NASCAR's Dream Season: A Step-By-Step Guide on How to Fix Stock Car Racing
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We get it, NASCAR. You think we're dumb.
After all, why else would you tout a revolutionary change to your points system, when all you've done is help us remember how to count from first to 43rd! Silly goose, that NASCAR! How could we have possibly survived all these years without NASCAR being there to help us learn how to count!
The changes made to NASCAR's new points system will be the talk of the sports world! Never before has such an innovative and game-changing system been implemented in a major sports league, with the possible exception of the introduction of the Gatorade celebration bath. And to think, Bill France and the Powers That Be were so gracious as to enlighten us all on the wonders of simple mathematics! This new points system will truly be the spark that reignites the fan base, and propels the sport to unparalleled heights!
So, NASCAR's new points system is a lot like the old system, albeit "dumbed down" for the rednecks amongst us who have been too busy fixing stills and running moonshine to learn how to count. And while the complicated system of the past has been simplified, it's merely taken the sport's biggest problem—competitiveness— and magnified it to dizzying heights.
The new system is not going to tighten the competition at all; in fact, just the opposite will occur. Drivers will no longer be pushed to advance their position on the track, since one position up or down merely means the loss of a single point. The Chase for the Sprint Cup is still virtually the same, only with 12 drivers instead of the previous 10 or 11 that always seemed to make it in.
That a sport could be so painfully oblivious to its internal problems is mind-boggling to me at this time. The ineptitude and sheer ignorance it takes to try and fix your sport's problems by making said problems worse can only be experienced in the magical world of stock car racing. Now, by no means am I an "expert" in the field, but I do like to think of myself as someone who doesn't require instructions on how to count in 2011. Therefore, I'll leave the opinions of my aptitude up to you, the readers.
Here's my handy-dandy "How-To" Guide on fixing the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. While it's obvious that these changes won't occur, and that it would take several years to implement them even in an alternate universe where they could occur, I believe that these changes (however unlikely) could give the sport a serious boost.
Or, at the very least, it would make our suffering a little shorter.
If Brian France could make some difficult changes in the short-term, NASCAR would be vastly improved in the long run.
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Here's a few guiding principles that I laid out in composing this article. In giving myself a set of parameters to follow, I hoped to create a realistic set of principles that would allow for the sport to improve dramatically without compromising the integrity of the sport. For aesthetic reasons, I've listed a few of my self-governing rules below, without delving too much into the rationale behind them. They are as follows...
All of the proposed changes made in this self-help guide were made with an eye towards realism. In other words, I only made changes that could realistically take place. You wont find any 300 MPH super cars or cloned drivers from the past in this chef-d'oeuvre, Instead, you'll see a fan's take on a NASCAR that could conceivably exist within the next five years. That's not to say that these changes will happen, since the odds are around 0.2 percent on them ever occurring. The point is that the sport would probably be better if they ever did.
The guide is designed to improve the sport without requiring a fundamental shift in the nature of the sport or its inner mechanics. In layman's terms, I desired to change the cosmetic problems while avoiding more technical issues. Though the Car of Tomorrow leaves much to be desired, there are a few cheaper, more aesthetic alterations that could bolster the excitement level in the fan base rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new prototype to replace the failed CoT design.
TRADITION vs. EVOLUTION
The most jarring changes in the sport have been made on a whim it seems. Whenever an incident occurs that causes the slightest bit of commotion (with a few notable exceptions), NASCAR seems quick to change up the game to compensate.
When Matt Kenseth's 2003 Winston Cup Championship run ended without a single victory, the murmurs from the fan base pushed NASCAR to institute the "Chase" format. When Dale Jarrett nearly got t-boned by Casey Mears in Loudon back in 2003, the governing body was quick to institute the Beneficiary Rule, aka the "Lucky Dog" concept.
All of these changes were largely made in keeping with NASCAR's desire to expand and evolve the sport. Prior to the last decade's national expansion bid, NASCAR changed at a snail's pace. Only in the past 10 years—when the sport has attempted to break out of the Southeast—has tradition been cast aside for progress. In some instances, most notably the improved safety features for drivers on the track, the evolution of the sport has been a positive.
