Wednesday, January 27, 2016

NASCAR 2016 Preview

NASCAR is now less than a month from Speedweeks 2016 and with the recent Media Tour the sport has seen several issues, notably Tony Stewart going off on Brian France and also taking some shots at Gene Stefanyshyn during the Media Tour.   A look at what may develop for 2016 -

**  - One of the big stories is the implementation of a charter system for team owners, first discussed (and advocated) by MRN racecaster Dave Moody. The idea is also discussed by FOX Sports' NASCAR analysts, among them former team owner and Race Team Alliance quasi-member Andy Petree. Moody's analysis indicates the charter system won't affect qualifying; the only change is that supposedly NASCAR will be able to establish equity for raceteams and to attract more people into buying into raceteams - he cites the collapse of Rob Kaufmann's former team Michael Waltrip Racing and the fact it has nothing of value for a new owner or co-owner beyond some outdated racecars and a shop.

Supposedly a charter system will help Kaufmann attract new money because he would be locked into the field every week having competed for two-plus seasons.   Andy Petree states the sport's business model has to change because of so many teams struggling financially, and writer Tom Jensen argues the new system "won't make the rich guys richer," while Tom Baker of the Race Chaser website authors a piece noting the charter idea is a team owners' idea and that it indicates there is some genuine give-and-take between NASCAR and teams going on.

But the more one reads into the idea, the more questions one has - and some, like Mike Hillman and former driver Rick Mast, have been asking.   As respondent Matthew McCowan notes in Moody's blog, the charter system is "the New York taxi driver business model.  It doesn't help competition there.....creating artificial value is not a good thing"  Indeed New York's fight over Uber shows an attempt by the city to shake down the ridesharing company and trying to protect uncompetitive taxi services.

A Q-and-A piece on the charter system adds more questions - "Instead of teams being rewarded based on performance-based purses, the balance will shift to teams being rewarded for full-time participation. This is an old NASCAR goal - getting teams to run all the races - dating to the 1970s when the Wood Brothers never tried to enter all the races and in the 1967-80 period won over sixty races as a part-time team. The old Winners Circle Program was a bureacratized version of promoter-paid appearance money.  But if teams are being rewarded for participation, what particular incentive do they have to try harder to win?   This is what always seems to be missing from NASCAR decision-making - are teams truly incentivized to go for the lead?

Moreover NASCAR's issues are more about what the teams are doing more than who are the owners - the blunt truth remains that spendaholism by raceteams is the undiscussed crisis of racing; there has long remained a need for some kind of spending control regime for raceteams, and I have yet to see anyone in authority in NASCAR or the RTA address it. "How much would you pay to be cannonfodder?" is a pointed question asked by veteran NASCAR writer Mike Mulhern about the charter system.

** - NASCAR's creation of artificial value, if that's indeed what happens with a charter system, has been in keeping with the artificiality created since the dawn of the Chase format.   Its extension to the Xfinity and Truck series is lauded by NASCAR because they actually think it has made for more competitive point races in the Cup series, oblivious to the fact the Chase concept revolves around wholly artificial points reracks.   Steve O'Donnell's assertion that Chase formats create "unprecedented level of excitement as teams tactical decisions that could impact their spot in the Chase" and "put a premium on in-race strategy" is laughable because the racing has not become more competitive in the twelve previous seasons of Winston Cup's Chase.  

A telling stat as measured by the Racing Reference website - of twelve Chases, in seven of them the points champion in a natural points format was different from the Chase-declared champion, including the last two series champs.

** - Further displaying the folly of a Chase is what Rodney Childers of Kevin Harvick's team stated about the 2015 season (in which Harvick would have been champion over Joey Logano in a non-Chase format) - that his team hurt itself during the "regular" season by racing "too fast every week" because "once you win a couple of races you don't need to be showing everybody what you've got and making them work harder to catch you."

The idea that it's wrong to go for the win is beyond foolish, and looking at his season it was the reracks that caught everyone up to him.   Disincentivizing real effort is wrong at any level of society or sports; it's dumbing everything down when NASCAR needs to be defining everything Up.

** - With just twelve winners in 2015 the Cup series enters 2016 a mixed bag - the positive of 2015 was the quasi-collapse of Chevrolet and the resurgence of Toyota, which won eleven of the last 21 races, all of them by JGR, while Joey Logano's Ford and the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets won the rest.  

Ford faces the toughest climb with the collapse of Roush Racing's engineering competence; the blue ovals have the Penske juggernaut, the Roush fleet,  Richard Petty's outfit that appears in better financial shape than it's been in awhile, and a full-time return of Wood Brothers Racing, fielding the #21 with Ryan Blaney, a driver who showed some legitimate promise in 2015.   That Penske was the only Ford winner in 2015 cannot be considered good enough for the Dearborn people; it needs all its teams to win, even as Roush appears unable to engineer a comeback.

Toyota's fleet is led by JGR and that appears to be it other than the switch of Furniture Row's team to Toyotas.   Chevrolet got wins by Hendrick and Stewart-Haas last season and nothing else - the Teresa Earnhardt/SABCO duo managed six top five finishes in 2015 but was otherwise MIA while RCR kept plodding to nowhere with eight top-fives among its three cars and Austin Dillon's ride in the venerated #3 producing just five top-10s and nothing else except a vicious flip into Daytona's fencing.

The rest of the field in all three major touring series testify to the sport's inefficient economic model, as one is hard-pressed to see a darkhorse emerging into contention.  And it leaves one wondering whether a new winner (there were none in 2015 among drivers) can emerge, even with a hyped rookie class.

So we await Speedweeks 2016.

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