Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: The NASCAR Struggle for Power Is Real. Can It Be Stopped?

Did You Notice? … As Will Ferrell once said in Anchorman, “Boy. That escalated quickly.”

It’s taken a little less than six weeks for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season to turn on its lid following its most successful regular season in recent memory. Through the NASCAR on FOX portion of the schedule, television ratings had increased six percent year-to-year with healthy crowds seen at the racetrack. From the competition on the track to the innovation off it, people had every reason to be optimistic.

The debut of the sport’s Next Gen chassis exceeded expectations, with it at its best on intermediate ovals that make up the bulk of the yearly schedule. Both parity and unpredictability returned to a top-heavy sport, producing 16 winners in 26 regular season races.

The battle to make the postseason was the best since an elimination-style format was introduced to the sport in 2014. New organizations, from 23XI Racing to Trackhouse Racing Team, found their way to victory lane and were making an impact within an ownership group looking to diversify.

All of a sudden, that progress is threatened, as a sport once climbing the ladder is now teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Just look at all the punches NASCAR’s absorbed since the start of the playoffs in September. To review …

  • At Darlington Raceway’s Labor Day Weekend, multiple cars caught on fire for no reason, including top-tier championship contender Kevin Harvick. The 2014 Cup champion led the way in speaking out against the Next Gen chassis, blaming issues on “crappy parts on the racecar.” Safety concerns led to in-season rule changes in order to keep the rocker box from spontaneously catching fire.
  • Safety concerns increased as drivers openly complained about a number of hard hits. At Texas Motor Speedway, they peaked, with separate incidents injuring both Alex Bowman and Cody Ware. Bowman has missed the last two races, taking him out of championship contention, just a few weeks after Kurt Busch’s crash at Pocono Raceway forced him to give up a playoff spot. None of the trio started Sunday’s race (Oct. 9) at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, the first time in 20 years three full-time drivers were sidelined.
  • In that same Texas race, William Byron intentionally spun championship rival Denny Hamlin under caution. NASCAR responded by docking Byron 25 points for the infraction, preventing him from potentially advancing in the postseason until the sport’s appeals process rescinded the penalty (Yet they increased Byron’s fine to $100,000 … without any explanation whatsoever). Byron went on to make the Round of 8 based on that decision, eliminating Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson in the process.
  • Larson’s elimination has come under greater scrutiny this week after Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer inexplicably slowed on the backstretch during the final lap of the Charlotte race. His actions gained SHR teammate Chase Briscoe two positions, minimum, and allowed him to edge Larson by two points (If they were tied, Briscoe would still have advanced). NASCAR responded to the incident by docking Custer 50 points this week, fining the No. 41 team $100,000 and indefinitely suspending crew chief Mike Shiplett. Briscoe still maintains his spot in the Round of 8.
  • The sport’s NASCAR Cup ownership, through the Race Team Alliance (RTA), went public at Charlotte over a looming revenue dispute with NASCAR itself over the next TV contract. Claiming the business model is “broken,” ownership executives described their failure to produce a better deal with top NASCAR brass as a “pivotal moment.”
  • Even NASCAR darling Chase Elliott had himself a temper tantrum, briefly going after a NBC camera crew focused on a conversation between he and Byron after the Charlotte race. Not a good look for the sport’s Most Popular Driver who’s being sold (understandably) as the prohibitive title favorite.

Any one of these issues could threaten to stall a sport’s momentum. All of them? In this short a time? It’s no wonder postseason ratings are down double digits. How could any championship story break through in the midst of all this drama?

Speaking of the on-track product, it’s been lacking in at least two of the six playoff races. Texas was filled with blown tires and a Survivor-style series of wrecks, while Sunday’s Charlotte ROVAL highlighted a serious flaw with the Next Gen chassis: its inability to perform at both road courses and short tracks.

Indeed, passing was near impossible Sunday, producing a race that left the entire field stuck in place until a late debris caution caused a series of desperation moves on two late restarts. Not surprisingly, half the field wound up wrecking itself, leaving the Round of 8 largely determined by a giant sign that dislodged itself and fell on the racetrack.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud at the ROVAL: The Round of 8 Was Decided by a Sponsor Sign

That’s one hell of a hailstorm to fight through. NASCAR has tried to respond to all the chaos, calling a 75-minute meeting with drivers at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend to run through driver safety. But even that came with mixed reviews, the sport claiming they’re open to more dialogue after that as that time period just wasn’t enough for every driver to get their questions answered.

