NASCAR: A Phoenix Rising?
NASCAR has been mired in a rough patch for years. Low attendance, mediocre TV ratings, and a less-than-entertaining product.
The Dramatic Downfall of NASCAR
Before we can talk about the sport's possible, seemingly remarkable comeback, we must look at its unforeseeable fall from grace. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was no motorsport hotter than NASCAR. Even stick and ball sports like American Football were having to compete weekly for good Sunday ratings with the stock car racing juggernaut. With names like Dale Earnhardt (Jr. and Sr.), Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarett, and many others fueling its success, NASCAR could not be stopped. The racing was always close and exciting, many of the championship fights were competitive throughout the season, and the drivers were some of the best in its history. However, at the dawn of the 2004 season, a brand new format was announced that would forever shake up the sport: the Chase for the Cup. What exactly was the Chase though? The main gist of the Chase format was to artificially make the championship fight more exciting and down to the wire, by essentially removing drivers who were outside of the top ten in points at the end of the first 26 races. Along with the top ten, drivers who were within 400 points of the leader would also be admitted into the Chase. All drivers who made it into this version of the Chase had their championship points adjusted in order for the final races to be more closely contested as the season drew to a close. This era would see Kurt Busch (2004), Tony Stewart (2005), and Jimmie Johnson (2006, 2007) pick up title victories. The Chase would remain the same for a few years until 2007 when a massive change was made to the system that some fans and drivers already disliked. For the 2007 season, the Chase would be expanded to 12 locked-in drivers, with all others being barred, no matter how many points you were behind the championship leader. The biggest change however came with the announcement that all drivers who made the Chase would have their points set to 5,000 each. The only way to secure a decent amount of points now was to win races. This was the goal of then NASCAR President, Brian France, who stated, "The adjustments taken put a greater emphasis on winning races. Winning is what this sport is all about. Nobody likes to see drivers content to finish in the top 10. We want our sport – especially during the Chase – to be more about winning." To be fair, this was only a year after Talladega Nights came out in theaters, so maybe Brian heard the phrase, "If ya ain't first, you're last" a few too many times.
The dramatic conclusion to the 2007 Daytona 500, where Kevin Harvick (Top) narrowly beats out Mark Martin (Bottom) for the win by two-tenths of a second. Photo courtesy of NASCAR.
During this version of the format, Jimmie Johnson would continue on his reign of terror, capturing every Cup Series title win from 2007 to 2010. During this time, some fans began tuning out with the sport. Seeing the same guy win over and over again was not on many fans' wishlists. Then, at Bristol Motor Speedway in March of 2007, the Car of Tomorrow arrived. This chassis was to usher in a brand new era for NASCAR, a much safer era. This was accomplished as major injuries from horrifying crashes were greatly reduced. However, this car was a disaster in nearly every other regard. It looked horrendous, in comparison to the Gen 4 cars (shown above) that it was replacing. The racing also became much duller, as the slower Car of Tomorrow also performed worse in traffic, meaning cars could not follow one another as well as they did in years prior. Drivers and fans alike dispised this chassis. With severe crashes resulting in no injuries helping quell the fires of hatred for the car, NASCAR kept its head down and pushed onwards.
Jeff Gordon (Top) and Jimmie Johnson (Bottom) race side-by-side at Bristol in the Car of Tomorrow's debut race. Photo courtesy of Autoblog.
