There’s been a tug of war going on for the last decade or so between lifelong NASCAR fans and NASCAR executives. The battle? For the sport’s soul.
Lifelong fans started tugging on the rope to keep tradition and to not fix what wasn’t broken. NASCAR executives have been fighting to appeal to a broader audience by making changes aimed at luring in the average sports fan.
It’s been a one-sided fight that has been tough to watch for lifelong fans. The tradition has been stripped away, the championship system changed multiple times and the races littered with mysterious debris cautions, wave-arounds and green-white-checkered finishes that play havoc on the outcome.
NASCAR executives have all of the power, so with every change, more lifelong fans give up, stop pulling the rope and fall face down in the mud. For those of us left standing and pulling against the powers that be, we’re locked in a losing battle. The sport doesn’t look anything like it did in 2003.
A three-lap sprint at the conclusion of a one-race playoff determined the champion of this year’s 36-race, nine-month-long season.
There’s never been anything like it. It was riveting, edge-of-your-seat stuff watching Ryan Newman try to get around Kevin Harvick on the final restart. It was that Game 7 moment for which NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was hoping.
It also was completely manufactured to boost television ratings and appeal to the Attention Deficit Disorder generation.
“Look, guys, this championship came down to the last lap,” the executives say. “Pretty cool, huh?”
Well, championships tend to do that when you eliminate the points from the first 35 races. Watching Harvick and Newman battle for the title in the final laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway was great, of course, as long as you didn’t think about how they got there or what they were actually fighting for too much.
Make sure you don’t think about what a championship means, either. It used to go to the guy who did the best over 36 races. Then, it was the best over 10 races and now it’s the best out of one race. So why do we have all of these other races? I guess it’s to figure out which 16 of the eligible 28 teams will make the Chase. Thrilling.
Nobody seemed to care about any of that on Sunday. The media labeled Harvick as a worthy champion because he was among the best to never win a title, and praised the new system for providing both excitement and a worthy champion. It didn’t seem to matter that it was one bold Ryan Newman move away from being a disaster. As Tom Bowles wrote on Monday, Newman would’ve had the fewest top-5 finishes of any champion since 1949. Why is everyone praising a system that allowed Newman to be there in the first place by resetting points throughout the Chase?
“Reset” may be the word that best describes the last decade of NASCAR racing. Mysterious cautions and green-white-checkered finishes reset the field when the leader is too far ahead or when the casual sports fan is falling asleep. Wave-arounds reset the cars fighting for the win. The Chase resets all of the points for the playoffs to put everybody on even ground, even though they shouldn’t be, and resets at the end of each Chase round do it again and again to make sure nobody can establish any kind of points advantage.
That way, it all comes down to Game 7 — I mean, race 36.
Racing is just too boring otherwise, right? Lifelong fans, people who watched every week whether the series was at Bristol or Pocono, didn’t used to think so. I’m not talking about the people who tune in for wrecks at Talladega and Daytona, but about people who just loved to watch cars race.
Here’s what NASCAR executives have failed to realize in their quest to win the average fan: There are two types of people, people that like to watch cars go in circles and ones that don’t. It’s really that simple.
The fights and gimmicks might lure the average sports fan in. But what’s going to happen when the gimmick wears off for them, all while the amount of manipulation grows too great for the actual racing fan?
We’re going to find that out soon.