THIS WAS INITIALLY PUBLISHED ON JANUARY 19 - IT HAS BEEN UPDATED
The NASCAR season is close to arriving, so we ask some hard questions of the sanctioning body with what we believe are the answers -
What is with the changes in the points structure?
It's because Brian France is becoming more desperate to make his Chase concept something it simply can never be - a viable championship format for racing. The concept of artificially locking 10-12 drivers into the points race for the final ten races hasn't worked because the racers can only points-race, and people see through it - it is not a legitimate racing championship, it is nothing but a contrived formula where the champion is not a legitimate one because the championship is decided by nothing but a short run. Brian France's talk of putting more emphasis on winning is not about making winning mean something - it's yet another contrivance because the emphasis on winning is ONLY in the context of making the Chase.
France still needs to figure out that "Game 7 Moments" do not happen in racing - they can't. Racing is about going for the win, period, and letting points fall where they fall covering the entirety of the season - wins in March or June or whenever directly matter in November. The sport got memorable points battles because the racers didn't particularly race for points - they raced to win races and knew that the entirety of their season mattered. Instead today what they have to do is points-race, and for the notional chance of making a ridiculous artificial season cut-off.
What of NASCAR's claim that (quoting USA TODAY's Jeff Gluck) its internal research from 2010 shows fans favoring eliminations and a one-race playoff?
NASCAR spin. That's all it is. There is no sincere belief anywhere in any playoff format for racing. The fans want the Chase concept eliminated, period.
Will aero changes after the two Charlotte tests help make for better racing?
NASCAR's two Charlotte tests (the first before the Diehard 500) led to overdue increases in spoiler size after it was seen that the larger spoiler allowed more in the way of passing - it remains curious, though, that NASCAR apparently tested a roof blade in Charlotte yet has not mandated it despite the device's history of success at improving passing. The two Charlotte tests appear to have reconfirmed what was seen with the Trucks and Busch Series at Kansas as well as with the Trucks at Homestead this past season - when the draft is more important than handling, passing goes up. We can hope 2014 will see the draft become relevant more often again as we saw with the Truck Series and Busch Series races at Kansas as well as the Trucks at Homestead.
Drivers say they're racing as hard as they can. Are they?
No, they're not. It shows because lead changes are - despite NASCAR spin - scarce. 40 lead changes is supposed to be the norm; breaking 50 lead changes is not supposed to be an exception, and the last non-restrictor plate race to flirt with 50 lead changes was the National 500 at Charlotte in 2000. That it is in large part racecar-related is true enough; it does not, though, give the drivers as much benefit of the doubt as they seem to want.
The points-racing ethos showed in most graphic form at Talladega in October when the field went single-file for the final 15 laps with no one trying to pass - the mentality of points-racing took over. Tony Stewart's 2011 championship also illustrates points-racing - he won five of the last ten races yet all he got out of it was a points tie - he traveled more miles for fewer results. This is where the sport has to get points-racing out entirely - Stewart should by the mere fact of winning five of the last ten races have clinched the title weeks before the season's end. This is the kind of incentive that makes racers race harder - the only alternative needs to be go for the win; traveling more miles should produce more results.
NASCAR for 2014 has gone further in banning tandem drafting on the restrictor plate tracks. Is there any validity to opposition to it?
No, there isn't. The arguments against it dance around the real hatred of it - it looks weird. Yet this mentality ignores how it has been evolving back toward conventional drafting - shown in the Truck 250 at Talladega last October - and how it remains by far the best power to pass the sport has ever seen and NASCAR can't credibly justify any rule that takes away passing.
NASCAR hired ex-Penske Racing honcho Richard Buck to replace John Darby. Will he make a difference?
We can't of course know right now, but the changes that have come of late are a sign of promise. Darby's tenure as Winston Cup director was a failure in that he kept pushing for rules packages that were basically evolution of the failed 5&5 Rule of 1998 - he sought to cut downforce and never produced any success with it; he pushed the Car Of Tomorrow and it failed. He refused to understand that the draft has to be more important than handling to produce better racing; the other way around never succeeds.
The signing of Gene Stefanyshyn into the sanctioning body appears to have had a positive effect, though more results down the road need to happen.
Will there be substantial schedule changes down the road as rumored with the new NBC TV deal?
There has been debate to that effect but there is no evidence it can happen. The only tracks whose demographics aren't as strong as advertised are Martinsville and Fontana and Toyota has invested quite a bit in Fontana; if anything we may see Fontana get back its second Winston Cup date because of Toyota's involvement, not to mention NASCAR still seems to believe in the myth of the LA audience. Martinsville is beloved to perhaps too much a degree given its small size and the overrated quality of its racing, but there is no lobby to get rid of it. There is talk of adding a road course but that's hype; the road courses are competitively worthless. Loose talk about going to Eldora is nonsense because that place is strictly bush league. Don't look for scheduling changes.