What a mess.

I look at the problems from a 1,000-foot view, and what I see is a running theme: criticism from literally every direction as drivers, owners and officials engage in a public power struggle. Safety is a prime example: Harvick, Hamlin and other drivers have taken pointed jabs at everyone from President Steve Phelps to officials up in the booth. Unlike in the France era, where the sport was run with censorship in mind, they haven’t been hit with any fines or direct consequences for those actions (Harvick did get hit with a 100-point penalty for his team modifying a single-source supplied part at Talladega Superspeedway, an incident that’s currently under appeal).

Owners are now seizing that opening, crying poor in public in order to build leverage with a sport that needs them. The value of a charter has supposedly risen to the highest it’s been under the franchise system, $25 million with virtually no one looking to enter or expand at that price point. Supply chain issues combined with economic uncertainty have limited expansion, making these 36 cars on the grid extremely valuable. NASCAR is nothing if those owners, and those cars, suddenly decide not to show up.

It’s the largest crisis of NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ tenure within the sport, deeper than the noose-that-wasn’t at Talladega back in 2020. Phelps has been out there this week, alright … pushing an aggressive 2024 schedule “coming soon” at the World Congress of Sports. It’s a moment that felt out of touch, focused on the future the same day a team in the present got accused of intentionally manipulating your championship.

See also
5 Points to Ponder: Cole Custer Is the Teammate Everyone Wants

What people have loved during the Phelps era is the unprecedented level of openness within the sport. Gone are the days of the France iron fist, an authoritarian approach to rule that built the sport through a “my way or the highway” mentality. At points along the way, you can’t argue with its effectiveness, but it had worn out its welcome by the time Brian France pulled a DWI exit stage right out of the sport in 2018.

But there’s a difference between being open and letting the chickens run the henhouse. The impression over the past couple of weeks is a whole lot of drama with no real clear vision as to who’s going to rein this circus back in and reestablish order in the court. Decisions, like the Custer one today, reek of inconsistency. What’s the difference between Custer’s last-lap maneuver and Joe Gibbs Racing telling Erik Jones not to pass Hamlin in 2020? As crew chief Rodney Childers said today, “It’s now officially OK for a teammate to manipulate the championship race at Phoenix as long as no one says anything on the radio.”

Then, there’s the Byron fiasco, one where NASCAR undermined their decision-making through its own appeals process. It felt like the principal disciplining a student only for a random stranger to say, “never mind,” drop the kid back off in class and leave without any explanation as to why.

The process has been flawed for years and needs to have better transparency around its decisions in order to have respect from fans, teams and others throughout the industry. And, speaking of respect … let’s not forget the officials in the tower didn’t even see the spin in real time. That’s hardly a confidence builder in the officiating process.

The way to get back to racing is to have all this drama squished. It’s not the type that gets people coming to the racetrack all excited; it’s the type, similar to the national anthem controversy years ago, that stresses people out, turning them off from a sport that’s supposed to entertain. There’s not going to be some Anchorman moment here where Ferrell decides to grow up.

Instead, someone needs to take the reins, make a series of heavy-handed decisions and get all sides of the industry rallying behind them. We’re about to find out if Phelps has both the cache and the wherewithal to do it.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Charlie

Tom, a great article. I have some items to ponder.
First, I have followed the sport for decades and covered some races in the late 1970s, so I remember the real Bill France. His grandson Brian had to undo the damages his father, with his “iron fist” created, including moving from traditional tracks, taking the Southern 500 to California, and others. He tried, but the tumble was already in place.
The sport is not an industry, it is a monopoly. A them I have pointed to in the past. There is no “business model” in a monopoly. You follow or not There is a reason iron-fisted dictatorships fail eventually. It is an economic system that equates to a communist-style, the head controls the money. Teams have to scramble for sponsorship that is shrinking. There is no incentive to get better, as the profits are shared. I could go on here, but I don’t want you to jab an ice pick in your eye!
The owners have the power IF they stick together. They can tell France, Phelps, SMI, or other tracks HOW it will be run. The drivers may have a break at organizing under new Independent Contractor rules established by the Biden Administration. Don’t think some labor organizer isn’t evaluating how much money they could bring in to the coffers by organizing them. IF they chose to replace them the same way Big Bill did at Talladega, the Department of Labor would be all over the sport. Just an observation. You are assuming they would stick together.
Another problem, indapendent officiating. I heard Dave Moody say it was the same in Baseball and Football. Wrong, they have distance in those sports. Also the owners control those sports.

