Jeff Gordon leads a pack of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway
(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)­­

The Frontstretch 5: Questions NASCAR Fans Should Be Asking Right Now

It’s been an interesting summer in NASCAR. It’s left a lot of unanswered questions that fans should be looking long and hard at as the sport enters the homestretch of a season in which we’ve seen three different rules packages, a would-be champion who’s barely inside the top 30 in points, the swan song of one legend and the public struggles of another. The racing hasn’t been the best ever, but there have been some moments. Will those get more frequent going forward? Can NASCAR find a path in the darkness? Those are some of the things that bear a closer look as summer draws to an end. There are a lot of questions to ask.

1. What, exactly, is NASCAR trying to accomplish?

The short – and ultimately right – answer is better racing. Whether or not they’ve gone about it the right way, NASCAR is to be commended for trying to provide a better product for the fans at the end of the day. They’ve thrown new aero packages at the cars in real race conditions instead of offseason tests. One worked fairly well, one didn’t do much at all… and NASCAR will scrap it rather than beating a dead horse. Those are positives, and a departure, albeit a small one, from the like it or lump it approach of recent years.

The downside is what I fear the sanctioning body is trying to do. While the rules do need changes to allow for more passing and less dependence on clean air, it seems as though NASCAR is trying to make races look like what you typically see at Daytona and Talladega: big packs of cars running two- and three-wide. On the surface, that’s not a terrible goal for auto racing, but it’s an unrealistic one.

One, that style causes a lack of racing for much of the events, with drivers choosing to ride and avoid trouble for most of the day. Two, the crashes are inevitable, and they are big. I think most fans would tire of wondering when their driver was going to get taken out every week. As much as NASCAR says they don’t like to glorify wrecks, they often try to sell the sport on them, and that’s a step too far. Cars should be able to pass each other and get close enough to use a bumper on occasion, but multi-car crashes should not be a weekly occurrence.

2. Where do we go from here?

So, what direction should NASCAR be looking in? From where I sit, there are two things that need to be addressed: the cars and the points system. The cars do need to be addressed, and the low downforce package we saw at Kentucky looked promising. We’ll know more after we see it in action at Darlington next month. Speaking of Darlington, I have to say how much I love all the throwback paint schemes teams are running to honor the tradition of the Southern 500 when it ought to be run.

But I’d like to see NASCAR look at two critical areas when it comes to the cars. One, and you’ve heard this one from several of us before, the front end of the cars needs to come up off the ground by a good six to eight inches or more. Let air get underneath them and that will reduce downforce and make for more turbulent air, lessening the impact of clean air up front. It would also really showcase the talents of the drivers instead of just the engineers.

Tires are another critical area. With the days of bias-ply tires in the rearview mirror, there needs to be a tire that wears quickly, so they are an issue long before the end of a fuel run. This scenario could be achieved by combining a softer tire with the larger 22-gallon fuel cells seen a few years ago. The smaller cells have done little to nothing to change the racing anyway.

I’d also love to see NASCAR go to a system similar to what INDYCAR mandates on road courses: two tire compounds that teams must use both of during the race at some point. One compound is softer and offers better grip but wears out a lot faster. The other is harder, and therefore the car runs slower, but it lasts longer. Teams can choose between them as long as they run each type once. Could it work in NASCAR on the ovals as well as road courses? It might be worth looking at for some tracks. Strategy is and should be part of racing, and adding a new dimension of it in an era where there is little room to work in other areas is an intriguing idea.

Finally, there’s the points system. At the end of the day, a playoff system isn’t what NASCAR expected, and there are a lot of fans who feel that a Chase title is cheaply earned. This season has thrown in an additional wrench: a driver with four wins but who sits just 29th in points after missing 11 races. It’s a moving story, but championship-worthy? That’s a harder sell, especially when that driver will start the Chase with more points than many others who have run the whole season, thanks only to NASCAR’s reset. Kyle Busch didn’t deserve what happened to him at Daytona; no driver does.

