Portions of Maine remain buried under 4 feet of snow, but one of the annual harbingers of spring arrives this weekend: The Advance Auto Parts Clash this Saturday night will feature genuine Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars driven in anger for the first time this year as a prelude to the following weekend’s Daytona 500. (Yeah, I’m with you. The Daytona 500 is supposed to run on President’s Day weekend. And I’ve got no issue with the whole Daytona Day marketing concept as long as they spell it correctly; Daytona Daze.)
The Clash dates all the way back to 1979. In its original form, it couldn’t have been any more simple an event. The race was open only to drivers who had claimed a pole position at a NASCAR Cup race the previous season. The race was all of 20 laps long (50 miles at Daytona), with caution flag laps not counting toward the total. Buddy Baker won that race, which lasted less time than some singers at the races drag out the Star Spangled Banner. Like most things in NASCAR over the last few decades, the Clash has become more bloated, convoluted and tougher to understand as of late, sort of the Fat Elvis of sprint races.
Of course, those of you who haven’t been keeping up during the off-season may need to be reminded that Sprint done packed up their rock and rolled at the conclusion of the 2016 season. Monster Energy is the new entitlement sponsor. And that will be the last time you see that name in my columns. It’s Cup racing for the premier stock car series, NXS (XFINITY Series) for the AAA division and Trucks (Camping World Truck Series) for the one with tailgates. I write content, not advertisement.
But you’ll get a less than subtle reminder of the change if you bring your cell phone to a race this year. Sprint won’t be bringing those big cell signal booster trucks anymore, so y’all will be get to see just how bad Sprint service sucks here in the real world. As for what Monster is going to bring to the table, as far as changes to the sport nobody knows — least of all Monster executives, it would seem. This was one of those last-minute nuptials when the bride-to-be showed up six months pregnant. I have read that they plan to hand out full cans of their beverage to the fans. Just as long as there’s a crash cart and a cardiologist nearby for those fans over 40, like most of us. Nope, going Carrie Fisher at Darlington isn’t in my playbook this year. Then again, I’ve always considered Coors Light an energy drink.
Some of you will be stunned to see that Carl Edwards won’t be participating in this year’s reindeer games. Yep, ol’ Carl hopped a Greyhound west as well. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Others aren’t convinced. There are rumbles that Edwards might be being paid by Arris, his previous sponsor, to yield the seat to 2016 NXS champion Daniel Suarez. Said rumor claims that Edwards will return in 2018 as a third Penske driver leading Fords increased involvement with Cup. Others say he’ll be the lead driver for Dodge’s return to Cup racing. It’s an interesting concept in that a stock Dodge Hellcat would have to be de-tuned to be eligible to compete. Still others say Edwards has his sights on running for senator of Missouri.
The latest I’ve heard is Edwards is being offered a position in the new presidential administration. They want him to sedate Kellyanne Conway and drag her back to her kennel at night so her incessant bad-tempered yapping at the press doesn’t keep Melania up all night.
None of the above is probably true, but kudos to Edwards for leaving everyone guessing. Better to have them wonder how many more races you could have won if you stayed than prove to everyone you were through winning well before you retired. Like Darrell Waltrip, for instance.
It’s important to start out the season on a positive note to maintain one’s sanity late in the season. Hope crushed and torn asunder beats no hope at all, after all. NASCAR announced it will have a traveling medical team like the open wheel series. Hooray! Let’s face it: for an injured driver, a familiar face and voice after a serious crash will be a huge comfort. And as well-meaning and skilled as local paramedics are, they simply don’t have training in how to cut into the jungle gym worth of rollbar tubing to extricate a driver from a modern stock car. This idea is long overdue (seems I started touting it back in the late ’90s), dating back if not to when Robert Young played a doctor on TV at least to when he shilled caffeine-free coffee to those behaving badly.
In another good move, NASCAR announced a new policy for cars that suffer serious body damage in a crash. If the damage is so extensive that it has to be taken to the garage area, that driver’s day is over. On pit road, teams have five minutes to make necessary repairs and cannot replace any major panels. (No more taping a dumpster lid on in place of a door.) After that, the car must get up to minimum speed or it will be parked for the duration of the race. That doesn’t apply to mechanical damage, so I suppose cars can still go the garage area for stuff like a news transmission or truck bar. (Yes, it is truck bar. Trust me on this.)
