NASCAR: Doubtful Charter Franchise Will Entice New Owners

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR's premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

In an attempt to entice new owners into NASCAR’s premier series, Brian France has moved down the path of franchising. Good idea or not?

Auto racing is an unforgiving passion: If you don’t perform well on the track, you won’t survive over time. Resources are not limitless. It’s an essential lesson in pay for performance and free enterprise at its finest.

Race teams need to have secure marketing partners to fund their operations, and race purse winnings to stay afloat. If a team shutters its race shop, there is not much left to sell to somebody else, given the tailored fabrication equipment, rule-dependent car templates, and the reliance on human talent that heads for the exit. In racing, the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one.

Now, NASCAR wants to reinvent that dynamic by establishing what is being referred to as a franchising “charter system”. For an upfront license fee (projected to be several million dollars per full-time car), entitled teams would be guaranteed a spot in each race. As a result, teams unable to secure a charter would be discouraged from participating, given that only a few spots in the show would be earned purely based on qualifying day performance.

Chartered teams also would have a superior ability to sell sponsorship and secure funding. As a result, many see this as a boon for current owners by ensuring they have equity in their race organizations, thereby providing a “guaranteed residual”, or a pay-to-play fee, for anybody to enter the sport.

This development is perplexing, given that a succession planning void looms over the next generation of trailblazers willing to invest capital in NASCAR’s future. At some point, NASCAR will need to replenish the current super team owners at its top Sprint Cup level (i.e., Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Chip Ganassi, and Joe Gibbs), given these long-time principals have an average age of 70 years.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can't be ignored.

Owners, such as Roger Penske and Jack Roush have to have some succession plan in place. Their age is a factor that can’t be ignored.

Historically, the auto racing business has been about performance. Better performing teams get more attractive sponsors. Sponsors bring money to pay big-time drivers. Big-time drivers win races and bring purse money to the team. And the virtuous cycle continues. Pay for performance, clean and simple. Strong performing teams survive, and weak ones fade to the sideline. No different than other small businesses.

Throughout my career, I’ve designed and reviewed executive employment agreements. Nowadays, shareholders are clamoring for executives to be paid for their performance on the street. That said, golden parachute payout protections still persist, ensuring that an executive can realize lucrative severance benefits regardless of performance.

Somehow, the new charter license fee strikes me as having the same unfavored aspect, providing a floor level of profit, in spite of whether the team’s performance justifies that value.

Purportedly, NASCAR is trying to get this deal done prior to the start of its season at Daytona International Speedway in mid-February. Draft contracts have been circulated among the teams, as NASCAR Chairman Brian France looks to put his stamp on yet another landmark initiative.

“We don’t have it finished and it’s still moving around a little bit,” France said during January’s preseason media tour. “The time line is sooner rather than later. This is a complicated plan and structure that will require some time to phase in.”

However, NASCAR is not just brokering a deal with team owners. Team owners are haggling among themselves, in that the layers of ownership are diverse: Tenure vs. youth, multi-car vs. single car organizations, full-time vs. part-time, and wealthy vs. meager resources. With the agreement expected to span five years, which matches the contractual time period NASCAR just signed with all of the speedways that host races, it is critical to get this right.

“Like most things, the devil’s in the details,” according to Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, and former principal of now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing, who is spearheading the discussion on behalf of the owners.

As such, it is not a surprise that NASCAR and the teams are reviewing what is rumored to be a 100 page contract. Teams have different interests. One thing is a certainty, in that attorneys are getting paid handsomely, as hundreds of billable hours are being racked up in trying to put this deal together.

However, the trickiest obstacle is one of valuation. What should a full-time NASCAR charter be worth? Should it vary by race team status? And here is the rub: race teams do not control the sport’s primary assets; NASCAR does. Unlike stick and ball franchises, race teams are not granted an exclusive license to operate a geographic territory. They do not collect the fan ticket sales at the track; they do not own the tracks’ rights fees. And these teams surely do not regulate the competitive schedule nor negotiate the national TV broadcast rights, as that is handled in Daytona headquarters by the sanctioning body.

So, while the LA Dodgers may have been sold for more than $2 billion, the Guggenheim Baseball Partnership lays claim to the ticket sales, concession fees, and, most importantly, the local TV rights sold to Time Warner Cable that will generate $7 billion in incremental revenue over 25 years. Now that is a source of value that justifies an MLB franchise fee.

