Analysis: Why the process behind NASCAR's format change is important
NASCAR’s newest race format changes have, of course, drawn a lot of attention but there was another aspect that was just as important – the process by which they came to be.
It’s no secret that during most of NASCAR’s existence, rule changes came from the top down. In other words, NASCAR executives decided they wanted to make a change, they announced it and it was so.
If you didn’t like the rules, nobody was forcing you to play. Your participation was not mandatory, nor needed.
Much has changed in NASCAR in that regard, although many fans may not realize it because most of the discussions take place behind closed doors.
More than in any time in NASCAR’s history, the sport’s stakeholders are all playing a larger role in shaping the direction of the sport. That’s the way it should be because they all have a vested interest in it succeeding.
All parts must be in place for NASCAR to be at its best – a responsive sanctioning body, talented drivers, established viable teams, vested manufacturers and sponsors to run the show.
What is striking about the new format changes is that enough members from all of those different groups came together over the past several months and found enough common ground to advance a singular agenda.
The joke in NASCAR has always been, if you ask 10 different people how to fix a problem, you’ll get 10 different answers.
So, how did all of these vested parties find common ground and what was it that united them?
One was the idea was drivers should be rewarded for accomplishments during the race as they happen.
Many fans may not like to hear it, but that idea actually stems from how most stick-and-ball sports are conducted. Fans follow the ebb and flow of a game by following the scoring that takes place while it happens and it’s those moments that create drama and excitement.
“We’re the only sport that the scoring isn’t done until the very end of the event. In the PGA, you’re making birdies, you’re making pars; in football, there are touchdowns and fans get excited,” said driver Denny Hamlin.
“In ours, nothing happens until the very end and then the (winning) driver gets rewarded. With this format, you now have in-race scoring.”
The importance of a break during races
There was also common agreement that there needed to be breaks in the race – guaranteed opportunities for TV to take commercial breaks without missing on-track action; opportunities for fans at the track or at home to step away from the action without missing the competition.
“By ending these stages, what’s going to happen, TV is going to be coordinated with NASCAR,” said former driver and now Fox TV analyst Jeff Gordon. “You go to a commercial break to assure nothing is happening on the race track, and then when they come back from a commercial break – boom – cars are on pit road, pitting.
“Go to a break, come back, we’re going to talk to the winner of that stage. We’re going to talk to the winning crew chief of that stage, and then we’re going to line these cars back up and we’re going to go green-flag racing.”
Hamlin said in the discussions it became evident all parties “could use a break” during the races.
“The tracks needed it. There’s some point when a fan wants to use the restroom without missing a lot of action. TV needed to know when it could take commercials,” he said. “Those are all things that needed to be done.”
Making every race matter
The third common denominator was the idea that every race should matter.
Even when drivers became “locked into” the playoffs through wins, there should be reason for them to continue to compete at the highest level. Tracks likely didn’t like idea some races have taken on more importance than others on the series calendar in terms of how they were approached by competitors or thought of by fans.
“Once you won a race, that incentive to get through and carry through the playoffs, we felt, was missing a bit and we looked at how we could do something to fix it,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
The answer was to provide incentives for winning the race stages, incentives that would carry through the entire regular season and into the playoffs. So, in theory, in every stage of every race there is reason for every driver, regardless of the kind of season they are having, to want to compete at the highest level and receive a reward for doing so.
In a perfect world should drivers want to do that anyway? Of course, but this is far from a perfect world. In fact, these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who will do something for nothing.
The explanation on how points will be rewarded can become complicated and tedious, but in the end, it’s the action on the track by which these latest changes will be judged.
From all accounts this week, those most invested in NASCAR are willing to bet this format will pass the test.
“There were a lot of boxes that needed to be checked from each stakeholder and this format checked the boxes for each one of us – drivers, NASCAR, TV, the whole bit,” Hamlin said.
As always, the fans will who watch on TV and from the grandstands will have the final say.
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