But should a good story be rewarded with a possible title in a sport where every position and every point is supposed to be so important? That’s a tough call. What NASCAR needs is a system that rewards winning heavily, but that also rewards teams who are out there running every week in the top five, just to a lesser degree. Do that and drivers would be racing for wins and top fives every week. Consistency should matter. Storylines and how stick-and-ball sports do it shouldn’t.

3. Is status quo the way to go?

I was happy to hear that NASCAR is keeping the original rules package in place for this year’s Chase. Yes, the low-downforce package looked promising at Kentucky, but it’s been used in one race. That’s just not enough of a sample for teams to know what they’re working with when the championship run begins. NASCAR likes stick-and-ball analogies even if fans don’t, so running the new package in the Chase would be like deciding in batting practice for the World Series that games will only be seven innings and the designated hitter is no longer legal, or deciding before the Super Bowl that you can only punt left-footed. Teams simply wouldn’t have enough time to adjust, and that’s what NASCAR is up against. They’ve run 20 races on the original package, and they know how to adjust on it during a race.

Waiting until 2016 to implement new rules also makes sense for the sport’s smallest teams, who don’t have unlimited money for equipment or wind tunnel time. They will have the offseason to build the inventory they need and to work on it as much as they are able. Holding off gives NASCAR time to make tweaks after Darlington and to test them with some open sessions at Charlotte in December and January if need be. In the long run, it just makes more sense to start with everyone on the same page next year rather than randomly ripping pages out of the book altogether.

4. How hot is too hot?

With the high-drag package out the window, it might not be as critical a concern, but temperatures inside the cars are worth some research on NASCAR’s part. Casey Mears had a thermometer in his car at Michigan that read 155 degrees before lap 40. Unfortunately, Mears bowed out early due to a mechanical failure and we never got to see how high those numbers could go. Now, enduring the elements has always been a part of racing, and rightfully so. But is the heat in the cars an area of safety NASCAR is overlooking?

Most of today’s drivers are in excellent physical condition, and they tolerate the heat well. Still, at a certain point, heat exhaustion is a dangerous possibility and it puts not just one driver in danger, but the entire field. If a driver’s reflexes aren’t what they should be, if he’s feeling sick or dizzy in the car, he becomes a liability. With the technology available in the sport today, maybe it’s time to work in this area of safety.

5. Are looks really deceiving?

When NASCAR developed the current point system, it was supposed to make winning critical to a driver’s success. That was debunked within minutes of the announcement last January, when someone did the math and observed that all other things being equal, a winless driver would have won the title in 2013 under the current rules.

But it wasn’t until later that the real flaw in the system showed up. Realistically, a win all but guarantees a Chase berth, and two, barring disaster, will clinch one. So, every time a different driver wins, the number of those willing to risk disaster for a win goes down, and the number of teams going into Chase test mode increases by one.

Much has been made of the recent performance of drivers like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, who were dominant early in the season but have been decidedly lackluster lately. Are they slumping or experimenting? Look at the summer schedule; only Loudon is on the Chase docket as well. We won’t see an intermediate track with the 2015 package until Chicagoland, and how those teams are doing with the new packages is irrelevant. The last drivers to win at 1.5-mile ovals are Carl Edwards and Johnson, both of whom have been much quieter ever since.  My guess from watching and listening to the teams and drivers is that Johnson is struggling a lot more than Harvick is, but in any case, not many teams are really pushing the limits right now, which is the opposite effect from what NASCAR expected.

But at the end of the day, should sandbagging really be a part of a major sport? For teams, under these rules, it’s a no-brainer; if it will win a championship, it’s worth a minor drought. But is that kind of thinking fair to fans, and is it a fatal flaw in a system that was flawed from the start?

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    NASCAR still is not hearing or believing their eyes..I am still amazed that most of these teams didn’t pack up and say screw NASCAR!

