Pit Stall 13 is back and the new NASCAR season is upon us and the watchword for the new year is “change.”
Which isn’t exactly that different than almost every year for the past half decade. The nebulous rules package of the last few years for the Sprint Cup… wait… the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (which by the way, I don’t think anyone will use that whole mouthful of a title. It’s Monster Cup) are well documented and this is not intended to be a history lesson. There’s google fu for that.
This is gearing up for the new season. This is excitement. I’m not just spitting out buzzwords. With the Clash this weekend and the 500 in spitting distance, I am excited for the season to start.
So what should we be excited about? Why, I am glad you asked since that’s what I’m here for.
New Series Sponsor: Pleasantly enthused
I count myself among those who started to get worried towards the end of the season when NASCAR still hadn’t named a replacement for Sprint (who only took seven years to get decent cell service at Loudon). I honestly expected some established tech company to come into the scene. Some company who had the base where a few mil wouldn’t risk the company imploding but pushing the engineering sports hybrid that NASCAR is to get some edge to it. Samsung came to mind even though there would be the rumbles from the …. “ultra traditionalist” crowd… yanno, the same crowd that gives NASCAR the bad name with its Confederate flags. Coca Cola would not have surprised me, or even one of the big hardware chains (Lowe’s and the Depot… Menard’s is the number 3 but doesn’t actually exist on the east coast). The problem with one of them is that their competitors are so entrenched in sponsoring NASCAR, it would have gotten even uglier than the whole Cingular/ATT fiasco on Jeff Burton’s car a few years back.
Monster Energy Drinks came out of left field for this ‘slightly more than casual but not a professional’ observer but it makes absolute sense. They know what they’re getting into with sponsoring motorsports. They’re already doing it with motocross and team sponsorships within NASCAR (the Busch brothers) and teams across other motorsports (V8 Supercars, F1, rally).
Look, the sport needs energy. Monster brings energy. NASCAR got real huge at the tail end of the 90s and the early 00s. Things were booming. Tracks were expanding. But the sport rested on its laurels too long and stopped innovating. The way people watch sports has changed. 50 inch plasma TVs in ultra high def are commonplace now and when you can get that good of a picture in arm’s reach of your own clean bathroom and all the beer/drinks/snacks you want out of your own fridge… where is the motivation to spend the better part of a whole day at the track? I have gone to a Cup race in New Hampshire every year since the track started hosting them in the mid 90s. It is a 20 hour day. I had a 230am wake up call to drive across three state lines for the race. How do you get more casual fans to want that experience?
Make it more of an experience. Create a festival atmosphere at the track. Give people things to do all day, and I don’t just mean the famous Talladega infield debauchery. NASCAR has been doing some of this the last few years. There’s a fan concourse with displays set up by sponsors and such. Last race I went to had a Miller tent, Toyota showed off its new models, the Air Force had a cut away car to show the internals of Almirola’s 43. Monster can come in and turn all that up to 11. That’s what the sport needs. I am optimistic that it will get exactly that.
The Clash: Finally!
I am not an old timer, but as far as NASCAR goes, I am definitely old school. Harry Gant won the first race I saw in person. In an Oldsmobile. I was one of those fans who called the season opening exhibition race “The Busch Clash” because I had been watching it under that same name for a decade before anyone thought to change it. I am not a fan of change for the sake of change, but bringing The Clash back is happy nostalgia. Sometimes NASCAR can be blinded by tradition, but this is a good one to hold on to.
The Playoffs: Good. Also, duh.
Another naming change here. NASCAR dumped the term “Chase.” It’s just the Playoffs now.
This is a good thing. I wholeheartedly approve of the concept of the NASCAR Playoff system. I was never a fan of the naming convention of it though. NASCAR is a sport where the more you know, the more fun it is so the challenge is to get the casual observer over the hump to get in on all the minutiae of the sport. In that, NASCAR is very unlike the stick and ball sports. But NASCAR does not need to be standoffish about its differences. All nonNASCAR outlets would just refer to the Chase as “NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.” Since we are just now calling it the Playoffs, we don’t need to add another new term to the newbie potential fan.
The New Points System: ….there are so many layers here.
The new points system is mostly… good… I think. It’s complicated.
The big thing here is stages.
I am pro stages. This is an amped up version of the halfway money NASCAR used to pay out a few years ago. Cut a big check to the team leading at the halfway mark and yeah, it’s going to make that dash a lot more interesting. This is the same deal but with points. Throw some bonus points to the guys in the top ten at certain laps? Go nuts. I think this will help with NASCAR’s idea to avoid the middle chunks of the race where the field falls into a groove and just logs laps until the 80% mark.
