NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Chase Drama Only a Short Term Gain

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.

Will NASCAR's most recent brawl serve to hurt the sport, or help it? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Will NASCAR’s most recent brawl serve to hurt the sport, or help it? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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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19 Comments
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kb

…Well us fans that Brian has refused to listen to have been screaming this for years. The new “Chase format” has just ramped up the nonsense. Smoke and mirrors, a deflection from what ails NASCAR. Brian will not look at the big picture, sadly he will view this negative attention as a success, pat himself on the back and continue to lead this once great sport to the graveyard. Many CEO’s are out of touch, but this man has so much access to fan input, it seems he cuts his feedback off at the yes men. Sad.

Russ

KB, I think we make a mistake by believing it is just BZF thats the problem. The rest of the family or others who have a voice in it could change things if they wanted, after all its their money to. Obviously they dont see a need to change.

kb

Russ that is true…they are all swimming up the River Denial…

GinaV24

So long as there is “enough” $ coming in from the tv contracts and other NASCAR official sponsor $, there is no motivation to listen to the fans or change anything. I had thought that perhaps the huge falloff in souvenir sales might have been a wake up call to someone, but apparently not.

It won’t be until the France family takes a real hit in the wallet, that anything will change and I will no longer be a fan by the time that happens.

Russ

Its the Business to Business deals that drive it as much as TV. Maybe more so, at least thats where the bulk of sponsorships, as well as “the official —- of Nascar”. Fans and attendance are now, as someone put it, the studio audience.
They have more than enough for their lifetimes so what drives it now?

Russ

Distraction is the proper way to describe the post race occurrences at the last two races. And I think its a mistake to equate the tantrums of millionaires with passion, its not the same thing.
The chase really isn’t the problem. Its really that there is no reason to watch anything but the last x number of laps. Thanks to “lucky dogs” and wave arounds Anything prior to that is just wasting gasoline. Those two combined with the inevitable g-w-c finish ensure some kind of drama at the end. But prior to that? not so much.

But as they say “it is what it is” and I don’t expect it to change.

Ken

I’ve been a race fan all my life and have watched it on TV since that famous race in 1979. My viewing habits have evolved as NASCAR has evolved. Early on, I didn’t know anything about a championship and didn’t care. I just watched to see who won the race. My watching evolution:
1. I watched every second of every race I could find.
2. I watched with periods of not paying attention.
3. With the introduction of the VCR, I recorded races and watched the entire race.
4. With the introduction of the DVR, I watched the races, skipped the commercials and fast forwarded through the cautions.
5. I skipped through the green flag parts until there was a wreck.
6. I watched the last 20 laps of the race.
7. I now don’t bother to record and figure if anything interesting happens, I will see it on TV, the internet , or on the news.
8. Who cares.

GinaV24

Ken, I think that while my interest in NASCAR started in say 1992, the evolution or devolution of my interest in racing pretty much parallels yours.

Once Gordon is no longer driving, I will be with you on #8. I have no interest and no plans to pick another driver to follow since NASCAR has become too much of a joke and not enough sport.

rascalmanny

Like the Chase, this does nothing to bring new people to Nascar.

Like the Chase, this has people laughing at Nascar.

But the Nascar overlords still have healthy bank accounts so, like Nascar, all that is irrelevant.

GinaV24

Well said and absolutely the case. I tried to say that to Jim Utter in response to his article. His comment back was “you’re engaged this year though, aren’t you?” While the answer to that is “yes”, it is also only because Gordon is still in competition for the crapshoot trophy. If that changes after Phoenxi, I will be out and no longer interested since the race at Homestead and who wins the trophy will not matter to me.

I realize that in some people’s eyes, that makes me a bad fan because I am not really interested in NASCAR racing any more but only in how things affect my favorite. Then again, I don’t hide who I cheer for or my motives.

BZF is happier than a pig in you know what but in talking with fans at both Charlotte and Martinsville races, no one I talked to liked this format. The fighting thing just makes it worse and the few people who have even mentioned are not NASCAR fans and probably will never be. They may see the brawl or wrecks on TV but that won’t make them tune in to the race.

kb

I have gotten similar reply from Mr. Jim. They really don’t get it..anybody inside the industry..except the drivers.

Russ

While he is correct, he’s missing the point. Keeping the same old crowd engaged isn’t growing the sport. It’s only maintaining it. Meanwhile father time is taking them away faster than new ones are being added.
Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Upstate24fan

The fights and drama are good for the short term, but long-term you need marketable stars and quality racing. Brad K. might be the best “black hat” for NASCAR since 1990s. If he keeps building rivalries with other established stars that could provide something for NASCAR to market week after week. I’ll be interested to see the ratings for Phoenix.

KB

Wait ’til Ryan Newman wins with no victories.

Chris

Kb, if you really want to read an interesting article check out Jerry Bonkowski’s article on Bleacher Report “Would a winless champ be a good thing or a bad thing”. It’s like reading one of Summer’s articles. Jeri has nothing but positive things to say about the Chase, A winless Champ, or NASCAR. I read it in my local paper this morning and quickly lost my appetite for breakfast. The guy is delusional. Sadly I can’t say that I’ve seen many mainstream articles; such a the one that I’ve mentioned, that actually say that the Chase is a trainwreck.

SHOEMAN

That would be SWEET!!

Janice

The article brings up many good points (sorry, make that thoughts). The race at Martinsville in the spring, or fill in your choice, should be as important as Homestead in November. Put a large number of points on the table for any win so that each race is important in the big picture, up the minimum speed so that the rolling wrecks can’t return and cause a debris caution, get the broadcast booths to cover the whole race-not just their chosen few. All this drama is just that, no one is saying “Wow, did you see that race”; it’s all about the after race fireworks.

SHOEMAN

We still don’t need THE CHASE!!

JohnQ

Although I complain, about 99% of NASCAR bullshit really doesn’t bother me all that much. That said, the attempted in race manipulation through fake cautions just might be a deal breaker for me. I find myself wondering why I watch 400 laps of a race to have it all become meaningless as a fake debri or unapproved leader in turn two caution seems inevitable if the race is not deemed exciting enough on its merits with ten laps to go.

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