Welcome to Friday Faceoff, our weekly NASCAR roundtable where the Frontstretch experts give their take on major storylines surrounding the sport. Here’s a few major questions we’re trying to answer heading into Daytona.
1. NASCAR tracks have come together to ask fans not to display the Confederate Flag at its facilites. Do you think NASCAR’s statement will dissuade people from putting them up… or cause a record number to show up this weekend and beyond?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: As I said on SIRIUSXM Thursday, NASCAR’s move to “suggest” flag removal could have short-term consequences at the gate. Many fans are angry, viewing the sport’s “official” stance as getting political and completely unnecessary. This rule, while an off-track decision, seems to fit in with their views that NASCAR is out to control every portion of their racing weekend. Fans are tired of change after change; plus, many link the flag to southern heritage, not racism. It’s worth noting I haven’t seen a single incidence of racism reported surrounding the confederate flag in nine years of being at the track.
That said, a source told me Thursday night this decision was more about corporate sponsorship than anyone else. Major Fortune 500 companies were threatening to pull money out of the sport, citing uncomfortable CEOs feeling pressure unless NASCAR took a stance on the issue. Their strong move to condemn the flag distances themselves from a checkered past with racism, comforts corporate executives and stops short of an outright ban. That means fans can still put up the flag, wait patiently for the firestorm to calm down and within a couple of months it will all be water under the bridge. But this month, don’t be surprised if the track attendance is a little smaller than usual, especially at Kentucky next weekend.
Aaron Bearden, Associate Editor: The Confederate Flag sure is a hot topic right now, huh? I think NASCAR is doing the right thing by dissuading others from bringing it to the track. My family is from the South and none of us fly it. People can claim heritage or history as the reason for its use, but the fact is that the flag carries too much negative symbolism to outweigh what few positives it may have. There has to be a better way to show heritage and Southern pride.
As for fans being dissuaded from bringing them to the track, I think a few will be, but many more will fly it proudly. The wounds are still fresh for flag supporters, and they’re not going to go away quietly. I expect NASCAR would have to outright ban the flag to completely remove it.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: To me, the Confederate Flag seems to reflect more of an anti-establishment perspective than a Southern one. I have seen the symbol flying over infields from Watkins Glen to Indianapolis to Pocono to Michigan. Its presence at such venues comes across as reflecting more of a social rebellion than a regional, political or racial one. I think NASCAR made the right decision in dissuading fans from displaying the flag, but keeping it completely away from races will be impossible to enforce.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Manager: This spot is a tough one for NASCAR. Turning its back on the Confederate Flag means turning its back on part of their heritage, however unfortunate it is. Do I think fans will like the move? No. They’ll think that NASCAR’s caving to exterior influences, and I’m sure it will show up plenty this weekend in Daytona, despite the flag exchange. I do like the idea of making NASCAR races a welcoming atmosphere to all, though. Like it or not, the Confederate Flag’s presence does not give off the image of a NASCAR race being all that welcoming to minorities. I fully admit that I get nervous when I see the flag around. However, it’s not the flag itself that causes the nerves; a flag on a pole cannot hurt me by itself. I wouldn’t be shocked if people brought more and went out of their way to display them prominently.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Really, this issue just needs to blow over. The more anyone makes a big deal over it, the more attention people are getting for flying the flag. If tracks want to ban it, that’s their right as they are private property; if there isn’t a ban, it’s the fans’ right to fly them. If someone is flying one, others have the right to form an unflattering opinion of that person based on their decision. It seems a little silly to me to fly a military flag of a defunct nation; but hey, whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Joseph Wolkin, Associate Editor: I don’t think it will make a difference. The flag is seen at just about every track. I even see it at Pocono Raceway and always found it as part of the NASCAR stereotype. It’s something that fans will do for quite a while, especially the old-fashioned ones that really don’t care what NASCAR says. If they want a flag at a track to make their weekend complete, that’s their choice and others will look down on them for that. However, you’re still going to see the flag at tracks, and that goes against NASCAR’s efforts to become more diverse. For me, it’s like seeing a Nazi flag, so I completely get why NASCAR is doing it. I just don’t think it will make much of a difference, especially since no one capitalized on the flag swap at Daytona Thursday.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I really don’t want to wade into this issue. You try to say something halfway intelligent on the topic and it gets you branded a racist. JFK was killed by a shot fired from the Texas Book Depository and they didn’t ban books. The real issue here falls outside the purview of this site. It has to do with mental illness. This Roof character was clearly mentally ill. His friends saw it and tried to hide his guns. How is it we can’t get the mentally ill (and 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some sort of mental illness severe enough to disrupt their lives) the treatment they need to protect their own lives and those of others? We can’t lock them all up in jail or send them to institutions out of sight, and we can’t have them sleeping on the streets in the dead of winter. That’s what we should be discussing. But try getting a soundbite out of that.
