News & Media

Caraviello: For die-hards, will changes be enough?

January 26, 2011, David Caraviello,

As times dictate trying something new, certain faction yearns for days of old

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The NASCAR Hall of Fame is a shrine to the sport's past, with stationary race cars, faded driving suits, and other bits of memorabilia arrayed in a building that sends the mind wandering down long paths to yesteryear. But Wednesday night series chairman Brian France used the facility's Great Hall to provide a glimpse into the immediate future, one rife with changes that will affect everything from who contends for the championship to the standings fans see after the race.

New points system, new Chase, new qualifying format. They came in a flurry -- a structure that awards points directly related to position on the race track, a playoff where the final two entrants will be determined by victories, a qualifying order set not by random draw but on practice speeds. In theory, it all makes the sport easier to understand, enhances competition, places more of an emphasis on winning, and gives people more of a reason to buy a ticket or turn on the television.

Competition changes

NASCAR has announced its changes for 2011, chief among them a simpler points system and a wild-card element to the Chase that rewards winning.

"I will say one thing that was very clear to us: When the competition was tight down the stretch last year, the performances, the competition level, there's no doubt about it, it got raised," France told reporters on the preseason media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "It was exciting. It was electric, and that's what we're all about. So as we take steps down the road to improve things, that's the kind of thing we want."

It certainly all sounded good Wednesday night -- a points system that won't require rifling through a rule book to figure out, a Chase that would have given drivers like three-time race winner Jamie McMurray a chance to get in last season, qualifying order determined on merit rather than pulling a ball from a bingo hopper. There are certainly going to be growing pains, things like bonus points, Chase seedings and penalties that now must be scaled down to comply with the new system, a period of adjustment that's going to seem counterintuitive to the intent. As we all know, race fans often react to change like it's a bug in their Budweiser. But among drivers and track presidents, it was nigh impossible to find a dissenting voice.

Among the ticket-buying public, through, you wonder how much difference this avalanche of alterations will make. After all, in recent years, and well before Wednesday night, NASCAR had made two major course corrections that fundamentally changed the action on the race track -- the multiple green-white-checkered rule and double-file restarts, both adopted in 2009. The result was a 2010 season that generated racing better than many could remember, a dramatic campaign with a riveting finish, all things that clearly pleased the CEO. "We're very satisfied with the most important thing -- the level of competition," France said at the Hall of Fame.

And yet, the reaction among too many NASCAR fans was a collective yawn. These are the dyed-in-the-wool purists, the hardcore faithful who want their sport to more reflect the one they grew up with, the ones who worship push-rod engines and bristle at the idea of anything modern or new. Their positions are set harder than concrete. They didn't necessarily cry for a simplified points system. There's only one change they want to see, and it's one that NASCAR is almost certainly unwilling to make. They clamor for the elimination of the Chase, a playoff format that even six years after its birth remains so divisive, it seemingly eclipses everything else NASCAR tries to do.

Like baseball fans who still seethe over the wild card, this kind of thinking isn't exactly rational or fair. Love it or hate it, the Chase has saved NASCAR, its broadcast partners, and its fan base from what under its predecessor all too often became an end-of-the-season slog. Those glory days weren't always so glorious. "I think that we'd be bored in a hurry with the fact that somebody just won the championship with about four races to go," Jeff Gordon said, "and we went down to Homestead and we didn't have a championship on the line with maybe three or four drivers battling it out. And I think that's pretty exciting."

To those strident old-schoolers, though, it's not about excitement. It's about their view of fairness and equity. Spicing up the end of a race or the finishing kick of a season doesn't make them stop pining for the days when a championship was determined throughout the course of a full schedule, with no points reset and no playoff. Oh, they're out there all right, maybe with a wrinkled No. 3 cap in the closet or rabbit-ear antennas on top of their television, and they've created this subculture of discordance within a fan base that very much needs a united front. These are the people NASCAR most needs to win over, but the price of their devotion seems unreasonable to say the least.

Within the figurative garage area, though, things are very different. Prior to Wednesday's announcement, NASCAR officials continued their recent tradition of meeting personally with drivers and race team executives, a process in which the sanctioning body both lays out potential changes and solicits reaction. That made the formal presentation short on surprises, but long on unity.

"I think it makes sense, what they're talking about," Gordon said earlier in the day during a media tour stop at Hendrick Motorsports. "There are times when I've been confused by the points system. I think a way to simplify it would be good. I think [it's] a way to connect the fans to it. ... I think they're making it a little more relative to the positions on the track. I think it could make it easier for commentators to talk about and analyze in the championship battle, especially as tight as the battles are now with the Chase."

The most recent points system, allegedly drawn up by former NASCAR historian Bob Latford on the back of a napkin, had been in place since 1975. It awarded 185 points to the winner and 34 for the last-place driver, scaled in descending five-point increments (for first through sixth place), four-point increments (from sixth through 11th) and three-point increments the rest of the way. In the interests of full disclosure, this writer -- a 12-year veteran of the NASCAR beat -- had to dig out the media guide to make sure he had all that right.

"We wanted to give fans an opportunity," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "Every form of motorsports championships is complicated. You have to be a really hardcore student or you look them up to figure out how it's calculated, including ours for a long time. Our goal was, with this change, was to give a fan an opportunity whether that fan is 5 years old or 85 years old, an opportunity to sit in the grandstand without technology or anything ... [and] being able to look at the race track and in their mind understand the fact that one position on that track is worth one point. And we think they've got a better opportunity to get [them] more engaged in the race by being able to understand it."

The new format awards one point in inverse order of finishing position, with the winner receiving 43 and the last-place driver one. Winning a race is worth three bonus points, leading a lap or leading the most lap are worth one bonus point apiece.

"It is very similar, and there would have only been minor changes in positions deep in the back. The same principles apply. I think it's really just to simplify our points system. So I don't have a lot of concern," five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said prior to the announcement.

"If you're in that 20th on down, or 25th on down [position], you run out of points quick. You can lose a lot with a couple of bad races. That exists. The one thing I remind myself of is, it's the same for everyone. Everyone has ups and downs. And when you get to the Chase especially, we know you need a 5.0 finishing average or something in that department to win. ... For the big prize, it doesn't seem like it's going to be a lot different."

The revised Chase format -- the third incarnation of the playoff since it was unveiled in 2004 -- awards berths to the top 10 drivers in points, and the next two in the top 20 with the most victories. That format would have gotten three-time winner McMurray in last season, and given four-time winner Kyle Busch a spot in 2009. Instead, they finished 14th and 13th, respectively, in those campaigns. "I think that's a twist that really makes sense," Tony Stewart said.

Time will tell whether it has unintended consequences; for example, Clint Bowyer's 11th-place car -- which would have been on the outside looking in under this format -- was much more capable of mounting a championship run than McMurray's was last season, even though it finished the year with one fewer win. France said NASCAR is only falling in line with other sports, like an expanded NCAA basketball tournament or a potentially expanded NFL schedule, in updating its policies to meet the era. "Everyone is looking to make sure that they're delivering the right championship format," he said, "the right regular season that meets the times of today."

But for those fans who still cling tightly to yesterday, so important in a sport that holds up its history like a trophy, there's only one potential change that matters. And they shouldn't be expecting it anytime soon.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.