HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The Internet Age has evolved to the Age of Instant, and NASCAR has drawn its course in parallel.
The sport’s bid at returned relevance has become laser-focused on the instant highlight, every week, during every race. It’s tried to embed the best parts of its most TV-friendly races — restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega — into the season’s every moment and tried to scrub itself of cumulative, long-developing events like a season-long championship or a too-long green flag run.
Those restrictor plate races are sold on the premise that tight racing with no ability for faster cars or better drivers to separate from the field produces surprising results. It can be wildly exciting due to the tight confines and constant potential for on-track disaster. The nature of the races even gives the sport’s back-running teams a chance to win. They often produce the random.
NASCAR has bet that imposing more randomness in its other races, and the season as a whole, is the best way to stir instant interest from both its die-hard fan base and the casual one that has largely averted its gaze in the last decade. It’s a bet — and perhaps something of an impossible last grasp — that today’s sports fan wants to see something noteworthy any and every time they see a NASCAR event.
But the price may be the sport’s authenticity.
Look no farther than the championship model culminating Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For the first time, the sport has reset its point standings at four scheduled times during the last 10 races of the 36-race schedule. The manual adjustments have drawn championship-hopeful drivers closer and also excluded ones who didn’t perform at the prescribed times — typically with little regard of prior performance.
The changes are creating more do-or-die theatrics at more points late in the season than ever before. There have been fights. There has been foolish on-track behavior. And there has certainly been hard-nosed, good racing. It’s been a lot of instant gratification for fans hoping for drama. But the system is flawed, and it’s rewarding less those who challenge weekly for wins and more those who have either raced more conservatively or are just not as fast. Those who stood out in 2014 — drivers like Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. among others who tallied 71 percent of the season’s wins — have already been excluded from the championship.
Meanwhile Ryan Newman, winless in 2014 and credited with just four top-5 finishes in 35 tries, is one good finish from walking away with the season championship, as are Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.
Harvick and Logano are by far the most worthy of the candidates for the title — Hamlin has only a win to his name this year and the series’ 10th-best average finish — but only Logano had a small semblance of comfort in last week’s final championship-qualifying race at Phoenix. Harvick faced a must-win situation despite having four wins to his name and the fourth-most top-5 finishes.
Making it worse is that Newman secured spot with a dirty move in the season’s penultimate race that knocked Kyle Larson into the wall on the final lap and secured Newman an 11th-place finish. Any other credible racing series would have penalized Newman for the blatant take-out move — it’s specious to argue Newman was even close to racing Larson for the spot at the time — but NASCAR celebrated it. If we’re drawing stick-and-ball equivalents, the move was akin to a basketball team winning a game with a last-second open layup after committing an obvious, yet uncalled foul to take possession and then watching as NBA executives herald the move as true-to-the-roots basketball.
As much as NASCAR is about contact and close racing, it can’t be expected to remain sustainable if even basic tenets of competitive automobile racing are ignored.
More damaging than the championship process, however, may be how the officiating has grown across the board to reflect the interests of marketing the sport instead of fair and authentic regulation. The most visible part of that is the influx of questionable application of caution flags during race events. Andrew Maness, author of the blog RacingNomics, noted recently that cautions for on-track debris are happening at a rate in the last decade typically double and occasionally triple of the previous decade.
Is this era of NASCAR with better car quality control than ever really putting more dangerous pieces on the track? Or are officials using the vague explanation to continually tighten racing and produce more restarts?
It’s hard to see how it’s not that latter.
The result is races that are artificially close and results that are more random. It’s a cheap thrill, a clickbait-type finish.
In recent weeks, the formula has seemingly worked. Ratings for NASCAR’s third- and second-to-last Chase races posted four-year highs and the total viewer count appears to be the highest since 2011.
But clickbait on the Internet — those links posted on social media and other places with eye-grabbing headlines that often link to articles without substance — often draws those cheap clicks before users learn that what they’re reading isn’t what they expected. After a while, a reader starts to tune out that particular source.
Will viewers eventually sour on NASCAR because of its preference for the now, and not the real? When every race finishes with a late restart, and every championship battle is built around a flawed system of identifying the best in favor the random, won’t that expectation of the wild start to feel like the normal? What happens when artificially tight racing becomes uninspiring and expected?
Sports need to be grounded in moments that naturally and organically produce dramatic and memorable moments. In its embrace of the instant, NASCAR is walking a path far from those roots.
Follow @GeoffreyMiller on Twitter.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.