But in others—like the new tracks NASCAR has taken in (while cannibalizing its more exciting speedways)—NASCAR has fallen well short of the mark. This guide was created with both an eye towards the expansion of the sport and with attention to the sport's roots.
Step No. 1: Fixing the Points System
How many titles would Johnson have won under a more competitive points system?
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Here's a great starting point. With NASCAR executives already cooking up a "new" system for 2011, perhaps we should go ahead and spell out one more time why the system being implemented is already in need of replacing.
With only 46 points available to the winner of the race and one point to the worst-finishing driver in a race field, the complacency of drivers to keep their position will be at the forefront. After all, why should they risk gaining four positions on the track when they'd only be getting four additional points? What motivation is there to challenge for the lead at Talladega and risk getting caught in the "Big One" when second place is virtually the same as winning the race, as far as points are concerned? Will 42 points really break your spirit if the winner only secured a maximum of 46?
Let's try a novel concept for a points system. Beginning with the first points race (the Daytona 500), have points be awarded in increments of 50. The winner of the race takes home 500 Points, while the second place driver takes home 450, the third place driver gets 400, the fourth place takes home 350, and so on. The 10th place driver would take home the minimum amount of points, 50.
After that, the remainder of the field would finish the race with no points whatsoever, thus eliminating the really boring tendency of drivers to settle for a Top 15 Finish as opposed to pushing for a Top 10 bid. The only thing drivers from 11th on back would earn is purse money for competing.
And while we're at it, let's eliminate bonus points for leading a lap and for leading the most laps while we're at it. Just as Richard Petty alluded to in his dissension when asked about the new points system. Why should drivers be rewarded for accomplishments that don't necessarily translate into the most important thing in the sport: winning? Baseball players don't get a run for hitting a ball to the warning track, do they? So what if you lead half of the laps at a race? You could drop a cylinder five laps after halfway and finish in 31st!
Our society as a whole tries to reward both success and failure in this frustrating "era of good feeling". Why not put the emphasis on winning and show that you're not rewarding mediocrity and complacency. If you want the points, then you better be good enough to finish the race!
But, I will concede this one little bonus: If you absolutely, positively must have some type of bonus system available to the drivers, then why don't we reward drivers who get out there and actually try to help themselves win races?
We'll award 30 bonus points to the driver who qualifies on the pole at each NASCAR race, and we'll give the second-place qualifier 15 points. If we're going to give bonuses to drivers, we should at least award it for actually doing something important.
Step No. 2: Fixing the Field
The days of novice drivers and veteran racers (like Derrike Cope, pictured here) parking their cars after a few laps should be numbered.
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Alright, so we have ourselves a new Points System: simple, yet effective, with an emphasis on finishing as highly as possible. We've also accomplished a secondary goal in adding to the value of qualifying on the front row. With an upgraded points system in place, let's turn to the drivers themselves and see where we can improve the sport.
As is, 43 cars in a field for a given race is simply too much. For every 30 to 35 competitive/semi-competitive drivers in a race, you can be guaranteed at least eight drivers who fall off the lead lap within 10 minutes of the green flag dropping, either because of engine failure or poor equipment. Even worse are the "start and park" guys—drivers who start the race, then park their cars intentionally to earn a paycheck.
Generally, the start-and-park guys are drivers who are merely providing additional funds for his team, in order to field a superior car (typically driven by a better driver) during the race. While the bigger teams (like Hendrick or Childress) will have two or three competitive cars in the field, smaller teams sometimes have to rely on start-and-park cars to make enough money to be competitive on the track.
Well, that's just not going to cut it for long in our fantasy world. Why should we allow people to earn a paycheck by merely turning a few laps on race day? The people in the stands paid good, hard-earned money to watch a race; not some two-bit, washed up driver disgracing himself for the sake of some extra cash.
So let's nip this in the bud right here and now: only drivers who manage to drive at least a quarter of the advertised distance in a race will earn a paycheck, barring true mechanical failure or a crash that makes it impossible for the drivers to return to the track. If a driver parks his car intentionally without having any mechanical failure evident before completing a quarter of the race, said driver will forfeit his winnings from the event and face a five-race suspension. That eliminates 90 percent of the problem right there.
