We’re just over a third of the way through NASCAR’s so-called “regular season.” If you look around the landscape, it hasn’t been very pretty lately; ratings are down and complaints are up. It’s been said a hundred different ways. Depending on who you ask, there are probably a hundred reasons for the discontent: lack of close racing, NASCAR’s rules, the car and tire packages. But what about some of the more subtle changes that have crept into the sport and caused some of the things that leave fans wondering where the NASCAR they used to love has gone over the last few years?
In the end, no problem has one cause or one quick fix. But here’s my take on what’s behind the summer of NASCAR fans’ discontent:
*In creating the Chase, NASCAR has made the first 26 races virtually obsolete.* It’s been well documented that a lot of people don’t like the Chase. In fact, over three-quarters of fans said that they didn’t like the Chase system on a NASCAR.com poll last year. And there are a lot of things wrong with it. First of all, the Chase was created because NASCAR and new corporate sponsor Nextel (now Sprint) wanted to be more like other major sports, all of which have some kind of playoff system. What they overlooked was that the longtime NASCAR fans loved the sport _because_ it was different. Perhaps the bandwagon fans who poured in were used to such a system, but it doesn’t work well in NASCAR. Fans were used to a champion who accumulated the most points over a nine-month season, and having one that could work a ten-race system hasn’t set well with many people. That was always the big complaint from fans-the championship wasn’t “real” anymore.
And while that may be true, there’s a bigger reason why the system is flawed: the first 26 races barely count. Sure, who gets into the Chase gets determined then, but teams have figured out two things: like the old title system, consistency trumps all, and if you’re among the teams that are virtually a lock for the Chase, you can use an awful lot of those first 26 races to test cars and gather information for the ten-race title run later on. You can’t blame the teams for working the system. After all, there’s a lot of money at stake as well as sponsorship concerns. But you can blame the system. A big reason why we’re not seeing a lot of side-by-side racing at places like Kansas and Texas is a lot of teams A)simply need to maintain their points position for a few months and B) figure it’s a good time to try an experimental setup, which makes simply logging laps important. It’s not that the drivers don’t want to win; believe me, a driver _always_ wants to win, but teams in general are looking at the bigger picture.
The bottom line is, points don’t count the same now as they do later. A single point would have given Carl Edwards the 2011 title, but _only if it had come during the Chase._ Because points are reset before the final ten races, only wins and points position count, the actual point total doesn’t play a role. That means that while Edwards needed to take just a few more chances during the Chase, he had no reason to take them during the regular season. And neither did anyone else, save perhaps the drivers looking for the last guaranteed points position or a wild card spot. And that means not pushing the issue for anything but a race win. Under the old system, a fifth place instead of sixth at a race in May had the potential to make the difference in a championship. Now, it has little, if any impact at all. So what race fans are left with is a lot of guys logging laps if they can’t win.
My solution? It’s twofold. First, NASCAR needs to go back to season-long championship; as long as there’s a playoff system, people who remember the old way will never have respect for the system or any champion crowned under it anyway, and those people who do remember are the fans that are left as the bandwagoneers drift on to the next trend.
Second, the point fund money that’s now divided between the top 25 finishing teams at the end of the year should be divided 36 ways and added to the winner’s purse of every race, and only the winner’s purse. The champion should receive that pretty checkered flag trophy and a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate. The other teams should get the same-their finishing trophy and the trip paid for. The championship should be a celebration of the best team from the season, but the focus, and the money should be on winning races. I don’t like the idea of the guy who wins the most races being crowned, because it puts too big a target on people’s backs and too much chance of a regrettable incident. Consistency should be rewarded, and giving more points and more money for wins will make everyone hungry for them. And _that_ would improve the races all year long.
*Villains aren’t the same as they used to be.* It’s been said that since the death of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR hasn’t had a real villain. To a large extent that’s true, and it is kind of a bummer. There are guys that are vilified for driving too rough as Earnhardt was. Others seem to get jeered for “winning too much.” But there has been none like Earnhardt, not really.
Dale Earnhardt, as much as he was _the_ bad guy in NASCAR for many years, also had the reputation of being kind of an everyman. No matter how rich and famous Earnhardt got, he didn’t change much in the eyes of the fans. He was the blue-collar hero, living proof that the American Dream was alive and well, living in Mooresville. For every wrecked racecar in his wake, there was a story of the man behind the mustache: the man who sat up with his daughter’s friend all night long because she was homesick on a sleepover or the man who took in a horse because its owners were neglecting it. In some way, just about everyone could relate to Earnhardt. Some people loved him and others loved to loathe him.
Today’s drivers pale in comparison. The ones who would take Earnhardt’s spot as villain don’t have the persona behind them to make people love them the way they did Earnhardt. They often come across as petulant or entitled. There’s more a sense of buying their way through the ranks than earning it (even when that’s not the case). They lack the personality and the blue-collar sensibility. If they run roughshod over the field, there are no stories to humanize them after. If they win too much, they somehow didn’t have to work as hard for it.
