1. How much magic will there be?
Once upon a time, Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing made a lot of magic together. 24 of Kenseth’s 39 Cup wins came in a Roush Ford, along with his 2003 title, which is often (unfairly) maligned as the title run that forced the playoff system on the sport.
I don’t buy that. NASCAR was going to do it anyway and Kenseth’s stellar season was just an excuse. They could have changed the full-season system to reward wins more if they wanted to preserve it.
But at 46, can Kenseth find the winning formula again?
The bigger question may be whether the RFR cars are capable of winning on the intermediate tracks. Kenseth may be able to answer it definitively but it might not be the one he, the team or their fans want to hear. And it may be that the team isn’t expecting Kenseth to win, but rather to diagnose the real problem: Is Trevor Bayne the problem or has the team’s equipment fallen significantly behind the curve?
It’s likely a little of both. It’s not like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is setting the world on fire in RFR cars either, but while he’s come a long way, he isn’t on the level of Kenseth as a driver.
Kenseth’s return will no doubt make his fans very happy, and he provides the team feedback from easily the best driver available. But nobody should expect a miracle.
2. And what about the magic that never really was?
While we’re on the subject of miracles, the other side of the story is Bayne. He was once the hottest young talent in the garage on the heels of an unlikely Daytona 500 win in 2011, with considerable talk in the garage area since RFR put Stenhouse in a vacant Cup ride while keeping Bayne on a part-time schedule with then-satellite Wood Brothers Racing. Bayne was a Cup winner while Stenhouse’s XFINITY career was remembered as much for his propensity for crashing as for his back-to-back titles. A lot of people definitely questioned the logic.
But what if David Ragan, driving in that Daytona 500 for Roush Fenway, had not jumped a late restart and taken the subsequent penalty? While it’s impossible to deny that Bayne did everything right to put himself in that position, it’s pretty likely he wouldn’t have won. And you have to wonder: Would his Cup career have made it this far if Ragan had taken the win instead?
There’s no disputing that Bayne showed great promise, but he never quite lived up to it on the track. After a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis a few years ago, has he been more hampered by his health than he’s let on? Or it is simply a case of a driver not living up to the expectations everyone once had of him?
In the end, does it matter why?
3. But is there a bigger problem?
If Bayne is on the downside of his tenure at RFR, reason aside, why seek out Kenseth? Yes, his veteran presence can help the team diagnose and possibly fix some of what ails it. He’s also very popular. But why not test a younger driver in the seat, since that would be the obvious long-term solution?
The answer is that RFR has nobody in the pipeline who’s ready to race the Cup Series at a level that will advance the team. While most other Cup teams have strong driver development programs, RFR’s has fallen behind the curve in that series.
Ryan Reed isn’t in the top 10 in driver points in the XFINITY Series and hasn’t shown Cup-caliber talent; the rest of the team’s development drivers are part-time amid sponsor woes and lack experience. There isn’t anyone in Roush’s driver development backlog to take over for Bayne and run better.
In short, RFR has fallen from the powerhouse it once was in both the Cup and XFINITY Series, and there’s no quick fix for it. Kenseth may provide a Band-aid to staunch the bleeding a bit, but long0term there appears to be no solution for RFR.
4. Speaking of the XFINITY Series
Has anyone really noticed the lack of Cup drivers in the last two XFINITY races? They’re not eligible to enter the four Dash 4 Cash races, but has anyone really missed them?
Fans were treated to some great, hard racing at both Bristol and Richmond, and without the Cup drivers to talk about all day, the broadcasts showed a lot of drivers who don’t usually get as much airtime or recognition.
NASCAR’s justification for allowing the Cup stars to race in that series was that fans would respond better to seeing the big names on Saturday. The tracks would sell more tickets, TV ratings would be better and everyone was better off for it. But, at least recently, that hasn’t really been the case. I’d hazard a guess that very few fans stayed home simply because there weren’t any Cup guys in the race.