Breaking this all down, what NASCAR is attempting to sell through the charter license is equivalent to phantom stock sometimes used by entrepreneurs to provide the illusion of ownership for employees in a start-up. However, phantom stock is just that. You get no voting rights, no control, and no expectation of dividends. In the end, the owners may find that the charter is only worth what NASCAR is willing to buy it back for. Only time will tell if new pioneers are willing to step up and buy an outgoing charter to facilitate the coming ownership succession.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

NASCAR and VW: “Ze Germans” May Show up to the Party

France is once again floating the new foreign manufacturer balloon.

France is once again floating the new foreign manufacturer balloon.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard NASCAR talk openly about other manufacturers entering the sport, 2009 to put a date on it, most likely due to no one expressing interest. Now, Brian France is weaving this prospect of new blood coming into what is truly American style auto racing, IndyCar notwithstanding.

France has begun to integrate this possibility into his new narrative, just before the 2016 rule changes that are being bandied about. Why now, after a very long time of rumors of Volkswagen, Dodges return, Honda and Nissan?

Either France sees a hole in the global anti-American sentiment that NASCAR isn’t real racing or one of the foreign manufacturers has come to the realization that despite China’s braggadocios’ display of new found wealth, it doesn’t have the staying power to overcome sales in America.

You can strike Honda right now as their return to Formula One is proving to be much harder than they calculated, particularly with the absurd complexity of the new F1 ‘Power-Units’. If you didn’t get the memo, F1 uses ‘Power-units’, no longer engines. So who does that leave to burn up Daytona’s phone lines? Not many.

Nissan and Renault's Carlos Goshn has no apparent interest in NASCAR..

Nissan and Renault’s Carlos Goshn has no apparent interest in NASCAR..

Whether NASCAR makes it easy or difficult for them to participate isn’t really the issue. Do any of them really want to make that investment? According to France’s statements on Sirius radio: . “We’re generally open to figuring out how to make a new manufacturer work in NASCAR,” he said. “We have those discussions. Obviously, it’s complicated how a manufacturer might enter the sport. It goes back to the original points.

They want to make sure they have a fair and balanced playing field. If they line up talent, that they can have a shot to compete and do well. … Every single thing, and this is the beauty of NASCAR, leads back to the same path: How do we make sure that, as a sanctioning body, we lay out a plan and path where drivers, teams, manufacturers and sponsors all feel they can come into NASCAR if they compete hard and their talent allows them to do reasonably well? That’s an ongoing mission and serves everybody well when we get it right. That’s our mission.”

The VW Passat makes the most sense of any of the possible phone calls that France claims to have 'fielded'.

The VW Passat makes the most sense of any of the possible phone calls that France claims to have ‘fielded’.

Hyundai, with virtually no experience in auto racing would only do so if it had a compelling reason to build a push-rod V8. It can be done, but even the lessor cost of the push rod engine, it’s still a considerable expense to compete at the level required in NASCAR and it doesn’t make business sense not to have multiple teams to help cover the costs. Hyundai is developing it’s reputation in America as a very strong alternative to Toyota. It can brand elsewhere.

Nissan is involved in motorsports in a very different way, it, or should we say Carlos Goshen, Nissans CEO, doesn’t view NASCAR in a positive light. His world view includes running Renault and is additionally the Chairman of Russian automobile manufacturer AvtoVAZ. His Renault company is heavily mulling over taking over an existing Formula One team, Red Bull is the logical choice.

Don’t think the Russians are going to come to NASCAR. Picture WWIII is the grandstands.

It really only leaves a few, the most logical being VW. Yup, there’s that name again. Right now VW is being courted by F1. Will they cave, doubtful. They NEED to have a greater sales record in the U.S. The Japanese are beating them, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, the list goes on.

VW cant rely on it’s other companies, Porsche, Audi or, obviously, Lamborghini. They are deeply entrenched in European and Japanese style road racing. This only leaves the parent company to take up the American challenge.

VW is the 17th best selling car in the U.S. and that’s not a very good number from a company with this much financial horsepower. Why hasn’t VW sold more? Poor marketing, poor automobile offerings for the American market and expense. Have you priced a German car lately? It’s out of proportion for what you get. Priced a well appointed Passat? Not cheap.

On the other hand, the Passat is a great car, is the right size and VW can easily afford to run a NASCAR effort making it U.S. specific. An effort in NASCAR to raise it’s profile.

Let’s face it, NASCAR no longer can use the tagline “Win on Sunday Sell on Monday.” Entering NASCAR is a branding exercise to place the manufacturer in your head. This is exactly what VW needs.