Again I could go on. Things can go two ways. But if you read history, study social behavior and business theory, this cycle is coming to an end. It will recover and things will not be the same.

wildcatsfan2016

Brian France “undid” the damage his father did? I don’t understand that thought considering that the sport went from a massive expansion/fan & sponsor growth under Bill France Jr. to an exodus of the fans and sponsors under Brian.

Brian gave us the “COT” aka the brick which produced awful racing, yep he moved the Southern 500 to California – where there were very few fans in the seats but we were told they were all shopping. Ha, right, that’s why I went to a race. And then he gave us the “chase” or as I call it, the crapshoot.

I still follow the sport but not with the enthusiasm that I once did because for me, the racing and certainly not the championship process, is not compelling enough for me to do so.

Tom B

If the sky is blue Dave Moody will say it is green. He is just wave maker with fans.

DoninAjax

“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.”

My Man Godfrey

Kurt Smith

Good article buddy. I have long maintained for years (and in multiple articles when I wrote for this fine website) that if NASCAR’s leadership would stop, just for the love of God, STOP trying to legislate excitement, that NASCAR would have overtaken the NFL in popularity. It would be the #1 sport in America if it had just been left alone since 2003.

Adding “playoffs” is the most shining example, but I can think of many, absolutely none of which caused a higher level of interest in the sport that, say, Kyle Larson’s domination last season might have.

They never seem to get that no one comes to the track to see their great excitement-inducing innovations at work.

Mr X

NASCAR is the worst run professional sports league in the country and maybe the entire world.

Marc

Rob Manfred on line 1. With the coming rules changes, a few of which I like, MLB is trying to pull a NASCAR and drive away dedicated, lifelong fans in the quest for casual viewers. They think we won’t leave, but I follow baseball by reading results or popping in on games for a few batters, not watching them through. And, I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t DVR races–and I DVR all national series races–and fast-forwarding through the dull parts. If NASCAR shifts some races to streaming in the next contracts, I can’t imagine paying more to have to sit through commercials or when nothing is happening on the track.

Echo

That wasn’t parity, it had more to do with attrition if you really look at it honestly. Brian France was a drunken dunce in charge, what a joke. I think Ben is making all the chaos, with Brian whispering in his ear. I see they are bringing Helton out to soothe everyone.

Duane

Cam I ask a question?

You say if the owners stick together Nascar is in trouble.
How much is a charter worth if Nascar/France says screw it we don’t need the headaches anymore. They decide to sell or develop the land the tracks are on. No racing now the owners are back to the old model they wanted away from, just owning cars and buildings and getting 10 cents on the dollar. Plus the charters were created out of thin air by Nascar, what if they just ended the charter system. Nascar is a dictatorship. The teams could leave but where will they race and still keep the current sponsorship rates.

Lee

Funny, when I suggested that if the drivers don’t show up for the 125s in February, I was completely ridiculed! The drivers can control their own destiny, the cars don’t drive themselves.

Christopher

Can it be stopped? Yes.
Option 1: NASCAR and the team owners come to an equitable revenue sharing agreement that reduces the reliance on sponsorship money.
Option 2: NASCAR digs in its heels and the team owners refuse to play in NASCAR’s sandbox anymore, forming a new series, with its own TV agreements and racing on tracks not owned by NASCAR or SMI. SRX has proven this can be done.

Jeremy

Don’t forget about the CART/IRL split! That was ugly. Would be interesting to hear Roger Penske’s thoughts on a NASCAR split.

Ganassi saw the writing on the wall and bailed while there was still some value to the charters. Time will tell if that was a good long term move or not.

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