Four New Year’s resolutions to keep NASCAR relevant (and alive) in 2019 and beyond

Another new year, another set of resolutions for us all to (try to) improve our lives.

Maybe that means you want to exercise more in 2019 — survive that post-New Year’s rush at the gym for a few weeks, and you’ll be well on your way — or perhaps to cook. Maybe you want to reduce your screen time, or take that vacation you’ve always wanted.

Those sorts of individual goals are important, but that shouldn’t preclude groups and organizations for making New Year’s Resolutions of their own. For example, sports leagues, none of which needs more help in the year ahead than NASCAR.

As NASCAR’s attendance issues and dwindling TV ratings continue, the once-powerful sport is in need of some serious rejuvenation to regain its standing among the America public. So let’s focus there this new year. Here are four ideas to keep NASCAR relevant — and alive — in 2019 and beyond.

1. Leave the playoff system alone. Yes, it worked. Flawlessly. Now leave the darn thing alone.

NASCAR has implemented a number of postseason structures and systems in the past two decades, all with varying degrees of success and confusion. Currently, it has a playoff with the 16 best regular-season drivers in an elimination-style pool. Drivers are eliminated every three races, and then the final four compete for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale. It’s a system that not only was supposed to engender more competition, but also make it feasible for any driver to win if they truly are at their peak.

And it worked perfectly. After barely sliding into the championship race, Joey Logano outlasted the sport’s three winningest drivers from 2018 for his first Cup Series title. The race itself was dramatic, but so was the buildup in the weeks before. NASCAR’s system is still new and thus heavily criticized by more traditional fans, but Logano’s victory at least proves the system works. Now, NASCAR should leave it alone and let fans embrace the elimination style rather than replacing it in a few years’ time.

2. Make a much-needed scheduling overhaul, and skip the little tweaks. For years, NASCAR fans have clamored for scheduling changes to spruce up a daunting 36-week slate of races. Only, to date, that hasn’t really happened.

Instead, NASCAR’s “scheduling fixes” have been small, mostly insignificant changes that leave fans with the same old routine 34 of 36 weekends. Adding the Charlotte Roval — a hybrid half-oval, half-road course track at Charlotte Motor Speedway — was a great step, and the positive momentum the Roval created should lend nicely to more scheduling corrections in the future.

That said, enough with the tiny fixes. They’re insufficient, and frankly somewhat insulting to the legions of intelligent race fans. The 2019 schedule was set far in advance, but for 2020, consider this: A 500 or 600-mile race may have been endearing and exciting at some point, but it’s not sustainable in today’s sports environment. Fans want more short tracks, road courses, and hometown locales — ditch the mile-and-a-half tracks in random parts of the country, and give the fans what they want. It’s bad business to alienate your most devout customers.

3. Stop force-feeding fans the ‘next generation’ of drivers. Whether it was Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or whichever NASCAR racing prodigy it was, there has always been some sort of young, hyped-up driver in the professional pipeline. And in due time, the best of them mature on the track, start winning, gain favor, and eventually become stars.

What NASCAR isn’t, unlike many other professional sports, is a sporting environment where rookies and second-year competitors suddenly and frequently dominate their older peers. As we saw with young talents such as Bubba Wallace and William Byron this season, it takes time for even qualified drivers to find their way at the Cup level. And that’s totally fine, and understandable, really.

What isn’t is that NASCAR keeps trying to force-feed these young drivers to fans and the media. The way NASCAR is configured, there are only 10-15 drivers a season even capable of winning a Cup race on any given day, and as the Big 3 of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch proved in 2018, there’s a lot of crossover at the top. It makes sense that NASCAR would want to continually advertise its future stars, but... what about the current ones? Give fans the time to organically fall for drivers, give drivers time to organically figure out the Cup Series, and give veteran stars the credit and coverage they deserve. Win, win, win.

4. Get to the forefront of implementing sports gambling: The national legalization of sports gambling was a massive domino that fell in 2018, but we haven’t seen it fully implemented yet. Therein lies a perfect opportunity for NASCAR — and at this point, something of a lifeline.

One of NASCAR’s major problems in terms of marketability and appeal is that, unlike every other major sport, it isn’t consumable in bite-sized pieces. As younger generations trend more toward highlight reels and recaps instead of watching full-length games or events, leagues have followed suit by condensing their product into 2, 5, 10-minute reviews. You hit all the high points that way, without actually having to dedicate 3 hours for a whole game.

But NASCAR doesn’t necessarily have that to show every race. There are races without substantial drama, without one or two key moments to hone in, and fans’ interest reflects that. By implementing sports betting — whether on specific laps, wrecks, winners, stages, etc. — NASCAR can somewhat avoid having to condense its product. Fans will pay attention for longer periods of time, and even if not for full races, you’d rather have them watch for an hour than not at all.

Another benefit of being the first to go all-in on sports betting is, well, being first. Other leagues will ask for NASCAR’s advice, want to know their pitfalls and problems along the way.

But more than that, it will help NASCAR’s brand become more directly tied to gambling than it would if the NFL or NBA beats them to it. Fans will start to associate NASCAR with gambling, with that experience in addition to everything that comes with watching or attending a race, and be drawn to it.

National clout, plus the obvious revenue and intrigue, makes NASCAR and sports gambling a prime match for 2019... and for NASCAR’s sake, hopefully much longer than that.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
Support my work with a digital subscription