Sure, the modification here is pretty strict, and it discourages small-market teams from fielding a driver. Well, with respect to those who are less well-off, that's the point! The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series should be the pièce de résistance of auto racing in North America. Why allow third-rate drivers into the field when you should be constantly pushing for perfection? Do race fans really care if Morgan Sheppard manages to crank out four laps before parking his ride to go watch Matlock reruns in his hauler? Of course not!
So let's increase the competitiveness in the field by decreasing the size of the field. From here on out, only the Top 34 qualifiers will race on Sunday, thus taking out some of the clutter.
Also, the days of alternating between the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series are over. But not only will we force drivers to pick a Series and stick with it for an entire year, but we'll also add a few requirements before Nationwide Series drivers can move up to the Cup level. In order to race in the Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Drivers must now win a race in the Nationwide Series before they can advance to the Cup Series.
Also, the Nationwide Series Champion has a guaranteed spot in the Sprint Cup Series (should he choose it), while the worst-finishing driver in the Sprint Cup Series points standings at the end of the season gets relegated to the Nationwide Series. Let's add some emphasis for the bottom-tier guys to bust it on race day, too.
Step No. 3: Fixing the Chase System
Say so long to the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and say hello to the 2011 Sprint Cup Series Championship Runoffs!
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To recap, we've addressed major problems in the quality of the drivers on the track, and we've established new rules by which drivers can accrue points on the track. Let's take the final step now, and alter the abomination that is the Chase playoff system.
Now, first things first: a lot of criticism surrounding the Chase system is actually unfair on the part of fans.
Yes, Virginia, I said unfair.
A common thread amongst most fans is that the "best driver" doesn't always win under the new playoff system. Well, that's why it's a playoff system. While the teams with the best records in the NBA or the NFL have a shot at winning their league's respective championships, being the best regular season team doesn't always translate into winning titles.
How often have teams like the Indianapolis Colts or Philadelphia Eagles finished with the top overall seed, yet failed to win the Super Bowl? In the case of the Eagles, how many years of being the top seeded team going into the playoffs did it take before a team actually managed to get to the Super Bowl at all? In this regard, the Chase playoff system in NASCAR isn't really all that different from the MLB Playoffs or the NFL Playoffs.
The problem comes in the form of the structure of the system. Namely, the only thing the Chase system does is tighten up the Points System after the second race at Richmond, giving 10 or 11 drivers an exclusive crack at the title. It doesn't change the deficiencies evident in the old Points System in the slightest; it's really just a reset button being pushed under the guise of increasing competitiveness.
So, how do we create a playoff system in NASCAR that ups the excitement while promoting drivers who go out and compete each week? Well, why don't we borrow from a popular facet found in other forms of racing?
Here's how it would work. The top 10 drivers in points (using our new system, mind you) would automatically qualify for the Chase. Then, we'd add one wild card driver to the field. Our wild card driver would be the driver who has the most wins amongst the drivers who finished lower than tenth in the overall points standings.
If no one outside of the Top 10 scored any wins, then the winner of the Daytona 500 would gain an automatic wild card bid if he wasn't already in the Top 10. If the Daytona 500 winner did qualify for the Chase, then you could use the driver with the most Top Five finishes on the season who finished outside the Top 10.
Or, here's a novel suggestion: why not add some meaning to the All-Star Race and have the winning driver qualify as the 11th driver in the Chase, in the event that all other criteria are exhausted. You can really mix and choose as you will, so long as the wild card position isn't automatically given based on points. We want our drivers to compete to get into the Top 10, not settle for 11th position.
Now, after we have our 11 drivers, the playoff format would begin. From this point on, there would be no more points to deal with. Each week, one Chase driver is eliminated from contention based on whomever finishes the lowest during each race.
As the 10-race Chase comes down to the wire, we'd narrow the field down, until only two drivers remain heading into the final race. From there? May the best man win, because it's essentially 1-on-1 at the final race. Even if the race itself is a snooze-fest, you can at least guarantee yourself some drama with the final two Chase drivers racing tooth and nail for the Cup!
Under this experimental system, you're rewarding consistency—consistency in finishing highly. The higher you finish, the more likely you are to survive. If you crash out, then oh well! Better luck next year, because the show's moving on without you. As funny as it may seem, you can actually crown two different champions with this system: a Points Champion and the Sprint Cup Series Champion.
