Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has some things we learned (maybe) from NASCAR’s State of the Sport discussion.
The Chase won’t change.
Chairman Brian France says that NASCAR considered changes to the Chase format, including a separate points system for title contenders, but the sanctioning body decided against making changes when fans and sponsors balked at the idea so soon after the new system was implemented. France said that the ultimate goal was to “keep the simplicity” of the current format, and changing how points are calculated would have unnecessarily complicated the system.
Really, it’s probably a good idea to hold off on any changes for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, NASCAR is correct in its feeling that fans have had to absorb a lot in recent years, and more changes would just cement for them that the system isn’t all it was cracked up to be… not good PR for NASCAR. But in addition to that, there could be another reason to wait: title sponsor Sprint is leaving after next season, and a new title sponsor could be a wrench in the works if they ask for bigger changes, possibly even a new system. While a separate points system for contenders is something that should be considered in the future if the current format survives the sponsor turnover, now is probably not the time to make even more changes. Fans may have to wait another year or two to see some improvements to the format, but indications are that waiting could be better for the short term.
But pit road officiating will.
NASCAR will introduce automated pit road officiating in 2015. Sort of. What will change is that there will no longer be officials standing on pit road monitoring stops. Instead, there will be 46 cameras mounted on the scoring tower at each track to record stops, and relay information to officials. An official will still review footage and make any judgement calls. If there is an infraction (the example NASCAR used was a car passing through a competitor’s pit more than four stalls away from his own), officials can send the information directly to that team, presumably including any incriminating footage. Information can also be sent directly to the broadcast booth.
While the human element is an integral part of sports, the ability to send information to teams and media is, at least on paper, an advantage. The new system also removes a certain amount of subjectivity, though there will always (and rightfully so) be judgement calls in the sport. Will this technology advancement change the way fans see the sport each week? In a minimal way, yes. It’s a positive change, though, because it should help eliminate at least some questions about calls made during pit stops.
Flared side skirts no more.
NASCAR also announced on Monday that flaring the cars’ side skirts during races will no longer be tolerated. The practice came to light in 2014 during the Chase, when it appeared that some teams were bending the side skirts to give an aerodynamic advantage. At the time, NASCAR allowed it to continue, but complaints from fans and teams apparently were taken to heart as the sanctioning body announced that it will use “any means necessary” to catch teams altering the skirts during a race and that a team caught doing so will be black flagged and must come to pit road to rectify the problem. The team will not be given their spot back if this happens.
Here’s the thing… there are so few areas for teams to find an advantage that taking one away seems almost too restrictive. That’s not a wrong assessment; other racing series encourage innovation and have better racing for it. But this particular issue is a safety concern. The flared skirts have the potential to cut tires if there’s contact on the track, and that’s not a good thing. Just ask Jeff Gordon. Contact is a part of stock car racing and fans expect it; letting teams stick the skirt out makes drivers shy away from it, and the sport needs to encourage hard racing, not find more ways to make teams avoid it.
2016 rules should be finalized by May… but how to judge 2015?
In an attempt to give teams a chance to prepare for 2016, NASCAR hopes to have the 2016 rules package finalized by mid-May. That’s excellent; it will mean better racing from the start in 2016. But there were some pretty drastic changes for 2015 that have not even hit the track. Will three months be enough to thoroughly assess this year’s package and make necessary changes? With new engine rules – and hopefully the tapered spacer will be a stopgap measure eliminated by that 2016 package because there are better ways to cut power and keep the racing competitive – as well as aerodynamic changes, that’s a lot to digest.
And just how does NASCAR judge the success of the rules? France says the sanctioning body looks at the number of lead changes, margin of victory and number of different winners. On the surface, those seem fair, but at the end of the day, none of those things are true markers of good racing. Sure you want a close finish, but sometimes there aren’t 50 lead changes or 15 different winners in a season. However, that does not mean the racing was not good or that changes need to be made. In addition, NASCAR should look at the number of teams that are competitive each week and how the races are broadcast. If there’s lots of action in the field that fans don’t see on TV, it skews the fans’ perception of the sport. Sometimes a driver dominates a race, but that doesn’t mean NASCAR should change the rules. Fans want authentic racing, not false ways to produce close racing.
Optimism is up among fans… we think.
According to a NASCAR release detailing fan polling done throughout 2014, there is reason for optimism. According to fans who rate themselves as “avid” among the Fan Council survey-takers, things are looking up. These fans were asked several key questions in the spring, fall and after the race season in 2014. In almost every category, favorable answers increased from the beginning of the season to the end. Categories such as “NASCAR has rules that are easy to follow,” “NASCAR offers good entertainment value” and “NASCAR is becoming more popular” all saw increases in agreement at the end of the season. Fans also said they were watching NASCAR more and that they enjoy it more.
The bad news? The numbers still aren’t all that great. None of the statements about NASCAR or the perceptions of the sanctioning body had more than 41 percent of fans in agreement. Also, NASCAR’s survey (most likely very intentionally) leaves out specific questions. Fans were asked about certain elements of the Chase but were not asked if they actually liked the system itself. So while a good number of fans said they liked certain parts of the system, like four drivers racing for the title or having a champion that won races, they did not have the chance to say whether they liked the Chase format over a traditional system. That allows NASCAR to sway the results in its favor. So, while the sport is making gains, just how big they are or how far-reaching remains unanswered. In other words, things are getting better… but better than what?
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