On the surface, I’m all for this — no more wrecked race cars returning to the track shedding parts the way a golden retriever fresh out of a dip in the crick sheds fleas. No more debris cautions brought out by the 35th-place car. No more having a driver who is running 73 laps down blow yet another right front tire and inadvertently decide who wins a race or championship.
On the other hand, there’s no rule that an entry that drops a couple cylinders can’t keep running out there until the engine expires in a cloud of oil and mechanical shrapnel too small for a sieve to catch. Both problems could have been eliminated by awarding no points to any driver who finishes 20th or worse. Keep it simple stupid, remember?
Oh, and speaking of points, NASCAR isn’t keeping those simple at all.
So let’s see. Where do I start? Beginning this year, Cup races will be run in three segments. Segment one and segment two are roughly , though not exactly (it varies by track), the one-quarter and halfway points of the event. Segment three is what we used to call “the rest of the race.” Drivers who are running first through 10th at the end of each segment will be awarded from 10 to one point(s) in descending finishing order.
Hallelujah, NASCAR has officially dropped the term the Chase for its championship-deciding, 10-race finale. See, NASCAR finally figured out fans hated the Chase. So they kept it around, but will call it something else. The bad news is you have brain cancer. The good news is from now on we’ll refer to it as a headache.
At the end of the race the winning driver will be awarded five bonus points. The winner of each segment will get one bonus point. Bonus points are special. They don’t count towards making the playoffs, but if you do make the playoffs you carry your bonus points total with you into the rounds. As long as you advance to the next round, you get to keep those bonus points as well as any new bonus points a driver might have accumulated during that four-race segment. If you don’t advance to the next round, your bonus points are each good for a free basket of dinner rolls at the season-end awards banquet. Or someone told me that, anyway.
At the end of each race segment, the yellow flag will be thrown. If the race is under a naturally occurring caution period, the driver who is leading following the pace car gets 10 bonus points. Yep, fans have been clamoring for drivers to get points for leading laps under cautions. Take a scenario where 10 laps before segment one ends a caution flies for a hot dog wrapper on the track. (Or maybe a fistful of confetti from a shredded copy of Danica Patrick’s previous sponsor agreement.) It looks like it’ll be a quick caution and the tires are badly worn on most cars so it will likely be a sprint to the end of the segment so most of the front runners pit. A couple stay out. NASCAR takes forever to clean up the track, because dagnabit, those hot dog wrappers are dangerous. You can get a bad papercut if you don’t handle one carefully. So the segment ends under yellow. Y’all storm the Bastille. I’ll be hiding under my covers.
Yes, laps count under the caution flag. This is supposed to be part of the beauty of the new system. When the segment ending caution flies, the network will go to commercial. They’ll return from commercial to show pit stops, then cut away to commercial again. When they come back, they’ll do a radio interview with the leading driver and his crew chief for reasons only apparent to the network types, and then the green flag will fly again and doubtless merriment will ensue.
I’ve read that FOX and NBC have said the delays after each segment will only last five minutes, and it’s better they happen with the field under caution then when the green flag is out. Isn’t that what all you ungrateful urchins have been bellyaching about? But the thing is, a simple debris caution already makes for a two-commercial-break interruption minus any attempt to talk to the leader, his crew chief and possibly his wife if she’s hot enough. My guess is that each segment will actually end with about 15 minutes of no actual action on the track.
At the end of the race, the old standard points are handed out in the same format as last year, only this year there’s no more one-point bonus for leading a lap and no more bonus for leading the most laps. I’ve reached out for clarification, but nobody has gotten back to me on whether a race win in the first 26 races still automatically punches your ticket to the post-season irrespective of the bonus and regular points totals. Maybe they don’t know yet. There will still be green-white-checkered finishes at the end of the races, but not at the end of the segments.
Oh, and it’s not like it ever rains at the racetrack, but just in case such an odd situation develops the races will now be called official at the end of the second segment and not the halfway point, as had been traditional. In a lot of instances, but not all races, the halfway point will be the end of segment two anyway. But if the rain ends the race at the end of segment two, everyone gets their regular points but the top 10 doesn’t get their bonus points. The ones that you get to carry with you into the playoffs. Not the ones that get you into the playoffs. Clear as mud, right? I’ll also be curious to see if a car is found to be illegal after a race does that driver lose any bonus points they might have earned in the first two segments as well as the regular points penalty NASCAR assigns them? Like they used to say, stay tuned, buckaroos.
