Wednesday, February 3, 2016

NASCAR: Where the only constant is change

Tuesday's news about Tony Stewart's accident and injury has at least temporarily re-directed folks to speculate about his health and racing future rather than information already known. But...I'll slide this one in before SHR's Thursday update.

Recent announcements by NASCAR at the annual media tour were generally expected yet with a couple of twists. But once the biggies were flopped out there, many folks lost their collective minds over them.

Specifically, the implementation of a Chase-type championship format for the Xfinity and Truck series and timed-cautions for the trucks really put folks at the edge of rendering their garments. I'll be the first to admit I'm not crazy about either idea, but I'll also sleep like a baby all season long despite them (that is, if babies snore like a freight train after a Schaefer pop or two). A few thoughts...

The truck series began in 1995 and turned 21 - TWENTY-ONE! - just last season. That's the first year of legal drinking age and the precipice of college graduation! What kind of changes did you go through around that period of your life?

The series has seen a variety of changes in format, tracks, truck configurations, drivers, teams, and now a championship structure and scheduled cautions. I personally don't think the trucks have any true long-standing traditions that made me dig in my heels to say "that's just wrong!" when the recent changes were announced. NASCAR overall went through a ton of changes in its first two decades. Let me recap a few of the more significant ones:
  • NASCAR began with only a modified series in 1948.
  • A full-size, late-model division was implemented in 1949 and branded as the Strictly Stock division.
  • After only one year, the top series was rebranded as the Grand National division.
  • NASCAR began, operated and then shut-down a Short Track Division. Jim Reed was a five-time champion of the division in the 1950s - yet the division never saw 1960.
  • Big Bill France bought an open-wheel, Indianapolis-type series and rebranded it as the NASCAR Speedway Division. Using older Indy cars piloted by NASCAR drivers, the series ran a seven-race schedule in 1952 and a couple of events in 1953 before being disbanded.
  • NASCAR purchased a convertible racing series, saw most of the talent bolt, recruited new and existing NASCAR drivers, operated it for about four seasons, and then shuttered it following the 1959 season.
  • NASCAR operated a drag racing division a few years before ending it in the 1960s. (And before anyone claims "I know, I know, Richard Petty raced in it" he did not.) 
As for the Cable Company Division, it's really had no identity over the past decade - maybe longer. Yes, drivers such as Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, and Chris Buescher have moved up to Cup after claiming CCD titles. But who's kidding who. The series wasn't known for their prowess. It's been known in recent years as the division in which Cup guys raided candy from the babies. Kyle Busch and Team Penske drivers - that's who folks think of when the subject of the CCD arises.

Distilling the old LMS series into the Budweiser / Busch Grand National Series in 1982 was 100% the right thing to do. What I don't think was the right thing to do, however, was to have it become Cup Light. Yet that's what it became - and the toothpaste is out of the tube. Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, etc. all have taken turns dominating the minor league races with major league equipment. NASCAR has no plans to return the series back to places like Myrtle Beach, South Boston, IRP, Nashville Fairgrounds, Martinsville, etc. So at this point, they can put in a chase format, run the tracks backwards, race Tuesday breakfast events, or whatever.

I still enjoy casually watching the races of both series if nothing else is really going on or if I'm at a track for the Cup event. So as far as I'm concerned, the Beach Suits can do whatever they see fit to tweak either of them.
  • Will either of the changes - the new championship format or 20-minute caution - improve racing? I doubt it.
  • Will either of them cut costs? Probably not - the caution format might reduce the demand for truly speedy pit crews for truck teams, but the new chase format will increase costs.
  • Will attendance or ratings increase? Not substantially.
  • Will all the folks who claim they are now done with NASCAR truly walk away? Hardly.
I'm not so naive as to not see what is in play with the 20-minute caution rule in the truck series. Short-term, it'll have a negligible effect on the races. NASCAR simply wants to experiment with a try-before-you-buy idea before implementing it in Cup - probably for more optimal timing of TV commercials. If that change happens, would I feel differently? Ehh, maybe. Cup is the series I most closely follow and has the longest history. If the timed caution is forced into Cup in 2018, well I'll cross that bridge when we get there. But even if it is implemented, I'm sure I'll still be watching then just as I'll continue to casually follow the other two series in the near term.

So grab yourself a cold one, find the remote (or the app on your phone), fire up the races, holster your tweeter and for the love of Pete...

Welcome to racing season 2016!

Wait, you mean I have to chime in on the NASCAR / RTA Cup charter system too? Hmm. Perhaps. But let's at least let 'em announce that it's been signed, sealed and delivered first.



  1. You laid out a very nice chronology of NASCAR history in this column. Was it intentional or just ironic that the final illustration is of the actor who portrayed Junior (Jackson) Johnson in the film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "Last American Hero?"

    1. +1 on noting the coded message Dave.

    2. I was sitting between turn one and two at Martinsville in September 1972 with a 20th Century Fox cameraman just below me in the grass above H. Clay earles' azalea bushes and boxwoods shooting the spirited battle between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison used in "The Last American Hero." Bobby was fast on the outside in the Big Lebowski's Coke car, but every time he cut down on Richard's Plymouth, Mr. Petty shoved in the left rear fender well ever closer to tire of the Junior Johnson fielded car. Unlike the movie, Lebowski finished second with the Level Cross crew celebrating on the front stretch after the race.