Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: NASCAR on Fire

In the middle of a tumultuous season for NASCAR, one in which it may be seriously losing credibility in its own garage, there are hints that NASCAR may no longer be able to claim to be the undisputed king of motorsports in North America.

A gigantic concern at this point for everybody involved in NASCAR right now is the safety of the new-to-2022 Cup car. There are now two 2022 race winners out due to concussion symptoms, coming off what would register as meek hits in the old Gen 6 racecar from the eye. It’s clear now that there is a flaw with how the car distributes energy created in the event of a crash, with the driver appearing to take more of the damage than they used to.

Was this car created to maximize race quality while looking past safety elements? I wouldn’t argue that, but it’s also hard from NASCAR’s perspective to justify this not being the case when every driver is talking about how bad the crashes are now and having both a former series champion (Kurt Busch) and a bright current-day star (Alex Bowman) on the injured reserve from nothing-burger crashes.

It also doesn’t help NASCAR’s case when it refuses to actually punish drivers for stepping over the line.

Make no mistake, William Byron is extremely lucky that nobody got hurt because of this action. If Denny Hamlin had gone spinning down pit road with an uncontrolled car, how would Byron be able to tell in that split second that there wasn’t a damaged or  stopped car over there? Or even worse, if Hamlin had hit a safety or pace vehicle being deployed?

NASCAR’s explanation? Oh, sorry, bud, didn’t see it.

It’s very clear at this point, considering situations such as this, the Daytona International Speedway phantom shower from last month, the Spencer Boyd stall and finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and plenty of other controversial calls this season, that the NASCAR race control tower is either completely undermanned or completely incompetent. Rjuch sife do you waht to br on? Sorry, I didn’t look when typing out that sentence.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: Put Texas Motor Speedway Out of Its Misery

But it’s not just the tower itself that is an issue. It’s understandable if the Ty Gibbs pit road incident was missed; there is a fair amount going on and that’s not usually a place to look at for penalties because of something called common sense. But the ball was pretty impressively dropped regardless with the slap-on-the-wrist penalty given to the team and driver.

There’s Erik Jones, maybe the most mild-mannered driver in the Cup garage, actively calling out this kid’s BS on Twitter at 3 a.m. At what point does a driver’s actions warrant a suspension at this point? We just had a driver actively put crew members and officials on pit road in danger and NASCAR basically took his lunch money away.

How Gibbs wasn’t placed under some kind of probation for his various actions this season is an absolute joke. The Sam Mayer fight alone and its fallout, with Gibbs having remained steadfast to this day that he didn’t swing first, even though he had, should have been enough. So was his run-in with Ryan Sieg.

But I guess NASCAR is just going to keep going. Keep letting young drivers do whatever they want to do, with little consequence. At this point, Gibbs would only feel some kind of actual punishment by one of his victims paying him back under green flag conditions in a race, which pairs very nicely with how bad this car is at wrecking. Boys, have at it and end up in the hospital, apparently.

The sad thing is, in the middle of all of this, NASCAR has essentially found itself in a ratings war that it kind of brought onto itself by all the bragging about it being the number one motorsport in America. That’s true from an overall viewership perspective, and will be for some time, but in the 18-49 demo, there’s starting to be a new king in town.

The 18-49 demo is the holy grail for advertisers. It’s what sponsors and companies look at primarily when making decisions of what to support in the future, and why Formula 1 was able to see such a massive rights increase this year despite being commercial free on Sunday mornings.

NASCAR has held 32 Cup races this year, if we count the All-Star Race and the Clash. In 22 of those races, as per reviewing ShowBuzz Daily’s ratings from this year, NASCAR has been the number one motorsport in the demo for that weekend.

However, a lot of those races where NASCAR won were in the opening months of the year, with no major series going up against it. If we ignore these nine gimme weekends (aka ignoring when it doesn’t go up against the NTT IndyCar Series or F1 on the same weekend), NASCAR’s record falls to 13-10.

Of NASCAR’s 10 losses, eight of them came at the hands of F1, one by the Indianapolis 500, and the 10th coming a couple of weeks ago, when the NHRA event outdrew the Cup race at Bristol. Yes, that’s right. The Bristol night race lost to the NHRA, of all things.

NASCAR has a losing record now against F1, going 8-7 against it with all but one F1 race taking place on a Cup weekend. Even if NASCAR retakes the lead, the reality of the situation is that F1 is at so many inherent disadvantages and yet it keeps outpacing so many TV shows. F1 qualifying, between college basketball and college football seasons and unless there was an NHL or NBA playoff game or a massive UFC card, was consistently one of the highest-rated Saturday programs on TV this summer. Qualifying.

There are four more F1 races going up on the same weekend as Cup this year, and F1 will be without an interesting championship battle with Max Verstappen likely to take the championship at some point in the next two weeks and with the crutch of the Japanese Grand Prix starting at 1 a.m. ET. Still, there’s a chance that F1 can win these final four battles and bring NASCAR’s record against major competition to 13-13, with it going to 13-14 if we only count the NHRA for that week it beat Cup.