    Brian so much as said he likes the pack racing. That isn’t racing, it is just juicy good footage for him and his buddies at Fox and NBC to constantly sell to idiots via commercials that this is what NASCAR is all about. Real fans know better.

    Nobody “deserves” to be in a wreck, but that is part of racing and each driver knows this. To give Kyle special consideration because NASCAR didn’t put up safety barriers or whatever reason, should not be part of the argument The original “Chase” and this most recent version DOES cheapen the Championship, look who almost was hoisting the now meaningless trophy last year. Nope if Kyle gets “The Championship”, put a fork in it. But the new age give a trophy for showing up crowd will probably flood Castle Daytona with praise, furthering the nail in the coffin of this once great sport. Guess what, sh ee t happens, and they race agaij next year. Kye isn’t special or unique, we all have stuff happen to us and if we have the opportunity to try again next time WE DO!

  2. Avatar

    6. When will Brian get it?

    Johnson can’t drive on soft tires. End of story.

    Can you imagine the cost of the tires if there are two compounds? There would be two sets to choose from for each pit stop. The races are longer than Indy and F1, usually more than double. That’s a lot of tires for Goodyear to manufacture and mount. How soft is soft? Remember the Hoosier and Goodyear tire war?

  3. Avatar

    Kyle’s ‘chase’ eligibility is yet another example of why a ‘playoff’ just doesn’t work for racing. I still say the reason many fans aren’t bowled over by Jimmie Johnson’s run of consecutive titles is because they all happened under this ridiculous format. But, as long as BZF continues to be clueless about racing in general and what fans want to see on the track (pack racing?!), we are stuck with it. What a shame.

  4. Avatar

    I admit I’m in the minority, but I still say if Kyle Busch can score enough points and win enough races to qualify for the chase in 15 races then he deserves to be in it. He’ll be more of a contender for the championship than anyone in positions 11-16, that’s for sure. In the old format prior to the chase, Kyle wouldn’t be a factor, but like it or not, the chase is an elimination format. I don’t like the chase any more than most fans, and I certainly don’t like Kyle Busch, but I think what he has done since his return is quite the accomplishment, and championship-worthy as well.

    • Avatar

      Yes, as another Chase hater, I agree. It has been made into such a farce with eliminations and constant points resets, at least with Kyle you get some performance.

  5. Avatar

    Well the way NASCAR’s brainless leader defines better racing and the way most drivers and fans define it are very different. I would say most of us would agree with your idea, Amy, because pack racing is boring for long stretches of time – until it’s not and then total mayhem with multiple wrecks break out and the crapshoot continues.

    I find it interesting that for a long period of time, many people in the media would loudly proclaim that the fans wanted “more wrecks” when anyone complained about the races being boring and predictable. Phooey. I know I want to see side by side racing and passing. Sure wrecks will happen but that isn’t why I started watching in the first place.

    The chase conversation is one of those things that Brainless and his minions also avoid or obfuscate with their smoke and mirrors about how wonderful it all is and the fans, at least those of us who don’t like the playoff format, have been shouted out and told we are stupid and just don’t get it. I get “it” just fine. I just don’t like it. I’m sorry that Kyle was injured in a wreck, not even in a series that he is racing for a championship in and yes that is on NASCAR and the tracks for not having SAFER barriers in place, but he missed 11 races and the fact that the silly crapshoot scenario allows for him to potentially be the Chase champion is ridiculous. Hey I’ll agree that his winning races and getting back into the top 30 is impressive and take nothing away from his abilities, BUT if not for the points reset for the chase, he would not be eligible to win the big trophy.

    The good news from my perspective — after the end of this season, whether I like it or not will no longer be relevant to me. If I watch, and that’s a big IF, it will be as a casual fan and can be disinterested and disengaged.