Does that all mean NASCAR should ban the Cup drivers outright? Not necessarily, but I’ve said before that they shouldn’t be able to run a car owned by their Cup owner or by anyone with an affiliation with their Cup owner. That’s simply because racing against Cup drivers is the best way for the younger drivers to learn to race against them.
But are they necessary to have a good race? Not in the least. And the TV broadcast should stop treating them as though they are.
5. Can you go home again?
As NASCAR’s ratings continue to tumble, fans wonder if the sport can survive, and there are two ways to look at it. One, it’s faltering. It’s hard to look at the ratings and crowds now compared with 15 or 20 years ago and not see a problem. But the sport grew, seemingly overnight, from a regional niche sport to a national phenomenon.
The problem with that is that fads rarely last.
But can NASCAR return to its pre-glory days? Well, no, not the way fans want it to. But downsizing the number of races and the distances traveled might actually be a good thing. There was a time when there were fewer parts of the country that didn’t have races and fans were clamoring for them. Maybe NASCAR gave away too much, too soon in the romance. Supply suddenly outstripped demand, and oftentimes, when people can’t have something, they elevate it to something more than it is.
Every year there’s a hot toy at Christmas and then everyone gets one and it’s not nearly as cool as it looked on TV. In part, that’s what happened here.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to readjust our “normal” a bit, and with that, our expectations. The problem is, downsizing to regional isn’t easy. Many of the tracks no longer operate or have the infrastructure to hold a Cup race that meets current fans’ expectations. Still, perhaps it’s time to pull back a bit, trim a few races (remind me again why Kansas or Texas, among others, need two races?) and stop trying to be something other than what NASCAR has always been.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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What’s Wrong With NASCAR (And Ways To Fix It)
1. A 10-month, 41 total race season. There’s an old show business adage about always leaving the audience wanting more, accomplished by only giving them so much. In other words, limiting something they like to whet their appetite for more. It applies to almost anything: TV shows, sports events, even food. You may love lobster but if you had to eat nothing but lobster for 10 months chances are you wouldn’t really want it so much afterward.
Every time shortening the season is mentioned the press that covers NASCAR bleats out that it can’t be done, that tracks have 5-year agreements, blah, blah, blah. At the current rate of attendance and viewership decline it will not much matter in the 2 years left what the agreements are, since there won’t be any business left. In addition, nearly half the tracks currently in the circuit are controlled by the France family, who could certainly adjust the schedule at their own tracks if they wished to.
To contrast with the other major motorsports series, F1 has a 21-race season that covers nine months. But it doesn’t run every weekend and sometimes only runs two races per month (and only one in March). Understandable, given the globetrotting nature of the series; it also whets fans appetites and doesn’t burn out teams and drivers.
Indy Car has only a 16-race season spanning 7 months. Indy Car, still repairing itself years after the CART/IRL split and reunification, offers increasingly good racing, easy going, telegenic drivers (since Danica Patrick left open wheel you rarely see any drivers snarling and causing commotions on race day) and a nice mix of ovals and road courses.
The NHRA has a 24-race schedule spread over 10 months. However, it also offers different classes of racing each weekend at the same event.
NASCAR may not want to shorten its season and reduce the amount of races but economics will force it to. Better to acknowledge reality and be proactive than look like flailing, desperate fools when they are forced to do it.
2. The ‘biggest race of the season’ is the first race of the season. Why? And if the ‘biggest race of the season’ isn’t the final championship race then what the hell is the point? Daytona was not always the first race of the season and there is no reason it has to be. In addition, it’s still run as though it’s 1980, with the needless Speedweeks covering two weeks of…nothing much. Speedweeks used to be needed when the cars were imperfect, in the days before computer-aided design and analytics. Teams used to need those two weeks to dial in the crap they brought to the track. That’s no longer the case and Speedweeks, with all its attendant hoopla and utterly unnecessary qualifying races, is a relic that should be made extinct.
