Crashes. Fights. More crashes. More fights.
It sounds a little like the plot of Days of Thunder, or maybe something out of the old days of racing, before there were big-money sponsors who frowned on their driver being in the center of a story that winds up with him either naked or in a swimming pool. Or both.
But no, it’s just the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup. It started at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where the race was laden with cautions, and included post-race altercations at both Charlotte and Texas motor speedways and lots of hard racing and hard feelings the rest of the time. There’s certainly been plenty of drama to go around.
And the drama has done one thing for the sport: it’s got people talking about NASCAR racing. Social media is ablaze with talk about the most recent fight – who’s to blame, who got punished, who didn’t, will next week reignite the fireworks? Operating under the assumption that no press is bad press, the last few weeks have been good for NASCAR.
Notoriety from fisticuffs isn’t a new phenomenon in NASCAR; a post-race fight following the 1979 Daytona 500 is largely credited with bringing the sport into the mainstream. Dust-ups both on and off the track have happened since the beginning of the sport. And while whether they’re right or wrong can be debated, it’s hard to deny that conflict draws attention.
With complaints of lackluster racing and cardboard champions in recent years, the drama seen in recent weeks is, in many ways, a welcome distraction from the aerodynamic dependence and debris cautions fans had become jaded on. It has definitely gotten NASCAR more airtime on local stations and sports shows usually more limited to the stick-and-ball ilk.
The thing is, though, that unless NASCAR can find a way to sustain the pressure throughout the year, there’s no way to sustain the drama. And that means that all the drama really is is smoke and mirrors to cover the deeper issues that are troubling the sport.
Looking back on Texas, while there were a number of cautions late in the race, early on, it was simply typical 1.5-mile fare: easy leads in clean air interrupted by the stray debris caution. The end was excellent, with drivers doing everything they can for the win.
The problem is, that doesn’t happen all year long, and drivers doing it for 10 weeks, plus maybe a couple in the regular season, won’t keep casual viewers interested. And they need to be kept interested if they’re going to turn from casual viewers into real fans.
It’s unrealistic to think every race is going to have a fender-banging, door-to-door finish. That’s never been the case. But what fans want to see is 43 drivers spending the entire race trying to win it. That doesn’t mean pulling a bump-and-run on lap 37; in fact, early, it means long-term strategy in fuel, tires, and setups. What it does mean is drivers taking chances when they can and showing some emotion. They should be pissed off when they finish third, not smiling about a “good points day.”
NASCAR’s current format doesn’t force teams to be that way. Neither did the previous Chase or even the full-season title format before that, though it did produce a champions fans generally saw as legitimate, another issue with the Chase. In stick-and-ball sports, there is no such thing as a good points day, which is why a regular season/playoff format works for them. In NASCAR, though, there needs to be real reason to take a risk every single week, whether it’s a million-dollar purse to the winner or a huge number of bonus points — enough that winning a championship without multiple wins would be a near-impossibility. With a combination of both, perhaps added to a point system more similar to INDYCAR’s, there would be more hard racing throughout the season, and no need for a playoff format that leaves fans feeling like the champion isn’t necessarily deserving.
What made Texas a memorable race wasn’t really even the fight. It was the passion shown by several drivers at the end. That’s what the sport needs to have on display every week. In the end, the driver who did win wasn’t a title contender. That didn’t make the win meaningless. Quite the contrary. Jimmie Johnson found a measure of redemption in Victory Lane. That should have been a big deal. It was a big deal, really, except the media virtually ignored it. The previous week, at Martinsville, it was a similar scene, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finally conquering a track where victory clearly meant a little something more to him because of its history.
Those are exactly the kind of storylines NASCAR needs: drivers putting it all out there on the track and reveling in it afterward, not because of championship implications, but for the simple thrill of victory. The last two weeks’ wins meant just as much as the previous six weeks’ wins did… that is, until NASCAR and the media tried to tell everyone they didn’t. No, it wasn’t said in so many words, but their glossing over of the outcomes of two races to go right back to Chase coverage said volumes.
At the end of the day, the fights and even the finishes are nothing but an illusion if the racing isn’t quality every week. That means finding a way to infuse every race with passion and with meaning. It means forcing teams to race every week like it’s the only week that matters. If NASCAR can find a way to do that, they will have a product that no longer needs gimmicks. It’s about racing and about passion, and not just for a few weeks of the year. It could happen all the time, if NASCAR could make the individual races the most important thing for every team, every week. It’s simple: bring out the best in Smoke and Mears (and everyone in between), and there would be no need for smoke and mirrors.
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