    • Avatar

      Yes GinaV24 I agree, the points reset makes the chase a farce above all else but allowing someone who happens to win a race but averages a 20th place finish also sticks in my craw. The only way I could remotely accept the chase format as legit is if the top 5 in points were the only ones that qualified. The field is too watered down and allowing someone who gets a win but otherwise runs mediocre is just wrong.
      I am as sick of worrying about the games NASCAR plays. It’s supposed to be fun but it hasn’t been since Dumbass took over.

      Interesting MWR announcement on Jayski today,

      • Avatar

        Bill B, yes I just happened to see that. I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. Sorry for all those folks who will be out of a job – that is the thing that makes me sad.

        Dennis, yes, I agree that you are correct that most everyone outside the top 3 would indeed be out of contention. Honestly I don’t have a problem with that. If you aren’t good enough all season, why should a crapshoot format allow someone to “steal” a trophy? Kyle is just an example I used. I felt the same way about Newman and Hamlin being in the final crapshoot last year — they ran midpack all season and suddenly they could have lucked into being called “champion”.

        • Avatar

          Yeah, I think most people who were fans before the Chase was instituted really don’t like it. I liked the Latford point system and simply tallying the points accumulated over 36 races and declaring your Champion. That’s how the other motorsports do it. To me, it’s really the only legitimate way.

          BTW, I really hope you find another driver to follow for 2016. Lots of upcoming drivers to choose from if the current crop doesn’t suit. :)

        • Avatar

          Thanks, Dennis, I appreciate the thought about my finding another driver to cheer for in 2016. It’s nice to know that not everyone wants me to go away when Gordon retires. The problem for me is that its NASCAR itself that has turned me off, not the new crop of drivers. I’m just not sure I want to emotionally invest in anyone since that gives NASCAR too much of a hold on me.

          Of course like many others here, NASCAR is strong habit and Gordon will be in the booth for Fox (unfortunately that means I’ll have to put up with the rest of the babbling buffoons in that mix to listen to him) which means that I’ll probably still tune in for some races and comment away – just because. LOL

    • Avatar

      Hi Gina.

      Regarding the points reset, it’s not just Kyle, nearly all of the 16 Chase contenders would be out of it if not for a points reset. Under the pre-Chase format, after 26 races I would think probably only about 3 drivers would have a reasonable shot at the Championship.

  6. Avatar

    I agree the front of the cars should be raised at least six to eight inches. They should also be using shocks and springs just like those used on stock cars. If this was to take place, the corner speeds would slow down and I bet there would be a lot more passing!!!

  7. Avatar

    “1. What, exactly, is NASCAR trying to accomplish?

    The short – and ultimately right – answer is better racing.”

    Oh, how I wish this were true. NASCAR just wanted to keep on adding downforce until they achieved pack racing. Brian’s remarks after the low downforce Kentucky race were stunning. Didn’t see as much “drafting” and “pack racing” as he’d like. The best race in a cookie-cutter we had seen and he didn’t like it. Unfrickenbelievable.

    This is the problem that fans are up against. Brian doesn’t like stock car racing and is trying to take it in a direction it can’t physically go. Just because IndyCars can pack race at Texas and Fontana doesn’t mean a much heavier, more aero-dependent car can. It can’t. But, the dope inherited the job and so we’re stuck.

    You have no idea how much the news hurt me that they won’t be adopting the low downforce Kentucky package for the Chase. Because what they have now has been PROVEN under race conditions not to work. All the reasoning and excuse making in the world will not change that fact. And we’ve seen in the past how testing something doesn’t compare to racing it. NASCAR has proven that as well.

  8. Avatar

    The bigger question may be what will you do when NASCAR is no longer broadcast live. Boring races, fans disguised as empty seats, fewer teams able to afford to “compete” Tape delay on Velocity may not be far away?

  9. Avatar

    I only have one question I ask myself. Why am I watching this? I cannot seem to come up with a satisfactory answer, so I just do not watch it as much.