Scott Fowler

NASCAR’s new system: Gimmicky, desperate and smarter than it sounds

NASCAR’s new points system won’t lead to the Chase anymore, just the playoffs – which they’ve always been anyway. Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. cracked that the change will make a lot of older fans happy, because they hated the Chase.
NASCAR’s new points system won’t lead to the Chase anymore, just the playoffs – which they’ve always been anyway. Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. cracked that the change will make a lot of older fans happy, because they hated the Chase. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem. Because of that, I applaud what NASCAR did Monday night when the organization radically overhauled the way every single race will be run this season.

From now on, races will have three stages. Points will be awarded at the end of each of the first two stages, and then the race winner will be whoever wins the third and final stage.

It feels very gimmicky. It feels very complicated. It feels a little desperate.

And you know what? I like it.

It’s not nearly as dumb as it sounds. In fact, it’s pretty smart.

Here’s the basic problem with your standard 500-mile NASCAR Cup race. Unless you are a real racing junkie, the first 450 miles are just about unwatchable. It goes about like this: Turn left. Turn left. Repeat 500 times.

That doesn’t work for millennials. That doesn’t work for a lot of people, really.

The race within the race

I know several people – and not all of them are young – who make a consistent habit of watching entire NASCAR races in 10 minutes.

They record the whole race, then watch the replay at 60 times the usual speed. They don’t stop the recording unless they see smoke, which means a crash, which means an interesting restart.

Then they stop the recording for one last time with 20 laps to go in the race. They watch those laps at normal speed, see who won and switch over to “The Walking Dead.”

So NASCAR had to change something. Everyone knew that. Look at the stands at any race track and you could see the evidence – tens of thousands of empty seats everywhere. Look at the declining TV ratings and you could see more evidence.

The result was a new system that has some natural, made-for-TV dramatic peaks in the first third and the middle third of the race. They will be the smaller races within the bigger race, awarding points to the first 10 finishers. There are all sorts of new scenarios because of this, and crew chiefs are about to go from Algebra II to a graduate-level course in Calculus. And that’s all good. Don’t get lost in the smallest of details or every possible permutation here, because there are a million of them.

“You don’t necessarily need to know how a watch works,” driver Denny Hamlin said. “You just need to know what time it is.”

Want a natural ‘enhancement?’

It was time to do something, for sure. I wish NASCAR had also taken the opportunity to shorten every race to a maximum of 400 miles, but at least it’s doing something. It couched the “something” in a bit of needless language, though.

Everyone on a very full stage at the Charlotte Convention Center had obviously been coached to call the new stuff “enhancements,” instead of plain old “changes.”

And more lingo is changing too – NASCAR’s playoffs, long called the “Chase for the Championship” – are now simply called the playoffs. That’s a nice “enhancement,” because they have always been the playoffs, anyway.

Old-school fans never liked the Chase, either, which prompted Dale Earnhardt Jr. to crack: “ I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years, this is a great day for them.”

Of course, a lot of old-school fans won’t like this even more. It’s way more gimmicky than just having a 10-race playoff system.

The all-star race effect

What NASCAR has really done here is make every weekend’s races a lot like the all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and that’s a good thing. Take the Coca-Cola 600, for instance – a 400-lap race every May on the 1.5-mile CMS track. It used simply award points at the end of the race. Now it will award points at three intervals.

How will that work? “Maybe 125 laps, and then another 125 laps and then 150 to finish it out with the race winner,” said Marcus Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports.

With NASCAR getting more like the all-star race – which often is my favorite race of the season because of its dazzling shenanigans and its reasonable time frame – Smith knows that the all-star race itself will now have to up its own game to differentiate itself yet again.

“This means that the all-star race is going to have to be even more unconventional,” Smith said. “We’re already having those discussions.”

Earnhardt said he thought these were not seismic changes compared to the implementation of the playoff system in 2004.

“When we implemented the Chase years and years ago,” he said, “it was a profound difference in system. These are subtle changes to improve and I really like them.”

Ultimately, I like them too. I’m not sure it’s enough. But it was better to do something than to do nothing, and what NASCAR has just done will at least mean the end of my friends watching entire races in 10 minutes.

It’s going to take them at least 15 now, for sure.

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