NASCAR's Season(s) of Change

Change continues to dot NASCAR landscape

Change continues to dot NASCAR landscape

I write this column every three or four years. At some point, you’d think I would just change the names and dates, but I guess that would be cheating. “NASCAR’s Season of Change.” Has a nice ring to it, no? The problem is for NASCAR, the “season” has turned plural.

In 2004, Brian France ascended to Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, replacing his benevolent father, Bill Jr. Nextel replaced Winston as the series title sponsor that season, as well, virtually erasing all links to the sport’s Golden Era rise to major league prominence. The most revered of all NASCAR Holy Days — the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend — was, for the first time since 1950, not observed. Instead, the tradition was ditched in favor of a sparkling new 2-mile flat oval in some former industrial wasteland in Southern California.

And of course, NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship playoff format was unveiled — vilified by some, championed by others. You had to hand it to the sanctioning body, though, that first Chase was a doozy, with unlikely champion Kurt Busch (at times on three wheels) eeking out Jimmie Johnson by eight points.

Mission accomplished, right? Why would further change be necessary with a format that seemed to assure the sport of an exciting finale while visiting “exotic” new locales?

Hold on there, cowboy. NASCAR was just getting started.

I next wrote this column in January 2007. Coming off “blowout” Chase winning margins of 35 and 56 points, NASCAR decided it had some “blowing up” of its own to do. The first signs of discontent in NASCAR fandom were witnessed in 2006, as television ratings slipped and observers cried foul when a driver who won five races (Tony Stewart) did not make the Chase field. Therefore, an expanded field — from 10 drivers to 12, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon were also excluded — was introduced. As was a 10-point bonus awarded at the onset of the playoffs for race wins, which seeded the drivers.

And that was just the start. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow made its infamous debut in ’07 (spurring inaugural CoT-race winner Kyle Busch to proclaim the car “sucked” in Victory Lane), as did a certain auto manufacturer whose headquarters weren’t on these by-gawd shores. ABC/ESPN jumped on board as a broadcast partner that season when NBC went back to basics, err baseball, reportedly getting jobbed for north of $600 million for eight seasons.

“The voices of discontent are always louder than the voices of reason,” Jeff Burton was prompted to say, in regards to those fans and media who bemoaned the wholesale fixes to a sport not broken. “Whatever the discontent is, whatever happens to be the subject, that’s going to be allowed a voice. The whole issue is never heard as much as the two or three people that say, ‘The world is falling! The sky is falling … The world is coming to an end!’”

Four years of mounting discontent later, those “two or three people” given a voice pleaded for a return to what drew them to the sport in the first place: Cars that were true to their brand, a schedule that promoted exciting racing and an examination of whether NASCAR’s Chase was really necessary.

So again, change blew through the halls of Daytona. Or Charlotte. Whatever. (A great old NASCAR quip is that the sport’s heart is in Charlotte, but its wallet in Daytona.)

This season will witness a new nose on the cars, replacing the ungainly “cow-catcher” splitters on the Car of Tomorrow. Already gone from the CoT are the Erector Set wings, blown off in favor of the traditional spoiler. The fans spoke, and thus, the CoT looks less like the spec car it is and more like what their vision of a stock car should be.

The cars will also be powered by a different fuel, as high-octane leaded gasoline goes the way of the dinosaur in favor of the ethanol “Sunoco Green E15” blend. This fundamental shift won’t be one readily apparent to viewers, although horsepower and fuel mileage will be affected. What is apparent is that the switch is costing teams money. Not only is NASCAR charging Sunoco to be the official fuel of the sport, it is forcing individual teams to buy their own fuel, as well as the gaudy green decals they must showcase around the filler port.

The elimination of the catch can man will be evident to fans, as self-venting fuel cans will eliminate the need for a catch can on pit stops. Which team figures out the best method of getting on and off pit road with one less over-the-wall man can win races early in the season because of it. Then it’ll be a monkey-see, monkey-do mirroring down pit lane.

Schedule tweaks are coming as well, although the “impactful changes” promised by France turned out to be underwhelming (and solely bottom-line driven) as Auto Club and Atlanta Motor Speedways forfeit underperforming dates to 1.5-mile Kansas and Kentucky Speedways.

Perhaps most frustrating, though, is Chicagoland Speedway’s coronation as host to the Chase’s first playoff race. The struggling 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill., needed a boost to fill the venue, and therefore got a marquee date, but the sport will suffer over the long haul, as mind-numbing aero-racing has never been a draw to stock car fans of any ilk — Chase race or not. In short, the sanctioning body gave one of its premier dates to a track that has all the dramatic qualities of a watched kettle.

And, of course, there is the “simplified” new points format. Gone is the Latford system in place since 1975, in its place a 43-1 scaled payout that penalizes poor outings more than it rewards strong ones, thus encouraging “safe” points days. After all, why give up the guaranteed 39 points for a fifth-place run when going for the win could result in a crash that throws a driver back to 34th and the measly 10 points it “rewards?”

One change the sanctioning body got right is two wild card slots in the Chase. While the playoff format still accepts 12 drivers, the final two spots are rewarded via race wins for those inside the top 20 not already qualified. Kudos to NASCAR for stressing wins, but maybe it should have gone even further, say to an 8/4 points/wins scale.

A change to the qualification system will be an interesting one to watch. Qualifying order will no longer be set by blind draw, but rather, fast times in practice. And if qualifying is rained out after a full practice session, the field will be set to reflect that session. We’ll call it a race within a race within a race. And anything to jazz up a qualifying day that tends to drag is probably a good thing.

The last most notable change — one that’s hard to judge yet — is a rule requiring drivers to declare which championship they are competing for. No longer will Cup regulars dip into the Nationwide Series and run away with titles. Make no mistake, they’ll still do a fair share of double-dipping, but it will not affect the season-ending points battle. This course of action encourages development in NASCAR’s second series. But in all honesty, it will take a few years to find its balance. Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?

And so it goes … another “Season of Change” for NASCAR: some good, some not so much. In three or four years when I break this article back out of the can to outline a new points system, schedule and/or car, we’ll see which ones worked and which ones did not.

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