NASCAR addressed the media to kick off the 2016 Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour and announced a host of changes to its three national touring series for the new season. There were hints that a Chase format was coming for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series, and the addition of a low-downforce package was something everyone assumed would happen after its success with fans last season. Here are the big things we learned from NASCAR Tuesday, and what they really mean for the sport.
1. It’s all about that Chase
A Chase format, complete with eliminations, is coming to the XFINITY and Truck series, whether fans like it or not. The XFINITY Series field will feature 12 drivers to start a seven-race title run with two eliminations (first to eight, then the final four at Homestead). The Truck Series will include eight drivers to start the final seven races, with the first elimination to six and the second to the championship four. The Sprint Cup format remains unchanged.
NASCAR’s reasoning for the addition of the Chase to all series is that it adds consistency. Does it? Sure, but that doesn’t make it any more legitimate a way to crown a series champion. If anything, the two series have shown in recent years that a Chase format wasn’t needed to make the title race exciting, but instead of making the Cup title mean what it should by eliminating the format, they sullied the other series to hide the reality. Those series had some exciting battles that came down to the final race in recent years with no manipulation of the system and no unearned points given to drivers. Matt Crafton’s runaway title in 2014? Completely and totally earned, and it in no way harmed the series. Matt Kenseth’s 2003 title run didn’t hurt the Cup Series, either, in reality; it was just a convenient excuse to add another to the long and growing list of gimmicks the sport has endured in recent years.
2. Some form of franchising is going to happen
NASCAR hadn’t hammered out a final deal with team owners on a charter system that will guarantee (reportedly) up to 36 full-time teams a starting spot in a likely reduced Cup field. Beyond the obvious security of making the field every week, it’s unclear what value this will really bring to teams. If that’s it, and the big teams are all chartered, it means very little to most beyond. But could it actually make the sport stronger and better for fans?
Well yes. If—and it’s a big if—three things happen.
First, there needs to be some sort of revenue sharing to help underfunded teams be more competitive with the giants. Guaranteed minimum purses, sharing of souvenir money—somehow, some way, there needs to be a way for smaller teams to grow.
Second, the only fair way to hand out the charters is by longevity of a team within the sport. That’s the individual team, not the organization as a whole. In other words, the 36 race teams who have been in Cup the longest get rewarded. That means no charters for the No. 19 or the No. 41—they would have to race in each week unless another team agrees to sell their charter for the year (which, for a little team, could prove profitable), but it ensures a spot for someone like Leavine Family Racing. It’s the only fair way to do it.
Finally, there needs to be a guarantee of not only a start, but a certain amount of television airtime for teams, because that’s a big part of how sponsors measure value. Guaranteed starting spots are all but worthless if a team gets no mention during the event. It doesn’t have to be equal time or even a lot of time, but every car should be shown and mentioned at least a few times in every race–and every driver who goes to infield care after a crash should be reported on. Value comes from being seen, not just from participating.
3. The countdown clock replaces green-flag pit stops in the Truck Series
The trucks will begin every green-flag run on the clock in 2016. In other words, at the start of the race and at every subsequent restart a 20-minute clock will begin running toward zero. If that time runs out without a caution, there will be a competition yellow. Tire rules will be adjusted to reflect the new format, which eliminates one aspect of NASCAR competition entirely: scheduled green-flag pit stops. While that may help some young or underfunded teams be more competitive, it takes away strategy… and experience.
This is just an attempt to make the racing tighter without resorting to mysterious debris cautions on long runs. In other words, a gimmick. Heaven forbid a race play out naturally, even if that means someone has a big lead. It takes away pit and fuel strategy, which is a key part of racing, especially in an age where there is little room for mechanical innovation.
But could it also be a safety issue? There is the potential for that to happen. A driver coming through the ranks from short-track racing may have little to no experience making live, green-flag pit stops, and he’s not going to get it in trucks, either. That makes it possible to have a driver making his first-ever live green-flag stop in an XFINITY or Cup car, running at higher speeds with more cars on the track. Even experienced drivers make mistakes trying to blend into the field after a stop (remember Kevin Lepage at Talladega? In case you don’t, the video is below), and now there could be guys doing it for the first time at Daytona or Talladega? Yikes.
4. It’s the digital age
Sprint Cup teams will be required to run digital dashboards this year. That shouldn’t be much of a change for fans, and with the information they can relay, it could help drivers and crew chiefs communicate about what’s working and what’s not. Drivers will have direct access to information such as lap times, so they can see instant feedback about whether an adjustment or line change is working. As long as it’s not distracting to drivers, and after a little time it shouldn’t, it will help teams go faster.
There’s a small downside in that this is just another added cost, and a fairly significant one, to teams, and not all of them have the funding to easily absorb that cost. That means the money comes from the parts and pieces that make the car go faster, and that’s not a good thing for anyone.
5. The low-downforce package is now just the package
If the races at Kentucky and Darlington got you excited, then you’ll love the new rules package, which features a lower-downforce package at all tracks except Daytona and Talladega. While there’s certainly more work to be done, it’s a step in the right direction for the sport. If races are naturally exciting, there’s less room for manipulation such as debris cautions.
But a word of caution: Teams are going to figure the package out, and that will level things out on the track a bit. They’ll find ways to add downforce back as time goes on. The missing piece here is the front end of the cars; until NASCAR gets it off the ground significantly, as in several inches, aero dependence and downforce will rule the day. Still, the change is overall a good one, at a time when the sport needs some positive news. Bravo to NASCAR for making some changes for the better.
6. The heat is on
The XFINITY Series will pay homage to its short-track roots this summer during the four-race Dash 4 Cash. Those races (Bristol, Richmond, Dover and Indianapolis) will feature heat races to set the field. After initial qualifying to determine who makes the field, there will be a pair of 25-lap races to set the starting lineup. With the exception of Indy (can we say strung out?), there should be plenty of action as drivers try to weasel the best sports away from faster qualifiers. They’ll have to balance risk with reward as a crash would be disastrous, but that’s all just part of racing. It should be fun for drivers and fans, and could lead to a shakeup or two in the field.
The only downside here? They aren’t doing it every week.