Championship points (being different than regular points)makes this more complicated.
“Competition cautions” at the stage ends are really thinly veiled TV time outs which I think has the potential for abuse.
But in general? The potential for good outweighs my concerns and I think it can work well, although at some tracks more than others. (I’m looking at you road courses!)
Damaged Vehicle Policy: Ugh. Not so much.
More than stages, I think this has the potential to cause chaos to the championship standings. Cars aren’t allowed to go to the garage for accidents anymore. They’re just allowed five minutes on pit road. The official reasoning behind this is a bit off for me. One of the NASCAR VPs said repairing wrecked cars is “something we don’t think enhances the show.” They’re worried about cars with “integrity issues”… eh, I’ll give you a little bit of that but only a little. They’re worried about crew guys hustling while around grinders and sparks. That one is total BS. My day job is at a shipyard and as someone who has worked with and around welding and metalwork for 12 years, I can tell you the crew guys aren’t worried about that. You get very nonchalant about being lit on fire after it’s happened a few times. NASCAR is worried about teams spending money on trashed firesuits or extra body panels. Sounds good but I doubt that.
The cynical part of me thinks the TV networks pushed this one. A lot of people (myself absolutely included) rail about Sweet Lady Debris and the proliferation of mystery cautions. I think NASCAR finally got fed up with getting trashed on for mystery cautions and went too far to fix the problem.
This is going to hurt NASCAR at some of its biggest races. Austin Dillon pulling off the third place finish with the duct tape car was one of the rad finishes of last year. Not possible now. The beating and banging of Bristol or Watkins Glen… are they still going to happen if everyone is tip toeing around this new policy? When the Big One drops next week at Daytona, without the potential to make up some laps, how many people will be behind the 8 ball in points right after week one?
I hope this doesn’t cause all sorts of hurt, but I think it will.
New Penalty Structure: Good and needed.
NASCAR has streamlined the penalty structure. This is a good thing. The old warnings and levels and charts and whatever were complicated. I don’t honestly think that the rule book is any less complicated now. The real story here is that the penalties will be handled faster.
Penalties stacked up from warnings on previous races put the infractions at arm’s lengths. Immediate ramifications from infractions will definitely make them feel the hurt more. Which is what a penalty is designed to do. This will make it easier for the fan to keep track of, which is always a top concern. But I also think it will reign in some of the crew chiefs. A NASCAR team is supposed to push the boundaries. It’s their job. The line in the sand has a bit more sting to it now so tread carefully.
I’ve also heard the possibility of losing laps prior to the start of the race. That’s huge.
Danica’s Sponsor Woes: Eyeroll.
Sponsorship woes are nothing new in the sport. They just don’t usually happen to someone which such a high profile in the sport.
Stewart Haas Racing and Nature’s Bounty are suing each other after the later cut off funds to the former in the excess of 31 mil. I don’t consider myself a Danica hater. Just to get to Cup level, you have to better than hundreds of other drivers who wish they could run Cup, so not winning a race doesn’t make Danica a crappy driver, but I do think she gets more attention than the perpetual 20-30th place finishes earn her. Like her or hate her, Danica still brings in the sponsors.
Or at least she did.
Losing 26 races of sponsorship is harsh. Gene Haas and Ford, their new manufacturers, have deep pockets, so Danica will still run all the races, but owch. 26 race sponsors are getting less common these days (we won’t even talk about the non existence of full season sponsorships anymore) so when one bows out of the sport for any reason, it hurts. Hopefully, with the new influx of oomph from Monster, the sport can get back in the limelight again with sponsors waiting to cut checks for cars.
2017 Rookies: Hell yes!
After a few lackluster rookie classes, NASCAR has gotten a few in a row with talent which should shine for years. Eric Jones is taking on the second Furniture Row car. Ty Dillon gets the Germain #13, the first time a Dillon has raced for someone other than Childress. Daniel Suarez takes over Edward’s car and becomes the first Mexican driver in Cup and one of the few non-Americans in the history of the sport.
Jones and Suarez are running A level Toyota gear. Germain isn’t an A level team, but they’ve increased their partnership with RCR (duh) which makes me think they’ll up their competitiveness. Couple that with Dillon having more Cup starts (18) than the other two (Jones – 3, Suarez – 0) and I think the rookie of the year race is going to be a very good one, just like last year. These are three guys who we will see race against each other for a long time.