NASCAR exploded as a mainstream spectator sport in the late 1990s. This is well-known. How and why it happened when it did is a study best-served for another time.
But there’s no doubt a confluence of events enabled the sport to take off like the Intimidator in Turn 4. NASCAR had the venues, the characters, the back story and emerging cable TV platforms to produce a rocket rise that few second-tier sports have ever experienced.
What goes up, of course, always seems to find a way to come down. Boxing, horse racing and baseball have all had their times of glory, and have settled into varying stages of popularity. And in these recent times of economic distress, it has been no different for NASCAR.
But a downfall, however minor it may feel to a sport’s most ardent fans, still costs the powerful money. Lots of money. And in the pursuit to reclaim the lofty status that enabled coffers to overflow, chances are taken and changes are made, often with little regard to the integrity or history of the sport.
Has that been done in NASCAR? Ultimately, that’s for the fans and participants to decide. No doubt the opinions are varied. Still, NASCAR’s admission last month that it is considering more changes to the Chase for the Championship format smacks of a knee-jerk reaction to a bottom line that’s trending the wrong way.
Of course, NASCAR has always been driven by money. It’s the fundamental nature of the sport, as any Victory Lane celebration affirms. And if the sport is determined to have a playoff system to decide its champion, you can’t fault the organization for trying to make it as sound as possible.
If that’s the case though, what are the potential outcomes? Either you bring changes designed to better award the top performers that season, or you angle for the other side of the coin by instituting revisions to foster more unpredictability and ultimately, more drama. Ergo, more interest generated.
NASCAR, it seems, can’t have it both ways.
But it can.
Any weighting of points for race wins, or trimming of the playoff field as the Chase progresses, only seems to serve the traditional notion of what used to determine NASCAR’s champion. While there would always be some form of unpredictability for the regular season leaders after tightening the points between the top drivers in the standings, the system still favors that year’s best teams to a degree.
Still, it feels somewhat wrong that a sport with such clearly defined marquee races — Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600, the night race at Bristol — completes its season with the final 10 races meaning more than any other on the schedule.
A race at Loudon means more than the Daytona 500? Really? Perhaps the victor and top 10 drivers of a Gland Slam race should earn added bonus points.
For those who feel like this takes away from the drama so many feel is necessary to boost ratings and mainstream interest in the sport, NASCAR still has a clear avenue, one in which the sport has traveled down many times before.
Let ’em race.
Was the Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski incident in last week’s Nationwide Series event risky and over the line? Yes, but when was the last time so much attention and discussion came from a Nationwide race?
NASCAR’s error was its doling out of points penalties. The sport was on the right track in the preseason when it said it would allow the drivers to police themselves. Then, though, NASCAR didn’t follow through on its pledge.
There was a time when Dale Earnhardt, riding second on the last few laps, was expected to turn the first-place car if he got close to it. It was the job of the leader not to allow Earnhardt to get that close. Many fans and drivers hated him for it. Many loved him for it.
But they all talked about it. And they all wanted to see the replay again. And again. And again.
It was about that time the sport began to take off in a way only the NFL can recognize.
NASCAR isn’t broken, yet it can still be damaged with too much tinkering. Tweaks to a system that isn’t going away — no matter how fluky it must seem to the drivers and fans of yesteryear — aren’t going to magically revive the sport to the unconscionable heights it achieved for a span of a few short years.
In words a driver might use to describe a late-lap dust-up, NASCAR is what it is. And there’s nothing terribly wrong with that.
For most fans, it’s more than enough.
Too bad big-time sports doesn’t work that way.