Mazda has almost completely taken control of grassroots racing in America, but creating series just for VW wont work, it has to bring the Passat into the American publics view as a true competitor not just on-track but it has to translate to sales. NASCAR may be the quickest and most cost effective way of doing that.

The problem lies in the “Dodge Effect”. Not enough teams willing to take the plunge with new Chrysler leadership that is constantly distracted by it’s other companies that all are micro-managed by Sergio Marchionni. How many teams would actually entertain the VW brand? Who knows, it depends on what the Germans offer them.

Yes VW builds V8’s but not of the pushrod variety. They face the same challenges as Dodge, who is going to build those engines? Probably a third party, although Porsche or Audi could do exactly that. A pushrod engine isn’t rocket science, although there is quite the case to be made for a pushrod engine over a DOHC engine.

Our bet that this issue has resurfaced because VW is making forays into lifting it’s brand in the U.S. by whatever means necessary.

Will the 2016 rules, if implemented, actually help a new manufacturer in? That’s an unknown, what is know is that VW has all the cash, expertise in engineering and truly a need to be seen and heard by the American buying public.

Despite growing anti-American sentiment in Germany, cash is king and VW may need to spend some to make some.

Our guess is that the “Peoples Car” is on the phone in an effort to live up to it’s name.

 

 

 

Shorten NASCAR Races Before It’s Too Late

Brian France, NASCAR's CEO, recently floated shortening NASCAR races.

Brian France, NASCAR’s CEO, recently floated shortening NASCAR races.

In my former role as co-host of RaceDay on Fox Sports Radio, Rob D’Amico and I, would more often than not, end up on the opposite sides of the NASCAR fence. Shortening the NASCAR races was not one of them. We both agreed that they needed to do it before it was too late.

Much to my surprise The CEO of NASCAR, Brian France, recently stated on Eli Gold’s radio show that:

“We (NASCAR leadership) think that shorter races in general makes sense. Sometimes, a specific venue or track believes differently, and they have their own fan base and research that says, ‘Hey, we like a 500-mile race on this particular weekend’ or in the case of Charlotte a 600-mile event. Generally speaking, we’re very open to working with the tracks and the local markets … to shorten races whenever it’s possible and we’ll continue to do that.”

When NASCAR or France makes statements such as this, they are not ill placed or ill conceived. They are planted as trial balloons in order to gauge the fan base’s reaction.

I’m not a great believer in focus groups, but rather like to take a reading from social media, other motorsports journalists and, in particular, those fans that I’ve heard say, and I’m paraphrasing here: “ Yeah, I watch the start, mow the grass, take a nap and then watch the last 20 laps.”

OK, so do I, other than mowing the grass.

600 miles that competes with the Indy 500 would be far more exciting as a 300 mile dash.

600 miles that competes with the Indy 500 would be far more exciting as a 300 mile dash.

No one can argue how exciting the last 20 laps of a NASCAR race can really be.

Fighting for position, stop or not stop for fresh tires, plotting and planning the green/white checker as if there were a crystal ball to gauge the outcome. It’s pretty great stuff.

What many ‘Casual’ fans miss is the strategy that develops during the interim droning lap after lap in between the start and finish. A great deal happens and it does interest those of us who have been in the racing world as long as I.

I find it very interesting, up to a point.

That point is somewhere between 100 miles and 300 miles on a 1.5 mile track.

In that ether-world of whirling left turns there is a loss of interest for me. I can only imagine what that must be like for a fan who runs the remote dial like a video game.

France was quite right to point out that what the promoters thought would be a barometer as to how short they might be willing to cut the number of laps in a given race.

It is, after all, the promoter who knows how many people, dogs and deceased people actually come through their gates.

However, the one thing that he, nor very many, have mentioned is that they have television contracts in place that lock down the amount of time NASCAR is on broadcast. There is the conundrum.

It will take a few years of broadcast renegotiation to actually implement shortening the races to where the fans interest is still high while still getting maximum exposure for their sponsors. Not an easy thing to do, but necessary.

If not, NASCAR will inherit a demographic that simply can’t sit still long enough to stay tuned in, but rather will tune to the hundreds of choices that digital and cable media now offer.

Stick a pin in the trial balloon NASCAR, you know the truth.

Let’s hope they immediately begin to reduce the mid race doldrums and shorten these contests so the drivers are under pressure to stay on it to go for the win.

It’s not enough to stabilize the patient, you have to heal them.