3. Mile and a half tracks. They suck. The racing sucks. The stands are only half filled no matter how many seats are ripped out. Rather than spending millions adding ‘enhancements’ to try and lure fans, rip them up, reconfigure them to 1-mile, 3/4-mile and ½-milers, with unique banking and gradients at each. Perhaps lure fans with good racing…just a wild suggestion.
4. Road course races. Fans love them and turn out in droves; the racing is generally great yet there are only two points paying races on road courses? Why? There should be at least one more, whether at Mid-Ohio or Road America, for the Cup Series. But wait a minute, you might think. Didn’t you just write that the season was too long and that there are to many races? Yes, I did. Which leads to another problem:
5. Two races at tracks per year. See Item Number 1. There should not be two races per year at any track.
6. Truck Series races at road courses, Daytona, Talladega and 1.5 milers. This always reminds me of something ridiculous, like using a Pringle’s chip to eat expensive caviar or wearing shorts and sandals when it’s 20 degrees and snowing outside or Danica Patrick’s deluded boasting about winning championships when she entered the Cup Series. The Truck Series is a prime development tool for upcoming drivers but it is also like the gladiator class of NASCAR, with some of the wildest racing to be seen. It belongs on short tracks exclusively and should also be limited geographically to contain costs. It should go no farther west than Iowa.
7. Plate racing. It’s become a joke to watch, a horror show of destroyed metal and potentially injured fans based on the split second juke or jive of one desperate driver affecting 10 other desperate drivers. Plate racing exists because the tracks it’s used at, Daytona and Talladega, are relics themselves, built for a different time when cars didn’t run at 200 MPH and take off like ungainly aircraft when they catch air. Either run special unrestricted engine packages of far lesser horsepower at the two tracks or rip them up and reconfigure them as well.
8. Aero. Today’s cars are ground effects cars, dropped to the asphalt like a LA low rider. Lose the skirts, lose the splitter, cut the rear quarter panel off at the height of the rear wheel hub.
9. Common body templates. Although the appearance of the bodies has improved since the days of the hideous COT, they still bear little resemblance to the actual car they are based on other than their (exaggerated) noses. The bodies should return to the days of conforming to the design of the actual car it’s based upon. No built-in wing on the right rear quarter, no built-in body skew. See Item No. 8.
10. NASCAR produces its own TV ads every year and then runs them…during NASCAR races. Who, exactly, are they advertising to? WE’RE ALREADY WATCHING THE RACE. In addition, their ads are generally painful to watch: faux dramatics, drivers delivering lines like they’re making a ISIS hostage video…good lord they’re bad.
11. The Southern 500 Throwback Weekend. What was a good idea has now been beaten into the ground. It should have only been done every three years or so. Refer to Item No. 1 again.
12. Dwindling corporate sponsorship. The days of drivers making 10-15 million a year are over. That’s half the budget of a Cup team per season. Add in the four-car teams with hundreds of employees and you’ve got a recipe for driving away large corporations who look at TV ratings and see a constant, decade long, year-over-year decline and say no thanks. Once upon a time there were 5-car teams; that’s how much money used to flow into NASCAR. The rules changed and limited teams to 4 cars, but that’s become a joke in itself, with ‘alliances’ essentially short-circuiting that rule. Change the rules again. Limit teams to 3 cars maximum. Ban technical alliances. Open up the charter system to more teams. Speaking of the charter system, that has been a complete failure. People now trade them like school kids used to trade baseball cards; it’s utterly meaningless. On second thought just get rid of the charter system altogether.
13. The Chase. What was a decent idea has descended into a morass of BS. Ratings have decreased every year the Chase has been in effect. NASCAR reached its peak of popularity, revenue and TV ratings before the Chase existed. A misguided belief in trying to mimic stick and ball playoffs has become a curse on the sport. If NASCAR wants to keep the Chase, return it to its original form, which was downright simple compared to what it’s mutated into. And then don’t change it again.