So, while NASCAR does have plenty of villains for a variety of reasons, at least if you listen to the crowd reaction during driver introductions, there isn’t one that delivers the whole package that Earnhardt did. The Busch brothers can move cars and make things exciting, but come across as more prep school than old school. Jimmie Johnson can win races at an alarming rate, but he’s seen as too corporate. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has that off-track, behind-the-scenes quality that his father had, but he’s not the same type of driver, choosing not to be the on-track terror his father could be.
Call it a sign of the times or something else, today’s heroes are different from those of the past, the blue collar men who so many Americans could identify with on a level that they simply can’t with most of today’s breed of driver. They have to cater to corporate sponsors as well as to the fans, and that has made them seem distant to the average fan.
*The lack of identity in the Nationwide Series* Not that most of the new generations of fans would notice, but the Nationwide Series (and to some degree, the Truck Series) is no longer what it was meant to be. The series originated as a series in which drivers could make the leap from regional or local late model and modified series into NASCAR, and learn by running short tracks with a few larger ones. Sure, there were a few guys that made their careers there, and that gave them a built-in challenge for the young guns trying to make it to the Cup Series. The Nationwide Series in particular was primarily an East Coast Series because it was less expensive for the teams.
It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the NNS teams crossed the Mississippi to race. Tracks like Myrtle Beach and South Boston were staples, and companion races weren’t the lion’s share of the schedule that they are now. A few Cup guys would show up a few times a year, but they weren’t a lock to win most of the time. Even when Mark Martin was terrorizing the series in the 1990’s, he didn’t run close to a full schedule, and it would never have occurred to the Cup guys to run for that series title because the schedule was too tricky. The series gave drivers the venues and the time to really learn how to race in traffic, how hard you could lean on a car and how to give and take. Some of the drivers coming into Cup these days lack those skills because there is no incentive for them to develop properly.
Then a few sponsors realized they could get on a big Cup star’s car for cheaper than the Cup Series and things began to change. NASCAR and sponsors figured they knew best what the fans wanted, and there began to be more and more companion races on intermediate tracks and fewer and fewer short track races. The cost of sponsorship, once a comfortable investment for a smaller company, shot sky high to the point where most of the series best teams are long gone, folded because sponsors couldn’t afford to pay what the teams had to ask for in order to keep up with the Joneses. True Nationwide teams with the singular goal of running in that series are few and far between today, and it’s hard to believe they once dominated the landscape.
What this has done is given the Cup fans a glut of races to choose from in a given weekend, and many choose to wait until Sunday to fill the stands, choosing to travel into town later or simply spend Friday and/or Saturday doing something else. When the Nationwide Series visited tracks where it was the only game in town, it attracted fans who knew and followed its drivers. These days, the fans who do go can simply cheer for the Cup driver they like best in the field and often don’t bother to know the drivers who run NNS exclusively. They don’t know the drivers who built that series the way they know the pioneers of Cup, and overall that hurts both the Nationwide Series and the future of Cup.
The problem that bleeds over into the Cup is that there is a dearth of properly prepared drivers to move into the series, a lack of respect and experience for the ones who do, and finally a lack of sponsors willing to take a leap of faith on a driver who is a virtual unknown compared to the established Cup field. If these drivers don’t have the chance to become popular stars in their own right, it’s harder to convince someone to shell out the $15 million or so to put them in a competitive Cup seat. Sponsors choose the proven commodity, and Nationwide drivers are generally not that.
*Sponsors don’t want the best drivers any more* It used to be that the best way to attract a top sponsor was to win, or at least run at the front of the pack. But it’s not that simple any more.
Now there are other factors becoming more and more important, often to the point of overshadowing the driver’s performance. Appealing to the right demographic often trumps visiting the winner’s circle. Consider Matt Kenseth, a former Cup champion and perpetual contender, who has several races lined up for which he won’t have sponsorship. He’s a threat to win virtually every week; on the racetrack he and teammate Carl Edwards have virtually identical numbers in the races they’ve both run; in fact they’re dead even in terms of beating each other, with 137 top finishes apiece. Edwards just edges Kenseth’s stats in the races they’ve both run; Kenseth has the edge overall and has a championship. Yet Edwards has more sponsors than he knows what to do with while the driver with the champion’s patch on his uniform struggles. And when it is no longer about on-track talent, the whole sport suffers.
There are some talented drivers without the money to be competitive and you had better believe that affects the overall quality of racing in all three national touring series. If the best drivers can’t race every week, something is missing. Take Trevor Bayne. Not only is he young, well-spoken, and genuine, he can drive a car. His first Nationwide victory came at the expense of Cup star Edwards, when Bayne simply drove by his more experienced teammate when it counted, and the kid is also a Daytona 500 champion! Yet he’s sitting out races for lack of a sponsor when less talented drivers have full backing. It doesn’t make sense, and it ultimately hurts the quality of the racing.
All four of these things are quietly eating away at the quality of the racing in NASCAR. They’re not as blatantly obvious as the cookie-cutter tracks that don’t encourage hard racing, tires that never wear out, allowing teams the luxury of one less strategy to worry about, the racecar with rules that allow no innovation, but they’re just as important to understand in terms of the health of the sport today. They are vital areas for NASCAR to look long and hard at, and just as important for fans to understand so that they can let the sanctioning body know they need to improve their product. They may not be in the spotlight, but they most certainly are backstage running the show.
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