As is customary during the annual NASCAR Media Tour, Brian France appeared before the media to give his annual State of the Sport address. After extolling the success of the 2015 season, from increased fan attendance to the wild success of the latest iteration of the Chase, he turned his attention to the 2016 season. A significant part of the portion devoted to this coming year is the addition of a Chase-style playoff format to both of the national support series, heat race qualifying for the Dash 4 Cash XFINITY Series races and an experimental caution clock for the Camping World Truck Series.
Depending on the side of the fence where a fan resides — and there are many sides to the Chase-era fence — they either subscribe to France’s vision of the sport’s success or feel as though he is living in an alternate universe where he sees racing that they do not. For the fans who are on board, they believe that the racing is great and there are nothing but good things on the horizon. For those who feel the wheel man at the head of the sport has lost his compass, this is just another nail in the coffin that will house the remains of their beloved sport in the not-too-distant future.
The Chase is France’s baby, and he continues to nurture it with everything he can muster. A large portion of his argument for including it in Trucks and XFINITY is getting drivers ready to compete in that playoff format when they get to the Cup Series. He also cited survey results that indicate a majority of fans and competitors like the playoff style rather than a historical, season-long champion. That data encourages NASCAR to change the championship format for two series that have had title battles come down to the final race of the season for the majority of the last decade.
One interesting twist for the XFINITY Series is that the Dash 4 Cash will be back in 2016. That program is a race within a race where the top-finishing XFINITY Series regular who is qualified for the Dash in that given race wins $100,000. There are four Dash 4 Cash races throughout the season: Bristol, Richmond, Dover and Indianapolis. Unlike previous years where the drivers qualify for the Dash in one race by their finish in the previous Dash race, this year there will be two heat races that determine the starting positions on the inside and outside rows for the race. The top four qualifiers from the heats (first and second from each heat) will be the drivers eligible for the $100,000 bonus in the given race. The end result is four drivers who have shown they are capable of running up front on a given race day at the track will be battling it out for the oversized check.
The Truck Series will have its own unique twist this season with the addition of a caution clock. When a green flag flies during an event, a clock will begin. If the race stays green until the clock hits the 20-minute mark, a caution flag will be displayed. There won’t be any long, strung-out green-flag runs as a result; the teams will be ensured more opportunities to tune in their cars and it will also keep more cars on the lead lap.
There’s no question that both of these tweaks are designed to gauge their success and popularity with the fans. NASCAR continues to try and play around with qualifying to make it more appealing to fans. The addition of heat races now gives fans more bang for their buck and would also give race tracks a chance to provide more Cup experience during a weekend. Heat races on Saturday with the feature on Sunday will certainly increase the total gate for venues.
Also, the caution clock will eliminate a serious credibility issue for NASCAR. As recent as the end of the race in Homestead last season, a caution that was questionable, at least in some fans eyes, dictated the finish of the race. By having scheduled cautions there isn’t a need for the mystery debris caution when there is a long green run that results in 10 cars on the lead lap. The only drawback is that green flag pitstops will almost certainly become a thing of the past unless there is a car issue.
NASCAR continues to try to alter its product to draw more fans into the stands. It doesn’t always succeed, but it doesn’t always fail either. The hardcore fan base of the ’80s and ’90s is aging. The new millenial demographic does not have the love affair with the automobile that the older generations did. The short attention span, video-game generation seeks technological stimulation and constant action.
Will the changes succeed? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure: It is a fork in the road that is less traveled, and it may lead to nowhere or it may lead to the promised land.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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