So last week, I talked about why NASCAR has almost lost a lifelong fan in me by continually making misstep after misstep, making the sport more and more boring and irrelevant. This week, I’ll focus on some changes they’ve made this season that made me hold out one more year. I’ll address each of my points from last week, add others, and weigh in on how the start of the NASCAR season (which started towards the end of last week) has increased my excitement this year.
Why I decided to give NASCAR one more chance.
At the end of last season, I was jaded, disappointed, and ready to give up on NASCAR, but in the weeks leading up to Daytona Speedweeks, NASCAR’s nearly two week long season kickoff, NASCAR made several announcements of several changes coming to the sport in the 2014 season. NASCAR’s been listening to fans just like me from all around the country, and are hearing the complaints from the fans, and NASCAR says it’s committed to making a sport the fans can be excited about. Some changes address some of the issues I mentioned last week, some don’t, but overall, they were enough to catch my attention and decide to give it another year.
One of my points last week was there’s no excitement anymore, and although NASCAR has yet to add more exciting tracks to the schedule, they managed to add excitement to an aspect of NASCAR that I rarely watch because it is so boring: qualifying. For the majority of the sport’s history, nearly all drivers in a race had to qualify for the race in a basic solo qualifying run. This means that each driver would go out on the track alone, run two laps, and the fastest lap they run would count; whether you qualified, as well as the starting order of the race, would be determined by overall fastest lap times. Yes, a pretty boring thing to watch indeed. However, beginning this year, qualifying will be much more like a race of it’s own. Qualifying and position will still be determined by lap times, but in this new format, the lap times will come from a ‘qualifying session’, where all drivers attempting to qualify will be on the track at the same time, much like a practice session. Once the qualifying session is over, each driver’s single fastest lap in the entire session will be ranked to determine qualification and running order. This is an interesting change that makes qualifying sessions almost as enticing to watch as the race itself, which increases the excitement of the sport.
Another aspect of excitement (or lack thereof) I mentioned last week was the lack of excitement on the track itself due to car changes for the sake of safety. I mentioned NASCAR’s car redesign in 2007, which virtually eliminated exciting crashes (and often exciting racing as well). This 5th generation NASCAR stock car, known at the time as the “Car of Tomorrow” or COT, was intended to lower overall speeds, give the drivers a larger ‘safety pocket’, and make the sport safer in general. However, as I mentioned last week, the 4th generation cars were safer than any previous versions, and offered high speeds and spectacular crashes. So, after six years of complaints from fans that the COT has eliminated excitement, NASCAR went back to the drawing bored, and in 2013, unveiled the 6th major version of the NASCAR stock car, simply named the ‘Gen 6’. This new Gen 6 borrowed from the safety improvements of the COT, such as the larger driver ‘safety pocket’, and arrow-dynamics that prevent cars from flying 30-50 feet in the air in the event they become airborne (a common issue with the 4th generation cars), while also borrowing the faster, drafting-friendly arrow-dynamics of the 4th generation that made it so popular with fans and drivers alike. Running with the momentum of the generally well received Gen 6 car, NASCAR made one small adjustment for the 2014 season in the form of a modified rear spoiler, which seems to have made another improvement in racing excitement, at least in early testing here during Daytona Speedweeks.
The last major change this year has been yet another change to the Championship format. NASCAR is keeping it’s simplified points system as I described last week, but is now adopting a simplified version of the “Chase” playoffs as well. Rather than reseting the points and basically having a ‘mini-season’ with the 12 drivers who qualified for the Chase, there will be a series of knock out rounds to narrow the drivers in contention for the Cup down to only 4 by the end of the season; it’s NASCAR’s version of a bracket system. This new system is not only based on points, but also factors in wins, which is something NASCAR fans have been asking for: more emphasis on wins. Overall, I feel this new Chase system may work in NASCAR’s favor, but we’ll have to wait until the end of the season to know for sure. One thing is certain, it sparked my interest, rather than annoying me with ‘yet another points change’.
Daytona Speedweeks: A taste of the season?
Saturday night’s “Sprint Unlimited” exhibition race to kick off the season was one of the most exciting races I’ve seen in a while. The race started with about 22 drivers, and ended with only 9 running, 3 of whom were involved in crashes earlier in the race. (There may have even been a little too much excitement, as the pace car caught fire in a freak accident!)
And to top it off, a decision I was originally quite miffed about, Richard Childress Racing’s decision to bring the number 3 car, made famous by the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, back into the Sprint cup series, has actually come full circle to keep tradition alive. Earnhardt and Childress where best friends who considered each other family. Even though the 3 car is not being driven by an Earnhardt, the car is still ‘in the family’. Sixteen years after Earnhardt won his first and only Daytona 500, the little boy standing next to him in Earnhardt’s victory photo, Richard Childress’s grandson Austin Dillion, will start the Daytona 500 on the pole…. in the number 3 car. The tradition lives on.
And with that tradition, and the excitement I’ve seen so far at Speedweeks, I’m looking forward to the 2014 NASCAR season. This may be the year NASCAR turns it around.