How NASCAR is killing their own sport

Now that the season is starting up, NASCAR is on the mind, so I’m going to air my grievances.  I’ve been watching NASCAR since the mid-80s and I feel like the sport is getting farther and farther away from the one I originally fell in love with.  A number of disturbing changes have taken effect, mostly under the Brian France regime, since the sport has gone more “corporate”.  While getting the sport on network TV was undoubtedly a good thing, I feel the sport is in trouble if various trends continue.  The common thread with most of what I’m going to outline is the sacrificing of the integrity of the sport, and thus its long-term health, in return for short-term money gains.  You’ll see nothing groundbreaking here; I’m sure all of it has been discussed before.  This is just my perspective on everything.

 

 

Restrictor Plates
The use of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talledega was a panic decision made after Bobby Allison’s became completely airborne and flew into the fence at Talledega in 1987.  20 years later and apparently NASCAR still hasn’t figured out a better way , despite the fact that restrictor plates arguably make the races even more dangerous, and turn four of the season’s most popular events into parades rather than races.   The cars now have roof flaps which prevents cars from randomly going airborne.  Maybe the cars are too fast to run full-out at Talladega/Daytona, but there has to be a better way to slow the cars down.   A cynic might take the point of view that NASCAR likes the fact that cars are so bunched up that there are 8,700 lead changes in a race, and 37th place is 1.4 seconds behind the leader, so they choose to ignore how dangerous it is to have the cars running in such close quarters.   Me, I don’t like the danger, and I don’t like the affect it has on the race.  These races are more exercises in drafting than they are anything else.  The fastest guy doesn’t necessarily win.  It’s more about whoever had the right drafting circumstances at the right time.  I won’t deny that there’s some skill in it, but it barely qualifies as ‘racing’.

It seems that incidents like Carl Edwards in 2008 making a joke out of the race by intentionally running in the back of the field doesn’t get NASCAR’s attention.   20-car pileups every year don’t get their attention.  What will it take?  I’d like to see another legitimate Daytona 500 in my lifetime.

 

Points System
Here is a rare example of NASCAR NOT being overly reactive.   The points system in  place right is a relic from old times where NASCAR needed to encourage participation in all the races.  Put simply, it rewards finishing the race, more so than it rewards high finishes.  A much better points system would be an F1-style, but with more places paid due to the larger field.  Give points to the top 20, 24, something like that.  And the guys finishing near the bottom of the points should be getting a pittance compared to the top 5 guys.  When a driver wins a race in F1, it has BIG implications in the points!  Always!  Not so in NASCAR.  Let’s fix it.

It’s not so terrible that the best driver doesn’t win the championship _most_ of the time, (but how about this: does anybody think Bowyer was the third best performer in 2007?) but the system as it is still causes some problems and simply doesn’t encourage hard racing.  Also, the huge emphasis on finishing spawns other problems.  Cars that get wrecked will often get patched up by the crew and get sent out to limp around the inside of the track at 80 MPH with a carcass of a car spewing debris all over the track.  This is rather dangerous for the remaining drivers on the track, besides just being a nuisance and causing unncessary caution flags.   It also is rather insulting to limp around the track clearly with no intention of actually racing, and in no way really demonstrating any more deservedness of points than the guy who got in the same wreck and is sitting in the garage.

This points system also, when used in conjunction with the ‘top 35 rule’, creates the vicious circle where a guy on the bubble of the top 35 missing one race gets knocked way back in the points and will likely continue to miss many more races.   Missing a race should not have such devastating consequences; at least, you shouldn’t lose huge ground to some guy who finished 4 laps down in 26th place.

 

Passing
You hear these phrases on NASCAR broadcasts all the time.  “big picture”.  “track position is everything”.  “clean air/dirty air”.   These are spoken with reverent tones by the commentators as if they represent the finer points of NASCAR strategy.  In reality, they all mean the same thing – you ain’t seein’ any passing today.  At the end of the race, drivers are usually a little more blunt about the situation – “it’s so hard to pass out there”.  I’ve heard this phrase uttered at almost every track at one time or another, and I don’t remember hearing it at all in the 80s.   Part of the problem is the new “cookie cutter” single-groove tracks that are taking over the circuit, but that’s not the whole of it.   The aerodynamics of these cars are just not right.   I don’t want to hear about dirty air all day.  If a guy is faster than the guy in front of him, he should be able to pass him evetually.

 

Caution Flags.. wtf?
All too many times in the last 5-10 years, the seasoned NASCAR fan has had to watch with a suspicious eye as NASCAR throws a caution for ‘debris’ on the track that nobody can seem to find.  Usually the timing is such that it benefits one of NASCAR’s pet drivers who needs a caution to make repairs, or to tighten up a race where the field is so strung out that nothing is happening.  It seems to happen several times a year.   It’s a pro wrestling kind of vibe.  The reality of sports is that the game is sometimes a blowout.  You have just learn to live with it if you’re running a legitimate sport, and not an exhibition.

And while  on the subject, when there’s a ‘debris’ caution  where just one little scrap of metal needs to be picked up, why do the cars have to needlessly stay under caution for 4-5+ laps?  These races are already absurdly long; they don’t need to be made even longer with overwrought caution periods.

