Over the past few months or years we've all felt it, but no one seems to want to address the elephant in the room: NASCAR has flatlined. Quite frankly, the perfect storm has arisen and now we, as NASCAR fans, are left to fell the effects of a shake-up in making.
Within the next year, The Big Three will be whittled down to the Big Two (at least), field sizes will shrink along with attendance, and sponsors will be a privilege, not a guarantee. So what is NASCAR to do? In the words of future President Obama: "change".
Let me preface this by saying most, if not all, of these proposed changes will never come to fruition, but they are worth throwing out there.
As our country continues its slow descent from recession to depression, something needs to be done to ensure the health of the sport. No, NASCAR will not die off, but it can be crippled, maimed, paralyzed, whatever you want to call it. The first thing NASCAR needs to do is retain the long-term fanbase. How can they accomplish that?
Cut back the schedule.
The current Sprint Cup schedule has 36 races, ten of which are in the chase. Although NASCAR, along with the respective track owners would argue, it is apparent the schedule is bloated and the racing has become watered-down and stale.
With the All-Star race and Speedweeks teams are at the track 38 weeks a year, not including testing. This is simply too much. The Chase cut-off point comes after the first 26 races. What kind of number is that? NFL teams play 16 regular-season games, followed by four weeks of playoffs (including the Super Bowl). This is perfect: the playoffs are one-fourth the normal schedule.
NASCAR should follow that lead. Quickly changing lanes, it is at this point NASCAR should decide whether or not road racing has a legitimate case for being on the schedule. Currently, there are two road races a year. If NASCAR is intent of keeping right-hand turns, they must add one more. If not, get rid of them entirely.
Now, back to the model set by the NFL. While adding races is not the best of ideas, NASCAR must decide to either reduce the schedule by six races or add four races. This way, the Chase (assuming the length is still ten races) is either one-fourth the season (in a 40-race schedule) or one-third the season (in a 30-race schedule).
Cutting six races off the schedule seems to be the way to go here. Again, it is at this point NASCAR must look itself in the face and make some hard decisions, realizing some markets (at this point in time) either can't support or are not yet ready for NASCAR racing.
For the sake of argument here, let's say NASCAR has decided road racing is worthy of the schedule, requiring an add-on of one road race. Hence, seven races must be cut (one extra to accommodate for the additional road race).
These markets are either struggling or do not have the quality of racing to maintain two Cup dates, and thus will be cut from our schedule:
New Hampshire twice, Pocono twice, Auto Club Speedway (California), Michigan, and Atlanta. Although New Hampshire will never lose both races, in this scenario there is simply no other track to cut a race from, and the North-East has plenty of other races. Perhaps Pocono and New Hampshire take on-again, off-again turns with two other tracks for dates every-other year.
Writers note: Whittling down the schedule for me, sitting here writing this, took nearly twenty minutes. (Seriously, look at the schedule-this is why NASCAR will never shorten the schedule. That, and the money.) Atlanta (great racing) and Michigan (home track, great racing) also were hard for this writer to cut. It should also be noted that, no matter how empty the grandstands seem to get, NASCAR is dedicated to running two races at California.
Now that we have step one accomplished (a 30 race schedule, with ten of that being the Chase), it is time for step two.
Re-shuffle the Chase.
As much as the reader may or may not like the Chase, it is here to stay. So, the next logical question is this: how do we make it better ? (Or, to be more correct, fix it—however, NASCAR will never, ever admit it is broken.)
The Chase schedule was flawed from the start, as the last ten races of the year were taken, spit-shined, and branded emphatically as (brace yourself) THE CHASE!
The Chase for what? The Championship? These ten races are not indicative of a drivers' mastery of all track types on the schedule, let alone ten races which can stand alone, packaged as "playoffs".
The point of the Chase was to draw excitement to the Championship hunt, as well as draw in average Joe from down the street. Someone tuning in for the first time all season because they've heard of the NASCAR "playoffs" should be treated to the best racing at the best tracks NASCAR has to offer. Something tells me (using the current Sprint Cup schedule) New Hampshire and California don't quite fit that bill.
These ten tracks offer the best racing all year: Bristol, Daytona, Lowes, Darlington, Richmond, Texas, Phoenix, Dover, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. Of these, five are currently in the Chase (Lowes, Texas, Phoenix, Dover, and Kansas). Las Vegas and Darlington currently only have one date, Richmond is the current cut-off point, and Bristol and Daytona both currently have two dates, all of them history-rich.
Homestead, the current season-ending race, has done nothing wrong; in fact, they have been nothing short of remarkable, even improving facilities and re-banking the track to make the racing better.
If the ten tracks mentioned above are to be in the Chase, Homestead will be booted out. Where, then, should it be scheduled? It's simple: swap it with Richmond. Sure, the normal short-track strain (along with the pressure of the final chance to get into the Chase) will be removed, but great racing will still be present under the lights.
Begin the Chase in Dover, then move to Kansas City, Richmond, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Texas, Darlington, Lowes, Bristol, and end-yup, you got it-where it all started, in Daytona.