What about the new NBC TV deal?
Mike Mulhern put it best in ATHLON SPORTS 2014 NASCAR Preview when he said the biggest story of 2013 was that Brian France got NBC to bid for half the season while getting FOX to stay with the sport through 2024. The laughable part of the NBC deal is that it was a blind bid and NBC was basically bidding against itself - no one else had any interest, and ESPN and Turner tried to get out of their 2014 deal. The last time NBC covered the sport it basically got shafted by NASCAR between losing money and then seeing the Chase - ostensibly intended to help the network's faltering ratings - alienate the sport's audience.
It's unlikely that everything the audience hates about how the sport is covered will change given the lack of independent voices involved in covering the sport - NBC's reported on-air talent is basically the usual.
Should people buy ESPN's claim that it will still devote quality coverage to NASCAR in this, the last year of its TV deal?
No. ESPN short-shrifted hockey once it got outbid by NBC and was never that beneficial to NASCAR to start with; Brock Yates noted back in 1987 that ESPN's lowball approach did little to improve the appeal of racing to people and the fact is steadily lost coverage to upstart TNN and networks involved with Ken Squier's company showed this. Keep in mind ESPN tried to give up the 2014 season.
Is 2014 a lull year for NASCAR as USA TODAY'S Nate Ryan writes?
No. Ryan's piece in USA TODAY'S NASCAR preview release lists "lull" periods in - 2000, when NASCAR dropped track-by-track TV deals for centralized deals - 2006, when NBC quit - and even 2007, when ESPN returned. The piece in effect blames the outgoing networks for short-shrifting promotion of the sport in those periods, but that's just the self-serving spin of NASCAR. The reality is the period from the start of 2000 onward has been a net negative for the sport and the fault lies entirely with NASCAR. "In 2005 the sport reached its most recent zenith with record crowds and TV ratings following the second edition of the Chase.......captured by charismatric Tony Stewart," writes Ryan. Funny, what is remembered about 2005 is that the Chase was put into effect because ratings and crowds had begun declining in 2003 and the decline began to accelerate with implemetation of the Chase format.
"NASCAR ended (2013) without much momentum." Ryan blames it on the Kyle Larson crash at Daytona - an event forgotten right away once it became clear there were no serious injuries and the fencing issue was solely about a fixable crossover gate, not anything fundamentally wrong with the fencing - on Johnson's sixth title lacking indelible moments - as though any of Johnson's titles had even one such moment - other off-track fiascos such as Michael Waltrip Racing's dirty pool at Richmond - a legitimate issue - and the injuries and/or poor showing of Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Tony Stewart, a gross overselling of their popularity.
2014 may be a "lull" year only because NASCAR still can't get it right, not because it is losing two TV partners.
Chevrolet has basically monopolized the sport since 1976. Will that ever change?
Unfortuneately the answer seems an emphatic No. Ford has clearly cut its NASCAR spending and there is some concern it may pull out entirely as Dodge has. Only Chevy and Toyota are spending serious money in the sport and it's almost an open secret how NASCAR's hierarchy doesn't want a non-Chevrolet brand to dominate the sport, though to be fair under Billy France Ford won six manufacturer titles 1992-2002 and the sport was healthier for it. Dodge had an opportunity to return to the sport with Petty and possibly Childress, but of course it didn't develop; there is literally no sign Honda or any other marque have any NASCAR interest. And last season Toyota shot itself in the foot with the fiasco of its engine program. This isn't good for racing.
Will Jimmie Johnson win a seventh Winston Cup title?
Realistically it's impossible to see any scenario where he doesn't. He is Chevrolet's designated champion and was made such when former Chevy racing boss Herb Fishel in effect put him into stock cars in the latter 1990s. Hendrick Motorsports has virtually all of its life been Chevy's designated championship team - at the direct expense of others running the brand, hence the Childress-Earnhardt-Petree engineering alliance following a similar Pontiac teams alliance in the 1990s - and there was no possibility Fishel would ever allow a team like Morgan-McClure or a non-Chevy organization to sign Johnson. And the Chase format has basically been a Jimmie Johnson show. So the championship is becoming less and less revelant.
Is Johnson's dominance good for the sport?
Not really. He is so widely disliked and the sport's attendances and TV ratings have dropped so much that it is impossible for the sport to be deriving any positives from his success. The comparison has long been made with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and their periods of dominance - except Petty for his entire career was racing against two generations of Hall Of Famers while Earnhardt was also racing many a Hall Of Famer (Tim Richmond, Davey Allison, etc). Moreover, Petty and Earnhardt's eras saw lengthy periods where they were not winning championships, plus Earnhardt won the most races in a season only twice (1987 and 1990) - the nickname Dominator was pretty laughable when Underachiever was more appropriate.
