Murto: NASCAR needs to cause a stir

Jimmie Johnson dominated the 400-mile NASCAR Cup race at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway, leading 128 of 160 laps for his third win of the season.

The win gives him a lead so great in the points that he could skip a race and still be the top seed heading into the Chase. But at least one-quarter of the grandstands were empty at a venue that once considered building more seats.

The race wasn’t a barn-burner; there was only one caution in the first 125 laps. And though there were five cautions in the last 35 laps, Johnson still dominated. But we can’t expect every race to be a barn-burner. In fact, Cup races traditionally have always been endurance events, even though race distances have been getting shorter in recent years.

But it seems that going from 500 miles to 400, and making new races 500 kilometers rather than 500 miles, just hasn’t been enough to attract more fans. NASCAR needs to shake things up.

It’s not a lack of cautions that keeps fans away. The 2013 season has seen an increase in cautions, most caused by an increase in accidents. And it’s not just the economy keeping all those seats empty.

Primarily, fans have changed. Society’s changed. We live in an age of instant gratification, constant action. Fans don’t have the patience to sit for three-and-a-half hours only to have half the races end with a fuel-mileage run.

NASCAR could learn by paying attention to what others are doing. Specifically, NASCAR could use a race or two — points-paying events — run like the Milk Bowl, a special Late Model event held annually at Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl.

The Milk Bowl is one race, but three 50-lap segments run as separate races in one afternoon on Thunder Road’s three-eighth-mile oval.

Cars time trial for their initial starting position. Then they race the first 50 laps. The winner gets one point, second gets two points, third gets three, etc. After a break, the entire field is inverted from the way they finished segment one and lined up to start the second segment from scratch — if a car dropped out of the first segment, but made repairs, it is eligible to start the second; it is run as a second race, there are no lap penalties that carry over. Again, the winner gets one point, second two points, etc. Then, after a break, the field is inverted from the finishing order of the second race and they run the third and final 50-lap segment, for the same points.

At the end of the day, the driver with the least number of points wins the Milk Bowl. If there is a tie for any of the finishing positions, the driver who finished highest in the third segment gets the position. It is always exciting for the fans, as scoring does a great job keeping track of who’s leading the Milk Bowl, and it never fails to get down to somebody making a pass for position in the final laps to win the overall.

NASCAR could adopt a Milk Bowl format and award Sprint Cup points based on the overall finishing positions after the three segments. Instead of a 160-lap race at Pocono, they could run three 50-lap segments. Each segment would require a pit stop, but no segment would be long enough to become a fuel-mileage run (in most circumstances). Inverting the entire field after each segment would guarantee restart excitement that fans have been craving.

This isn’t something you’d want to do every week. But if NASCAR ran a couple events like this each year, it might just shake things up enough to draw more fan interest.

Another less radical plan of action would be to take a page out of the V8 Supercar playbook and run more than one Cup race in a day. Shorter races, of course — perhaps make each race worth half the points.

Another thing NASCAR might consider is running a Cup race on dirt. Eldora would be ideal — the Camping World Truck race in July will be a success — but they may have to run the Cup cars on a mile track. ARCA can handle it, why can’t NASCAR?

The bottom line is that NASCAR has to find a way to fill the seats in the grandstands, and find a reason for armchair fans to wake up from their Sunday afternoon naps. If NASCAR wants to stay on top, they’re going to have to shake things up.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.