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Craig Murto: This is Not Your Father’s NASCAR

 

NASCAR continues to embrace change as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series makes format changes prior to the 2017 season. This a different sport than it was just a few decades ago; it’s not your father’s NASCAR.

First we go The Chase – now called the playoffs — which limited the number of drivers competing for the championship at the end of the season.  Then The Chase was turned into a set of elimination races, which left four drivers to race for the title in a winner-take-all affair at Homestead, Florida. Now every Cup race of the season will be run in three segments, with drivers in the Top 10 at the end of the first two segments receiving extra race points and the winners of each segment receiving bonus points. Points at the end of the race will be awarded as usual, then the segment points added. The first two segment winners get one extra bonus point that carries into the playoffs, and race winners get five. Race winners earn a spot in the playoffs, as long as they remain in the top 30 in overall points.

In a way it resembles outdoor motocross motorcycle racing, something with which Monster Energy has been involved. Those events are run in two timed races, with the overall winner and final points determined by adding the results of both events.

On the good side, this format change is incentive for teams to run hard throughout an entire race; the more bonus and race points accumulated throughout each segment, the better the overall points result at the end of the day.

But even before NASCAR had a chance to announce the changes on Monday, some complained that the new format hurt lower-budget teams, which may not be able to run hard through an entire race, but count on attrition and consistency for a good finish at the end of the day.

On the other hand, depending where the segment breaks fall compared to fuel runs and caution flags, teams may be able to use strategy to put themselves in a position to gain bonus points.

This could be a great change that makes the racing more exciting and keeps fans glued to their televisions at home and on their feet in the stands. Time will tell. The question is: Will those fans be watching at home, or buying tickets for the races?

In the short term, NASCAR may discover that it would have been wise to work on the on-track product before changing race format.

Less down force in the cars, less grip on the track; those are the changes that need to be made. Last fall’s Richmond race was great because teams ran out of new tires and had to use strategy as to when to bolt-on their final set and when to use old, scuffed tires. NASCAR should consider limiting the number of sets of tires Cup teams can have if it wants to introduce strategy.

NASCAR, however, is looking toward the future. In the long run that may be a good thing. Changes have to be made if younger fans with shorter attention spans are going to become longtime fans. Monster Energy is the sport’s sponsor now, not AARP. It is only fair that efforts be made to attract the fans the sponsor wants to attract.

But they have to realize that in the short term they may be hurt themselves. People in general hate change, and race fans hate change more than most. Expect to see the negativity on social media and hear the complaining callers on XM Radio’s NASCAR channel for weeks. Hopefully the anchors on the various XM shows will be patient and understand that change is difficult.

Hopefully those older fans whose initial reaction is to hate the changes will settle down and give them a chance. We need to attract younger fans or the sport will simply fade away. And as a new sponsor, Monster Energy deserves to make its unique mark on the sport.

It’s going to be interesting as the season unfolds. Hopefully the officiating changes expected to be announced soon aren’t too radical.

If you went to sleep in 1990 and woke up today, you wouldn’t recognize the sport. This is not your father’s NASCAR. Will fans accept it?

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.