DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It used to be that a NASCAR race didn’t need explaining, that even a child could put it all together. Take a whole bunch of cars, put ‘em on a track and spin ‘em around for an even number of laps; the one that crosses the finish line first, wins. It was all so blissfully straightforward.
But then in advance of the 2017 season, the sanctioning body decided this time-tested premise needed a rethink. So in January it was decreed that all NASCAR races would henceforth be divided into thirds. The leader at the end of each of the first two segments would earn 10 points, the winner would take 40, and all scores would be reflected in the overall standings. As for the first official run-through, that’ll happen here, on Sunday afternoon, when the green flag flies for the 59th running of the Daytona 500—the Super Bowl of racing. Drivers, start your calculator apps.
As industry disruptions go, this is just the latest in a long line for NASCAR, the sport that reserves its keynote event for the beginning of the season yet decides its championship stick-and-ball style, via playoff—which, incidentally, will no longer be known as “The Chase.” Even more thought provoking than this new competition format is the impetus.
Back in October, members of the France family, the folks who founded NASCAR 69 years ago and have controlled it ever since, were summoned by executives from NBC Sports, a NASCAR rights holder. Foremost among their concerns was the sport’s declining popularity—a development that recently caught the notice of The Wall Street Journal. A lengthy story in Tuesday’s edition—headlined, “NASCAR, Once a Cultural Icon, Hits the Skids”—cites an array of troublesome trends. Not least: a 45% loss in viewership over the last 11 seasons, a global economic crisis that hit its largely white, working-class fan base hardest and necessitating the removal of great swaths of seats from tracks all over the country. Most intriguing, by far, was the alleged rift between the sport’s controlling heirs—Brian France, the chief competition steward; and his sister, Lesa France-Kennedy, the executive in charge of NASCAR’s publicly traded parent company, International Speedway Corporation.
In particular, the suggestion that the relationship between sister and brother is less one of partnership than employer-employee has been the talk of the track. “It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is,” said Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, a 2008 Daytona winner. “We all still have jobs and we all still have fans, even though the fans aren’t always in the grandstands. And they’re not watching as many on TV. The metrics that we can record, they’re still out there.”
The phrase “hit piece” has been getting a lot of mileage around the Cup garage. Never mind if the shots fired in the Journal story seem intended for an altogether different target—former News Corp sibling FOX, the TV rights holder for the Daytona 500. Or if ratings and attendance are suffering across all sports…
Anyway, NASCAR’s new, tiered racing approach was purpose-built for one mission: to attract more millennials. Bringing in Monster Energy, the over caffeinated youth brand, as the total sponsor for the top-level series, Cup, is another phase in that seduction. And as tempting as it is to think that these kids will soon be wearing out their kidneys trying to stay awake through all the commercials that NASCAR will be trying to cram through these manufactured race stoppages, the drivers who’ll be operating during these new rules definitely don’t see it that way. They’re confident these new “stages” will add drama. “We gotta add these moments, these intense moments,” says Team Penske’s Joey Logano. “That’s what people wanna watch. In football, everyone watches all the third-down situations, right? [The new format] puts you in those moments three times throughout a race now.”
What’s more, the concept isn’t totally alien. If anything it seems to take its inspiration from the abbreviated exhibitions that precede the 500—exhibitions that NASCAR was lucky to get in between the showers that fell on this area all week, resulting in a handful of cancelled practice sessions. What we’re talking about: last Sunday’s qualifying sprint for the first four spots on the raceday grid (which saw Hendrick Motorsports upstart Chase Elliott win the pole for the second straight year), the subsequent all-star showcase (which saw Logano grab the checkers) and Thursday’s two Can-Am race (which sets the rest of Sunday’s running order). Elliott won the first race from the pole position, and Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin—last year’s Daytona race winner—claimed victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led all but the last four of the race’s 60 laps.
It’s one of the more intense drives Earnhardt has taken since going on self-imposed IR during the back half of the 2016 season to wrestle with protracted concussion-like symptoms that stemmed from a shunt in the June race at Michigan—a major contributor to NASCAR’s recent popularity dip, to be sure. Few can claim his mastery of restrictor-plate racing, particularly on this 2.5-mile strip. His four wins, two of which came in the February race, leads the active pack.
The idea that Earnhardt, NASCAR’s main draw and most popular driver for 14 years running, could well be approaching the final turn of his great career is something that not many around here aren’t ready to reckon with yet. This, even though he turned 42 in October, got married in January and earlier this week joked about retiring if he won one the few prizes in the sport that eludes him—a series championship.
The challenge ahead of this new racing format will be to make viewers tune in while Earnhardt’s here and keep them tuned in after he’s gone. The irony that NASCAR had to become something other than child’s play in order to appeal to actual children is almost too rich. But in the end they had no choice. It was time to grow up. Alas, that process is rarely as straightforward as it should be.