While the Points Champion exemplifies consistency in excellence during the regular season, the Cup Series Champion demonstrates his ability to survive the gambit of the NASCAR playoff system, outlasting all other drivers to reign supreme. The Cup Series Champion would still be the superior title and would be where the largest amount of money is at.
And before we forget, let's simply the name of the system itself, shall we? In keeping with the "playoff" moniker, why don't we call our new system the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Runoffs. A nice play on words, simpler by design, and just as meaningful as calling your system the "Chase".
Step No. 4: Fixing the Rules
Under a revised system, drivers would have a bit more freedom in getting to the checkered flag.
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We're entering Turn Four now in our guide, racing towards the finish line. With several fundamental flaws receiving upgrades now, we turn our attention to a lesser evil in NASCAR's plethora of problems. The rule book doesn't require too much in the way of changes, but there's always room for improvement.
We'll start by eliminating the repetitive Green/White/Checker Finish attempts. If NASCAR must have a version of overtime in its races, then we're only giving them one shot at it. Now, we understand that there are few things more irritating when watching a race than to have it end under caution. But NASCAR was plugging along just fine before the fateful race in Talladega where Jeff Gordon secured the win under caution, much to the chagrin of Dale Jr. fans (it was the infamous race where fans pelted the track with garbage several years previous). Short of removing all lapped traffic with 10 laps to go, there's no real way to avoid this problem.
Now, as far as the Lucky Dog Rule goes, we can't really fault NASCAR for watching out for the safety of the drivers. If you're going to keep them safe, then racing back to the stripe can be quite hazardous with an accident on the track.
However, let's end this nonsense by allowing a lapped car a free pass onto the lead lap. The first car a lap down being given a free pass is really unfair, especially if that car wasn't even remotely in the vicinity of getting his lap back when the caution flag fell. Also, we'll suspend the rule prohibiting drivers from racing back to the start/finish line when there's less than 10 laps remaining in the race.
If a race is about to end under caution, at least give the drivers on the track one last shot at determining the race fairly. The ability to race back to the start/finish line would be extended during a Green/White/Checker finish as well.
In order to increase the excitement, we'll also relax the rules surrounding the ability of drivers to draft with one another and to allow a little more "rubbin" on race day.
Now, we obviously couldn't condone cars just going out and wrecking one another. Therefore, any accident that involved a malicious attempt by a driver to crash another driver would be met with a severe penalty after the race. Such a penalty would include a hefty fine, the loss of drivers points accumulated during said race, or a possible suspension for the more aggressive infractions. If a driver causes more than one wreck on the track, said driver can be black-flagged and forced to park at the discretion of the track officials.
Finally, we'll address one of the more glaring issues surrounding the current rule book. Cooperation amongst drivers racing for the same team is fine, so long as it's kept to assisting one another on the track in racing conditions (such as pitting together or drafting with one another).
But the ability to swap pit crews in the middle of a race is no more. From here on out, you finish the race with the same pit crew you started with. Also, there will be no shifting of personnel from one stall to another during a race, even if one car from a team is out of the race. Having two crew chiefs sit atop the pit stall giving advice because the second chief's driver is out of the race is an unfair advantage against teams who don't have that luxury. Win on your own merits, and don't rely on the strength of your car owner's other teams.
Step No. 5: Fixing the Schedule
Daytona: the venue that should determine who walks away with the Sprint Cup Championship.
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We're coming down to the line, and the checkered flag is in the air. But before we wrap this guide up, there's one last issue to correct. And it's a doozy of an issue: the schedule.
The current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule has so many problems with it, I can't even know for sure where to start. You could fix just one of the schedule's many problems and improve the quality of the sport immensely. Yet we want to create the best sport possible, and there are wholesale changes necessary to be made in order to present a more appealing schedule to the fan base. So, let's give it a shot.
The first change to be made is to eliminate tracks that have no real business being on the schedule to begin with. They may be tracks that provide notoriously poor racing, or they could be tracks that are located in poor areas for stock car racing.