As for the flag, let folks fly it if they choose to. If, at the end of the day someone is offended by that flag and that’s the worst thing they had to deal with all day, well then I’d say they had a pretty damn good day. NASCAR doesn’t need to do anything to drive away more longtime fans. Anyway, TV Land dumped the Dukes of Hazzard reruns because of the Stars and Bars on the roof of the General Lee. So if NASCAR was aiming for the stupidest and most pointless gesture award in response to a tragedy, that ship has already sailed. Stupid racist Dodge Charger. That thing made my skin crawl.
2. NBC returns to NASCAR broadcasting this weekend for the first time since 2006. What would you like to see NBC do that FOX didn’t over the course of its time this season?
Bearden: NBC’s already gotten off to a good start, airing a lot of old races on NBCSN and building excitement for this weekend. As for the racing itself, the big thing I want to see is more emphasis on racing back in the pack. The old races they’ve shown put an emphasis on the battles occurring throughout the field; I feel like that’s something networks have gotten away from in recent years. Having great guys like Rick Allen in the booth set NBC up for a strong run through the second half of the season; adding a little more focus to the entire field could help the organization raise the bar.
Howell: I agree. NBC needs to focus more attention on back-of-the-pack competition, especially since the aero push issue makes racing at the front fairly non-existent. The best battles are mid-pack, and FOX always seemed to ignore them.
McLaughlin: Well, it would be nice if they actually covered the race rather than serving as a platform for lame, stand-up comedy by the Brothers Waltrip. If the network could prevent the crew from developing a “man crush” on Rick Hendrick and his drivers, that would be a nice change of pace. Arriving at the track determined to tell the story of the race as it unfolds, rather than sticking to a pre-scripted set of talking points it adheres to no matter what would be refreshing.
Allaway: So far, so good. NBC has gone all out to publicize the return of NASCAR to the network. You’ve had the specials, the funny Super Bowl commercial starring Nick Offerman, plus the K&N Pro Series telecasts on NBCSN that I enjoy substantially. What NBC needs to do is focus on the racing itself, be more objective and more inclusive. By all means, have fun with it, but don’t make the sport look bad like Michael Waltrip seemed to do on a regular basis.
Henderson: The network needs to show all the racing, not just the leaders, and have some stationary wide-angle cameras showing the field sometimes. It needs to update fans on the entire field periodically, and it needs to inform viewers if a driver is OK after a crash, no matter who it is. Finally, it needs to let the racing be entertaining instead of trying to be the entertainment.
Wolkin: Well, as long as it doesn’t have an owner as an analyst, causing bias they’ll be fine. NBC has been fantastic already, and it hasn’t even had a shot to show what they are truly capable of. The company will struggle with ratings at first, especially on NBCSN, but after a year or so it should be fine. I’d like to see more of a focus on drivers other than the usual group, which is something that FOX really struggled with. It never seemed to discuss anyone outside of the top five, and there are plenty of stories to follow other than the leader at a spread-out, 1.5-mile track.
Bowles: The key to me is professionalism. FOX’s schtick, welcome for a time in the early 2000s has seemed to turn stale with fans as of late. I think, after the last few years of “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity!” fans are looking for a broadcast group that takes a bit more serious look at the sport. Simple fixes, like pit road interviews about the race and not “filler, gibberish” conversation like the Grid Walk often became will be welcome for those critical of FOX’s style. NBC Director Mike Wells, part of ESPN’s 1990s production crew knows how to cover a race from all angles. He’ll set the standard, teach from the top down and I fully expect the network to do just fine. One small quirk to watch out for: sources said Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton’s voices are hard to distinguish in the broadcast booth. It could be a couple of weeks, at least, before we’re fully aware of who’s talking when.
3. The Race Team Alliance is reportedly in discussions with NASCAR about franchising. How would you like to see it done? Will it entice people to enter the sport or discourage potential new owners?
Bearden: I won’t claim to be an expert with this subject, but the owners are making a stand for a reason. I feel like proper franchising could help entice more people to enter the sport, which is something NASCAR desperately needs. Only time will tell.
McLaughlin: If you compete full-time, five years, and don’t start and park, you’ve got your franchise. If you choose to cash out, you can sell that franchise (and your provisional starting spot at the end of the field) to someone else. It’s called building equity. Only here’s the catch: no one person, his wife, his son, his granny or his barber can own more than two franchises. My guess is that NASCAR tries to find a way to squeeze more money out of it, but that turnip is already pretty well bled out.
