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 five things that should be at the top of NASCAR’s list of must-haves for the 2015 season
Not only does the sanctioning body need to think long and hard about what it wants in the racing, it also needs to represent what it does have accordingly. The expectation of a Game 7 moment is unrealistic and in the end, harmful to the sport’s image. Not every game seven has that moment, let alone every game. And sometimes the most memorable moment of them all comes in a weekday game in April when not many people are watching. NASCAR – and its fans – need to accept this as a fact and stop trying to sell the sport as something it can never be.
What that means for NASCAR is that not every finish is going to be decided by .001 seconds between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the other driver of their choice. Sometimes someone is going to stink up the show. Sometimes the best race is the one for 15th place between AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr. When drivers have something to prove, they often prove how tough they can be. NASCAR and its television partners need to make sure fans know that. Fans from the old days know that not every race has a close finish. They remember races that had two cars on the lead lap at the end and those separated by half a circuit. New fans don’t know that because NASCAR tries to sell to them that there will be nail-biting action every lap and the finish will be a razor-thin margin. They need to be sold the other storylines, too, and the possibility that sometimes, a driver is going to dominate. It’s NASCAR’s job, through its TV partners and the media, to do that.
A renewed faith in the fanbase
At the same time, though, NASCAR needs to have a little faith in the fan base to be knowledgeable enough about the sport to know what they want. The fans it wants to keep, who will bring in future generations of fans, do know, and NASCAR isn’t listening. Sure it has the fan council, but one look at the questions asked in the surveys is all it takes to see that they are slanted to get the answers NASCAR wants to hear.
There will always be fans who jump on the bandwagon because something is the cool thing to do. There were a huge number of people doing just that a decade ago, and while some of them stuck around, many did not. They were never going to and NASCAR’s mistake was to resort to gimmicks to try and lure them into staying longer. Not only did it not work in the end, but it gave many of those newer fans who came during the boom those unrealistic expectations of something the sport quite simply is not. Over time, it has hurt the sport more than it has helped, because the old guard don’t like the gimmicks while the new fans expect more and more of them. It becomes an unsustainable cycle, and it’s one that could be broken by figuring out what’s really necessary, not merely what’s going to be a quick fix.
An unexpected success story
What better to draw the right kind of attention to the sport than an old-fashioned rags-to-riches story? I’ve said it often, but it bears repeating: NASCAR’s small teams have some great stories to tell, some great people. Any one of them having a strong season or even a great run now and then is only good for the sport. For that to happen, though, the media need to be on board. Fans need to hear the stories and feel like they know the people so that when that success comes, they know the how , the why and the who.
A few drivers are making it happen in 2015. Truex Jr. and his single-car Furniture Row Racing team have been in the top 10 at the end of the day every week. That’s no longer just good luck, it’s a good team and driver making the most of each and every week. Allmendinger and Casey Mears are also in position to make a Chase bid if the stars align right. In a sport where fans often complain about the same drivers winning too much and the wealthy teams dominating, a few underdogs in the mix should give them a new view.
Something for fans to cheer about
In the same vein as the underdog angle, the sport could use some good old-fashioned optimism for a few of its most popular drivers. 2015 is Jeff Gordon‘s swan song; when it’s over, one of the greatest ever to climb into a stock car will walk away. The tributes are moving, but one last championship run would make people take notice. Ditto Tony Stewart, who has been to hell and back over the last two seasons and for whom one of the wins that were once so commonplace would mean so much to.
Fans need a reason to delve into the history of the sport, and there’s nothing like seeing one of the greatest ever doing it all just one more time, or watching another great driver stage a comeback. While there’s nothing NASCAR can (or should) do about the on-track performance of the sport’s veterans, it should be making sure that fans know those drivers are as relevant as ever, as hungry as ever. Fans need to care for the feel-good stories to have their best impact.
A deserving champion
There’s a bit of a divide here among fans. Some will say that whoever wins under the current rules is deserving, and there is validity to that because the rules are the same for everyone. But it is hard to crown a season champion who was not the best all season in a sport like auto racing, and when the best all season wasn’t even allowed to compete for the title under the current rules, that makes it all the harder. Auto racing isn’t the kind of sport where a single race should decide anything. That might create excitement, but it takes away from the sport, too, because there are just too many variables in a single race to make it a legitimate way of determining a champion. It works in other sports because there are two teams on the field who directly determine each other’s fate. Would the Super Bowl be a good way to determine a champion if the entire rest of the league was on the field at the same time, trying to win it for themselves and hindering the actual contenders? Of course not.
A separate points system is not the answer. That’s just not what this sport is. The best thing for NASCAR would be for the driver who scores the most points (or at least the most wins if they’re not the same person) to also win the title. The system attracted some casual fans last year, but will they stick around if the system doesn’t look legit? That’s a question whose answer will become apparent in the coming months.