But ultimately, there are signs starting to appear of F1 attracting sponsors away from NASCAR. The Athletic reported that Oracle came close but passed on sponsoring Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing next year. Oracle is the current title sponsor of Red Bull Racing. Jack Daniels, which was a NASCAR sponsor for years before leaving the sport a while back, announced it joined the McLaren F1 team for 2023 a month ago as a new sponsor.

NASCAR’s TV ratings are still good enough to likely garner a massive rights increase regardless of their demo record. They’re trying to co-opt a bit of the millennial/zoomer Drive to Survive boom with Chase for the Championship, a TV show I haven’t bothered to watch because of how terrible it does in ratings and because I don’t watch cable outside of sports. You didn’t even notice I mistitled it; it’s actually Race for the Championship. Which tells you all you need to know about how well that’s going to work to actually bring in new fans and not old fans tuning in because of it being advertised on NASCAR programs.

It’s foolish to outright say that Drive to Survive is the sole reason for the F1 boom. If anything, I think it’s because F1 both treats its (television) fans with respect and treats itself seriously. When F1 saw a confusing Abu Dhabi finish last year, NASCAR trended on Twitter because people were comparing that fiasco to a NASCAR officiating scenario. The FIA later fired the series race director and implemented a number of changes to how it officiated races and was rewarded with more fans tuning in this year.

It’s time for NASCAR to do something like that. The competition department’s higher-ups should be cleaned out and a new virtual race control should be in use at NASCAR HQ in Daytona. Officials should absolutely be able to review video cockpit footage and make penalty calls in real time, so that the tower can focus on actually making the right calls on how to clean up the racetrack.

Yeah, none of these style of tweets should be on my timeline anymore.

Penalties should be taken way more seriously. A driver who does what either Byron or Gibbs did should be a driver parked from the race and missing the next week. Obviously, it would be impossible to legislate all combat. But there is a line that NASCAR has got to start not being afraid to cross.

As far as safety is concerned, NASCAR has to be way more open going forward with what it is doing and why. We hear constantly that it is listening and trying to make things safer, but rarely see anything until the results come in. It’s no longer 2018; NASCAR does not have the credibility anymore to go radio silent in regards to this topic because the results have been bad.

See also
NASCAR Mailbox: Why Can't the Teams Fix the Next Gen Car?

If anything, the actions last weekend occurred in part due to stress. And not because of the standard playoff/end-of-year stress, I’m talking about burnout.

This system Kevin Harvick proposes, which is similar to F1’s summer break, isn’t perfect, but it’s way better than having everybody on the road for almost nine months straight with one off-weekend in the middle. If NASCAR continues on this path, we’re going to see more staff members like Cole Pearn choose to retire and take up other jobs instead of continuing with that grind, and driver careers becoming shorter by their own choice.

Maybe the drivers should actually feel like they are listened to more and not treated like toddlers that don’t know any better? Agree or disagree, Harvick has been treated with complete disrespect publicly the last few years whenever he’s spoken up about something, when the opposite should occur as a former series champion. Hamlin has a unique perspective as an owner-driver, yet apparently that does not mean a damn thing to NASCAR. Look at these tweets and be amazed that they actually exist, and then imagine NASCAR treating garage leaders like Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip like this:

I just wish NASCAR was fun to watch again. I’m not watching the Cup race at Talladega this weekend in part because I don’t want to legitimately worry about somebody getting seriously hurt, while every lap listening to the NBC announcers screaming about anything happening here.

Something has usually sucked about NASCAR, but it seems like just a lot of things do right now. I just hope that this is the bottom and not Sunday.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

Share this article

5 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Christopher

A very good summation of NASCAR’s stubborn obtuseness. It took Dale Earnhardt’s death for NASCAR to mandate the HANS device, even though it was already known ( by prior other driver deaths) that it would have saved lives. It took Kyle Busch breaking his leg to get NASCAR to admit it needed more SAFER barrier at tracks. It will take someone being seriously injured or killed to get them to admit that the Next Gen car has serious fundamental safety issues.

johndawgchapman

With 2 of 16 playoff drivers sitting out because of injuries. If this hasn’t gotten the sport’s undivided attention then there’s not much hope.
But I expect this is something too big to ignore or try to explain away.
The best they can do now is to start putting a game plan together for the off season to get a handle on safety. It’s going to be costly, but it’s of supreme importance, & the future of their new car depends on it, & they have to get it right. There’s no plan B!

janice

but how long is the off season? 90 days? i imagine na$car is holding it’s breath that nothing serious happens in the remaining few races. if i recall getting spun and into the wall back end first happens at dega, and also at the roval.

if i remember drivers said during the testing of this new car, when they got to take it out, said they were concerned about the safety of the car.

hopefully no one gets hurt or burned this weekend. but i remember 21 yrs ago saying something had to be done about all the lives we lost that year, and they didn’t do anything until what happened on the final lap of the daytona 500, the biggest star was taken.

DoninAjax

“We’re in show business”

That comment says everything needed to understand the NA$CAR mentality when it comes to their ‘product.” Brian’s love for Vince of the WWE is still showing.

NA$CAR hasn’t had a real “race” for years and years and…

Echo

Thank you for going right at the source of all the problems, Nascar. Need more writers and the TV announcers to start addressing this huge problem. I bet anything Byron gets a speeding penalty on pit road.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com