 

 

 

NASCAR Wins With Keselowski Talladega Victory

Keselowski and Penske Racing masterfully  orchestrated the Talladega Victory Sunday.

Keselowski and Penske Racing masterfully
orchestrated the Talladega Victory Sunday.

When the smoke clears, victory lane empties and the fans go home, there will be one group of people keeping the champagne flowing until the wee hours of the morning.

No, not Brad Keselowski, Paul Wolfe and the No. 2 Penske team – but Brian France, Mike Helton and the NASCAR brass.

The sole blemish on this weekend’s race at Talladega is that one previous champion and the fan favorite did not advance to the Eliminator Round.

Despite leading the most laps, Jimmie Johnson will have to wait at least another year to tie the NASCAR record for most championships all time, and his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the second most but settled for a loose race car with faulty gauges in the last quarter of the race, will do the same.

Talk about drama, though: Who would’ve thought that Danica Patrick would be leading with less than 20 to go, holding off “Six Time” himself, days after being criticized (maybe) by teammate Kevin Harvick?  Drama? Check.

And what about intensity? One errant piece of scrap metal with nine laps to go was a probable savior to many racecars participating in a ‘free for all’ up front, with some of the most exciting and intense restrictor plate racing seen this season, and arguably in many seasons.

Several drivers were on the borderline of out of control. Even the two GWC finishes created their own mini stories keeping drivers and fans alike on the edge of their seats. Intensity? Check.

Surprises were a’ plenty. Four drivers started the race needing a win to advance to the next round, and one driver did accomplish that goal, yet probably not the driver most thought or even wanted to see: An apologetic and trite Brad Keselowski was in victory lane expressing a mixture of regret for his actions last week, joy in winning, and gratitude to the team that got him the win he needed to advance to the next round, after the obligatory burnouts and tribute to the Stars and Stripes. Surprises? Check.

Check, check, and check.

For years, NASCAR has been tweaking the formula for television success when the NFL begins its season and noticeably cuts into race viewership.

Matt Kenseth’s 2003 championship run was a yawner, and it’s no coincidence that it was the final nail in the coffin of the old points championship system.

The Car of Tomorrow, now the Car of Yesterday (or, The Car That Was So Awful Everyone Hated It), which gave us tandem drafting in rather boring restrictor plate races and generally was like watching shoeboxes race, gave way to the new Gen 7 car.

And, if no one can duplicate Tony Stewart’s feat of winning half the races in the Chase on the way to tie-breaking championship, then the format will now create pressure and intensity. No more racing for points, boys. Win or bust.

To be fair, Jeff Gordon was in a position to protect his points, and did so by avoiding trouble. He didn’t have to win; he just had to not lose.

Kasey Kahne, who at one point was in, then not in, then in and finally not in again, did everything possible to run a trouble free race, while being carefully aggressive.

Even Ryan Newman, who challenged late for the win, at one point seemed unconcerned when he lost the draft and went a lap down.

Yes, indeed, the champagne glasses are clinking in Daytona tonight. There are smiles galore, and many powerful decision makers patting themselves on the back. And, they deserve to. With six races done and half the Chase field eliminated, NASCAR brass has accomplished everything they’ve wanted and more.

The sanctioning body has, at times, been the target of ire and frustration from the traditional fans when it seemed that attracting new fans, sponsors and viewers to the sport was more important than the opinions of their long time supporters.

It was a calculated risk, to be sure, and one with mixed results. But with the rules package changing for next season, most notably a reduction in horsepower, it seems that NASCAR may have finally gotten it right. Late race debris caution and all. And, with a new Chase round come new Chase storylines, starting next Sunday at Martinsville, the shortest track on the circuit.

But in the meantime, drink up, Brian, Mike, et al; you deserve it.

 

The New Chase: Like It or Not, We’re Going to Watch

NASCAR President Mike Helton was at the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway to comment on of the major competitive changes for 2014.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On Jan. 30, the last day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR CEO Brian France made the announcement we all knew was coming.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup format would be significantly altered this year, with the goal of putting more emphasis on winning during the entire season.

The field will be expanded to 16 drivers – all of whom are race winners. If all 16 are not race winners, the drivers who are highest in points will enter the Chase.

If there are 16 or more winners, ties will be broken by number of wins followed by Sprint Cup Series points.

The new Chase will have an “elimination” process under which the number of drivers in contention will decrease after every three races in the “playoff.”