Yep, clear as mud and half as bright. “Uncle Matt,” I can hear some of you whining, “I can’t even spell preposterous, but this new points system surely seems preposterous to me.” Don’t shoot the piano player. Surprisingly, I wasn’t asked for my opinion on this aberration. Had I been, I’d have offered what I’ve been hearing from the fans for years. They weren’t looking for an overly complex new points system with two different sorts of points. They wanted to see a new points system that rewarded winning to a lot greater degree as well as solid top-10 finishes, not cruising. I’d have suggested 500 points for the winner, 350 for second place, 225 for third, 175 for fourth, 150 for fifth and so on down in about five to 10 points per position down to 19th. No points at all for finishing 20th or worse.
The thinking here is that the races will be more exciting because drivers will be running hard all race trying to accrue bonus points rather than cruising and waiting to make a charge at the end. Certainly the new system will invite some new and novel pit strategies. But the new system isn’t going to work, I guarantee it. Why? Keep it simple, stupid. Stephen Hawkings would throw up his hands if he was able trying to sort this math out. And the number one reason the new points system is going to be a disaster along the lines of New Coke is, in fact, simple.
Under the new points system, another driver can accumulate more points than the winner of the event — you know, the guy who gets the trophy and big check? Say driver A wins the first two segments but a blown tire late in the race drops them to a 10th-place finish. driver B has a slow pit stop early in the race and while they’re driving both guns blazing they just miss the top 10 in both segments. A nifty bit of pit strategy and bad luck on the part of others allows driver B to win the race. Driver A gets 50 points (30 for finishing 10th and 10 for winning each segment). Driver B gets 40 points (but of course they also get five bonus points to carry into the playoffs while driver B only gets two bonus points, one for each segment win).
That just ain’t going to work. In the major sports whoever scores the most points wins. The only two sports I can think of where a winning score is lower than a losing score are golf and trials motorcycle events. Let’s say the NFL had a similar system in place for the Super Bowl, which I imagine was one of those game 7 moments for which Brian France is eager. Certainly game 7 of this year’s World Series was a game 7 moment. Funny how that works out.
But if the NFL awarded the Falcons a bonus point each for leading the first, second and third quarters, the game would have been ruined (unless you’re a diehard Falcons fan. They would have won). The winning driver will probably still continue to earn the most points in most races. But eventually they won’t. And when the winner of a race doesn’t get the most points, there will be equal parts screaming and head scratching. Along with a whole lot of folks commenting in the section below, they’ll never watch another NASCAR race. And perhaps they won’t. This off-season, I tried explaining the new points system to two friends, both of whom I’d say are casual NASCAR fans. They at least know who won each race and ask me what happened during the sections they missed. If there’s nothing better going on they may even flip on a few races especially early in the season when the weather is still bad and the motorcycles are still hibernating. In one instance, I even used a chalkboard to try to explain things. Both of my friends told me they won’t be following NASCAR at all anymore. It’s too damn confusing.
The second reason the new NASCAR system won’t work is that the powers that be addressed the wrong problem. I genuinely do not believe most drivers run the races on cruise control, with the obvious exception of the plate tracks. They’d like to be up there scrapping for the lead. That gets their cars with their sponsor’s livery on TV (unless you’re Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gets a half hour of TV time just for showing up), which makes up all those precious Joyce Julius minutes that keep said driver gainfully and lucratively employed.
The problem has been for decades — and remains to be — the aerodynamics of the cars. In stock car racing’s Golden Era, the racecars were about as aerodynamic as steam locomotives running the Great Northern out of Cheyenne. Those cars punched such huge holes in the air that often times the second place driver had an advantage in that they could use the draft to make a slingshot pass of the car ahead of them practically at will. That’s what we need to get back to. Oh, NASCAR keeps trimming spoiler and raising splitters, but within a month most of the teams have found a way to negate the loss of down pressure if not improve those figures. It’s time to take the plunge for real. Make the cars boxier — you know, sort of like their street stock counterparts. I don’t give a flying fig if they have to mount enclosed ski carrier racks on the roof of the race cars to slow ‘em down and let ’em pass.
For sure, Daytona is an inopportune place to debut this Rube Goldberg-ian points system. It has been announced that the first two segments at the Daytona 500 will each be 60 laps long, followed by the 80-lap final segment. My guess is that the racers will hold back until somewhere between lap 50 and 55 (then again until lap 110 to 115) then make a charge to the front in the waning laps of the segment. That’s just the nature of plate racing these days, and plate racing is yet another problem NASCAR has yet to address.