Howell: I’d like to see business remain as usual. Independent contractor status will keep the sport available to new teams. Awarding franchises or special permission to select teams will reduce incentive for fledgling operations to try their hand at Cup competition. There’s something to be said for economic Darwinism when it comes to creating diversity in starting grids. Narrowing the options would narrow the sport.
Allaway: Does NASCAR need franchising anyway? Probably not. I don’t think it would entice new owners to enter the sport. It’s a bunch of extra hoops they would have to jump through just to get started, though it would more than likely give impetus for the current team owners to stay. The cost of entry is already too high and having franchising would only make it more punitatively expensive to get a foothold. Everyone always talks about cutting costs, yet franchising would do just the opposite, making Sprint Cup a far more insular place than it should be. Given the ideas here, why would anyone try to join up if there’s franchising? The existing teams that were there before franchising was created would always have an advantage on you. Think of how NASCAR uses the previous year’s points for provisionals in the first three races. Then, imagine if that continued in perpetuity; that’s what I think franchising could do here. Unless you have stupid money, catching up could be impossible.
Bowles: I used to hate the idea of franchising. I still think there has to be a better way to take care of our old owners, enticing potential new ones to enter the sport. The guys we wanted to protect, men like Bud Moore, Robert Yates, Junie Donlavey and Dave Marcis are long gone. We also just got rid of the top-35 provisional system; to me, this means we’re bringing it back just a few short years later. But the way the owners have come together, part of this new Race Team Alliance (RTA) they’ve become the men with the power. I think for them, they want equity from the sanctioning body as they stare at decreasing purses paired with surging costs. I wish there was a better solution – and in a fantasy world, I’d keep every owner to one franchise – but I feel like we’re on the precipice of this sea change for 2016.
Henderson: I’d be in favor of franchising if it allowed collective bargaining and, as a part of that, a way to put a spending cap on the teams to bring costs in line and allow the smaller teams to actually be competitive. The main issue with the f-word is that it would limit the field to the same 43 teams every week, making it impossible for anyone else to break in unless one decided to leave. Who would buy a franchise knowing they could miss the show?
Wolkin: I really don’t think it is necessary. If the big owners start to franchise operations, it would make things more difficult for potential investors to come into the sport. If that were to happen, I’d like to see an incentive for smaller teams, at least, but it’s just not a solid idea at this time.
4. We’ve talked about upset winners at Daytona in the Cup Series, but it can also easily happen in the Xfinity Series. Is there one driver you think can steal the win this weekend?
Bearden: Bubba Wallace. Roush Fenway Racing showed what it can do with the right opportunity back in February and Wallace has experience after running in this race last season. I’ve got my eyes on Bubba to potentially do something special.
Howell: It may sound like a copout, but I think the NXS race could be won by pretty much any team in the event. Big wrecks, drafting and fuel mileage can (and will) shape the outcome. When it comes to racing at Daytona, never say never.
Allaway: A lot is going to be dependent on how NASCAR officiates the bump drafting and potential tandem drafting. If the sanctioning body chooses to crack down on it, it could substantially cut down on the list of potential winners significantly. In that case, you’d have the Cup guys and the top NXS regulars. Wallace Jr. might be one of the few possibilities for a first-time winner if that scenario plays out. If it’s more like Talladega earlier this year, then it’s pretty wide open. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Ross Chastain or Jeremy Clements in Victory Lane if it’s officiated in that fashion.
Henderson: It’s hard to call it stealing on the plate tracks, because when the cars are equal, it’s on the drivers. One who comes to mind is Landon Cassill, who is a very talented driver in underfunded equipment. He’s run very well on the plate tracks recently, and his average plate finish in the Cup Series last year was in the top 10 among all drivers.
Wolkin: Oh, there’s a whole list that can win at Daytona. Look at the Xfinity Series field and I spot at least 15 regulars that can contend. I think this weekend’s race will come down to Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon, Regan Smith and Chase Elliott. However, don’t count out some of the young guns like Brennan Poole or Clements, who can sneak in a win as long as they stay out of trouble and play the strategy game the right way.
McLaughlin: Would love to see Wallace pull one off. What flags are flying at a venue doesn’t matter. If you want in, knock, and if they won’t let you kick down the door. It always worked for the Alabama State police….
Bowles: I’ll jump on the Cassill bandwagon. He’s had some exceptional runs in that underfunded No. 01 car, a team that has contended for plate wins in the past with Mike Wallace. Daytona is harder for the smaller guys to get it done; but if it’s possible, Cassill will find a way.