The field will be reduced from 16 drivers to 12 after the first three races; from 12 to eight after the sixth race; from eight to four after the ninth race.

What is left at the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami will be a winner-take-all among the four drivers eligible for the title. The highest finisher among those four wins the championship.

Bonus points for leading laps will not count for the contenders at Homestead. The official finishing position alone will determine the champion.

Interestingly, all drivers eliminated during the course of the re-formatted Chase will be in contention for fifth place in the final standings – which comes with a handsome payday.

There’s more but I know you probably realize this, along with the “knockout” qualifying that will be utilized at most tracks in 2014, it is perhaps one of the most drastic competition changes NASCAR has ever made.

It’s not going to be welcomed or even accepted by everyone, including many fans.

NASCAR CEO Brian France was on hand to announce the shifts in NASCAR and to explain how the sanctioning body felt they could improve the sport.

“We always look down the road to put ourselves in the most competitive position we can for our fans,” France said. “We’ve worked for the last three years on this new format.

“We have now put more drivers in contention for a championship, one with a heavy emphasis on winning. We know our fans have stressed they want to see more rewards for victories.

“Traditional fans sometimes don’t like changes of any kind. But from our input from others, we think the vast majority of fans will welcome anything that creates better competition.

“Consistency is important in racing, particularly points racing. But fans want to see better competition with new strategies and especially with the emphasis on winning.”

France speculated that the teams are going to face a series of new tests in 2014. He said they are going to have to devise, at times, entirely new strategies. In order to win, and therefore assure themselves a spot in the Chase, along the way they are going to have to take chances they normally would not.

“They are going to have to race hard to win,” France said. “They face more risks and will have to adopt new strategies to meet those risks. And they will take those risks when necessary.

“No longer will riding around for points make much of a difference. Those days are gone.

“This is now a best-of-the-best, first-to-the finish line showdown, all of which is exactly what fans want.”

France added that the development of the new Chase was not accomplished without years of dialogue with drivers, teams and sponsor partners.

Most drivers welcome the new format and it won’t take much research to discover that speedways like it too.

The new system is essentially the same type of playoff mode already adopted – for a long time, by the way – by other professional and collegiate sports.

In 2014, after years of criticism and condemnation, college football will fall in line. Its BCS national champion will at last be determined by a playoff.

There will be glitches for NASCAR with its new system – perhaps it’s more accurate to say controversies will arise that it will have to address.

To win to make the Chase will indeed be a challenge for the teams. It is not beyond reality to suggest some of them may well cheat to get that victory. I don’t have to tell you it’s happened before – many times, in fact.

If it does happen, will NASCAR take the action it has seldom, very seldom, done before? Will it take the victory away from the offending team?

NASCAR President Mike Helton suggested that the organization has its policies in place and, yes, to revoke a win is one of them.

I’ve got news for you. Under this new Chase format any team caught manufacturing a win by unfair practices is going to lose that victory.

It has to; it simply must. If not the new Chase will be considered a sham. And, believe me, NASCAR knows this.

If I understand the new system correctly a driver who does not win in 2014 can still win the title.

If he is permitted to enter the Chase with no wins, it means that he’s No. 1 in points, or one of the highest without a victory.

Now, does it not stand to reason that he can finish among the top four in three of the elimination rounds, without a victory, and be one of the top four at Homestead?

And if he finishes higher than the other contenders there is he not the champion – even without a win?

OK, in all honesty, I confess there is much for me to learn. And the fact that a winner in any segment of the Chase is automatically eligible for the next one might remove my speculation.

But, I daresay, not all of it.

I could speculate a lot more and, to be honest, so could all of you.

You may like all of this. Or you may hate it. You may say it smacks of gimmicky. It’s your choice.

Either way, you are going to be like most of us.

Many of you are going to be just like me, so many other members of the media and your fellow fans.

We’re all going to watch and see what happens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian France: No Gimmicks But New Rules, Policies Will Come To Please Fans

NASCAR CEO Brian France admitted on Friday that he was very pleased to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. having a good season. He admitted that if Earnhardt Jr. is successful, that is very good for NASCAR.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark DeCotis is a veteran journalist who spent 37 years in the newspaper business before beginning a second career combining leisure and earning a living.

 He covered 26 Daytona 500s, numerous Pepsi/Coke Zero 400s, Busch/Nationwide, Trucks, more than a few Rolex 24s at Daytona, season finales at Homestead, Kevin Harvick’s emotional first win at Atlanta, IndyCar, sports car, NHRA, motorcycle, ATV and power boat racing.

