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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five (Plus One): Things We Learned From NASCAR’s State of the Sport

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.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
Will a new agreement help small teams like Wood Brothers Racing compete? (Photo: Amy Henderson)

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Frontstretch Five (Plus One): Things We Learned From NASCAR’s State of the Sport”

  1. Quintessential NASCAR. No longer can any straight faced fan defend NASCAR for conducting a sporting event with integrity and without manipulation. Just months ago Cup fans saw the fallacy in NASCAR’s Chase and how the driver’s manipulated it. So rather than fix the problem, NASCAR doubles down and creates a Chase for both Trucks and BGN. Dumb. And then there is the “Caution Clock”. Is is April 1st? This has to be some kind of joke, right? No… this is just more of the obstinacy and idiocy of BZF. NASCAR is to auto racing as the WWE is to Greco-Roman wrestling. They only share the name, and are 100% about “entertainment”.

    Quintessential NASCAR….manipulated, complicated, obstinate sports entertainment.

    BZF’s destruction of his Dad’s and Grandfather’s company is nearly complete.

  2. I said it once and I will say it again…it is truly frightening how out of touch this man is. And yet again he blames “the fans” for wanting this and that. What fans, who are they?? Nobody wants the “Chase” or any other stupid ideas. Fans want fair and good racing. Period. Matt Crafton, Chase Elliot whomever…won the title fair and square and we knew they wrapped it up before the contrived bull at Homestead that plagues the Cup series. So what? And now they are just flat out admitting to and proud of the upcoming truck racing manipulation. People are more than shocked/pissed about these developments and The Little Emperor is just pleased as hell with himself. It is baffling. Nail, meet coffin.

  3. Brian’s lapdog Steve O. is telling the irate masses on his twitter feed “to give it a chance”. Seriously Stevie, the fan have been more than patient with you idiots, and now clocks, more chase crap, mandated time outs etc. Why, oh why can a fan just watch a fair and competitive race. You people are idiots and the biggest manipulators. What is in the water where you people live and work. It is truly baffling.

  4. KB…perhaps BZF has been drinking the water in Flint, Michigan? Guess that lead poisoning affects the brain much faster than we knew.

  5. While its easy to pile on BZF I wont in this case. I guess I’m ambivalent about the Chase, to me the individual races are more important than a championship. That said the Xfinity and truck series are teetering on the brink of irrelevance so they had to do something. Is this the best way? Who knows, but I dont see how it could be much worse than whats been happening.
    Imagine the excitement- the field of Xfinity Chase contenders competing tooth and nail at Homestead for 10th place behind the Cup light cars. Warms the heart doesn’t it. LOL.

  6. i’m still shaking my head at the 20 lap break that i saw for the truck series. talk about putting in commerical breaks.

    by the way what tv station will be carrying the truck races? fs1/fs2? i can’t remember.

    guess now i can consider dropping cable as na$car doesn’t care if i tune in or not.

  7. Brian is delusional and over-qualified for irrational man! He needs to get out of the vault more often to see the flames as NA$CAR burns.

  8. I’m getting closer to giving up my tickets. I’m down to 3 cup races from a high of 13 in 1987. I’m not going to both Dover Xfinty series races after the changes and will not be going to the Truck race at Daytona this year either. Somebody please give BZF his meds.

  9. I see brians up to it again..Lets be clear-The Kentucky & Darlington races were Outstanding (best ever @ Kentucky) Due to a lower down force effect, but no way to use that last season..brian is embarrassed as he is exposed for not having a clue to what the Fans actually want. So he says for 2016 we will reduce downforce , but not by the amount we had in 2015(I’m guessing he hopes it won’t perform as well & therefor he can say”see it didn’t make it better”) & then go back to the box the engineers like so much. He can not admit he is WRONG with his foresight of this industry..Now we have the chase that most people seem to despise(personally think the biggest issue is the poor on track performance) & since the Xfinity & Truck series had very good finish’s(many have use go there cause quite often the racings better)& were very entertaining , brian must now eliminate that format because it’s better & we don’t want the public thinking that anything but the chase krap is the way to go..Sure would be better if this clown would just admit when he’s wrong…Some one this incompetent would do what for a living if the family didn’t have a job for him..I wonder how his decision making process would work then..Lose the splitter & that massive spoiler & Let Em Drive

  10. The addition of the Chase format to Trucks and NXS was inevitable. Compare the three series in 2015: The Truck and NXS champions were all but assured before the green flag dropped at Homestead. Even if an upset were mathematically possible, only a massive failure by Jones or Buescher would have gotten Crafton or Elliott back into contention. In the Cup race, 3 of the 4 contenders looked like winners at different points of the race and it all finally came down to a perfect restart by the eventual champion.

    I don’t assert that the Chase guarantees the most “fair” result, but the old system was riddled with flaws as well. And whoever said life or sports was fair? (Green Bay Packer fans are still crying in their Cheese over a coin toss.) The Chase is more entertaining and that is what ALL sports are about in the 21st century.

  11. BZF doesn’t care about the fans. All he cares about is the revenue from increased commercial advertising that a caution flag every twenty minutes or less will result in.

    A digital dash might confuse NASCAR drivers?
    How about what F1 drivers have to deal with?
    And, NASCAR drivers still have no way of accurately meeting a pit speed limit. Come on NASCAR even a tire change will give you a different tachometer reading. Maybe they’ll program the dash to display a happy-face; that would make more sense than using GPS.

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