Monday night, after the Super Bowl. It marks the end of NFL season, but the beginning of a slow transition where NASCAR once again preps to take center stage. The next big American sporting event belongs to stock car racing; the Daytona 500 stands less than three weeks away. And no matter how far this sport has fallen, that 9.9 television rating for the Great American Race, just last season still held a larger audience than last year’s World Series. NASCAR remains competitive with stick and ball sports in that arena; NBC didn’t just pay $440 million a year for a sport that will give nothing back.
It’s important to recognize those facts while feeling like Sprint Cup racing stands on the edge of a rocky cliff, the kind where cars go over the precipice only if they feel like splintering into a thousand pieces. The Boston Tea Party would be envious of Winter’s riot fans appear to be throwing, one week after changes to NASCAR’s Chase leave the way to pick the sport’s yearly championship unrecognizable from anything before it.
Change is hard enough to sell; unpopular change is potentially devastating. And a look at the “poll of polls,” comments hitting my inbox and those from articles detailing these major adjustment leave the “avid supporters” of NASCAR’s new ten-race playoff at somewhere around 10 percent. Excitement surrounding the sport’s biggest race has been met with confusion by the masses, most of whom don’t understand the new system and resistance from the very souls paying money to be sitting in those seats down in Florida.
The roots of said protest represent thousands of grown men and women acting like they’re in the death throes of a bad relationship. “I’m done.” “How could Brian France do this?” “I’m selling my season tickets to Bristol and moving to Cancun in protest.” (OK, maybe the last part isn’t true. But wouldn’t it be nice with this winter?) NASCAR’s insistence they did market research on their latest major shift, turning the title into a four-driver, best-finish-take-all procedure at Homestead seems to have used the wrong target audience. Last I checked Brian’s cousin, 100 ISC employees and the blind old lady in the nursing home don’t really give you a diversified opinion.
There’s one thing to be said about the new Chase experiment: great timing. I’m actually serious here. It’s a “lame duck” year with television partners TNT, ABC, and ESPN, the part of the package whose ratings were hurting (in comparison to FOX, whose first half audience has pretty much leveled off). If this rollercoaster, slam-bang idea turns out to be a Fall disaster, there’s an out for NASCAR to call the whole thing off just before NBC starts their ten-year program. You don’t roll the dice in 2015, especially with changes in scheduling and perhaps other major shifts on the horizon. If you’re going to be crazy, be crazy now; “out with the old, in with the new” is going to be your mantra anyway in 12 short months.
But risking that stability, in general right now is perhaps the sport’s biggest problem. One of the reasons the NFL keeps growing is its core rules simply don’t shift. Sure, maybe kickoffs get moved five yards back, or safety improves to minimize concussions. But you don’t go, from year-to-year and fail to recognize the sport in a matter of 12 months. NASCAR, with all its intricacy, from teamwork to restart tweaks to pit road strategy is hard enough to pick up on the surface. Now, we’re dealing with the following in just the last decade alone…
2004: New ten-race playoff, with ten drivers for the title replacing a “modern era,” season-long format in place since 1975.
2007: Chase drivers increased from ten to twelve.
2011: “Wild card” format introduced, along with new points system replacing the one in place since 1975.
2014: New playoff format, increasing drivers involved from 12 to 16. Top 15 drivers are those who win at least one race; 16th is the point leader if winless. If there are less than 15 winners, spots will be filled by the highest drivers in series points. “Elimination rounds” then occur after the third, sixth, and ninth races that chop the field down to the “Final Four” heading to the Homestead season finale. The highest-finishing driver of those four, in that race takes home the big trophy.
None of those changes address race-to-race competition; they’re all surrounding season-long math. But I digress; dismiss for a minute your head spinning over trying to simply digest those rules. The bottom line is we’ve seen the format adjust four times in 11 years, the largest of many traditions NASCAR has not hesitated to tear apart (Darlington, more cookie-cutter racing, etc.). Is this sport stable… or is it a Ponzi scheme? Baseball, by comparison adjusted their playoffs twice over the past 21 seasons – and “old school” fans are still pouncing, daily while the new ones digest a somewhat diluted form of the product. Part of maintaining order in any sport, I feel is reacting to problems rationally. Tearing down the house and starting over seems kind of extreme, right?
The fact this format needs an infographic explainer makes the whole decision ten times worse. Cliches of “Final Four” and claims winning will get you a title doesn’t change the fact, under this format a winless Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have taken home the trophy in 2013. And what do we make of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season? It was easy enough for guys like Jimmie Johnson to make the Chase in the past few years. Now, if someone like him or Kasey Kahne wins Phoenix in February… do they take the next six months off? Turn it into the world’s longest test session? Convincing these drivers to get up on the wheel, for more than the last few laps already became a daunting proposition as is. It’s hard to race for fourth, in the final 50 circuits when you’ve got your win and you know that extra point doesn’t matter. Drivers can talk to me until they’re blue in the face… but that extra “oomph” won’t always be there when the money, the job… their short-term futures are fully secure.
I’m worried about that, a dilution of the product plus teamwork between multi-car teams who need every driver in. When Joe Gibbs Racing has their first two cars in, why not throw every resource behind the third to make sure they all make the postseason? Money will drive these decisions, not individual competition and that’s not what the fans are coming to see. Sure, there will be more strategy, underdogs doing their best to win on, say, fuel mileage but last I checked we’re trying to attract fans of fast cars… not chess.
It’s important to note these are pitfalls NASCAR’s willing to live with, every direct quote from the brass referencing how long and hard this decision was to make. Track officials, marketers, they’re all going to sing the company line because there’s no other choice. So many others, even if slightly critical will back off now and take an unbiased approach: let the year play out and see how it goes. Even Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, who seemingly hate the new changes have their careers, their livelihoods invested in the sport’s success. There is no other choice but to shut up and compete.
But for fans… they do have an out. And after so much resistance, these past few weeks the question is whether it’s all an empty threat – or a mass exodus that will make NASCAR regret their version of “radical” change. Is that the conversation we really want to have two weeks before the sport’s biggest race?
The short answer is no. But NASCAR, once again has left us with no other choice.