A rare off-weekend is on tap for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and as the stars of NASCAR’s premier series enjoy some much-needed time off, observers of the sport have time to reflect on the season that’s been and make some predictions about what is still to come.
2015 has been a turbulent year for a sport that is in the midst of an identity crisis, with rules changes and general controversy unfortunately serving as the key storylines throughout much of the season. With this in mind, NASCAR is attempting to position itself for a better second half of the season, one that will feature lots of change and lots of unpredictability as a new aero package, a new broadcast partner and a still-fresh playoff system loom ahead for stock car racing’s top echelon.
Will the sport see the success it so desperately is trying to chase? That is the big question as we push on toward the rest of the season, a question that will end up shaping the future of the sport.
1. Will a new rules package inject life into NASCAR’s top series?
Perhaps the biggest story of the 2015 NASCAR season has been the sport’s ongoing battle against on-track aerodynamic issues. The dreaded aero push phenomenon has grown worse in 2015, and for the first time, major power players in the sport have decided to speak out against it. The result? A new rules package, one with less downforce and softer tires, is being fast-tracked for use in the July 11 Kentucky Speedway race.
The obvious hope with this new package is for aero issues to subside, as many garage area experts believe that a large reduction in downforce will be a suitable way to lessen aero issues on the sport’s fast intermediate tracks like Kentucky, Kansas, Charlotte and the like, and thus improve the competitiveness of Sprint Cup races at such facilities. Assuming all goes well in the Kentucky race, you can fully expect that package to be implemented for the rest of the season.
Will it actually work as intended? I’ll give it a 50-50 shot. I’m not an aero expert, but just looking at the sport’s history, large reductions in downforce have historically yielded mixed results. Some low downforce packages (like the 2005 package) worked splendidly well. Others, such as the 1998 and 2008 packages, have produced racing that was far worse than anything we’ve seen in 2015. My hunch is that the sanctioning body is on the right track with these changes, but like anything else, time will be necessary to truly work out the kinks that are inevitable with every set of rules changes in order to massage the package down to perfection.
If the fans are patient, this push to end aero issues could work, but they’re going to have to give the powers that be some time if they really want the results for which everyone is looking.
2. Will NBC truly present the sport in a new way?
NBC Sports made a big splash toward the end of 2013 when it announced the TV mega-deal it signed with NASCAR. NBC bought the rights to the last 20 races of the Cup season along with a bunch of ancillary content for a cool sum of $4.4 billion spread over 10 years. When you combine that with FOX’s $2.4 billion deal over that same timeframe, NASCAR’s TV contract is the third richest in American professional sports today, trailing only the NFL and MLB.
That’s all well and good for NASCAR, but what about TV viewers? What will NBC bring to the table with that kind of hefty financial commitment? Reinvigorated coverage, right?
That is what everyone who follows the sport is hoping for, especially in the wake of FOX’s ever-dwindling coverage quality and falling television ratings. NBC has stated that it plans to deliver the sport in a “new way.” What that means is anyone’s guess. Folks close to the situation at NBC have indicated that the network wants to cover the sport in a more technically-oriented, raw and “serious” way, much in the vein of how CBS covered the sport in the late ‘90s. No frills, no jokes, just a straight up focus on the racing. In essence, it wants to be what FOX is not.
If the grumblings of fans over the years are any indication of what the greater fan base is looking for in terms of television coverage of the sport, I’ll wager that NBC’s vision would be in line with what most fans seem to be looking for. But the network’s ability to execute is a total unknown for now. We’ll get our first taste of NBC’s treatment of NASCAR on July 5 at Daytona for the Coke Zero 400, a major race that NBC is promising to give “big-event style” treatment.
If the coverage for that race ends up matching the hype, the sport will benefit immensely. But if it falls flat? The fanbase will likely be quick to turn on NBC. These are NASCAR fans, after all, a group that is notoriously fickle and quick to criticize.
So, for the sake of the sport, let’s just hope NBC knocks its Daytona coverage out of the park.
3. Can Furniture Row Racing maintain its championship-caliber performance?
Over the last few weeks, Furniture Row Racing and driver Martin Truex Jr. have supplanted Kevin Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team as the top organization in NASCAR. In a year where negativity has permeated seemingly every aspect of the sport, the rise of a single-car team in the Denver-based Furniture Row outfit has been a welcome surprise that harkens back to the old days of the sport, a time when hard-working, independent teams found success on a regular basis.
The No. 78 car has led more laps and tallied a higher average finish than any other car in the field over the past two months. The team has emerged as a legitimate championship threat and Truex has grown into a top-tier driver. The No. 78 is for real and its success in the first half of the season has been incredible to watch, but with a litany of changes and general uncertainty being the hallmark of 2015’s second half, can a single car team like Furniture Row keep up?
I think this will be a key question to ask as we push forward with the rest of the season. The No. 78 has been championship worthy with the current rules package, but if NASCAR ends up implementing the Kentucky package for the rest of the year, how will that affect a team that still relies on a larger organization (Richard Childress Racing) for most of its parts and data?
If FRR can maintain its current level of performance in the face of a new aero package, an unpredictable Chase format and the ever-increasing speed from better resourced teams like Hendrick, it would be an even more impressive display than that which we’ve seen from the team up to this point, and certainly something that everyone in the sport (especially other single-car teams) will be watching closely.
4. How will the elimination Chase format fare in year two?
When NASCAR institutued its polarizing new Chase format early last year, there was a great amount of trepidation emanating from every corner of the sport in terms of how the format would work in actual practice. As we saw late last year, those fears were largely unwarranted: the format helped produce one arguably the most exciting postseason in NASCAR history, leading to a large bump in both television ratings and general mainstream interest in the sport at a time NASCAR needed it most.
With the second-ever edition of the “new-look” Chase looming only two short months away, one has to wonder if the sport will have another success story on its hands by the time the series reaches Homestead. Another successful Chase would help validate the current format, and likely would bring another wave of mainstream interest back to the sport, especially with five of the 10 Chase races being on network TV courtesy of NBC (for comparison, only one Chase race, Charlotte, was on network TV in 2014).
However, if the 2015 Chase proves to be unsuccessful in some fashion, or if a champion is crowned that is deemed unworthy, it could be a death knell for a sport that is still on thin ice with its fan base in regards to acceptance of the Chase.
All told, another great Chase would go a long, long way in keeping the sport on the track for success, and truth be told, the industry might need it even more than it did one year ago.