His favorite race car driver interviews of all time were with 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force).

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France drew a very straight line in the sand – after all that’s where the sport’s rules have been written since its inception – when it came to improving things on track.

Speaking to reporters at Daytona on Friday France outrightly dismissed any notions of the sport adding any artificial ingredients to the porridge that is NASCAR’s racing product – his word not ours.

“It’s a very clear line to us,” France said. “What we’re not going to do are gimmicky things. I’ve heard we ought to throw a caution every 10 laps. That’s nonsense.

“We won’t do gimmicky things. But we’ll do things that incentivize performance, incentivize wins. That we are open to.  The wildcard does that. It does it in an authentic way. Anything that gets something better on the track and doesn’t employ a gimmick, we’d be reasonably open to.”

France said that NASCAR has to help find ways to satisfy fans better when it comes to television coverage. Many ideas will likely be discussed before the TV contracts expire in 2014.

That’s encouraging from a sport that has already given us cars getting a lap back for free – otherwise known as the “lucky dog” sans Michael Waltrip’s ubiquitous sponsor plug – and the overtime rule otherwise known as the green-white-checkered finish.

Overall France believes things are trending in the right direction especially since the sport’s crown prince Dale Earnhardt Jr. – a driver the boss has said is vital to NASCAR’s overall health – is having a good year with a victory and a second-place spot in the points.

In fact France was so eager to inject Earnhardt into the proceedings that it took him all of 37 seconds to mention him.

Keep up the good work Dale, Brian is turning his lonely eyes to you.

France also has his eyes focused on the future and the sport’s goal of providing “the most competitive and close competition as we possibly can.”

To achieve that goal France knows the sport has to continue to please its fans – among the most knowledgeable, demanding and yet self-entitled in all sports – both at the track and on TV, which is where the majority of its adherents get their fix, his word not ours.

With negotiations on renewing the TV contracts that expire at the end of 2014 reaching what France called the serious stage, NASCAR has a unique opportunity to blunt the rising tide of criticism of its product and its presentation from a glut of commercials to a dearth of live action – not to mention overly centric attention on certain drivers.

To accomplish that France promises an approach more focused on science than art. But he also stated no matter what new rules are put in place they like, the countless others that have been written over the years, will be authored in the shifting sands of Daytona Beach.

“Even when we get them where we want them, they’re going to change,” he said. “That’s just the nature of this business.”

That’s what has allowed NASCAR to become the behemoth it is. But the road ahead is fraught with challenges and the sport cannot traverse that road alone. It must bring along its fans, its teams and its partners – France’s word, not ours.

And NASCAR and its partners must enlist the best and brightest minds in their respective businesses to ensure the sport remains on course with the ultimate goal being the best show the fans’ money can buy, all gimmicks aside.

 

Much In NASCAR Ain’t Broke, So Don’t Fix It – For Now

Big-pack racing returned in Daytona testing as NASCAR sought to eliminate the two-car drafts that have been prevalent on the superspeedways. However, as much as this particular change has been effective, as of now there is no guarantee the two-car hookups won't return in the Daytona 500.

It’s never been unusual for NASCAR to put a positive spin on just about anything it does or its interpretation of its competitive environment. Truth be known, that’s what it should do.

However, during his “State of the Union” address at the annual Media Tour, when NASCAR CEO Brian France said, “The sport is in a very good place,” I was one of those who did not roll his eyes with the cynical thought we were getting another whitewash.

The fact is, France is absolutely correct. The 2010 Sprint Cup season was, overall, one of NASCAR’s best, one in which the positives far outweighed the negatives.

There have been times when new NASCAR policies and rules have done very little to improve its product but that was not the case last season.

Thanks in part to a simplified points system and the creation of a “wildcard” selection to the Chase that put an emphasis on victories, we saw what was the closest championship battle in NASCAR’s modern era – if not ever.

As you know, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards finished the season tied in points, but Stewart claimed the title because he had more victories.

I’m not sure Hollywood could have created a more exciting scenario.

This is not to say NASCAR did it all. Let’s credit the competitors. If Stewart hadn’t blazed to five victories in the Chase’s 10 races, well, who knows how the championship would have unfolded?

It’s obvious NASCAR does not need to tamper with its championship system. The 2010 season proved that it could work just fine and please fans and competitors alike.

As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Rightfully, NASCAR isn’t going to fix it.

One thing it is trying to fix is the proliferation of two-car, “partner” drafts that have become the norm at Daytona and Talladega.

