Home / Amy Henderson / The Frontstretch 5: Meaningful Changes that Could Turn the Tide for NASCAR
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The Frontstretch 5: Meaningful Changes that Could Turn the Tide for NASCAR

1. Allow innovation

Sometimes, less is more, and when it comes to NASCAR’s extensive rule book, there are areas where that’s definitely the case. No, NASCAR doesn’t need to go to a “run what you brung” free-for-all, but opening up some areas, like suspensions and gears, would allow teams to find things that work for them.

Believe it or not, a fairly-gained advantage is not a dirty word.

There is a place for parity. One manufacturer should not be significantly better than another, because that’s unfair to teams under another banner. Innovation and advantage have to come from the teams.  In other words, they need to start on equal ground but have the opportunity to make their own hills and valleys. By making the cars different in some areas, that could do something NASCAR’s tweaks and changes haven’t been able to do: make them able to pass on track with a car that has more gear or significantly better handling. Yes, one team might hit on something and win a lot of races. That’s been a thing since the beginning, and it hasn’t brought down NASCAR yet, but the lack of innovation could.

2. Real cost cutting

Ironically, the reason for the lack of choice in some areas came as a cost-cutting measure. The problem is, it also doesn’t allow teams to really get ahead. Newer teams don’t have the opportunity to try different things to get more competitive.

With the charter system in place, NASCAR has an opportunity to implement a spending cap. Don’t want to comply? Hand in that charter. A cap would be a very complex undertaking and would have to leave things up to teams as far as how money could be spent.

There will always be haves and have nots in the sport, but the more financial parity there is, the more teams can become competitive, and that puts a better product on track for fans. NASCAR survived its early years because it was a dictatorship — Bill France’s way or the highway. The sport needs strong leadership that can make meaningful change, not change for the sake of change.

3. A meaningful championship

Trying to make NASCAR like other major sports was perhaps the biggest mistake that happened in the early 2000s. Other sports need playoffs because of the one-on-one nature of games, and the different divisions within each league. NASCAR doesn’t have divisions; all the teams are at every race, big names and small. There’s no need for a matchup to see whose league champion is more worthy because, by the end of a long season, fans know who the top cat is. More importantly, under a season-long format, more of them felt like the champion truly was the best in the sport that year. It’s not fair to the champion drivers when fans look at them as less than their predecessors because of the format.

NASCAR tried to make the title more exciting, and the one-race decider certainly makes it unpredictable, but if the worthiness of the champion is called into question, is it worth one exciting race?

Does NASCAR need to go back to the old system?  Not necessarily; there are other options that could come to the table. Yes, the Latford system should be discussed as it was never broken. The one-point format with a big win bonus is another possibility. So is a system like IndyCar or even Formula 1. Perhaps the old Winston Million races could be worth more points, to make them the most prestigious of the year. There is also some merit to simply making the driver with the most wins on the season the champion.

There are so many ways to crown the best in the sport that would ensure the title has real clout, and it’s high time they were explored.

4. Make sure fans know the drivers

Some may argue this point, but there’s more to it all than just what happens on the track on Sunday. Fans need someone to pull for. And for them to really get behind someone, fans need to feel like they know the drivers, and that they’re all different. Drivers have become so over-handled by their sponsors and marketing folks that they can come across as largely homogenous, cut from the same cloth.

It wasn’t always that way. There used to be good guys and bad guys, white-collar and blue-collar guys, guys you’d want to have a beer with after the race, guys you’d rather dump beer on after the race. Between the race broadcasts, weeknight racing shows and commercials, you could feel like you knew them all. You could go to a race and every driver in the field had someone there wearing their t-shirt or hat and cheering for them. Drivers signed autographs at their souvenir haulers throughout the weekend, and sometimes fans had to choose which sessions to attend because there were so many going on.

NASCAR needs that connection.  Fans want to pull for someone they can relate to in some way. They shouldn’t feel like the drivers are avoiding them, and they shouldn’t have to wonder how those drivers are really different from one another anyway. They should know how hilarious the driver for the small team is and the crazy stunt the big-name guy just pulled off. Social media is great for interaction, but it seems many drivers are using it to replace face-to-face fan interaction, and that’s not so great.

It used to feel like family, even to fans who never went to a race or met a driver. We need that back, badly.

5. Television coverage for the fans

NASCAR has a new TV contract coming up, and with that in mind, the sport should take a hard line on one thing: bringing the most action possible to the fans. For many years now, the networks covering the sport have failed the fans.  Tight camera angles focusing only on the leader, or perhaps a car or two with a predestined storyline has become the norm.

Remember a few years back when ESPN reentered the game and fans were super excited about it? There’s a reason for the excitement: they remembered ESPN’s coverage of the sport in the 1990s and were hoping for more of the same. But they didn’t get it.  They got about what FOX was dishing up, just with different voices. ESPN left again, wondering why fans didn’t flock to their coverage.

