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NASCAR, make me want to be a fan again

This post has been in the outline stage for nearly a year. It was started over the summer before the MWR incident at Richmond this year (2013) which brought it back to mind for me to complete.

TL;DR NASCAR needs to overhaul the points system to make the weekends more competitive to make me a fan again.

As I see it, the problem with watching NASCAR races in this era is that there is such a focus on Big Picture Racing by the drivers and teams. Racing to accumulate the most points to be in the Chase for the Championship and then become the Sprint Cup champion for the year and all that goes with the title. That is an important goal and quite an achievement for any driver.

However, the weekly racing seems to suffer because the drivers settle in to a pace that keeps them in their positions to reach the end of the race when the points are won. There’s no incentive for drivers to fight for many positions, much less the lead, mid-race. Why try to get another two positions now and possibly get involved in a wreck when the driver can settle in and make a move with 25 or less to go. “My car is a 10th place car, I’m not going to risk running harder until the last 15 laps and then I’ll make my move”. I think it is this rationale that has allowed Jimmie to consistently finish so well every year. And as we’ve seen recently with the apparent team orders from MWR, there’s also incentive for drivers and teams to go to extremes helping teammates when they are in positions to get into the Chase field. This happens all season as one driver will let another lead a lap for a bonus point, then swap the spots back. Other things can happen to affect the points positions throughout the year that is not noticed because no one was looking for such things.

With this attitude from the drivers, reality or my perception, as a [former] hardcore fan I’m left wondering Why spend 4 hours watching when only the first and last 20 minutes are exciting or even matter? I’ve stopped watching on a regular basis and with more races being broadcast on cable only, I will miss even more races. I’ve dropped cable, as it was only good for me to watch races recently and I’ve lost interest in that. I haven’t been to a live race in almost four years, when before it was 2-3 a year. Its not due to “the economy” because I’m still taking the same number of vacations. I’m just not going to the track. I get bored in the middle 3/4 of the race watching the drivers essentially log laps. Sure there’s the occasional race with excitement throughout, but how to predict those few in advance when planning my time? And again, with the MWR episode bring it to the forefront, I have even less reasons to spend my money and time at races if the races are fixed by the participants to any degree.

So what can be done to solve this problem as I see it? Make the entire weekend count towards the championship points chase. Add in points for qualifying and in-race performance. Drivers that qualify well are rewarded even if their race finish is not always the best. It dings the drivers who don’t qualify well but run well during the races. Throw in points during the race and you reward the drivers willing to push their limits and penalize those that settle in and ride around. It pushes the drivers to do their best all weekend long and causes team orders to hurt the individual driver’s chances getting to the Chase. Then during the Chase team orders can be seen easier if drivers changes their habits during the last 10 races.

Is this plan for a points revamp a bit much to keep track of, particularly for casual fans? Yes it is. Will these proposed changes put off a casual fan, I don’t think so. A casual fan is, almost by definition, not going to care about how the overall season championship turns out. A casual fan wants to see action on the track. They want to tune into, or go to, the race to see drivers competing for the lead more than they are competing to get a good finish and have a good points day even if we didn’t win the race day. The casual fan may not be back as things stand today for the next four or five races or ever because its all about having a good points day now. We’re seeing fewer casual fans tuning into the broadcasts much less going to the tracks. Long time fans are doing other things on Sunday afternoon and checking in on Monday to see who won and watch the highlights on Youtube.

Here’s my plan.

Adding in points for qualifying well gives drivers an incentive to always do well and the fans a reason to be interested in the event. Additionally, use qualifying to set the marks for in-race points to make those points a random amount each week. This limits the long term planning for extra points going forward.

The first part is basic and straight forward. The top 31 qualifiers get one point for each qualifying position in a descending order. The pole winner gets 31 points, second place gets 30, and down to 1 point for 31st place.

For 32nd to 36th place qualifiers, these drivers set the lap numbers for in-race points. So if car numbers 32,60,12,99, and 17 are qualifiers 32-36 their car numbers set the lap, per 100, that gets drivers points during the race. With the example of the 12 car, there would be three opportunities to gain points in a 237 lap race; lap 12, 112, and 212. There would only be two opportunities against the 99 car, on laps 99 and 199. This sets a variable amount of points every race as the car numbers qualifying in those positions and the number of laps per race are different.

Qualifiers from 37th on back are in the race. As they are potentially there on just a provisional or because of a poor qualifying effort for whatever reason, there are no points given. As the provisional system stands today I don’t see it as being anything but a renaming of the top 35 rule which was one of the first indicators as a fan that competition in NASCAR was leaving the sport.

In the event the qualifying is not run and the field is set by points, qualifying points are not awarded. The in-race points laps are still set by the drivers starting 32nd through 36th. Again, adding randomness to the total points available to a driver during a season.

The in-race points are given out up to five times per 100 laps. The point laps are determined by the car numbers of the 32nd through 36th qualifiers. On each of the points laps, the the top five get between 5 and 1 points in descending order from 1st to 5th place. 5 points for 1st, 4 points for 2nd, and so on to 5th place. Should the driver who set the lap number lead “their” lap or a driver from 37th or less lead a points qualifying lap, the driver gets an extra point.

Currently if a driver leads a single lap, they get a point. Forget that. Going forward a driver must lead three consecutive laps under green to qualify for a bonus point for leading. The driver who leads the most laps in a race gets a bonus point. Win the race, you get two bonus points.

To seed the Chase championship points, the top ten get two extra points for each race win. Additionally, a driver in the top 10 gets one extra point for each weekend in which they garnered the most points throughout the weekend. This helps emphasize that the entire weekend matters.

A championship driver will have to be aggressive throughout the weekend. They will have to consistently qualify strong at each type of race track. They will have to be among the race leaders multiple times and consistently.

With the above changes, I believe that the best overall racer will win the season championship. The casual fans will be more interested in watching the racing week to week increasing the chances of making more hardcore fans. The hardcore race fans will appreciate the increased effort throughout the weekend and understand the work needed by a driver and team to call themselves the NASCAR Championship Team for the year.

I want to be a hardcore fan again. Others I know want to be hardcore fans again. Does NASCAR want us back?