Let's face facts, folks.
As positive as Brian France and the current NASCAR braintrust want to be, the sport's in trouble. Things aren't going as well as they were 10 years ago, and that's not just because it's been almost a decade since we lost Dale Earnhardt.
It's because the sport has made a series of decisions that, while very reasonable and effective in the short term, somewhat mortgaged the future, banking on everything to remain at a similar upward rate of growth. And unfortunately, that future has come now—with fields at their lowest level of sponsored cars since 2002 or so, a leak in the development pipeline that sponsorship has not patched, and fans becoming less and less interested.
So we hear about the possibility of more radical rule changes, including the first points overhaul since the 1970s. That's about as crazy as the Chase for the Sprint Cup was when it was initiated in 2004. And even the Chase may not be spared—we've heard about points resets within the Chase as well, to "create as many Game 7 moments as possible." (Don't they understand that part of what makes Game 7s special is the fact that they can only come around so often?)
Look, I'm not saying that the people making the decisions in NASCAR are necessarily making bad ones —on the contrary, clearly they know what they're doing if they're up there. All I'm saying is that if they want the sport to remain successful, or reclaim its past audience, they need to listen to and win over the fans that got it there in the first place.
That includes me, and here's what I want to see.
NASCAR’s new proposed system of 43-42-41-etc. points has plenty of flaws to it.
For one, it doesn’t emphasize winning enough—why bother trying to make a pass for the win at Daytona when simply finishing ahead of that same guy next week at Phoenix will negate his advantage on you? It amplifies the possibility of another Matt Kenseth-esque season, where a driver doesn't really win anything but keeps finishing well and builds up a ridiculous lead. For two, the Indy Racing League tried a similar system in its formative years. It didn't last long for a reason.
The old system worked for 30 years. That’s why it stuck around for 30 years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and it ain’t the points system that’s broke (More on that later.).
Criticism of the old points system has always come down to a lack of a sizable points gap between first and second. Fine. But let’s do it fairly.
If you dominate the race—let’s say, lead 60 percent or more of laps and maybe win by a sizable margin— you get 25 more than second. Dominance should be rewarded, not rejected. A pit strategy win nets 15 —you didn’t dominate all day, and you may not have even led until you had a little luck in the pits, but you were smart when it counted.
A super-close finish gets you five. Could just as easily have been that other guy standing where you are in victory lane.
Thanks to this all-too-easily-abused system that basically locks out new teams from getting a fair chance for their first two years or so, the fully-funded 50-car fields of 2007 are long gone. Sponsors, impatient and fickle and looking for an immediate return on investment, aren't going to back a team without a guaranteed starting spot so easily under the current system.
Also thanks to the system, Steve Wallace will make his Sprint Cup debut at Daytona, guaranteed, with no pressure. I’m not going to criticize Wallace as a driver, because he's made massive strides over the past few years. And this sort of thing happens every year as drivers buy their way into the first five races by virtue of complex point-swapping deals that NASCAR has almost always rubber-stamped at the wrong times (Remember when Michael Waltrip tried to carry David Reutimann's owners points from the No. 44 to the No. 00 when he switched rides and NASCAR said no?). Wallace just happens to be this year's poster child for it—no different than Kevin Conway was last year.
My opinion is that you should only be racing if you’re fast enough to make the field—or, at Daytona, if you do well enough in the Duels. And if you’re a top team who’s not fast enough, well, you’re S.O.L... you're supposed to be at the top of your game. If you can't put together a respectable time, you just shouldn't be on track that Sunday. Sorry. No gimmes.
Let’s look back at the sport’s most recent glory days. The schedule was about 29-32 races for most of the 1990s, back when NASCAR was starting to hit its peak but still had plenty of room for growth. The schedule was just the right size—it filled up most weekends, but still left the fans wanting a little more (This is what the NFL does so well with a 16-game schedule—keeping fans always wanting more.).
Some tracks are in no position to sell out races any longer and are so overbuilt that they could easily consolidate all of their fans into one event. Some just don't produce exciting racing with the current cars. Some are just bad NASCAR markets. I don’t think I need to name names on a few of the tracks.
And I’m sure drivers and teams alike would enjoy going back to one off-weekend a month like they used to have…they have these things called "families", you know. A little R&R goes a long way.
Let's look at NASCAR's top two development series. The Nationwide Series is, ideally, the future of the sport, consisting of young drivers with Sprint Cup hopes and dreams. The Camping World Truck Series is, often times, a beautiful combination of scrappy local racers looking for a break and former Cup participants racing for the love of the sport.
This racing is compelling enough on its own when it’s not being dominated by Cup drivers, so let’s give these series the chance to re-establish their old identities and give them doubleheader weekends elsewhere from where Cup is running. I mean, we've already combined their end-of-season points banquets.
Hell, you can replace the contracted Cup races I suggested with these deals. They might even be more fun to watch than the Cup events were.
