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Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR’s Changes for the Fans, or Racing in the Wrong Direction?

Earlier this year, I looked at some of the goings-on in NASCAR and put a grade on some of the changes NASCAR made, as well as some other things going on in the sport. Well, the times, they have kept right on a-changin’, as the sanctioning body strives to stop the bleeding as ratings and attendance have plummeted in recent years. There have been changes to the schedule, changes to the rules and more proposed changes to the Chase.

All of this begs the question: Are these changes really what the fans want?

Perhaps some of them are, and the ideas behind them certainly are. While NASCAR has been often maligned in recent years, often rightfully so, you have to give the sanctioning body credit for making some kind of attempt to fix what they have broken. But have they done it? Are the changes over the lat few years really in the best interest of the fans? Let’s take a closer look at what NASCAR has done and is considering.

Earlier, I gave the multiple green-white-checkered attempts a grade of D, and I haven’t changed my mind. The GWC rule was instituted in response to fan complaints of races finishing under the yellow flag, so hand it to NASCAR for rectifying it. The problem is, if cautions breed cautions, multiple restart attempts often lead to carnage. The entertainment value is questionable and the damage done to millions of dollars worth of equipment is a complete waste. The bottom line: You can have too much of a good thing.

I didn’t grade the other recent restart rule since it didn’t happen this year, but I do think that double-file restarts are good for the sport. It’s a time-tested rule on short tracks everywhere, and that’s a plus for a sport which desperately needs to get in touch with its roots. It certainly has the potential to cause trouble-but so did the old rule, and face it, it’s better to get taken out racing for position than by a car you are up on by five laps. One is racing, the other is insult to injury. This one was on the mark with what many fans were asking for, and it’s overall been good. Sure a few drivers have complained about the hard racing, but as long as it doesn’t turn dirty, isn’t that what the sport is all about?

The other product of the new restart rule is the wave-around rule. There have been a lot of complaints about how the rule plays out, but really, what else could NASCAR do? Racing back to the caution was banned several years ago after Dale Jarrett found himself a sitting duck in the middle of the racing groove before the start-finish line, and from a safety standpoint, that was the right thing to do. Drivers could still attempt to get their lap back on the restart, so there was a chance for it to happen. With that option gone, NASCAR had to give them an option, and the wave-around was the best one.

While it’s not ideal and fans certainly didn’t ask for it, it rarely has much impact on the actual outcome of a race-usually those cars are a lap down for a reason. And if they aren’t and get a good finish out of playing the pit strategy (and there certainly is a risk to it), more power to them. It’s no different than any team using pit strategy to win. That’s part of the game, and the rule is a necessary evil to go with the positive restart rule.

The most recently released change is the first major revamp of the schedule in several years. It needed to happen, and many, many fans wanted it to happen. Unfortunately, it happened all wrong. The things that fans wanted from the schedule, like a better selection of racetracks, a nod to history, and an eye on the weather didn’t happen. Atlanta for Kentucky was probably SMI’s best option, but it’s still a bit of a downgrade in the racing from NASCAR’s fastest track. While fans have been asking NASCAR to dump the second Fontana race pretty much since NASCAR gave Fontana a second race, when it happened, it was a lateral move. The racing at Kansas isn’t much more stimulating.

The Chase will start in Chicago next year, replacing Fontana’s slot, but again, it’s a nearly lateral move. Opening the Chase with a snooze-fest isn’t exactly the way to make fans sit up and take notice (but it does bring the early Chase excitement back to ISC and the France family coffers). Finally, NASCAR had the perfect opportunity to restore what was once its oldest and most prestigious race to its rightful date, and they didn’t do it. Fans have been asking for the real Southern 500 to make a return for years. Why waste the opportunity? Bottom line here, the revamped schedule is more about appeasing Bruton Smith and lining the France pockets than about the racing or the fans. Bummer.

There are also a few changes on the horizon, and while the details haven’t been released yet, it seems as though at least some of them are coming. First up are changes to the Chase format. This one is a no-brainer on listening to the fans. If NASCAR was doing that, they’d dump the Chase altogether, as simple as that.

But rather than gain a measure of respect by admitting a mistake, the sanctioning body appears to be considering digging themselves deeper into Chase Hell-talk of eliminations and even more teams invoke images of the bloated spectacle that the NBA has become in recent years, and it’s not pretty. Too many teams who don’t need to be there can only serve to muddy the sport’s integrity. And the problem with eliminations is that in NASCAR, unlike other sports, you don’t always make your own luck. To deny a driver the chance to come back from a wreck not of his making just smacks of desperation on NASCAR’s part to manipulate the outcome. Chase changes aren’t being considered for the fans, they’re being considered to cover Brian France’s arrogance and his colossal mistake in instituting the Chase in the first place. Any time you call into question the legitimacy of the sport’s championship, it’s just not a good thing.

The sanctioning body desperately needs to make some serious alterations in the Nationwide Series. There have been two big ones bounced around, and while one of them is necessary to save the series, the other is a mistake not worth repeating. Limiting Cup drivers’ participation in NNS races is absolutely needed. Cup guys have run in that series forever, but over the last decade, they’ve gotten so greedy that the series championship has become a joke to the series veterans and completely out of reach of the actual Nationwide teams. If they are forced to go back to running a few races, it’s good for the series. The young drivers gain experience racing their future competition, but the championship is left to the ones who are committed to the series, not Cup championship also-rans looking to stroke their egos.

The possibility of a Nationwide Chase, on the other hand, completely misses the boat. Fans don’t like the Chase in Sprint Cup, why should anyone think it’s any better in the Nationwide Series? On the bright side, it seems as though Cup regulars would be shut out of the playoff points, and it would give the up-and-coming racers a lesson in points racing. The problem is, points racing has hurt the Cup Series, and drivers in Nationwide need to learn how to race to win, not to stroke their way through a season.

Giving credit where it’s due, NASCAR has made some changes in the best interest of the fans. Standardized earlier start times are the best thing NASCAR has done in a long time, though it wouldn’t have been necessary if the sanctioning body hadn’t been greedy for TV money in the first place. *The ‘boys have at it’ mentality has been entertaining at times (and downright ugly at others) and goes to the heart of racing-its roots, and the days that the boys always had at it.

But overall, have the changes really been for the race fans? The answer to that is a resounding “sort of.” And sort of is not the kind of resonance a major sport and its sanctioning body should have with its core fans. Long-time fans fear that NASCAR is racing toward the point of no return… and without the right changes being made from the sport’s front office, those fans could end up being right on the money.

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