Points system overhaul was a start, but NASCAR needs more change
Stability. Silence. Serenity. Staying the course.
People would love to apply those four S's to a myriad of issues around the world right now, whether they're as major as the political chaos in Egypt or as minor as fixing the windy, wild weather in snow-ridden Dallas for the Super Bowl. Heck, you might have asked for the same thing at 9 p.m. last night, when your two kids wanted to chase each other around the living room instead of go to bed on time.
But these words are not a welcome sight in NASCAR 2011, a weak Silly Season news cycle that comes to a merciful end in Daytona next week. A sport in need of positive change, the biggest mistake nine months from now could be the sport's insistence on sticking with too much of the status quo.
Perhaps expectations were raised too high before Thanksgiving, with owner Rick Hendrick starting this three-month "vacation" by swapping three of four driver/crew chief combinations in his shop. Jeff Gordon is now paired with just the third head wrench since 2000, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has his third in the last three years. Both were unpredictable, yet necessary switches in a world where the sport's top car owner never hesitates to embrace change. Neither does his top crew chief, Chad Knaus, whose switch of pit crews mid-race at Texas ultimately helped boost Jimmie Johnson to a fifth straight Sprint Cup title. Those over-the-wall men will be rearranged this season, part of a pool of increasing depth and a constant push to put feelings and personal ties aside in order to put the No. 48's best foot forward.
So even the championship organization won, then promptly shuffled the deck. Who did what to challenge them? Waiting ... waiting ... Well, Tony Stewart promptly threw a helmet at someone down in Australia. That'll help. Joe Gibbs and Roush Fenway Racing, the closest contenders kept the same driver/crew chief lineup for 2011 across the board. Richard Childress Racing expanded, going from three to four cars by adding the winless Paul Menard to their lineup. Last time that happened, in '09 the whole organization fell from the pinnacle and missed the Chase. Regular season point leader Kevin Harvick, RCR's prize driver at press time has still not announced primary sponsors for a 10-race gap between Budweiser and Jimmy John's funding. Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle are expecting kids this year, but will changing diapers get in the way of winning races?
Behind them, the list of new teams and drivers attempting the series is ... well, there isn't much to speak of. Rookies are scarce, with Steven Wallace, Brian Keselowski and Trevor Bayne -- all winless in the Nationwide Series -- planning limited schedules with limited funds. In a series where drivers used to bounce around like hotcakes, the biggest Silly Season moves of last year were sponsors jumping ship, Menard taking his money elsewhere and Kasey Kahne putting in a one-year temp job at Red Bull before taking over for Mark Martin in 2012. Marcos Ambrose jumped to Richard Petty Motorsports, replaced by a decade-old champion who start-and-parked at times last year (Bobby Labonte). Millionaire Andrew Murstein is the latest investor in line to prop up the king, and Brian Vickers is back from a blood clot in a heartwarming story. That's about it.
So there's little change at the top, a handful in the middle while the bottom is just lucky to be in business. And the rules? Well, NASCAR did attempt some positive PR by "simplifying" the point system with the much-ballyhooed, new 43-to-1 model making it easy for fans to understand. But the "balance" Brian France speaks of, managing winning vs. consistency, is no different while under the old format that had been in place since 1975, causing drivers to treat three-hour races like 150-minute drives on the highway before a dash for cash in the last 30. Two slots in the Chase, NASCAR's 10-race playoff, are now reserved for winners, not fifth-place finishers. But the other 10 are still defined by a system where a driver is devastated by one simple DNF. Three wins, then a last-place finish in four races still leaves you behind someone that finished seventh, seventh, seventh and seventh in that same span.
There were minor changes beyond that, the Chase ditching Fontana for a similar intermediate cookie-cutter, Chicagoland, while Kentucky takes its turn on the 1.5-mile schedule for the first time. Small pit road tweaks (no catch can man) plus small Car of Tomorrow aesthetic adjustments (new front end) will cause some early intrigue. But the bare-boned, principle basics of the sport remain the same: Seventh places get you a Chase bid, the best teams will test in the regular season for the playoffs and four-car superteams will dominate the top-20 spots, leaving their single-car or underfunded brethren to fight for scraps.
The Nationwide Series, NASCAR's version of "AAA" may be tweaked, too, with Cup full-timers no longer eligible to run for the title. It's just Brad Keselowski, Edwards, and others haven't got the message, nearly full schedules planned that mean they still win the lion's share of the races. No wonder why there are no full-time rookies entered there, new, snazzy cars not enough to ensure a full, 43-car field for each race beyond Daytona. Right now it's the Truck Series -- NASCAR's "AA" version -- that looks primed and ready for the season with a long list of rookies mixed with talented veterans. A rookie Earnhardt (Jeffrey) combines with talented female Johanna Long, F1 convert Nelson Piquet, former motorcycle standout Ricky Carmichael, sophomore Austin Dillon and a handful of experienced adversaries (Todd Bodine, Ron Hornaday, Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter) to make this one of the most intriguing seasons in years. With a cheaper operating budget, fewer "superteam" monopolies and a championship that doesn't involve a playoff, it's no wonder this series is the one place ratings have actually been trending upward.
But the bottom line is that "AA," without enough television exposure, won't make a dent in the armor of struggling attendance. So what did NASCAR, or the sport of auto racing for that matter need to capture fans' attention in a world where the numbers say they're walking away? Redefine "minor" with "major" when it comes to change. If you want to put an emphasis on winning, how about a $5 million bonus from Sprint for winning three of the sport's "crown jewels": Daytona, Indianapolis, Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte) or Talladega like in the old days of the Winston Million Dollar bonus? Even better, how about Bruton Smith's $20 million dollar offer no one's taking, the prize for winning both the Indy 500 and the Coke 600 on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend? On the Cup side, how about NASCAR offering incentives for new owners to come into the series, a $2 million bonus per team that attempts every race this season (as long as they complete the distance in over half of them?) Or getting rid of a long list of "free passes" from the "Lucky Dog" to the wavearound rule that make it virtually meaningless to go one, two, even three laps down before 20 laps to go in the race? And perhaps the biggest "free pass" of all, locking in 35 of the 43 spots in the Cup field each week remains untouched, one of a number of rules fans dislike but remain in place for 2011.
Instead, all the blood, sweat and tears is being poured into a championship that, at last ratings check hadn't really warmed the hearts of the viewing public. Peter King reported this week 28 of the 30 most-viewed programs this season have been football games, while NASCAR's Chase finale drew a 3.3 rating, less than half that of the Pro Bowl last Sunday. It's the fifth straight year the sport's ratings have suffered some sort of decline, a time where there's been one champion, one disappointing car and one unyielding change in philosophy to stay the course.
We'll have to see in November if NASCAR regrets it.