Hey, Cup drivers. If the Nationwide and Truck teams aren’t racing at the Cup track that weekend, you aren’t racing with them. It’s that simple. Go hire one of the plenty of other drivers who are capable of handling a race car.
Nothing against Kyle Busch, as it's amazing to watch him do what he does and win in just about anything he drives. But do we really want to see 10 Cup drivers go out and do the same thing in the lower-tier series for the whole season? It sucks, it really does. If you want to race something else that weekend, go to the local dirt track and race the locals. It'll make the weekend of all those folks who are in the sport for the purest of reasons. And it'll free up your development cars for drivers who need to, you know, develop.
Once the sponsors see that they have no choice but to help nurture new talent, they’ll take a shot on the young guns. But in an unregulated, "wild west" environment, everybody does whatever they can to win without regard for integrity or gentleman's codes. Make it a rule, and they'll follow it. They'll have no choice.
You won the Nationwide title? Cool. Have this sizable scholarship check towards your rookie season in Cup.
A scholarship, much like the ones offered in IndyCar, helps encourage teams to take a chance on more younger talent. If they see they’re getting some extra money to do so, they're more likely to jump, as it's guaranteed that some of their costs are going to be paid beforehand, guaranteed. Not all young drivers have a generous sponsor like Extenze backing them like Kevin Conway does, so let’s get the sanctioning body to step in and help those top drivers who deserve it.
I mean, NASCAR's already stolen IndyCar’s fuel mojo (heading towards an all-ethanol blend coming from American suppliers). They might as well steal its scholarship program too, right?
Darlington gets Labor Day back. Enough said. If you don’t think Labor Day weekend is about the Southern 500, you’re a fool.
I don't care how well the Mother's Day weekend race is doing— that right there is tradition, and that new weekend is traditionally an off date. A lack of acknowledgement for tradition is one of NASCAR's biggest problems and a part of the reason why the fanbase is dwindling.
Think about the New Coke launch in the 1980s for a second—sure, it may have tasted better, but the fact that Coca-Cola screwed with the formula that people had grown to love was not only upsetting, it was downright alienating. They changed it back; people came back. Think about that social theory for a second, as I go two steps further with it...
Look, there’s a reason why I called for the elimination of about six races. It's not just about giving the drivers off-weekends; there's a little bit of math and theory involved.
Go back and look through the pre-Chase history of the sport. Points leads often come around in 10-race cycles or so—that is, points gaps are widest around the fifth or sixth races of that span, and then effectively close back up by about the 10th event. In other words, races five, 15, and 25 usually had the biggest points gaps; races 10, 20, and 30 used to be reasonably tight. Well, the sport expanded to a 36-race schedule—right in the middle of a fourth cycle. And you wonder why they felt the Chase was necessary.
Before that, any suggestion of a NASCAR playoff was a laughable idea, and rightfully so. Playoffs exist in other major professional sports because there is no method of pitting every team against one another at the same time, so the weak-willed are weeded out while the winners move on. But that's not the case in NASCAR. Everybody races everybody every race. Every race is a playoff; in abstract terms, elimination is just a little less concrete because the teams that are out of it still show up every week.
A playoff is only an okay idea when the host races rotate, but this isn't the case. This means that a team need only coast through the first 26 events reasonably well, in effect using them as a big test session for the final 10, almost all of which have multiple race dates. You figure out those 10 tracks, and you make it into the Chase, and it's game over for everybody else. I call this the "Jimmie Johnson effect."
You kill six races, you don’t need the Chase anymore. Things play out naturally without it as they used to. Order is restored. That’s my theory.
There, I just came out and said it.
Back in ’98, the racing was tighter, the cars actually resembled what we see on the road, the development series were doing just that—developing talent, the sport had rookies, our television contracts weren’t megadeals that required frequent executive grooming and animated gophers, and whether or not you liked the sport’s new wunderkind, he won the championship by being the best over the course of the whole season. Things were freakin' AWESOME.
Doesn't that sound like a grand old time to you?
Unfortunately, there were a lot of rules loopholes that have since been exploited, both by competitors and the sanctioning body, that have put us where we are right now. And although it seems harsh and limiting and even un-American to have to impose sanctions that limit a free market for sponsors and teams alike, perhaps it's for the greater good of the sport.
We've seen where unbridled expansion has taken us, and a lot of it is not good. Where is our young talent? Where are our sponsors going? Where are the varied championship winners? (Yes, I said dominance should be respected earlier, but doesn't it seem like a decent part of Jimmie Johnson's has come from a flawed format?)
In short, the future of NASCAR relies on us making the right decisions to protect the development of its up-and-coming stars, not the folks who are established in the sport right now. They'll be fine; they'll always be fine, unless they really screw up and deserve it. But if we don't give the Justin Allgaiers and Parker Kligermans of the world a fair chance to shine, there will be no NASCAR for us to enjoy in the future— inherently flawed playoff system or not.