NASCAR made some fairly significant schedule changes this week for the 2020 season, the biggest swing at what had become a stagnant calendar for several years. The sanctioning body has hinted more changes are to come as current track contracts come to an end and the seventh-generation cars are phased in for 2021.
But is change really a good thing? It depends, of course. Meaningful change can lead to improvement and growth, but change for change’s sake falls far short of that mark.
Let’s take a deeper look at a few of the changes NASCAR fans have seen over the last several years. Did the sanctioning body make the right moves?
The Change: NASCAR Playoffs
The good: The 10-race playoff system breaks up a 36-race season into two distinct chunks. There’s the “regular season,” 26 races during which drivers attempt to qualify to run for a title. Then, there’s the playoffs, formerly known as the Chase, which crowns the year-end champion. With the champion guaranteed not to be crowned before the final race, it provides an element of surprise.
The not good: One race does not a champion make. The current format is less likely to give fans the best driver in the sport in a given year. Take a look at 2018: Joey Logano was not the best driver for most of the season, though his title run was beautifully executed.
His championship trophy, like many others, seem a bit tarnished next to the ones that were earned over the full, grueling season with no chance at a points reset just in time to save someone’s last hope. Many fans don’t see Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles, all won in this era, as equal to those won by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt under a full-season format, and it’s hard to say they’re wrong. Nobody wants a less-worthy champion.
The bottom line: NASCAR missed this one, big time. Very few fans who were opposed to it in 2004 have warmed to it over the years, and it’s not a good look for a major sport to have a championship that’s considered cheaply won compared to others. NASCAR doesn’t fit neatly into the playoff systems of other sports, and the sanctioning body tries too hard to insert it there anyway. The element of having to perform every single week to be a champion, without the benefit of a points reset or weeks of knowing you’re locked into the title hunt, made winning it that much more meaningful. It’s sad the sport has lost that exclusivity in the shuffle, and the playoffs haven’t done anything to help their viewership recover.
The Change: Team Charters
The good: The charter system ensures teams who race every week and perform well are locked into each race. Prize money is distributed among charter teams at a higher level than open teams, rewarding them for showing up every week. There’s also the potential, though it hasn’t happened yet, for NASCAR to more heavily regulate spending by teams. NASCAR owns their charters and can presumably revoke them as well if teams don’t like their mandates.
The not good: It’s now much harder for new teams to enter the sport. Non-charter teams get a smaller piece of the prize money, making it that much harder to grow from a part-time team to a full-time one. Many races have a full field of 36 charter teams but no open teams. Very few races have more than 40 cars show up, so there’s not much suspense to be had on qualifying day.
The bottom line: The charter system doesn’t really hurt anything. There’s currently room for open teams to make races every week, and there are often charters to be had for sale or lease. A new team with the money to compete isn’t really hampered by it. It’s hard to say it’s the reason other teams rarely come and play as that was already happening. Regardless of format, many small teams have come and gone in recent years.
But NASCAR needs to use their charter power as a bargaining chip. For example, how about, “Hey, we’re imposing a spending cap, and if you don’t like that, we’ll be taking that charter back now, thank you.”
Without that push from the top? It’s a system that’s fairly worthless for fans as it won’t change much about team operations.
The Change: Group Qualifying
The good: The reason NASCAR gives for the group format is it makes qualifying part of the weekend’s show. The idea is that fans are more likely to buy tickets for qualifying day if it’s spiced up a bit.
The not good: Even putting aside the fiasco NASCAR faced at Fontana a couple of weeks ago, which prompted new rules and penalties for drivers trying to play the system, the current qualifying setup isn’t the right way to set the field. This year’s aero package all but guarantees the driver who rolls off first in the final session will not have a shot at the pole. It literally caused the waiting game at Fontana that saw zero drivers take a time in round three. No matter how you slice it, that’s not fair.
NASCAR’s goal should be that no driver should face a disadvantage before he even makes a run. While it’s true that qualifying order was important in single-car runs if the track either heated or cooled during the session, this format magnifies the disadvantage to an unacceptable level.
The other problem is that the fastest car should win the pole if the driver doesn’t make a mistake. With three rounds, that’s not always the case; it becomes as much about tire conservation as speed. Do fans want the fastest driver up front or the one who saved his Goodyears? It’s safe to say few would choose the latter.
The bottom line: There was never a good reason to move away from single-car runs. Those set the field in the fairest way possible. The other good thing about that old format? A lot more teams got mentioned on television as opposed to the few that get all the attention now. Fans who follow any driver outside a small, elite title-contending group don’t get much during a race weekend. At least when single-car qualifying was a thing, they had that.
Along with the playoffs, qualifying is the biggest example of change for change’s sake NASCAR has made. And, just like the playoffs, it takes away from what racing is supposed to be.
The Change: NASCAR-mandated Suspensions and Gears
The good: This adjustment is possibly the oldest change here, as it began at least 20 years ago, but it’s significant. At one time, teams had a lot of choices to make among shock absorbers, springs, gears and other components that have since been changed to common, NASCAR-mandated ones. Coming to the track with more parts than AutoZone is expensive, and the change was meant to save money for teams. That comes from a good place as it has cut down on failures from when teams pushed limits. Again, that’s good for team’s bottom lines, especially ones that don’t have deep pockets to start with.
The not good: There’s little for teams to work with in terms of finding a legal advantage in a car their driver is more comfortable in. There’s also much less risk involved for teams, who no longer have to gamble between a faster car or one that will last the race. That, in turn, takes away from what fans see on the track. There’s not much element of worry anymore, not much rush of emotion as a favorite driver has a great car but wonders if he has an engine or suspension problem. Taking emotion, even if it means fans swearing like sailors if their driver falls victim to a gear choice, away from racing is not a good thing.
The bottom line: When the seventh-generation car debuts, it would be the perfect time for NASCAR to open choices back up for teams with suspensions and gears. While it might increase the chances of a car not going the distance, it would certainly increase the level of uncertainty racing needs to have back. Teams need ways to find what works for individual drivers, not be put in a box themselves. As for financing? There are other ways in which NASCAR could cut costs for teams that wouldn’t have a negative impact on what fans see each week.
The Change: HANS Devices, SAFER Barriers and Other Safety Features
The good: This one is so obvious, I almost didn’t include it, but the fact is, it’s greatly affected racing over nearly two decades. The good? No driver has died in a NASCAR national series since 2001. There’s nothing but good about that. There’s always work to be done on the safety side, but any improvement is positive change.
The not good: It’s hard to criticize such a life-saving safety initiative. If there is one negative, it’s the high cost of the SAFER barrier that may prohibit some tracks from holding sanctioned races. Perhaps NASCAR should work with them to lower sanctioning fees for a number of years if the barriers are installed and/or expanded. What should not happen is exceptions, other than the current one at Eldora. There’s simply too much to lose.
The bottom line: When Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at Daytona, then-competitor Ricky Craven predicted someday, we’d all look back and say “remember when they used to hit concrete walls?” Craven proved to be correct, as the SAFER barrier is part of the landscape at every track now. HANS devices are simply part of a driver’s gear now, no longer something to be eschewed. While safety innovations aren’t the most controversial change, they’re exactly the kind that brings positive improvement. Fans watching a race don’t likely even notice the SAFER barrier around the track until a driver hits it. The HANS device, meanwhile, is just part of a driver’s look. But it greatly impacts everyone because the drivers are more likely than ever to walk away from an incident. Safety is an area that should never stop changing.