 

Lucky DOG
Remember how exciting it was when a driver with a good car got caught a lap down and had to desperately fight the leaders to stay ahead and get his lap back?  Well, NASCAR decided we don’t need to have any excitement like that.   Now, you just have to be the highest placed car out of the bunch that is a lap down.   So, if you screw up and go a lap down, it doesn’t really  matter now, as long as it’s early enough in the race.  This is a horrible rule.   There was nobody calling for it.  The only conceivable reason for its existence is that NASCAR wants to see their star drivers winning more races, so they give them ‘mulligans’ during the race.  And apparently, it’s not even enough to give out lucky dogs to drivers that are one lap down.  If no cars are exactly one lap down, then the next highest driver that is 2+ laps down gets a free lap.  Kyle Busch once went five laps down at Watkins Glen, got 5 lucky dogs and ended up finishing 9th.  That is a JOKE.

 

Qualifying – top 35
How do you needlessly handicap new Sprint Cup teams and make qualifying into a joke of an event?  Just implement a “Top 35” rule of course.   Once again this rule was an incredible overreaction by NASCAR when they didn’t like the fact that a couple guys that they wanted in all the races weren’t making all the races.   They were around 30ish in the point, so… top 35 rule!   The funny thing is that the rule has had the opposite effect, as brand new teams/drivers, along with veteran drivers switching to new teams, have been absolutely brutalized by the top 35 rule, most notably Michael Waltrip in 2007 whose debut season driving for his own team was absolutely ruined. He missed several races.  The situations this rule causes is far worse than anything that was happening before it.

Here’s how I see it:   If you absolutely must have your ‘boys’ locked into every race, then go all the way with it.  Decide who all your teams are at the beginning of the season, and that’s it.  That’s your field for every race.  If you want to continue it old school, and let anybody who shows up on any given week try and make the race, don’t half-ass it.  Give them a fair shot at qualifying!   If somebody doesn’t make it because they’re too slow, well that’s what qualifying is all about, isn’t it?

 

Sponsorships – official X of nascar
In a sport so heavily relies on corporate sponsorships to enable their teams to field cars, why would you alienate so many potential sponsors by naming ‘the official phone/home improvement warehouse/tools/dishwasher/shoe polish/etc. etc of NASCAR’?   Well, OK, I know the answer, but again, have some concern for the well-being of your sport before selling out to anyone and everyone.

 

Too many races
36 races!!   Why!!??  And that’s not even including the Shootout and the All-Star Race.  This is the most interminable season in all of sports.  These poor drivers and teams, 38+ weeks out of the year must participate in the race, multiple practices, qualifying, car preparations, along with media/promotional obligations.  In other words, they’re never home.  Was 30 races not cutting it?  Really, you could argue even 30 was excessive.

So OK, I’m not one of the drivers, and I watch NASCAR, so why should I complain about seeing more races?   Well, for one, when you have a race almost every week of the year, the races seem less special.  Daytona, the Brickard, the 600, I can get amped up for.   But the endless cookie-cutter races on the Kansases/Californias/Chicagos of the world, I could do without some of them.  I like a race when it feels like a big event.   Watching 36 races is a real test of your NASCAR fandom; I don’t care who you are.

But what really sucks is fan favorites like Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin retiring (or going to part-time schedules) too soon because they are run ragged by the grind.  Some of these guys were still driving at a very high level.  Martin clearly gave up prime opportunities for a championship when he went to part-time.  Elliott, if not for a flat tire at Homestead, would’ve won his final two races as a full-time driver.  Rusty was still one of the best on the track when he quit as well.

 

Chase
I don’t like “The Chase” much, but hey, at least it was an honest, well-thought-out attempt at implementing a playoff system for NASCAR, right?  Well, sort of.   More than anything, it was a panic decision by NASCAR in reaction to drivers locking up the championship before the final race, and Matt Kenseth doing so in 2003 was the final straw.  So basically, NASCAR didn’t like potentially sagging ratings for the final 2 or 3 races, so they decided to implement a points system that makes the first 26 races rather silly.  Hmm.

An essay on the Chase and its faults probably needs to be its own blog entry.   Suffice to say for now, the idea of playoffs just doesn’t really fit with this sport.  As far I can tell, it hasn’t really generated higher TV ratings or attendance.   It’s my feeling, from what I’ve read over the years in numerous online NASCAR discussion forums, that more fans dislike it than the fans that like it.  I could be wrong on that.

 

Adding drivers to chase, shootout, etc
Is there anybody who didn’t audibly groan when NASCAR expanded the chase from 10 to 12 drivers the year after Earnhardt and Stewart didn’t make the Chase in consecutive years?  Totally transparent.  Keep making moves like this and we start to shift from legitmate sport to pro wrestling.

Taking 12 drivers doesn’t really producce an impressive selection of drivers, when you consider that only 20 or so teams could really be considered competitive.  NASCAR Is lucky that a guy like Bowyer didn’t win the championship in ’07 to expose this silliness of taking 12 drivers. (sorry to keep picking on you Clint, it’s just that the Chase has been VERY kind to you)

NASCAR was back up to their old tricks this year, expanding the Shootout field to _28_ drivers, so they could find a way to get Stewart in.  How’s that for an elite field?  28 drivers!  Every single Dodge full-time driver was in the race.

 

Green white checker
OK, this would be way down near the bottom of the list of problems if I tried to actually rank them, but I still have a beef with the green/white/checker rule.  It’s more contrived, forced excitement from NASCAR instead of something real.  When a race ends under caution, fans are not deprived of a green flag finish.   If the caution came out on lap 197, then there, your green flag finish was on lap 197.   But the real problem with this is that tacking extra laps on to the end of the race messes with fuel mileage.   If a driver is trying to stretch out a tank of fuel and suddenly has to run several extra laps because of a green/white/checker, that’s not fair.

 

I could go on with more maladies: the common template concept, along with the COT, the shaky inconsistency in regards to administering penalties (admittely many sports have a problem with this), the influence of ISC, but this is too long already and too depressing!

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