Every fan deserves to see an update on his or her driver at least a few times during a race. Sponsors need a return on their investments via airtime as well if they’re to stay in the sport, or for new ones to enter it. If nothing else, broadcasters have a responsibility to fans to update on every driver involved in a crash on the track, no matter how small the team or how minor it looked. It takes a few seconds to let fans know their driver is okay. Shame on any broadcast that fails to give them that.

NASCAR should be advocating for the fans as it negotiates a new deal because in doing so, it also advocates for itself. It’s better for the sport if fans see everything it has to offer, not the tiny sliver they see on Sunday now. NASCAR doesn’t need, never needed, to change for the sake of. But meaningful change could right the ship as the next era of the sport draws closer.

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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    1 – Lack of innovation has never been detrimental to the sport. Innovations can be beneficial but often they just bring additional spending areas for teams and whatever advantages are brought disappear (remember how teams were screaming by 2000 that they were “forced” to run ultra-soft setups just for qualifying?)

    2 – A spending cap is long overdue for the sport, and that earlier in the year NASCAR apparently hired an accounting firm to look into team spending is a sign a spending cap regime is coming. Teams too often spend more than they objectively should to gain one extra tenth they simply don’t need and usually don’t get anyway.

    3 – Going back to the old point system is a good start. Changes needed are to add many more points for each race win and to add more points for most laps led per race – make a win and most laps led erase points damage from DNFs; put more incentive to winning and leading so drivers don’t have an option to not go for the lead.

    4 – The homogenous claim is false. Drivers have personality and are simply boorish and boring BECAUSE of their personalities. Harvick, the Busch brothers, Newman, Stewart, Edwards and others were and are intensely unlikeable boors not worth getting to know or respect, and shoving Chase Elliott (and Jimmie Johnson back in 2002) down our throats only makes them worth ignoring no matter how many races they win (indeed the more they win the less worthy of respect they become). What NASCAR needs is drivers who act like real people, have no airs, aren’t in your face, don’t live in infield motorhomes, aren’t shoved down our throat, and carry themselves without stupid and often phony swagger. New winning drivers (and teams) is a necessity.

    5 – ESPN’s coverage in the 1990s wasn’t as good as people mythologize. The issue isn’t that the TV doesn’t scan the field; the issue is the racing isn’t competitive enough. The real TV problem is NASCAR kept thinking in terms of the big score from two bidding networks instead of retaining the decentralized five-to-six network deal it had (with considerable autonomy for individual tracks to negotiate individual TV deals) and thus not moustrapping itself with too few TV revenue streams. Having CBS, ABC, TBS, TNT, and MAVTV involved with FOX and NBC is a necessity for NASCAR and all its divisions; I still remember when the Busch and Truck Series, the old ASA series, and even the Busch North and Modified Tours got some legitimate TV money. Getting five or more networks into the sport is needed.

    • Avatar

      Just something to think about. With the current mob rule mentality that the internet and social media has created (a handful of vocal people can scare the shit out of a fortune 500 company), no matter how great a personality a driver might have it will be squelched to varying degrees in the name of not wanting to lose sponsorship dollars. If someone shows their personality and says something that offends even a small group of people, bye-bye sponsor. Not exactly an environment that fosters sticking your head above the herd.

  2. Avatar

    I give Johnson 4 legitimate championship years (perhaps 5) where the definition of “legitimate” is being the best the entire season.
    2007 and 2016 he was most definitely not the best.

  3. Avatar

    #3 as stated is so right on that it’s hard to believe the powers that be could have looked at it any differently when they first came up with the chase format. It is truly arbitrary and at least half the years has taken the championship away from the most deserving driver and given it to another just for the sake of contrived excitement.

  4. Avatar

    Excellent piece! You made some valid points and good suggestions.

    In terms of cost-cutting, the season needs to go back to around 30 races, which are plenty even for the most avid fans. Dropping 6-8 redundant 2nd dates and exhibition events would save millions for the team owners. This would also make it easier for a primary sponsor to consider to buy the whole season, not just 20-25, races and make for better sponsor-team-driver branding.

    There also needs to be an age limit in Cup. I don’t think 18, 19, 20-year old kids are ready for the big leagues and are also not relatable to most of the core fan base. Make them stay in Trucks and Xfinity until they are at least 21 so they can properly pay their dues.

  5. Avatar

    Hit it right on. Innovation is what makes things improve, and that can translate to more than just race cars. Couldn’t agree more about a meaningful championship. Media is always complaining that JJ doesn’t get the respetect he deserves for his 7 ‘champeenships’, especially the 5 in a row. I contend that it is because he never won a title that required him to be the best at the end of an entire season. The entire playoff scenarios is stupid, since every race is, in itself, a playoff, with one winner against the entire field. As talented as Johnson is, he will forever come up shot in that respect.

    • Avatar

      I give Johnson 4 legitimate championship years (perhaps 5) where the definition of “legitimate” is being the best the entire season.
      2007 and 2016 he was most definitely not the best.

  6. Avatar

    Could not agree more especially with #3. Joey Logano has a championship and Mark Martin doesn’t?