1. Authentic racing
Why did the recent race at Martinsville Speedway have people talking? Because it was uncontrived. Say what you want about stages; if they change the way you ultimately watch a race, you might be looking for something that’s really not there. Even with the stages, what went down was created completely by the competitors and not by NASCAR. And it was great.
The flip side is that races allowed to play out at intermediate tracks without any interference are rarely as exciting, and people complain about the boring finishes. Those happen sometimes, and if the racing is to be real and not manipulated, fans need to accept that authentic doesn’t always mean exciting.
Still, it can be done, especially by adding more short track races to a schedule that’s long overdue for a major overhaul that has nothing to do with who owns what track. It can’t happen for four years, but NASCAR should be serving notice now that it doesn’t owe Bruton Smith or sister entity International Speedway Corporation a set number of races and the way to get more races is to have them at different tracks. Nope, that doesn’t mean bringing back Rockingham or North Wilkesboro, because we need to be realistic. But it could mean races that don’t need anything but the green and checkered flags, with a yellow or a few for an actual cause.
2. Transparent, consistent rules
To give credit where it’s due, NASCAR has improved this area greatly, but there’s still work to be done. It’s not that fans need to read and understand every spec about the cars, but the rules need to be easy to interpret as far as what happens when they’re broken. Penalties should feel like they fit the infraction, which is where there has been a disconnect. Fans don’t necessarily see the need for crew chief suspensions for a couple of missing lugnuts.
But if NASCAR suspends one crew chief for missing nuts, it has to penalize them all. Same goes for parking drivers, even drivers in the playoffs, for damage repair or red flag violations. It’s not fair to rail about NASCAR not following policy one week and then the next turn around and say it’s unfair when they follow it to the letter the following week.
The simple solution is for NASCAR to tweak a few things, like the lugnut rules, though I’m not convinced those rules should change, because it’s a safety issue, and the tightening outside the box if that’s all the team is doing. If that’s not going to be a penalty, and it hasn’t for a year or so, then it shouldn’t be in the rulebook as a penalty. Clarify it, then abide by it. The parking? All good. Those were on the teams to start with, and a playoff team shouldn’t be making that kind of mistake. We need consistency, but we also need to accept consistency.
3. Room to breathe
While we’re on the subject of rules, I’ll be the first to say I completely understand why NASCAR has tightened down on so many things. It’s in the interest of parity and of fairness. The sanctioning body’s one job above all else is to be fair, and things like mandated gears and shocks do help teams that can’t afford endless parts and people to specialize in them at least stay in the game.
But in the interest of the best possible racing, which is something fans deserve and teams want as well, giving teams more areas to work in while finding other ways to create parity through equalizing costs instead of cars is something NASCAR should be pursuing. Cars should fit the templates and other measurements, the engines should be within all tolerances at all times, and from there, find ways for the people on the teams to make their cars better, and for everyone else to figure out how to catch up. Yes, if someone gets too far ahead, NASCAR needs to determine why and whether they need to make a change, but I suspect that if the cars were a bit more unique to team and driver you’d see some different faces in the competitive hunt, and that’s only good.
4. The value of people
When push comes to shove, fans are right that they pay a lot of bills for NASCAR and teams by buying sponsors’ products. It’s not quite as simple as that because there are a lot of corporate dollars in the game as well, and like it or not, the game wouldn’t be there without them.
But fans’ loyalty should be rewarded, and they should feel like someone is listening to their concerns.
That doesn’t mean nothing should ever change in the sport, but change for change’s sake hasn’t kept the old-school fans around or attracted droves of new ones. Sports are unique in that fans usually introduce the next generation of fans to them. I suppose some people just decide to watch a race or a game on TV and become instant diehards, but looking to attract the majority of the fanbase that way isn’t going to be very successful. In other words, if dad loves the Red Sox, he’ll bring his sons and daughters to a game at Fenway, and perhaps the magic will take hold. If the experience is a good one, chances are it will take a tight, lasting hold, and one day it will be a three-generation outing.
It feels like that’s where NASCAR made a crucial judgment error. Instead of making dad want to bring the kids, they went straight to the kids and dad felt alienated and left out. Fans need to feel heard. That doesn’t mean everyone gets everything they want, but every once in a while, taking a step back and realizing that nothing was broken enough for the fixes it’s been given is important. If fans are vocally against something a dozen years later, it’s likely because that thing isn’t working. And it’s OK to admit that, and change it to what fans really want to see, and pay for.
5. A legit champ
It kind of falls in the same basket as No. 4, but if fans are still adding up points under a system that hasn’t been used in the sport in almost 15 years to see who they think should be the champion, there might be something wrong with the system in place.
To be fair to NASCAR, if Martin Truex Jr. had clinched the title in Texas last weekend as some of those number-crunchers claim he would, there would be those fans who would complain about how boring that was, and that’s counterproductive.
But if the championship feels cheap and easy, that isn’t a good look for a sport that wants so badly to be considered an equal with other major sports. Having the same system as those sports doesn’t accomplish that; NASCAR isn’t played one-on-one like football.
It’s also not fair to the drivers who have championships under the playoff system. It’s not Jimmie Johnson’s fault NASCAR put in place the format that he made work to the tune of seven titles. It’s not Kyle Busch’s fault that the sanctioning body allowed him to race for one after missing a third of the season. But because of those rules, their accomplishments seem hollow and undeserved. Even in sports with single-elimination playoffs, like football, it’s rare to hear such large numbers of fans saying a team didn’t earn a Super Bowl berth. But it’s loud and clear in NASCAR, and that’s not doing anyone any favors.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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