This is a relatively new phenomenon and it appears NASCAR is responding to the will of those fans, and others, who do not like it.

Understand, not everyone disapproves. I’m one of them. Yes, two cars running alone with one’s nose up the other’s tail looks silly. But I believe it’s helped bring about drama and surprise.

Nevertheless it was NASCAR’s primary goal during testing to find the technological means to prevent these two-car dances.

Testing showed us big-pack racing had returned to Daytona. And, wonder of wonders, NASCAR didn’t hit the panic button when sustained speeds of over 200 mph were reached.

But two-car drafts did not go away. I’d be willing to say that while we might see plenty of pack racing in the Daytona 500 (I thought fans didn’t like that, either), the outcome will be determined by the two cars that hook up best in a “dance.”

Now there’s plenty of time for NASCAR to enforce legislation for things to be otherwise, but my point is: If it doesn’t, so what?

I know many will disagree, but if the Daytona 500 ends with two cars hugging on to each other, I don’t think that is necessarily going to be a bad thing.

Racing on the superspeedways may be “cracked” to some, but I don’t think it’s entirely broken. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

NASCAR announced a couple of other policy changes for 2012, one of which is decidedly positive and the other, well, the sanctioning body needs to tread lightly.

We now know that NASCAR will no longer punish its teams and drivers without making the fines, and other judgments, public.

Smart, very smart.

There was plenty of outcry after the sanctioning body secretly leveled a $25,000 fine against Brad Keselowski for publicly criticizing the switch to fuel injection.

That wasn’t the only time such a thing happened, by the way, and I think the reason NASCAR received the criticism it did is because, over the years, it has been accused of many, many clandestine cloak-and-dagger exploits designed to impose its will and enforce its domination.

Which certainly didn’t contribute to a positive image – nor has fining drivers and teams secretly.

If NASCAR practices what it is now preaching it will benefit. The less it appears to be a secret society, the better off it will be.

We know that NASCAR intends to re-evaluate its “Boys have at it” policy in 2012. It will strengthen its stance against drivers retaliating on the track.

NASCAR loosened its grip on driver behavior in 2010 and allowed them to police themselves and retaliate when they believed they had been wronged.

I think the main reason NASCAR did this was to offset the constant criticism that it had “cloned” its drivers; robbed them of their true personalities and denied the sport the rivalries its fans crave.

So when it comes to any sort of “re-evaluation,” I would urge NASCAR to walk softly.

It stands to reason that it should step in, with force, when things obviously get out of hand – if two drivers wreck each other repeatedly and put others in danger, for example.

But then, I can’t think of a time when it hasn’t done that.

I suspect that by its announcement of a “re-evaluation” NASCAR was actually telling its competitors it will still have the final say, “Boys have at it” notwithstanding.

I think NASCAR will indeed tread softly. It should. Heroes and villains, rivalries and confrontations on and off the track have always been a part of stock car racing’s character and appeal.

When it comes to “Boys have at it,” in my opinion things ain’t broke, so NASCAR shouldn’t fix it. Frankly, I’d be stunned if it attempted to do so.

Make no mistake, there are going to be incidents and other occurrences in 2012 that will be unanticipated and, perhaps, force NASCAR to make sweeping changes. Who knows?

But right now changes are few and largely minor.

That’s because, indeed, NASCAR begins 2012 in a good place.

There might be a crack here and there, but for now, nothing ain’t broken. So don’t fix it.

New Chase Format Works But The Title Will Be Won The Old Way

NASCAR CEO Brian France is very pleased with how the Chase is unfolding and he believes that the changes the sanctioning body made to its “playoff” system have greatly improved it.

Given what’s happened so far in the 10-race format, it’s hard to argue with him.

“Obviously I’m not sure we can be any more pleased with how the Chase is unfolding,” France said. “Frankly, we’re pleased with how the season has unfolded, the level of competition and the closeness in the Chase.”

Indeed the Chase has, to date, produced the type of drama for which it was created and I have to agree that the tweaks NASCAR made in the off-season have played role.

“The ‘wildcard’ is one,” France said of the modifications, “And streamlining and simplifying the points system is another that have made it easier for people to understand how you qualify. And they have added some drama.

“It’s done all of that and if you look back, at the time, those moves were considered small ones. But they have actually had a big impact and that’s terrific.”

Again, it’s hard to disagree.

