2014's Biggest stories, #1: NASCAR's fight for legitimacy
The single biggest story in 2014 will be NASCAR's fight for its very legitimacy as a professional sport. Long time fans have often accused the sport of the occasional phantom debris caution or mechanical rules change to make racing more interesting. Yet few accused the sport of being truly “fixed” in the WWE sense that every race was predetermined and endings done strictly for purposes of creating drama. But with the events of last fall still fresh in everyone's mind added in with the changes to NASCAR's Chase, the legitimacy of the sport has been called into question like never before.
No true sport can long survive fans questioning whether all involved are doing their very best to win and an example nearly 100 years old shows why. Baseball still cringes about the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Upset with the low pay and poor treatment they received from management, players on the favored Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series. Eight players alleged to be involved in the conspiracy were banned for life by Major League Baseball. The reason why? If fans began to believe that the product on the field was fixed, it could potentially destroy the league. After all, who would buy tickets to watch a fake sport?
Fly your own checkered flag, from Amazon.com
In some ways, questions about NASCAR's integrity are nothing new. Commentators and drivers alike joked about caution flags thrown for “debris” late in a race where the field is spread out. Three time series champion Tony Stewart compared these late-race cautions with professional wrestling, essentially calling NASCAR a rigged sport. While television cameras generally do a good job of finding the caution-causing debris, they cannot catch every single one (nor do they catch the number of times early in a race where similar debris goes uncalled).
NASCAR also has a long history of making changes during the season in an effort to make a competitive product. Prior to the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR's manufacturers would regularly complain to the office about perceived mechanical slights, hoping to have a change made in their favor. The goal was always to make the driver (instead of the car) the determining factor in who wins a race- but naturally those on the losing end of such changes didn't view it that way.
Neither of these issues, however, truly cut to the core of NASCAR's legitimacy. Complaining about one car's edge over another was nothing more than an extension of trying to put the fastest car possible on the track. Late race yellow flags might have bunched up the field but by and large there was physical evidence to support the caution. Besides, the race didn't end with those yellow flags; the leader might have seen his lead erased but if his car was the fastest he had the chance to build a new one.
The questions raised over the past six months somehow feel different. And the consequences to NASCAR could be far worse.
The problems started with the chaos that resulted from last year's regular season-ending race at Richmond. Instead of cheating aimed at making one car faster, Michael Waltrip Racing slowed two of its three entries in an attempt to get the third car in NASCAR's playoffs. Radio traffic elsewhere on the scanner showed that they weren't alone in the effort to tank their way to victory. NASCAR eventually responded by booting Martin Truex Jr. from the playoffs (even though he was the only guy still trying to win apparently), and adding Ryan Newman. Inexplicably, they then added fan-favorite Jeff Gordon as car #13 to the 12 car playoff just days before the Chicago kickoff race was to start.
The moves only served to pour gas onto the fire surrounding NASCAR's credibility. Gordon fans initially went ballistic when their driver wasn't added as a part of the initial penalty. In turn, Truex fans lost their minds once Gordon was added; if anyone was to be removed from the playoffs, why was their man kicked out when he and his race team did nothing wrong? And if there was room for a thirteenth car in the field, why not a fourteenth?
The questions on credibility continued this spring. Richard Childress Racing had the fastest cars in preseason testing. They had the fastest cars in practice. So it was little surprise than an RCR car would sit on the pole for the Daytona 500. Yet even as qualifying began, speculation filled the garage that not just any RCR car would receive that honor. Fox had Kyle Busch on the air live during qualifying and Busch essentially stated that everyone knew the front row would be Austin Dillon's #3 and Dale Earnhardt Jr's #88. While Junior didn't quite make the front row, Austin Dillon's time held up and the rookie will start the Daytona 500 from the pole. Before Fox even went off the air Twitter was filled with jokes about the (insert sarcasm here) “unexpected” showing of the #3 car.
Austin Dillon puts the #3 on the Daytona 500 pole
NASCAR isn't oblivious to these questions. This past off-season, they finally took the long-overdue step of making their enforcement procedures standard. Instead of relying on the “We can do it if we want to” defense, NASCAR is giving teams and drivers a realistic expectation in terms of what offenses will draw which penalties. Just as important, meaningless infractions that have no bearing on who wins a race will no longer draw a points penalty that could decide a championship. It's a huge step forward in terms of legitimacy.
Yet even this change has its own fair amount of accompanying questions. NASCAR stuck with the same system of punishment for decades. Doing what was “in the best interests of stock car racing” was good enough for the last 50+ years. So why change now? Could it be that NASCAR, after losing several high-profile penalty appeals in the last two years, is tired of being embarrassed off the track? Former chief appellate officer John Middlebrook is gone, replaced by Bryan Moss- a 73 year old airplane company executive whose connection to stock car racing is less obvious. Will he be more amenable to upholding NASCAR's rulings than Middlebrook was, particularly with a less arbitrary system in place?
And then there's the little matter of NASCAR's Chase changes. To be sure, expanding the field to 16 teams and virtually guaranteeing entry for race winners will make the events of Richmond less likely. Realistically speaking, the win provision will lock down spots for eight to twelve teams annually. That will leave only four to eight slots open for drivers to qualify based on points (four being far more likely than eight). In the Chase era, there's generally been a few drivers who pile up the points without a win; Dale Earnhardt Jr and Clint Bowyer were excellent examples of this last season. The reality is that only a couple of drivers will be on the points bubble at Richmond. And after the example made of MWR last season (and the amount of scrutiny on those few teams facing the bubble), it's highly unlikely anyone would be dumb enough to try that again.
But tanking isn't the only issue.
NASCAR was long a sport where athletes of the past could be compared with athletes of the present. The cars might've been different, the length of the season might have been different, but the method of determining a champion remained the same. Some title races were thrilling, others amounted to a coronation ride at the season finale. But when a champion was crowned it was because he was the best driver over the course of the season. The Chase took that connection to the past away and infuriated many diehard fans in the process.
Offending the diehards in and of itself isn't a sin. Sometimes change has to be made for the sport to grow; baseball is a perfect example of this. And the number of dull title races that occurred in the years prior to the Chase made a strong case for change in stock car racing. But now, with the Chase a decade old, NASCAR has once again taken a step away from rewarding season-long consistency. It has again cut the cord to what has mattered most in the past in an effort to inject more drama into the championship chase. Without question, the new Chase format will be exciting. Fans will have plenty to talk about throughout the ten race playoff, particularly as the elimination races approach.
But that drama will come with a price. To this day, many fans question the legitimacy and the weight of Jimmie Johnson's six Sprint Cup championships thanks to the Chase. Websites annually calculate how the points would have shaken out had the champion been crowned under the old points format. The treatment of this year's champion will be even worse, especially if a driver eliminated due to poor luck early on happens to do well in the seven remaining races. What if a driver with only one or two wins manages to work the system well while another with seven or eight wins blows a tire and gets eliminated? In an era where the sport's legitimacy is under fire like never before, was this really the right time to overhaul the point system in such a radical way?
NASCAR's very credibility will be the number one story this upcoming season. Those asking the questions are no longer just the tinfoil hat, black helicopter brigade. The casual fans that NASCAR so desperately seeks are now among those who wonder. The aftershocks of Richmond 2013 continue to be felt throughout the garage and they're jolts that no competitive enterprise can endure forever. For NASCAR to survive as a sport, fans need to know that what they're seeing is on the up and up- and NASCAR knows it. How they respond will be interesting, to say the very least.