10 Things That Would Make NASCAR Better in 2016 Than in 2015
No sport changes things around as much as NASCAR. Granted, it’s out of desperation given its plummeting ratings and attendance, but at least it’s doing something.
Is NASCAR doing enough? Many would argue it isn’t. Like a cruise ship or any cross-Atlantic ocean liner, these things don’t pivot fast.
Last season alone provided any observer with myriad ways of suggesting change. Frankly, if there weren’t anything to change, then sports columnists would have few things to write about. The very axis this industry hinges on is coming up with solutions that stand alone as arguments because, let’s face it, no sports columnist has ever affected institutional change.
Such is life.
Read on for some of my suggestions that would greatly improve the 2016 product over 2015.
Chase Races Must Never Be Cancelled Due to Weather
Inconvenient, maybe, but a playoff race affected by rain (see Phoenix, Nov. 2015), must be played out to completion.
“I don’t think it matters what’s fair, it matters what entertains the fans and if the fans are happy then that’s what it’s all about,” said Brad Keselowski in Jenna Fryer’s Associated Press story (h/t the Day).
That race was, without question, the most unsatisfying race of the entire year. Was there a single fan happy with that race?
Here we had the final elimination race, the one that sets the Homestead Four, and there were still chances for several bubble drivers to climb up, and the race ends not with a checkered flag but with a red one.
It would have been logistically inconvenient to restart the race on Monday for less than 100 laps. The stands would be empty (I’d argue, let whatever fans arrive in for free if they can attend/skip work) and teams would have to gear up for what would, in effect, be a sprint. But in the spirit of competition, in your sport’s playoffs, in your sport’s final elimination race of your playoffs, it ends on pit road.
Carl Edwards received the news during an on-camera interview, and he about jumped out of his Arris fire suit.
I can’t begin to comprehend the difficulty of putting on a race again, but for the integrity of the sport and its drivers, no Chase race, let alone an elimination race, can end the way Phoenix did in 2015.
Divide the Season Thematically Among Tracks
The season is so long that dividing it into chapters, if you will, could spice up the calendar.
Group the superspeedways together, the short tracks, the road courses and your classic speedways into clusters. Maybe grant extra points to the driver who earns the most points in each cluster of races.
Because of repeat tracks and the two road courses being 3,000 miles apart, there are some logistical matters worth considering. Maybe add in two more bye weeks for travel.
Who knows, it may make it easier on the mechanics so they can work on a single chassis instead of the plate car then the road car, etc.
Add More Throwback Schemes at Classic Tracks
When NASCAR went way back with the classic paint schemes at Darlington, it ruffled all the nostalgic feathers.
Tom Jensen, a veteran NASCAR writer for FoxSports.com, wrote, “Taken as a whole, the Darlington experience was one of the most enjoyable weekends of NASCAR racing in a very, very long time.”
There was Aric Almirola’s throwback to Richard Petty’s No. 43 car. Kyle Larson’s Mellow Yellow Chevy looked sweet. Clint Bowyer honored Buddy Baker, and Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski rocked Budweiser and Miller High Life like it was 1973.
It’s easy to forget that among the big business of sport and the egos involved that it’s supposed to be fun. The throwback weekend at The Lady in Black was exactly that reminder.
SAFER Barriers on All Concrete Surfaces
If Kyle Busch hadn’t smashed into that long stretch of exposed concrete at Daytona International Speedway on the eve of the Daytona 500, would there be SAFER barriers there?
When Busch broke his leg and his foot in one of the most bone-rattling and scarier crashes of the year, it also broke the sheen that NASCAR had as being the safest sport at its speeds.
Soon other tracks rushed to patch up their walls with the SAFER technology, a purely reactive measure, but one that needed addressing.
It’s not as easy as laying drywall, but by the July race at Daytona, SAFER barriers lined every part of the track that needed them.
Evolution moves forward at a limp. It’s rarely graceful. As the saying goes, it takes a few eggs to make an omelet. It’s too bad Busch’s legs had to shatter to make for better safety at NASCAR’s signature track.
Rotate Chase Tracks
Chase tracks that rock: Martinsville, Talladega, Dover, Charlotte, New Hampshire.
Keep them. Great. Now rotate these five out with others: Chicagoland (makes its only appearance on the schedule to kick off the Chase? That honor should go to another track.), Kansas, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
The Chase shouldn’t be this static.
There should be a road course, either Watkins-Glen or Sonoma thrown in. Bristol needs a shot at a Chase race, maybe even the Brickyard. Richmond, for all intents and purposes, is a Chase race since it’s the final chance many drivers get a shot at qualifying for the playoffs.
Richmond has a playoff feel. Just see Aric Almirola’s spirited bid for the win at Richmond in 2015, one of the most exciting moments of the entire season.
Rotating some new tracks in and out or even shuffling the order around could put new emphasis on a track. Removing Talladega from the elimination slot (third race of a round) dials down the stress of having a plate track be an elimination race.
Seems doable. It’s also less boring.
The Top Four Seeds Get a Challenger Round Bye
The new Chase format, much like the NCAA tournament, renders the regular season nearly moot.
