NASCAR doesn’t mind changing the rules, even if the season is in full swing.
NASCAR’s governing body has more control over its product than any other professional sport in the country. If Roger Goodell is a hands-on commissioner for the NFL, then Brian France and Mike Helton rule with iron fists.
So with that in mind, can’t NASCAR do something about the season finale, and do it soon?
From the sport that threw 50-plus years of tradition out the window with the slumping television ratings and drastically changed the points system that determines its champion, the excitement created by the 10-race sprint to the finish should not be allowed to finish with a coronation.
And on Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson doing nothing more than keeping his teammate and the second-place driver, Jeff Gordon, in sight for 40 miles, that’s all there was. No drama. No. thrills. No maybes. No what-might-have-beens.
Just a Sunday stroll through the park.
With the Chase and the season closing at a cookie-cutter 1.5-mile track like the one in Homestead, Fla., unless you absolutely blow the setup of the car or somebody decides to come within 10 feet of you when passing, not much can happen to the driver who comes into the finale with the points lead.
But this can be fixed, and it can be done easily.
While Johnson deserves credit for taking control of the championship with four straight wins, all NASCAR needs to do to create more buzz is to take one of its marquee racetracks and make it that much more important. Conclude the season at either Talladega, Daytona or the short track in Bristol, and no TV executive in his right mind would even allow the broadcast to break for commercial.
At restrictor-plate tracks like the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, one minor slip-up by getting out of the draft with five laps to go could mean 15-to-20 positions, which is at least 50 points. And with the packs of cars inches from each other for every mile and every lap, the potential for danger is not just evident, it’s palpable, forcing the drivers to be at their best at the most crucial of times.
Sure, there’s the element of luck involved. Getting caught up in a huge wreck of 15 cars that was set off by somebody like Carl Long to lose the points lead on the final day would be tough to get over.
But the Chase already visits Talladega in the closing weeks. The points are still the same and still count in the standings. But a simple move to the end of the season would make it that much more dramatic.
The same goes for Bristol. Anything can happen there as well and at any time, and no race looks better under the lights or in person than at Bristol. Terrific driving skill is needed there as well, and it’s a grueling experience for the drivers.
Daytona offers the same potential and excitement as Talladega, but the Super Bowl of racing could be even bigger if NASCAR had the stones to move the Daytona 500 to end of the season rather than opening the year with it.
Let the biggest race of the year matter the most, rather than become an afterthought eight months later.
Sure, drivers spend more than a month prepping for the Daytona 500, but NASCAR could make like the NFL and build in a bye week between the penultimate race of the year and the season finale. Besides, drivers are always taking off and practicing at other tracks during the season; they could do the same with Daytona.
Yes, any of those moves would be drastic. And maybe it would make the sport a tad cartoonish, or tricked-up.
But this is NASCAR, after all, a sport in which two guys combined to win half of the races this year. Just because they drive on Sundays doesn’t mean the race for the championship should culminate with a Sunday drive.