The schedule would provide the best racing throughout the Chase, and eight of ten races (including the last six at least) would/could be raced under the lights.
Thinking on the schedule, at first having Daytona end the entire season seemed like a bad move. Restrictor-plate racing, at best, is a crap-shoot, so why put the fate of the contenders for the Championship at such a risk?
Imagine it: stock-car racing's grandest night on its' grandest stage. This would be the Daytona 500, all the prestige and with the world watching, the angst of restrictor-plate racing...with the emotions and adrenaline of a championship on the line.
Quite frankly, you don't even have to market that. It would market itself: 200 laps of bare-knuckle, leave-nothing-on-the-table, pedal-to-the-floor epic racing. No one would sit down; the experience would be orgasmic. Will "points leader" be able to hang on to his slim lead over "second place"? What will happen if "points leader" takes the white flag as the leader of the field, with "second place" drafting right behind him? What happens if they are involved in "The Big One?"
Because of the rough nature of the Chase races, a new Chase points system would be proposed (more on that in a second).
The biggest question about the new Chase would be the replacement of race dates lost by those tracks moving to the Chase. The only real loss would be the Daytona date on the 4th of July. Perhaps bias is kicking in, but there's only one thing to do: add lights to MIS and give the date to Michigan. NASCAR is as American a sport as you can get, and it only makes sense to celebrate America's day while racing in NASCAR's "backyard" (the Motor City).
The next step is a new Chase points system.
Even though the Chase drivers are racing against the 33 other drivers in the field, they are really racing amongst themselves. Reset the points system like before, but give the Chasers a separate points system. Award the highest-finishing Chase driver in a Chase race twelve points, the second-highest elven, so on, down to one. No bonus points, either.
This would also combat the "bad-luck" factor, and lets be honest: if Mark Martin finishes 24th at Darlington, but finishes ahead of everyone else in the Chase, he has done his job-he beat those whom he is racing against for the Championship.
Or, if Jeff Gordon is taken out by David "I can't drive" Gilliland while he's trying to get back at another driver, that's not Gordons fault, is it? Using the same points system against those not in the Chase makes no sense-you're racing against 11 other men while simultaneously racing against 32 OTHER men. Dumb.
Re-vamping the point system would keep the point battles close, ensuring drama to the end; another added bonus to separate points systems is better racing. Yes, that's right, better racing. Because the difference between a first-place finish and a last-place finish would not be nearly as great as in the old points system, non-Chase drivers could actually race Chase drivers with some degree of aggressiveness.
Again, this would be an especially added bonus in the "new" Chase schedule.
Let drivers be drivers.
If Tony Stewart is P.O.'d about being wrecked, let him say what he wants to say without fining him. One of the factors hindering the growth of this sport is the lack of personality-everyone walks and talks the same.
These men are good men, they are real people. They have emotions.
One of the things that keeps fans interested in the NFL is the emotion of the game. From Hines Ward crying after an AFC Championship Game loss to Dennis Green going berserk and smacking the podium in a post-game press conference shouting "They are who we thought they were! And we let 'em off the hook!
But if you wanna crown their ***, then crown their ***!", players show emotion.
In NASCAR, where access to the drivers is unrivaled, this needs to happen. Physical violence, however, and on-track retaliation (like Gilliland vs. Montoya) should not be tolerated. But letting this men be themselves will let the fans in, more so than before.
Plus, this WILL spark rivalries. Tell me there's not someone in the garage who doesn't want to fire back at Kevin Harvick after he says something stupid about another driver. Like the "trash-talkers" (Stewart, Harvick, etc) or not, their emotion and personalities do nothing but help the sport.
Race real cars.
This IS the National Association for Stock-Car Auto Racing, so let's race real cars. If I want to see a Charger and Fusion waste a Camry, then watch the Charger smoke the Fusion, I want to see the real deal-not a "generic-car with a Charger logo sticker smoke a generic-car with a Fusion sticker".
Racing real, stock cars would work in conjuncture with the limited-to-no factory support from Manufacturers in the future. Instead of Dodge ponying up cash to help Kasey Kahne win on Sunday, GEM can go out, buy a Charger, and race it against whoever. Safety modifications would need to be made, of course, but this way racing can go back to "the good 'ole days".
And, quite frankly, there needs to be a reason the car companies race 'their' cars-if the 2010 version of the Fusion is going to have an I-Beam sticking out of the roof of the car, make them pay for it on the track. Car sales would benefit-Ryan Newman wins the Daytona 500 in a stock version of the Dodge Charger, people flock to buy the car that just won the Daytona 500; car companies would also strive to make the best cars possible, and it would open up possibilities for new cars (such as a Chrysler 300-C) and close the door on others (the 6-cylinder, FF Camry).
As mentioned prior in the article, most (if not all) of these changes will never take place, but to this writer would be beneficial to the sport in one way or another. Thank you for reading this long article, and feel free to comment as you see fit.