Sure, it rewards winning, but only to a point. The new format rewards winning once, which when you look at drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, drivers who combined for 16 of the 36 wins in 2015, neither were alive for the championship.
Johnson stalled in the Challenger Round, Kenseth in the Contender Round and Logano in the Eliminator Round.
Take Johnson. He won four races in the regular season. Then an engine failure at Dover, of all places, in the Challenger Round booted him out of the Chase entirely. That is an element of chance that shouldn’t kick him out of the entire playoffs, not that soon, anyway.
Winning once punches the ticket to the Chase, but winning multiple times should grant access to deeper rounds. The NFL awards first-round byes to the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds from each conference, seeds earned for a season of greatness and consistency.
The top four seeds from the regular season should get clearance into the Contender Round. They’ve earned that. While these four must drive through the Challenger Round, which by its very nature creates some murky waters as they can affect the outcome of these races, a regular season of greatness should grant them clearance.
Let the other 12 Chasers wrestle for the next eight spots and then it’s a free-for-all from the Contender Round through Homestead.
The Challenger Round is the wild-card round. Top seeds don’t need to be slumming.
Don't Allow Sprint Cup Drivers to Race in the Xfinity Series
The Xfinity Series should remain what it is: a minor league, developmental series.
Imagine, for instance, that before a big series between the Red Sox and Yankess, [Star Player] played a game down at Pawtucket because, well, he just loves playing baseball. That’s awesome that [Star Player] loves playing so much that he’ll play on any level at any time.
Oh, no! What just happened? [Star Player] took a ball in the ear by a hot-headed young upstart. Now [Star Player] can’t play in a potentially season-deciding series in the Show.
Exhibit A is Kyle Busch’s crash at Daytona last year in an Xfinity race. Forget that he came back, was granted a waiver, then won the championship. Exhibit B is Tony Stewart. When these pros moonlight in other leagues they threaten their own health, but they’re also taking a spot away from a developing driver who needs the reps.
Being pros from the major circuit, they also have this target on their back from young athletes trying to make a name, trying to usurp thrones, trying to prove they belong with the sharks not the guppies.
I’ll never understand why Sprint Cup drivers are allowed or encouraged to drive in the Xfinity Series, but it shouldn’t happen for myriad reasons.
End the Chase in Charlotte
It’s November and NASCAR likes warm weather.
NASCAR also likes 1.5-mile tracks. These tracks are a nice hybrid. Not too short, not too long. No restrictor plates. Everybody’s jazzed up doing the Charleston.
But Homestead? NASCAR’s championship race needs to be in NASCAR country, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina. The Hall of Fame could be tied into the championship. North Carolina isn’t as remote as Southern Florida.
Plus, Homestead doesn’t scream NASCAR the way Charlotte does. If you had to make a swap, why not put the All-Star race down at Homestead and move the championship to Charlotte, if you must? I’d also make Homestead a Chase race, just not the one that decides it all.
The weather in North Carolina in November is cooler than Miami but still mild, and Charlotte simply has that NASCAR-y feel to it that Miami lacks. In this regard, Miami is holding a queen-high while Charlotte has aces over kings.
Decrease the Average Ticket Price
We’re not talking charity here, but NASCAR has an attendance problem and with attendance problems comes the new-fan problem.
Attendance has been dropping over the past several years. Equally upsetting is the drop in television ratings. It’s one thing if a fan skips the race in person, but the expectation remains that s/he will watch the race on Sunday afternoon.
With the retirement of Jeff Gordon, an iconic, transcendent driver, who had his own legion of vroom, who’s there to replace that kind of magnetism? The hope, of course, is that a driver like Chase Elliott will fill those shoes.
So who else can move that meter? Who among the young drivers can summon people to the stands? Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon lack the appeal (as of now). Danica Patrick can’t win. Erik Larson may be the best young driver around, but he’s stuck on Saturdays for now.
Point being aside from Dale Earnhardt Jr., a driver who has perhaps three to four years left (and that’s being generous), who are fans going to the track to see? It’s better to incentivize fans with lower prices so they can at least experience it without going into debt or feeling like the rent is somehow compromised.
Cap Race Teams at Three Drivers
Four-driver teams are bad for business.
Take a look at last year’s Chase. The four-driver teams (Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing) accounted for nine of the 16 Chase drivers.
JGR was the only team that qualified all four, but the year before, HMS qualified all four of its drivers.
That fourth driver on each team feels superfluous, more like it’s there so that someone else can’t have him or her. Three drivers are plenty for a garage. More importantly, that extra driver, say, Kasey Kahne or Carl Edwards, is far more valuable to the parity of the sport.
Look what happened when Edwards left Roush Fenway Racing. For the first time in years, RFR had no playoff horse. Meanwhile JGR only got stronger, better and more entrenched as the team to beat in 2016.
There are exceptions such as Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. earning spots in the Chase from smaller teams. With a three-driver cap, Kahne could be a third driver for Chip Gannassi making the trio of Kahne, McMurray and Kyle Larson a slick dark horse.
That third driver skimmed off from the fat cats would undoubtedly lure the requisite sponsorship from the S&P and put more teams into the Chase.
Remember, a rising tide floats all boats.