It’s sadly that time of year for racing: a time of to reflect, restructure and, most importantly, respect the world of NASCAR for enduring one of the longest seasons in all of professional sports.
This time is a difficult one for many teams. Certain drivers and crews know they will not be returning next year. For teams that are struggling, or even just outside of the title hunt, it is a time that’s not pleasant, with frustrations on the rise and bickering at a maximum. But for title contenders, it is, as they say, the most wonderful time of the year.
As we approach the conclusion of the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, despite a title still being sparred for, it’s time to think ahead to next year. And with few changes coming to the sport’s second-tier division in 2016, it’s worth noting that from the outside looking in, improvements may be few and far between. Ratings have decreased all around, partially caused by online streaming, but also due to the lack of excitement in the NXS.
Things are looking up, though. Somewhat. The series will have a few fresh faces, including a brand new lineup at JR Motorsports and the addition of Erik Jones racing full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing. As every major team will potentially experience at least one driver change, whether that means deducting one or adding a man behind the wheel, it provides a sign of growth for the NXS, one upon which needs to be capitalized.
But how can NASCAR change the NXS next year for the better? Aside from the handful of intriguing team and driver additions, what else can be done to lift the ratings as the series motors on deeper into the second half of the decade?
Well, first, let’s start with the aerodynamics on the racecars. Please, fix them already.
The clean-air advantage has increasingly disgusted people year after year. Over the past three seasons, there have been 17 races with five or fewer lead changes, including four with one or zero passes for the lead. That’s not OK by any means; while it is fine to have a driver dominate a race, it is just extremely grueling to watch an event for approximately two hours when you know who will win the race. Obviously, the dominant car might not always win; just ask Brad Keselowski after Sunday’s Cup Series race at Texas.
With the Cup Series going to a low-downforce package in 2016, it would be great if the NXS did the same. After speaking with several drivers this year – Cup and NXS ones – they have each voiced how easy it is to drive the cars. Holding the throttle wide-open is baffling to me. I remember when I first started watching NASCAR in 2004, the NXS was just as competitive as the Cup Series. It was fun to watch, and the younger drivers were battling for wins every now and then while fighting ill-handling racecars.
With a low-downforce package, the races will be back in the drivers’ hands. They will be able to determine the outcome of the race more so than ever before, providing drivers the opportunity to truly wheel the racecar, rather than holding it wide open at tracks like Charlotte and Texas, where Cup drivers will have the advantage the majority of the time.
The next step is evaluating the willingness of fans to watch these races as long as they are competitive. The major problem recently has been that fans won’t watch the NXS because they feel like a Cup driver will win the race, something evidenced by the slight ratings increases for standalone events.
While watching the O’reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas this past weekend, I had what Jimmy Neutron called “a brain blast.” I witnessed something that I haven’t seen in a while, and it is something I believe we will see more of in 2016.
The Texas race featured no dominant driver. None. The most laps led was 62 out of 200, slightly over 30% of the race, and that was by eventual winner Keselowski. It was arguably the best companion race that we have seen all year. The combination of frequent passes for the lead, along with a healthy 17 cars finishing on the lead lap was impressive for a race that had just four cautions.
But the brightest spot on the day came late in the race. The battle for the lead featured three Cup drivers in Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon – each of whom have won titles in the NXS. Their battle, which spanned the final 15 laps after Kyle Larson blew a tire while leading, was the exact thing that the division needed, giving it momentum heading into Phoenix and Homestead. At a track where passing is at a premium, these three drivers proved that the NXS can be exciting, even if the battle for a win does not include a non-Cup driver.
As the series moves forward into 2016, a spotlight will be on it. Ratings may not go up, nor is it even likely for now; NASCAR is headed into a digital era, where reaching the younger generation requires access to live streams, especially for college students who don’t have access to NBC Sports Network or FOX Sports 1 or 2.
But the best part of all about watching this series re-create itself is that NASCAR is willing to change things up without creating Game 7 moments like adding a playoff system to it. That is the last thing the NXS needs right about now, especially since there is usually an intense title battle like the one we are witnessing this year.
A Look Around Xfinity
- Ross Kenseth will attempt his second career NXS race this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. The son of 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth is entered in the No. 80 Toyota for Hattori Racing Enterprises after running the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville for the organization.
- Dylan Kwasniewski returns to the wheel of the No. 97 car this weekend for the sixth time this year.
- 2014 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series champion Anthony Kumpen is returning to the NXS this weekend. This time around, he will be racing for Rick Gdovic’s Precision Performance Motorsports in the No. 55 car. Kumpen will also be racing at Homestead for the organization.
- On Wednesday, JRM announced the addition of Alex Bowman to the No. 88 car for nine races in 2016. The car still has 14 open races, with announcements expected in the near future for the remainder of the 2016 schedule.