14. Stage racing. Possibly the most ridiculous addition ever to racing. NASCAR racing held an attraction in the drama of how long runs tested drivers and machines, wearing both out, short circuiting their tempers, wearing out the tires and grip, possibly blowing up the engines, adding layers of strategy to each pit box and an almost unbearable tension to races. Stage racing has eliminated all of that, as well as making the points system something that even the recently departed Stephen Hawking probably couldn’t figure out.
15. The All-Star Race. What is the purpose of this race? Apparently there isn’t one, with increasingly bizarre rules each year that make no sense to viewers, drivers or teams. It’s another relic whose time has passed. Kill it.
16. Overly long races. Shorten them. The most entertaining races are the shortest races. Make it the norm instead of the exception. But people attending races want value for their dollar, in other words they don’t want to spend all that money and get a 2 hour race. Run double headers so attendants get bang for their buck.
17. NASCAR itself. It’s peopled with some of the most obtuse, lunkheaded fools to ever run a business into the ground. Slow to react to large issues, overreacting to small issues (LUG NUTS!), constantly changing rules until no one knows what the hell is going on, refusing to gracefully accept that times are not only changing, they changed years ago. The best thing for NASCAR might be a sale and the exit of the France family and its sycophantic executive suite.
Right on!!!! Good post. Lots of thought and truth!
I bet that felt good to get off your chest Christopher.
I agree with at least 75% of your points. Most could be categorized as common sense, which seems to be in short supply among NASCAR leadership.
bill b- lack of common sense all over the place now, not just in na$car!
An excellent post, and it surely felt good to vent. But I dare say that it like all of us ignores the fact that this is all about business. The money was spent and these tracks, which sit on expensive real estate, have been built.
So the mortgages have to be paid, and if that means a few million less in profit every year so be it. The family has more than enough money but they aren’t going to give it away.
And dont forget the teams involvement in all this either. You need to look no further than the pit guns to understand that. Come up with an agreement on something to save money, than try to bypass it by spending more money while blaming the people that supply the product.
And of course there is a whole industry that has grown from nascar. Everything from media to the companies that supply hospitality and transportation to/from the tracks.
Actually I really agree with you I just think they wont change until forced to. And I think the deciding factor will not be fans or ratings but pressure from the car manufacturers.
While I agree with most of your points, I disagree with in regards to the Southern 500 throwback weekend (Drivers and fans still look forward to it) and Stage Racing (It’s made the first half of a race bearable. You could eliminate the caution flags if you want, but keep the points and playoff points)
While I’m not a big fan of the Chase, last year’s version was the best because Truex was rewarded for his performance in the first 26 races)
Reduce the schedule to 30 races and eliminate the All-Star race. Reduce the Xfinity/Cup Doubleheaders to Daytona, Charlotte, 1 Talladega, 1 Dover, Atlanta, Darlington and the Short Tracks. Feature Stand-Alone Xfinity races on off-cup weekends.
Run the Trucks on tracks 1 mile or less, add a few more dirt races and elimnate road courses.
Lastly, eliminate the Wave-Around. Last week’s race at Richmond was good, but letting half the field back on the lead lap artificially de-valued the first 350 laps of the race. Sure Truex had a pit road miscue, but he should have still finished top 10. Quit making the final 20 laps exponentially more important than the first 380 laps.
Greatest post ever. Can only agree with all 17 points.
Great post Christopher. Especially 8 & 9 Get that Damn Wing off, throw it away along with the splitter and get the car up off the track.
I’ve been a Jimmie fan since he got screwed out of ROY. His problems now are the car, less horsepower and lighter weight, he has never figured out how to drive this car. Look at his Busch results. NASCAR took JJ out of the equation for good. Sad.
Trevor is a really good guy, but unfortunately he appears to be headed down the Derrick Cope path.
