Opinion: Change Brewing in NASCAR

Brian France

NASCAR Chairman Brian France has hinted at changes for this upcoming season. (Photo: Getty Images)

A wind of change is blowing through NASCAR and by the end of the month, the sport will look different.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France does not hide his desire to incentivize winning and risk-taking to give fans more drama, and series officials are expected to announce several changes this month that follow his mandate.

Details are starting to leak. NASCAR has announced that Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams no longer will have single-car qualifying. The new format, though, remains unclear. Jimmie Johnson noted that this season’s Sprint Cup qualifying format will be “way different’’ but did not give details.

NASCAR also told Nationwide and Truck teams that tandem drafting will be prohibited. Rule changes had all but eliminated it in Cup.

More moves could be coming. France has mentioned format changes for races and later start times, although such moves won’t happen until after this season, if at all.

No doubt NASCAR’s actions will rankle some fans who see the sport becoming gimmicky and moving away from its glory days. Want to relive those old days? Go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. A sport that stands still falls behind.

While France needs to keep the sport in tune with its history, his greatest challenge is making it more relevant moving forward without pushing too far. NASCAR’s quest to reach younger fans last decade alienated core fans. When the younger audience moved on, some of the core fans also were gone, upset at the sport’s direction.

France understands that sports fans have changed. They expect more. With so many other entertainment options, if one event doesn’t deliver, they move on to something else.

That’s why changes to qualifying are coming and possibly to the points system that will increase the value of winning. It’s about adding excitement.

The question is how to do that. More points for a win? Make it a requirement that a driver must have a win to make the Chase?

I like the idea of making a win a prerequisite to make the Chase. If there are not enough drivers with a win by the Chase cutoff to complete the 12-driver lineup, fill it with with winless drivers who have the highest point total. If there’s more than 12 drivers with a win at that point, break the tie based on points.

Twelve drivers had won at least one race before last year’s Chase started but one was Tony Stewart, who was out with his injury. Clint Bowyer would have taken Stewart’s spot as the winless driver who was highest in the points. 

Such a system, though, would have kept Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch out of the Chase, robbing the sport of two key storylines - Earnhardt as the sport’s most popular driver and Busch helping Furniture Row Racing become the first single-car team to make the Chase.

The question for series officials is if making such a rule hurts the sport by excluding such significant storylines.

Another option is to give more points for a win. A winner can earn as much as six points more than the runner-up. Maybe that number should be 10 or more. The point is make it a significant gap so that the second-place driver is willing to take extra chances to win.

Yet, these ideas suggest that drivers aren’t doing enough to win as it is. Maybe that’s a fair statement. Joey Logano questions that, though.

“I don’t know if there’s any racecar driver out here that isn’t competitive enough to say they’re going to do what they’ve got to do to win the race,’’ he said.

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson admits there’s a “perception’’ that drivers aren’t doing enough to win. Any rule change won’t impact him, he says.

“I'm trying to get every point I can and win every race I can,’’ he said. “So I don't see a big impact there.’’

The biggest issue with rewarding more for wins is if it will solve what France hopes. Regardless of the points system, Johnson was going to win the championship last year. He had an average finish of 5.1 in the Chase with no finish worse than 13th. No one else was better.

How do you make a points system that keeps someone like that from winning?

“So you’re going to award a guy who wins all the races more points, and he already has the consistency?’’ Kyle Busch said. 

He suggests giving the same number of points for 30th or back or so to limit the damage of a bad day for a title contender. But even that idea is flawed, he admits.

“It’s not really going to help you a whole lot if you’ve got Jimmie Johnson who’s going to win two or three Chase races and finish consistently,’’ Busch said.

France seems to think NASCAR needs something different. Series officials have created rule changes they hope will enhance the racing, especially at 1.5-mile tracks. Now, France looks for ways to add to that.

Get ready for change. It’s coming.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network. 

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