NASCAR returns to my home track in New Hampshire this weekend. The stands won’t be packed full, sold out with a waiting list, but I remember when they were. NASCAR was swelling, and maybe even then riding for a fall.
What happened in between is well-documented: the fad ended, and in an attempt to keep those bandwagon fans who jumped aboard then, NASCAR changed the game too much. When the trend followers moved on to the next trend, something was going to happen without playoffs and schedule changes, the longtime fans were left with a sport they barely recognized.
But what if none of that had happened?
There’s always speculation about what might have happened had things been different.
Without the playoffs, would Jeff Gordon have more titles? Would Jimmie Johnson have fewer? What would have changed if not for that fateful moment in Daytona 2001, or two of them at Loudon the year before?
Other than saying that Dale Earnhardt would be long since retired and Adam Petty would be looking at 40 next year, it will, of course, forever remain speculation. But there is one truth here: had nothing changed, everything would be different—a paradox perhaps, but truth nonetheless.
The question that should be asked is where does NASCAR go moving forward. Nobody gets another shot at a title already claimed; the drivers we’ve lost are part of the ages now. But the sport, and the times march on.
So, where do we go from here?
To fans, at least to some of them, the answers are, perhaps, simple. Undo the wrongs that were done and everything will be fine.
Except…except maybe it won’t.
Oh, some things could be undone. For one, the playoff system could be scrapped and it’s likely the sport would not lose fans. It might win some back.
But even that move would not be without repercussions. Titles won since 2004 run the risk of being delegitimized even further. And the television partners like the system, and TV brings money NASCAR needs.
Would taking the cars back to pre-1996, when they had to match each model’s street templates, solve the racing issues? Unlikely. Again, it might bring back some fans, or bring in new ones who were curious to see how the models fared. But it probably wouldn’t make much difference on track. Today’s street cars are as different from 1995 models as the race versions are.
It would be interesting to see NASCAR experiment with a short series with cars that match vintage body specs from a particular era when fans think the racing was at its best, but with modern safety standards. Not vintage drivers, just the cars; I suspect finding drivers would not be a problem. Perhaps a short season of 15 races or so, with stops at a variety of tracks would draw fans on Saturdays, maybe in conjunction with the Xfinity or Truck Series. Make it a full-season title.
There could be merit in such a series. Would it bring fans to the track who might otherwise stay home? There’s a good chance it might.
The big question is where these as-of-now fictional cars would race. It’s tempting to go all in and make it a short-track series, and there’s a lot to be said for that. It would attract different drivers to the mix, perhaps some familiar names like Greg Biffle mixed with new ones.
On the other hand, keeping the races as companion races would allow current drivers to race. Their names are already familiar to fans (and drivers like Biffle and others in a similar vein could certainly compete as well) and they would bring a following along. And because it would feature different cars entirely, drivers from Cup as well as Trucks and NXS could compete on equal ground for a title. The completely different handling has the potential to bring different drivers to the top, as well as show how versatile some of the best in today’s cars really are.
Companion races, spread carefully to certain tracks, could avoid repeat visits to anything but the short tracks and maybe the one-milers, while including iconic tracks like Darlington, Charlotte and possibly even Daytona. Road courses? Yes please.
How about races at Martinsville (2), Bristol (2), Richmond, Dover, Darlington, Charlotte, Watkins Glen, Sonoma, Phoenix, Loudon, Daytona, Atlanta and, on an off-week, Iowa? That’s a sampling of great tracks. To keep cost down, it would be easy to swap out Sonoma and Phoenix with Eastern venues like Pocono and Kentucky.
It would be interesting to see how today’s top drivers would fare in cars with a vastly different handle. While I suspect that some like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson and Kurt and Kyle Busch would quickly adapt and be successful, other top drivers might struggle…and lesser-known ones shine. Add in some drivers currently not in a national series and that only adds to the intrigue.
Wishful thinking? Yes, absolutely. NASCAR’s not about to expand to another full national series, even with a short season. But such a series would be fun to watch.
Would it be everything fans want it to be? Probably not, but the truth is, NASCAR never has been everything fans wanted, every week.
But would it be fun? It sure would. And racing should, above all, be fun. Maybe, just maybe, here’s an instance where taking a step backward could move the sport forward in a positive way.