However, it doesn’t matter, really, under which system NASCAR uses, or has used, to determine its champion. Whether it was with the old points format – with the absence of a Chase altogether – the “old” Chase or today’s modified one, how a title is ultimately won is always based on performance.

A champion is the driver who runs consistently well on the track and avoids problems. If he does have them he and his team, together, routinely overcome them.

Sounds simple, but it’s certainly not that easy to achieve. Any competitor will tell you that.

The drama that is a big part of this year’s version of the Chase has been created by the fact that there are currently eight drivers within 20 points of one another with six races remaining.

The top five in points are separated by a mere 12 points and the drivers who rank among the top three are separated by a margin of just four points.

As for the top two, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, respectively, a single point splits them.

This excruciatingly close championship scenario was partly created by the modifications NASCAR made to the Chase.

But, more so, it exists because all the drivers and teams involved have piled up consistently high finishes and surmounted occasional problems.

In his a quest for a sixth-straight championship, Jimmie Johnson’s efforts in the Chase have been well documented. He stumbled out of the gate, especially at New Hampshire, where he finished 18th, but overcame with finishes of second and first in the last two races to rise from 10th to third in points, four in arrears.

That’s an obvious combination of surpassing bad fortune and consistent performance.

But there are a few more pronounced examples of this.

Edwards, the man many have said would knock Johnson of his pedestal – that’s been said of him for the last three seasons – has been the most consistent driver in the Chase.

His worst finish in four races has been eighth. All the others were in the top five. That kind of performance week after week will put make any driver a serious championship contender.

But Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team have overcome, also. This was especially true at Kansas. If they hadn’t done so in the Hollywood Casino 400 they certainly would not be No. 1 by any means.

As soon as the Kansas race started, Edwards began dropping back into the pack in a car that slid all over the track. In just 47 of 267 laps he was in 20th place and fighting to keep from losing a lap.

He pitted for a lengthy period of time during the second caution period, restarted 25th and fell a lap down to Johnson by lap 159.

His crew constantly worked on his car thereafter. Edwards regained the lead lap with a free pass on lap 206 and moved forward from there. He was 13th as the race wound down and, after the green-white-checkered finish, he had climbed all the way to fifth place.

“I can’t believe we finished fifth,” Edwards said. “It feels like we won the race. This is the most we’ve ever done with a car that wasn’t capable of winning the race so I’m proud of my guys who made good adjustments.”

Like Johnson, Edwards and his team serve as a perfect example of what it takes to earn a title.

That can also be said of Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing outfit.

Harvick’s Chase record so far isn’t as good as Edwards’, but it’s good enough. He has finished outside the top 10 only once. Among his top-five runs is a second place at Chicago, which pushed him from second in points – his rank when the “playoffs” began – to first.

But he and his team have also overcome adversity, again at Kansas.

Harvick and his team had an ill-handling Chevrolet at the start of the race and worked hard to improve it. They did enough to earn a sixth-place finish, one spot behind Edwards.

“It was a long day to say the least,” Harvick said. “Everyone on the team kept adjusting and nothing seemed to work right as far as the adjustments were going.

“But we kept swinging at it. On the next to last pit stop we put four tires on and I knew we were going to be close to cutoff line of when the other guys would pit.

“The No. 22 (Kurt Busch) and I stayed out and everybody behind us pitted. All in all, it was a great save for everybody on the team.”

A glance at the Chase records of almost all the leading contenders clearly indicates they have been consistent and have prevailed over adversity.

Brad Keselowski, for example, started the Chase as a “wildcard” entry and was 11th in points. He’s now fourth and only 11 back, due largely to three top-six runs in four races. He earned sixth place at Kansas on a rebound from a mediocre 20th-place finish at Dover a week earlier.

Yes, the revamped Chase has provided us with plenty of drama and most likely will continue to do so. France should indeed be pleased.

But in the end nothing will change. As it always has been, the driver who becomes champion will have done so by consistency of performance and the ability to overcome misfortune.

We’ve seen enough evidence of that already.

France Wants Answers For Kentucky Mistakes


20,000 fans at last weekend’s Kentucky Sprint Cup race either didn’t get into the race or they were late due to traffic issues. This is nothing new, Texas Motor Speedway and Atlanta went through the same set of problems. Didn’t anyone see it coming?

NASCAR Ch-CH-Changes

NASCAR begins to evolve it’s infrastructure and racing related technical decisions to win back fans. Michele Rahal, of The Motorsports CHannel and www.themotorsportschannel.com, gives commentary and opinion on what we might expect in 2010 from Daytona

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