Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?
While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.
In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.
Sticking with the parity theme from yesterday’s Roundtable question, some claim that today’s Cup cars are too closely matched and that “wave-around” and “Lucky Dog” rules keep the field more tightly grouped. Is this simply a product of “sports,” circa 2014? Has the importance of catering to a television audience trumped honest, on-track/on-field competition?
Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree):In a word, yes. But NASCAR always has been about “manufactured” racing, to a degree. In a perfect racing world, a driver who works hard to build a two-second advantage on the track during green-flag racing should retain that margin after a caution. That isn’t feasible, of course, and entertainment value certainly is boosted by repeated green-flag restarts. The wave-around? A bit ridiculous.
Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News; @bobpockrass): Yes, it caters to television and is a product of sports circa 2014. But so what? You need rules that keep fans interested. The free pass and wave around do that, and they also play a key safety role as drivers don’t race back to the start-finish line when the yellow comes out. The wave-arounds also keep a nearly lapped-down car from racing the leaders on a restart. There’s nothing wrong in giving a driver who has a flat tire early in the race a little more hope thanks to these rules.
Nate Ryan (USA Today; @nateryan): It’s the product of a governing body that might be too attuned to the whims of its followers. More tricks have been added in the past decade of NASCAR’s premier series than in its first 55 years. Though it’s wise to be mindful of fans’ demands, it’s a fine line of catering to entertainment at the expense of competition. NASCAR can’t roll back many of the changes that have been made, but eradicating the “free pass”/wave-around rule and the three attempts at a green-white-checker finish (one is plenty) would be a good start.
Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine; @ESPNMcGee): When I talk to the old-timers, these lead-lap rules drive them nuts, way more than stuff like the Chase or the new points system. NASCAR has gotten ripped over the years for being such a dictatorship, but perhaps their biggest flaw in recent years is that they’ve reacted to fan feedback a little too much. That’s where some of all these parity-driven policies have come from — hits and misses. But what’s fascinating to me is that no matter how hard they work at creating that mythical 43-wide finish, the best teams still win the most races and championships. And I can tell you firsthand the catering-to-TV theories are overstated. If that was the primary impetus for all decisions, then no race would last longer than three hours.
Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): Continuing with the “close doesn’t always equal competitive” theory, I’ve never taken an issue to NASCAR’s institution of the wave-around and Lucky Dog rules. It replaced a gentleman’s agreement of racing back to the caution flag; an agreement that had different terms each time it happened. The equal terms of the official rule is more important than any perception of parity-forcing.
But I’m not sure how those rules are catering to a television audience rather than a common sense simple major-league sports move. It was only natural that NASCAR was going to have to increase rules and regulations when teams started to spend more and more to find speed.
Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): NASCAR Cup racing has become a made-for-TV show; at-track fans have been all-but MIA. The sport's decline since 2007 has been striking, and it's unclear why Daytona/NASCAR has been unable or unwilling to make the major changes to shake things up. The wave-around rule was a bad idea to begin with, and it's become a terrible part of the sport — one big reason for lack of competition on Sundays — because the leader always gets clean air on restarts instead of having to fight his way back to the front. The “Lucky Dog” is OK, as Dale Jarrett and many others, like Bobby Allison, can attest. Yes, the Cup cars today are way too tightly regulated, which plays right into the hands of the mega-teams that can afford engineering armies. You ask why the Hendrick teams dominate? Just look at the rulebook ... and count the engineers on the Hendrick payroll. NASCAR is changing the rules for 2014? Then expect another Jimmie Johnson championship.
Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): I think NASCAR has done a good job in walking that fine line between competition and entertainment but it’s not going to get any easier in the coming years. The sport simply has to cater to a new breed of fans' expectations while maintaining its core of long-time supporters. Tough balance to say the least.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro