this country than our President is NASCAR’s own Brian France, who decided to grace racing media with his presence over the past weekend, tackling a wide array of long-term issues facing the sport. First up, he announced changes to the Chase were being considered, despite the fact that an alteration would mark the third adjustment to the title formula in the last six years. So much for professional legitimacy in the sporting world.
The ideas hinted at by France and floated by media have all been heard before: add a road course to the final 10 races; eliminate drivers as the Chase progresses; make a win mandatory to get in the Chase. There’s a problem with all of these… they don’t address the way that resetting the standings with 10 races to go minimizes the other 26.
Just look at this past Saturday. Kevin Harvick scored an impressive win at Daytona, his second of the season, and heads to Chicago at the season’s midpoint with a 212-point lead over second place. That’s a huge advantage, to put it lightly… and yet there’s not a single driver in the field pushing the panic switch. There’s no reason for the guys in the top five, in the thick of the title chase, to push it from now ’till Richmond, ’cause they know the points are going to be reset. For that matter, there’s not really much incentive to push it after Richmond. The way the system currently works, finishing seventh and leading a lap every week should get the job done.
Harvick’s win at Daytona was nice, but the point lead and momentum that triumph secured the No. 29 team means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of 2010. When a win at Daytona and a 200-plus point lead means nothing, something is broken – and in this case, it’s Brian France’s brainchild (oxymoronic, isn’t it?)
For me, there’s just one fix to the Chase: Make 36 races mean 36 races again.
THREE: …to the Nationwide Series
In a dramatic about-face, France also noted that NASCAR is suddenly awakening to the “concentration of power” occurring in the Nationwide Series, and that they need to act to ensure that Cup drivers are not crowding the stage for the developing talent the Series is supposed to be cultivating.
Cause for celebration that France actually sounded halfway informed about his second-tier series? Hardly. I’ll believe it when I see it.
It’s not like the “concentration of power” trend that he references is something that’s just now onset. The graveyard of team owners that have thrown their hands up in the air, from Greg Pollex to Ashton Lewis to the Biagi Brothers to James Finch this season has been growing for years. Cup drivers have made mockeries of the series’ championship for four consecutive seasons. Start-and-park has proliferated and even become full-time business since 2008. And now there’s suddenly a need to address issues?
Fact is, it may be too late for NASCAR to save the Nationwide ranks. Even if there’s to be a cap on Cup drivers, they’re still going to be there… meaning the same temptation for the few sponsors still in the Nationwide Series to go with a sure thing instead of the next big thing will still be there. The Cup teams are going to be counted on to flood their teams with ten times the money of the independents, because there’s now a new car that needs developing. And with the few new independent teams out there reduced to buying used stuff, they still won’t be able to compete.
As for new ownership, why would anyone want to come in and spend $10 million to build their own NNS CoTs when the Cup ranks are right across the garage? With all of the teams and owners that NASCAR have left behind to starve in the remains of what was once the sport’s flavorful AAA ranks, there is no escaping the fact that the same Cup teams that destroyed it are now the only way to build it up. As the current Nationwide Series business model is showing, no one really cares to watch that.
FOUR: …to the Schedule
While the 2011 Cup schedule was not addressed by Brian France directly, speculation is running rampant that the upcoming season’s slate will be altered significantly: SMI is likely to shift race dates from New Hampshire and Atlanta to make room for Kentucky and a second date at Las Vegas, while Sports Illustrated is reporting that ISC is preparing to honor Kansas Speedway’s request for a second date at the expense of the Auto Club Speedway’s February race.
Two of three of these changes are no-brainers. ACS’s attendance is woeful, and the racing on-track is nothing that requires two dates. Swapping a date between ACS and Kansas is trading an intermediate for an intermediate, who cares? As for the SMI swaps, Kentucky for Atlanta comes down to attendance. Despite some great competition, Atlanta’s March race has struggled in recent seasons to even outdraw Kentucky’s Nationwide Series events.
For New Hampshire to lose a date to Las Vegas, though, something’s not right here. Yes, Las Vegas has more grandstand capacity and a beautiful facility. But in terms of percentage filled, NHMS is right up there with Vegas… and thanks to SMI, the facility at Loudon is the beneficiary of a number of recent upgrades. It’s no slouch of a race track, and attendance wise one of the strongest seen in 2010.
Unfortunately, thanks to the incestuous duo between NASCAR and ISC, tracks that can and will produce big crowds and big money are having to be swapped amongst themselves in the SMI camp… because of that damned unwritten rule that SMI tracks can swap only with SMI.
That ISC tracks, most notably the second date at Phoenix that the track probably never should have gotten in the first place, are all but off limits for date swaps because it would hurt the France clan’s bottom line is harming everyone else in the racing business. Times are tough right now, and where the crowds and money are is where the show needs to be going. Las Vegas has time and time again posted sellouts for Cup races and six-figure crowds for Nationwide Series shows. Dollars and cents, there’s no argument they should get a second crack at the apple over other venues on the circuit.
And that doesn’t just apply to ISC venues, granted. Dover certainly shouldn’t be left out of this conversation either, or even Pocono. But having a logical discussion about schedules can and will not happen as long as the sanctioning body is spooning with half the track ownership on the schedule.
FIVE: The Nationwide Series C0T Fails to Impress
To quote my Nationwide Series Breakdown from Monday, the new Dodge Challenger looked absolutely badass on the high banks of Daytona Friday night. But that was it. Toyota’s Camry looked much like a generic car with a sticker on the front. Chevrolet’s CoT had one of the guys watching with me asking, “What kind of Chevrolet is it? Impala, Monte Carlo, Aveo? And where’s the Camaro?” As for Ford’s much-hyped Mustang… it sure didn’t look like one. The front-end design and lettering proved all but indistinguishable under race conditions.
It’s as if NASCAR didn’t realize that a ¾-kit car as opposed to the Cup Series’ kit car is still not a stock car. Shocking, isn’t it?