Nowhere did Petty or Earnhardt so dominate an era as to turn people off, though they certainly had seasons where they crushed opposition early and often. Johnson's dominance has been smothering to where it has helped smother a lot of life out of the sport. There hasn't been any kind of rivalry - challenges by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth were stillborn for the most part and the artificiality of the Chase has further neutered any kind of rivalry.
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever become even close to that level of winner?
That he's won just twice with Hendrick Motorsports and is seeing his crew chief bolt for NBC indicates that since it hasn't happened by now it's not going to happen. Junior is reminiscent of Bill Elliott in that he won because of a technology gimmick - aero work in the transmission tunnel of DEI cars - and once everyone else figured out what he was doing he disappeared. Though by all accounts he's someone who breaks the present NASCAR mold - see the Ricky Craven piece below - it hasn't made him a winner despite being in an ideal situation.
Does Winston Cup now have a Rookie Of The Year battle that's legitimate?
Doubtful. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are the rookies getting the most media love, yet overlooked is that neither showed much to believe in in a Busch Series that may be at its weakest competitive point in decades - Dillon won the championship yet failed to win a race in the Busch Series in 2013 and had fewer top-fives and fewer laps led than runner-up Sam Hornish (himself a driver out of his element in stock cars). Larson finished eighth in points without a win and with just 107 laps led - all in a series where only fifteen drivers ran all the races, just four series regulars won even one race, and only Regan Smith won more than one (winning twice). The lack of money invested into the series by NASCAR is an open secret (as it is with the Trucks and other lower touring series).
Morevover, it would seem that the technology arms race has made it harder rather than easier for young talent to go anywhere. The last seven seasons have failed to produce a top rookie who has actually done much - Juan Montoya is now gone after two fruitless road course wins while Joey Logano continues to stumble along with Penske despite three wins - and last year's rookie Ricky Stenhouse looked pedestrian in the ex-Matt Kenseth #17. And drivers who are getting rides look more and more like F1 rejects who can work with engineers. The flow of short track talent graduating to national touring series no longer looks like it is happening.
Former driver now analyst Ricky Craven has said the sport needs to roll on driver personalities, citing Ernie Irvan in the 1990s as someone who "challenged the status quo." Is he right?
No. Citing Ernie Irvan undercuts his argument because Irvan was a driver who didn't challenge the status quo; he wrecked a lot of cars, wrecked a lot of fields, and despite winning races never established any serious popularity until Robert Yates signed him to replace the late Davey Allison - and then after himself nearly dying and then coming back late in 1995 he very quickly wore out his welcome (see the 1996 Delaware 500 fiasco and the bigger embarrassment of his wife getting into a nightclub fracas and then him plowing blind and stupid into a stopped racecar at the ill-fated 1997 Texas 500 weekend). His final injuries that ended his career were what finally established some level of humility in him to where people could take him seriously as a person.
The sad truth is it is hard to find any driver who can genuinely establish any reason to root for him. Craven's piece (in ATHLON SPORTS' 2014 preview) also cites Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch as examples of "that kind of personality," except all they have for personality is the same baggage Ernie Irvan had - they're idiots on and off the track, and they don't give any reason to care about them other than they win races.
The sport needs a wholesale change in attitudes as well as a lot more in the way of lead changes. Getting 50 lead change races back will help attract the audience first.
Will Stewart-Haas Racing get back on top?
Not seeing it. Danica Patrick proved to be a drag there like she's been everywhere else she's raced. Kurt Busch did better with Furniture Row's team than expected, yet it was still a mediocre team that made the Chase solely because no one else could do anything to stop him. Kevin Harvick ultimately shot himself out of RCR despite winning there last season. And Tony Stewart has begun to look more worn down. Plus there remains scuttlebutt that Stewart and Gene Haas aren't on the same page, perhaps shown by the story Gene Haas wants to own an F1 team - why we don't understand.
What will happen to Michael Waltrip's team?
The story is they were in financial trouble before the Richmond fiasco and have had to cut back to two cars thanks to NAPA leaving - I'm still baffled that whole deal in 2001 went to Waltrip instead of Ron Hornaday, a superior spokesman for the company then and now. If Toyota still believes in that group they will win races.
Will we see any dark horse team win a race in 2014?
That 2013 saw David Ragan's Front Row team and Jamie McMurray's Ganassi-SABCO team win - not to mention the preposterous shocker of Brian Vickers' New Hampshire win with Waltrip - is a sign the thrill isn't entirely gone. That Richard Petty's team got what appears to be a better-than-expected extention from Smithfield Foods is a good sign for them; perhaps finally Richard's #43 can win again.
And so we await Daytona Speedweeks.