The demise of speed channel surely has been a disaster for the base. This base was a generational phenom and some of us watched ALL of the programming – from practice to qual. and various “talk” shows like hub and t.w.i.n.-anything remotely related to Nascar. We got to “know” the drivers on many levels as most of it was ad lib and therefore REAL!! That channel was on basic cable and didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Now you need several top tier sites and they’re all over the map.I think we’re the only sport left without our own channel now and that is part of the problem.At least in my area.
A fundamental change in stock car racing at the highest level will arrive when team owners decide that they are tired of having the vast majority of the proceeds from TV money go to NASCAR and the track owners. The France family seems to double dip in that about half of the tracks are owned by them so the family gets that part of the TV money too. If short, NASCAR is raking in the cash while team owners pick up the scraps in relative terms.
What should the team owners do? One solution would be for the team owners to create their own series/league with the intent of replacing NASCAR. Team owners would receive most of the revenue instead of NASCAR. If they stuck together and withdrew from NASCAR as a group with notice, NASCAR could do little about it.
The owners would appointment a commissioner to run the new league in the same way that NHL or NFL teams employ a commissioner to operate their respective leagues with equity remaining with team owners.
Alternatively, team owners could buy the NASCAR organization from the France family. Wouldn’t you think that NASCAR might be thinking of selling as TV ratings, sponsorship, and attendance collapse?
A factor in the decision of team owners to create their own series is that the team franchise approach seems to have been a failure. The franchises appear to have little value, in contrast to other sports where franchises have substantial value (sometimes more than a billion dollars). If the franchises are not worth much, then what about the value of the teams themselves? Forbes says Hendrick Motorsports is worth $350 million as NASCAR most valuable team yet if it was put on the market, is it not likely that it would sell for 5% of that? After all, does Hendrick Motorsports really generate profit? What are the cars and equipment worth? (Ask Mike Waltrip!).What is the value of its contracts with sponsors and Chevrolet?
Could it be that the reason why we see so many septuagenarian owners is that they realize that selling their teams would be extremely problematic in that the net worth of current teams is doubtful in a deteriorating marketplace and there is not exactly a lineup of potential owners beating down the doors to buy a NASCAR team.
NASCAR and the team owners are facing severe issues; if it was not for the TV money, right now the situation would be critical. Expect an earthquake like shakeup in the next two years especially if the TV networks have an out clause below a certain ratings point.
Obviously all the faults listed by Christopher are rite on. If you was from another planet and saw how nascar is operated, you would have to think this is make believe. When the auto companies stop pouring millions into a
declining business model, when sponsors find a better return on their investment, goodby nascar. Sort of like a dreaded disease, slowly eating away at the sport(?).
It is over, maybe not next 2 years but it is over, it cannot continue to exist. Sorry for the new racers, they won’t make the millions that the older guys made but they will race somewhere. The World of Outlaws pays 10 grand to win with a few special races that pay more. The WOO is healthy, has exciting racing and is economical to watch. I could care less if JJ or any of the other sponsor uniform bill boards make millions and put on a lousy show.
So good by nascar, I’ve found lots of things to do on Sundays without racing.
I am surprised that no one in the NASCAR media has reacted to the news that Ford is planning to halt U.S. sales of all cars, except the Mustang and a Focus crossover. How long will it be until Chevy decides to do the same? And when GM and Ford pull out of auto sales altogether, there would no point in their presence in NASCAR. It seems that no matter what NASCAR does, the sport is well on the road to extinction.
Beyond the self-inflicted wounds, stock car racing is a sport that has no appeal to millennials, who also have no interest in cars. Auto racing is the only sport that is totally dependent on one U.S. industry and as that industry changes to fit what young consumers want, the idea of racing sedans around in circles for hours will be looked at as a quaint anachronism.
NASCAR is beyond the point of “fixing.” Its entire premise is obsolete. And it has nothing to do with Cup drivers in NXS, which seems to be the topic FS writers focus on every single week to no purpose!