While some people may dislike my suggestions, I've created a new schedule for the sport that gives us not only better racing venues, but returns to the traditional roots of the sport while also expanding NASCAR at the same time. I'll go ahead and mention that I've chopped off a bit of the actual schedule in order to shorten up our schedule's length. In reality, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series runs from February 20th (Daytona) to November 20th (Homestead), incorporating 26 point races and the 10 race Chase in that span.
Our schedule runs from the February 20th race at Daytona to October 2nd at the final Runoff race, ending the season roughly seven weeks earlier. Whereas the real schedule has 36 races on its schedule (excluding the Showdown/All-Star Race, the Duel 125s and the Shootout at Daytona), our new schedule has only 30 races.
To facilitate this, we've done some pruning by removing a few dates from the schedule. Though it was a tough call for me, both Charlotte and Phoenix lost one of their races. Charlotte already has such a loaded schedule in May for the All-Star Race/Hall of Fame/Coca-Cola 600 span that the October Chase race—I felt—could be jettisoned.
Phoenix was a lot harder for me to get rid of, but I needed a specific race at Phoenix in the middle of the schedule and couldn't bring myself to take away a race from Dover. Pocono was also among the tracks that lost one of its races, along with Michigan.
However, a few tracks also got removed entirely, such as Fontana, Kasnas, Chicagoland, and Loudon. In their place comes a new venue in Nashville, along with a new date at Kentucky (already planned in real life) and a return to Rockingham at the start of the season.
Though Texas loses one of its two races, all three short tracks retain both of their dates (Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville). Also, Dover Downs managed to keep both of its dates, as did Daytona and Talladega.
The series keeps its dates at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but also adds four more road courses to the Series: Laguna Seca (to replace the canceled Fontana race), Sebring (to be run near the end of the season in place of Homestead's traditional spot), the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal (a recent stop in the Nationwide Series) and the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City (also a former Nationwide Series stop).
The expansion into Mexico and Canada will help broaden the borders of the sport while returning the lone-Darlington race on the schedule to the first Sunday in September, and returning to Rockingham will hopefully placate traditional fans.
While many changes have taken place with our schedule, there's a few big changes that need to be highlighted. For starters, there's only three points races on the schedule that now take place on a Saturday night as opposed to a Sunday: the final race at Bristol, the first race at Richmond, and the lone race at Phoenix. All other events start on Sunday at 1:00 PM EST, barring rain or some other natural disaster postponing the race.
Finally, the season will end not at Homestead-Miami, but at the track where it began. I've chosen to move Indianapolis into the July 4th-week spot on the schedule and move Daytona into the season finale slot. This allows for the two biggest races of the year to take place at the sport's most recognizable and famous venue.
Proposed 2011 Schedule
FEB 12 - The Shootout at Daytona (Saturday Night Race)
FEB 17 - The Duel 125s at Daytona
FEB 20 - Daytona 500 Season Opener
FEB 27 - Rockingham
MAR 06 - Texas
MAR 13 - Las Vegas
MAR 20 - Laguna Seca
MAR 27 - Nashville
APR 03 - Atlanta
APR 10 - Martinsville
APR 17 - Kentucky
MAY 01 - Dover
MAY 07 - Richmond (Saturday Night Race)
MAY 15 - Bristol
MAY 21 - All Star Race at Charlotte (Saturday Night Race)
MAY 29 - Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte
JUN 05 - Talladega
JUN 12 - Mexico City
JUN 18 - Phoenix (Saturday Night Race)
JUN 26 - Sonoma
JUL 03 - Indianapolis
JUL 10 - Pocono
JUL 17 - Watkins Glen
JUL 31 - Michigan (Runoff Race No. 1)
AUG 07 - Montreal (Runoff Race No. 2)
AUG 14 - Dover (Runoff Race No. 3)
AUG 21 - Talladega (Runoff Race No. 4)
AUG 28 - Martinsville (Runoff Race No. 5)
SEP 04 - Darlington (Runoff Race No. 6)
SEP 11 - Richmond (Runoff Race No. 7)
SEP 17 - Bristol (Runoff Race No. 8 - Saturday Night Race)
SEP 25 - Sebring (Runoff Race No. 9)
OCT 02 - Daytona (Runoff Race No. 10)