NASCAR's 2011 Rule Changes a Mixed Bag for Drivers and Fans

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NASCAR's 2011 Rule Changes a Mixed Bag for Drivers and Fans
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Everybody's a critic, or so the old adage goes. Maybe it's because part of the human condition is to complain about trite inconveniences. Maybe it's because the people who are higher up on the food chain than us are actually making the wrong decisions. Maybe it's a combination of both.

Either way, the rule changes that Brian France announced for NASCAR's 2011 season have spurned plenty of criticism.

Count me among the more vocal critics of the direction in which the sport is headed—as I have been for quite a while now.

A little background: during my formative years, NASCAR was experiencing a growth boom that many major-league sports have never seen, expanding to accommodate more teams, markets and marketing dollars. It was an idyllic time when everything worked just right.

Then, the sport overexpanded. Too many tracks with too many seats to fill, a vaguely elitist "guaranteed starting spot" system that benefits all the wrong people and a schedule that was just the wrong length for the existing points system.

Many of the rules that defined the sport in the 1990s—from a cumulative champion at the end of the year, to restarts with lapped cars on the inside, to the points system—have fallen like soldiers in a losing war, caught in unexpected positions with no defense and no help from the people in control.

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As such, the sport's powers that be have had to compensate for the poor decisions by implementing new ideas instead of reversing some of the old ones. Mistakes can't be fixed by more mistakes—but I'm not going to categorically reject everything as a new mistake.

Indeed, the decision to seed Sprint Cup qualifying order by practice speed is a solid idea that will add more drama on Pole Day, hopefully bringing more fans into the seats and getting them to attend the lower-tier events on the same day.

And putting the fastest cars in practice on the pole in event of a qualifying washout is respectable too—reward the folks who worked out the kinks fastest.

Finally, don't forget the new Chase rules, which are designed to reward otherwise unlucky drivers who still manage to win races by adding them into the 10-race playoff as "wild cards."

But the sport's two biggest changes—"Pick a Series" and the points system revision—were the wrong moves.

"Pick a Series" allows a driver to accrue points in only one series, although the cars still accrue owners' points. I understand that NASCAR still wants Sprint Cup drivers in Nationwide, but they didn't go far enough. There needs to be a race limit, say 15-20 events, in which Cup drivers can compete.

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This idea hearkens back to the 1990s, when there were fewer Winston Cup/Busch Series tandem weekends, and teams sold full-series sponsorship based on the idea of having a Cup driver win races and a development driver learning with the intent of bringing the sponsor into Cup.

Did it always work? No, but at least it got the younger drivers into the car more often, and more seat time equals faster development and a better long-term return on investment.

As for the points change, I'll say this. The old system lasted 35 years for a reason. NASCAR's repeated emphasis that it was "drawn up on a napkin over drinks" is an insult not only to Rob Latford, its creator, but to Little Bill France, who presided over the sport's most popular and successful era. Way to put a knife in the back of the folks that got you to a fantastic point in the sport's history, boys.

I've explained my points theory at least a hundred times, but for those of you who don't know or need a refresher: the old system worked best in schedules in multiples of 10. Around the middle of each 10-race trimester, the points gap between first and second would be widest, and it would close up around the end. Well, NASCAR went from 30 races to 36; you do the math.

Look, I'm not in control of the sport. Maybe if I was, back during the end of its heyday, I would have made some of the same decisions as Brian France and Mike Helton and whoever else was making them. But I can tell you with almost absolute certainty that some of the biggest decisions made right now are not going to work. The little ones will help the on-track product; the big ones will do far more harm.

Call me a critic, I guess.

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