In 2011, another change would be implemented to the Chase format once again. This is when the NFL-style "playoff system" would truly begin. The first 26 races of the season would be called the "regular season". Following this span of races, the top 10 drivers in the standings would automatically advance into the Chase. However, this year would also introduce the "wild card" slots. The drivers would be selected from 11th to 20th in the overall standings, with the two who scored the most wins being entered into the Chase. The changes would continue, as with this new version, all points would be reset to only 2,000. Although, every locked-in driver (not including wild card drivers) would receive 3 extra points for each race they won during the "regular season". No specialized scoring system would be implemented for the Chase during this time, each win would give the same amount of points that it would if it were held during the first 26 races of the season. This version of the Chase was an absolute mess. In 2013, the last year of the format, NASCAR would have its own version of Formula One's Crashgate occur. With only seven laps left at Richmond, Clint Bowyer spun out by himself. Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was behind Bowyer when he spun, said that "He [Bowyer] just spun out - it was the craziest thing I saw." Suspicion began to arise in the paddock. It was apparent that Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) had told Bowyer to wreck himself out to allow Truex Jr, his teammate who was fighting for one of the two "wild card" positions during the race, to finish in a position that would clinch him the spot. It worked, as he beat out Ryan Newman for the second "wild card" slot. The following week, NASCAR would rain hellfire down upon MWR for taking advantage of the Chase system. MWR was suspended for the rest of the season, their GM was fired, and each car and driver was docked 50 championship points. This knocked Truex out of the "wild card" fight. Whilst they could not perfectly pinpoint Bowyer's crash as deliberate in nature, they did find that his other teammate's pitstop just before Bowyer spun, was. On January 30th, 2014, the Chase would change forever, when the NFL-style playoff system was announced. This would throw out nearly all meaning of the first 26 races. Points, once the playoffs started, became meaningless. Only wins, and wins only, would score you a NASCAR championship.
Ryan Blaney (Top), and Denny Hamlin (Bottom), lead the field at the start of the Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway on November 12, 2017. All Playoff drivers are marked by extra green trim. Photo from Robert Laberge/Getty Images.
Since then, the playoff system has remained relatively the same, only being worsened by the stage racing format in 2017. To say NASCAR lost popularity through this jumbled mess of a racing product would be an understatement. From simply looking at the ratings for the Great American Race, one can see that NASCAR has fallen from their once titan-like prime. The Daytona 500 hit its viewership high in 2006, where 19.3 million live viewers watched Jimmie Johnson take home his first win at the event. The last non-delayed bout, the 2019 race, had only 9.1 million watching at its peak. In-house attendance has also fallen drastically, as can be seen by the removal of seats and entire grandstands at tracks like Daytona and Talladega. The 2020 Pandemic certainly did not help matters, as it also delayed the arrival of something that has the chance to bring NASCAR back from the brink. The Next Gen Cup Cars.
The Return to Greatness?
Starting with the 2022 Daytona 500, NASCAR's premier series will have an all-new look. The Next Generation cars look to completely revitalize the struggling sport, with better on-track performance and more downforce. The cars will be marginally slower, however, at the price of outright speed comes consistently close racing, which it desperately needs again. Unfortunately, the playoff and stage systems remain and seem to be going nowhere anytime soon. The racing may become more exciting to watch, but as long as the artificially influenced standings remain, it will remain a hollow shell of an actual championship fight. On the bright side, it appears as though NASCAR is beginning to listen to the fans... kind of.
The Next-Gen Cup cars are unveiled. Photo from the Associated Press.
The aforementioned next-gen cars are a step in the right direction on the vehicular front, as fans have been clamoring for a new chassis for years. Track-wise, it seems like they are trying to return to their roots, to an extent. Starting in 2021, the Cup series returned to dirt for the first time in over half a century, which produced a fairly exciting race, albeit hampered by the stage system once again. After years of pleading with the ignorant ownership, NASCAR finally caved to the fans and added two all-new road courses to the calendar. With the race in Austin drenched in non-stop rain, and the upcoming race at Road America building anticipation, it will be interesting to see what NASCAR does in the future. Along with road courses, other notable tracks were added to the 2021 calendar, one entirely saved by the move. Nashville Superspeedway, which had been closed for nearly a decade and threatened with demolition multiple times, was selected to run a race for the first time since 2011. However, the biggest news would come out of North Carolina, with support for the sport coming from the state government itself. Following the overwhelming support of the clearing and scanning project for IRacing, the long-abandoned North Wilkesboro Speedway began to be rumored of returning in the real world. Most fans brushed this off as hearsay and rumors. Governor Roy Cooper announced in May of 2021, that he is looking at transferring funds to three long-time racing venues in the state. The tracks of Rockingham, Charlotte, and shockingly, North Wilkesboro were named by Cooper as tracks that would receive a planned $10 million each for rebuilding and renovation. If his plan comes to fruition, we could see the return of two former mainstays of the NASCAR calendar. By replacing the boring cookie-cutter intermediate tracks that have plagued the sport for years, and allowing for classic short tracks and brand new road/street courses to take their place, in addition to the Next-Gen chassis could finally allow for NASCAR to reclaim their place as America's top motorsport. However, only time will tell.