But perhaps I’m wrong. After all everyone on stage during the announcement tacitly admitted, yeah, it’s a little confusing but give it a chance and watch what happens. It’s going to be the greatest racing ever. You’ll figure it all out in a couple weeks. (I was once told the same about Finnegan’s Wake in high school, and I’m still waiting.) It was an interesting press conference I am sure the vast majority of you didn’t watch. NASCAR did some things smart; it only had Brian France trot out and offer some quick opening remarks, then hustling him off-stage before he could start sweating like a perv during a traffic stop with a trunk full of bloody girl scout uniforms like at the last press conference. And perhaps they got France a drink to keep his hands from trembling so badly.
The panel on hand included four big-name drivers, some big team owners, network and car manufacturer big shots and, of course, the rest of NASCAR’s top brass. (They were the ones eating library paste when they thought the camera wasn’t on them.) Oddly enough there was no representative from the new title sponsor on hand. I think someone at the energy drink headquarters must have decided this a potential bomb, and we’ll distance ourselves a bit from it until we see how it plays out rather than alienating fans right from Jump Street by signing on.
But for such a diverse group, all these fellows (and they were in fact all fellows) were on the same page. They are so darn excited about this new points system. This going to be the best racing EVER. On ANY planet. You just wait and see, fans. This is everything you’ve been asking for. (No, actually, it ain’t.) NASCAR is about to soar to un-presidented heights of popularity; it’s going to be UUUGGE, bigly!
Or at very least perhaps TV ratings and ticket sales will stop hemorrhaging as badly.
All their opinions were so carefully choreographed it’s a wonder they didn’t all stand up and dance in unison like the Rockettes while singing Southern Hymns in voices like angels. It’s rare any three of this group of people agree on anything. So what’s going on? Reading between the lines I think the message is finally getting through to the principals (the ones NASCAR calls stakeholders), that the good ship NASCAR has done scraped an iceberg and is taking a stern up attitude that can no longer be ignored. It doesn’t matter if you’re a driver, a team owner, a NASCAR official or anyone else who earns a huge income from the sport, the lifeboats got sold off on eBay back around 1997 during the glory days, and if the ship sinks all hands go down with it.
Somewhere lost in the dearth of actual information this off-season was something I caught in a press release, concerning Danica Patrick’s divorce from her former sponsor Nature’s Bakery. Stewart-Haas Racing says the snack folks owe them millions of dollars. The snack folks say no, they don’t, because Patrick pushed other healthy products besides theirs on social media. (To those of us who grew up before social media, which is about everyone who can legally purchase a beer, it would seem the much-vaunted technology is a double-edged sword.) They’ll work it out. But somewhere in that press release was a statement by Nature’s Bakery that said the sponsorship was a bust anyway. They saw no appreciable gains in sales or market share while they sponsored Patrick.
Remember, that’s been the peg NASCAR hangs it hat on for decades. NASCAR fans, millions upon millions of them, were the most loyal to sponsors who were part of the sport. I recall when Bill Elliott (who was the Dale Earnhardt Jr. of his era before he became Chase Elliott’s dad) switched from carrying Coors Light colors to Budweiser, fans were aghast, some near to tears. But they went ahead and switched to Bud anyway. Yet here we have the sport’s second most popular driver, and she can’t sell any healthy damn cookies? That ain’t good. Though frankly, I’m not surprised. The average NASCAR fans I know consider a package of Ho-hos and a six pack as a healthy meal.
Folks, that’s “game over” time.
So let the games start,
You better run your little heart apart,
You can run through all the night and all the day,
But just across the county line,
A stranger passing through put up a sign,
That counts the men fallen away (and the bonus number of men fallen away)
To the price you pay……..
-Bruce Springsteen…..well, I did add that one little part.-
Note: Just wanted to add one more quick thought because this is a pet peeve of mine that will likely come up many times in the next few months. A press release today noting that Jamie McMurray will be driving a Big Mac-themed car in the Clash went on to note that, “McMurray is a two-time winner in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition at Daytona.” Really? How the hell did that happen? There’s never been a Monster Energy Cup race run at Daytona. In fact, there’s never been a Monster Energy Cup race run to date. It’s sort of like all the hoopla over Richard Petty winning seven Sprint Cup championships. The King never even drove in a Sprint Cup race. Nor did Dale Earnhardt Sr. ever win a Sprint Cup title. That’s not surprising. The Intimidator never competed in a Sprint Cup race. He was killed at Daytona three years before Sprint (well actually Nextel at that point) took over title sponsorship. And that’s why I simply use “Cup” when discussing NASCAR’s top touring division.