CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Racers, start your abaci.
On Monday evening, NASCAR kicked off its 2017 preseason media tour with what now happens so often, it is close to being labeled a tradition, like spraying champagne in Victory Lane.
The sanctioning body and its members announced sweeping changes to how championship points are tallied and how the sport will crown its champions at season’s end. Races will now consist of three stages, with each stage awarding bonus points that will count toward the postseason, added to points awarded from a restructured scale, which now rewards race winners with more — both during the 26-race regular season and the playoffs.
The intent is great: To make every lap of the season — among the longest in big league sports — matter as much as possible. That’s something fans have called for ever since NASCAR first carved out a down-the-stretch postseason more than a decade ago.
The concept is, at its heart, a throwback. Dividing races into segments and rewarding the winner of each is a concept that harkens back to the Saturday night short tracks, where the majority of NASCAR competitors have their roots.
NASCAR brass sat onstage in Uptown Charlotte shoulder to shoulder with racetrack operators, team executives, three superstar drivers and two superstar drivers-turned-TV analysts. They spoke in locked step how “every lap matters now” and “there are no weeks off,” and they said they were fulfilling fans’ wishes of “I want my driver rewarded for every race.”
They laughed off the death of the term “Chase,” replaced by “playoffs.” They even talked about the achievement of better-timed commercial breaks, so fans miss less action and experience more convenient bathroom pit stops.
They seemed to fully believe in what they preached. And the truth is, they probably aren’t wrong to do so. The plan they yanked the cover off of Monday meets every goal they looked to achieve during months of industrywide committee meetings — cross-pollinated gatherings that have become the recent norm in the committee-fied NASCAR garage. It really, probably, likely will work.
But damn, it is complicated.
It took my colleague Bob Pockrass more than 600 words to explain it all on this very site.
The half hour after the announcement was followed by a scramble of motorsports industry types and media members alike, all congregating on the theater floor trying to decipher what they had just heard.
My drive home from the Charlotte Convention Center takes about 20 minutes. The entirety of that ride was spent listening to NASCAR’s satellite radio channel and a nonstop attempt at an explanation of it all from longtime racing radio man Brad Gillie and driver Kenny Wallace, who has started 904 races across NASCAR’s top three series.
“Man, I’ll tell you one thing,” Wallace said on the air as he read the in-race points format aloud. “They are going to have to take some time after the end of every race to do all this math.”
To their credit, the people who came up with the format are fully aware of its complexity. But to a man, they also preached patience.
“I think this will be great, but everyone needs to see it in action first,” said Brad Keselowski, 2012 Cup Series champion and a multiyear member of NASCAR’s Drivers Council. “Once they see it, they will understand it.”
Or as fellow councilman and format discussion contributor Denny Hamlin put it, “You don’t need to know how to build a watch. You just need to know what time it is.”
The problem is keeping people around long enough to look. Since 2004, the points/postseason format — Chase or playoff — has been altered six times.
All of those changes were fueled by the best intentions. The same could be said about multiple revisions to all-star race formats, restrictor-plate rules at Daytona and Talladega, and the construction of the race cars themselves.
But so much change can begin to feel overwhelming to the audience, even when the moves are made with guidance from that audience via social media and fan council input. And the one corner of the garage not represented during Monday’s announcement — crew chiefs and their engineers — have long excelled at finding the tiniest rivets in the armor of such well-meaning ironclad plans and prying them open, like a bear going through a garbage can.
As a race fan Tweeted to me moments after Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he couldn’t wait to see what crew chiefs would do with all of the strategic possibilities: “Yeah, remember when elimination-style qualifying made its debut at restrictor-plate tracks?”
“We know those concerns,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “But I think that if everyone out there knows the truth, that we are doing all of this with their interests and their feedback as part of the process, then I think they will be willing to see where all of this hard work by these people here tonight will take us.”
If it takes them into the as-promised three hard dashes to the finish line every Sunday, then they will be willing and able. But if instead it takes them to webpages and calculators to sort it all out, then they will not.
Thus, there isn’t likely to be much patience among that audience when it comes to the “once they see it, they will understand it” approach.
And if the 2017 season gets to, say, Martinsville Speedway on April 2, the season’s sixth race, and the fans still don’t understand how the math works?
Well, let’s just say it’ll get complicated.