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 follows last week’s rules she says NASCAR should add with a list of the ones the sanctioning body could do away with.
1. The Chase
Fans’ opinions of the Chase are widely varied, but in poll after poll, unscientific as they may be, the overwhelming majority of fans would like the see the Chase become an unfortunate part of NASCAR history. That should be reason enough to scrap a playoff system that doesn’t befit the sport. Racing is so unlike stick-and-ball sports that trying to fit their system of determining a champion is detrimental. To many fans, especially those who have been in the sport a long time, a playoff system doesn’t improve the championship – it cheapens it instead.
There’s a reason that NASCAR has had to make so many changes to the playoff system in the decade it’s been in place: they’ve never been able to make it work. Take a look at sports with long-standing playoff systems. Those have evolved in a minor way, adding a round as expansion makes that necessary, but the basic system and rules, whether series-based or single-elimination, have been in place for decades with few fundamental changes. Compare that to NASCAR’s system, which has undergone several large overhauls in the relatively few seasons it’s been around, and the flaws become apparent. It’s not working for the sport because the sport itself does not lend itself to the type of system its leaders want for it.
2. Restrictive suspension and gear packages
The racing would be better if teams had areas in which to make their cars different from the competition. If NASCAR were to give teams more options on which to build, it would increase competition on a weekly basis because with more room to work, teams could adapt to different tracks and to their drivers’ individual preferences.
Allowing choices also reintroduces an element of risk to the sport that has been absent for several years. Gear choice used to give teams a choice: a slightly faster car that put enormous strain on the engine and transmission or a slightly slower one that wouldn’t self-destruct during the race. Now, the cars are so durable that there’s little room for the excitement that different strategies used to lend it. Would a car make it to the end, or would an overtaxed engine give up? Would that loose but fast car jump out from under its driver at any moment? A certain sense of uncertainty is good for the racing as it forces teams to use different strategies and keeps fans wondering what will happen if that car keeps turning those laps or if that driver can hang on until the next scheduled pit stops. Risk is good; it’s what auto racing is about.
3. Restrictor plates
Surely in this age of technology, there’s a way to effectively slow the cars down without the restrictor plate, which was implemented in 1988 as a temporary measure to reduce speeds that were climbing upwards of 210 mph. Keeping speeds down at Daytona and Talladega is imperative; today’s cars would travel at an estimated 240 mph or higher without them, and those speeds would be far too dangerous. Smaller engines have been suggested and that presents one possible solution. The electronic fuel injection could eventually be used to reduce speeds, or most likely there is another solution still to be found if enough people put their minds to it. But something needs to happen; the racing on those two tracks is not up to par.
4. The yellow line at plate tracks
While we’re on the subject of Daytona and Talladega, it’s time to dump the yellow-line rule. It’s not a bad rule in theory because it’s for the safety of drivers. After all, many a crash has been triggered on those tracks by someone trying to wedge their way in coming up off the apron heading into the turns. But it’s a bad rule in practice because NASCAR has never enforced it well. They’ve penalized drivers who were very clearly forced below the line and failed to penalize others who could have moved back up. They’ve gotten the calls wrong far more often than right, even taking a win away from Regan Smith. If it’s too difficult to enforce with any kind of accuracy, perhaps there’s a better way to keep drivers from causing crashes.
5. Unlimited races in all series
Finally, it’s time to take an active interest in the health of NASCAR’s other series, in particular the Xfinity Series but also the Truck Series. That means reducing the participation of the Cup drivers running for their Cup owners in cars with more money than the series regulars have. There are any number of solutions, but perhaps the best is to simply not allow a driver to run for the same owner or for a team affiliated with the same owner, in more than one series. That would allow the Cup drivers to drive for other teams, perhaps help a small team to sort out its equipment or to make a hometown race while limiting their options to run for the biggest teams. Their veteran presence is a good thing for the young drivers in the series as a learning tool, but if most of those youngsters can’t actively race with them for more than a lap or two because the Cup stars can buy the best of everything, it defeats the purpose. Their presence is good for fans and other drivers only if the results aren’t practically predetermined.