By Matt Weaver — It’s been over a month since @KevinHarvick was crowned Sprint Cup Series champion in South Florida and the holiday season is in full-swing, a chilling reminder that the off-season is nowhere near its annual checkered flag.
While Christmas is always about family and giving, it’s no secret that we all make wish lists. For many of us who cover or enjoy NASCAR on a regular basis, those lists inevitably involve our favorite sport and the things we would like to see added to the fold over the next calendar year.
With that said, it’s going to be hard to ask for too much following a wild 2014 season. Despite a variety of changes to the weekly complexion of the sport, NASCAR was brought closer to its roots than it has been in a long time and that was a good thing.
Winning arguably matters more than it ever has in the modern era and the stakes increased the intensity between teams both and off the track. The new NASCAR has some quirks that may need addressing in the future, and while there has been too much change over the past decade, a little tweaking is both expected and healthy.
In that spirit NASCAR Santa, here is a list of things I’d like to see over the next 12 months:
As announced late last week, Sprint will be leaving as the title sponsor of the Cup Series at the end of the 2016 season. This situation will not likely resolve itself by late 2015 but it’s absolutely imperative that NASCAR does more than just simply accept the highest bidder.
The new partner has gigantic shoes to fill in following the footprints left by RJ Reynolds and Sprint-Nextel. In addition to spending a tremendous amount of money in stock car racing, both brands were also instrumental in activating NASCAR to a new audience in different periods of growth.
It could be argued that Winston was responsible for taking NASCAR national while Sprint-Nextel molded the sport into a telecommunications giant in its own image. The next entitlement partner will have to be just that, a partner, more so than a financial backer, something the folks in Daytona Beach certainly already know.
SECOND TRUCK SERIES DIRT RACE
NASCAR Executive VP/Chief Racing Development Official Steve O’Donnell has recently suggested that a second race on dirt is still a possibility for the Camping World Truck Series — and frankly they need it.
Despite having just one race on a non-paved surface — at Eldora Speedway — many teams continue to build a specialized truck just for the Mudsummer Classic. While most of them later convert these chassis into short track or road course entries, the amount of resources spent on just one race seems a little impractical.
That combined with the entertainment value provided by Eldora makes a second race at a venue like The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway or Knoxville Speedway a no-brainer.
A truck race at the Charlotte dirt track would seemingly be an ideal fit due to the lack of travel for teams alone. It would be a perfect complement to All-Star Race festivities, replacing the currently existing Trucks race on the big track.
Meanwhile, if there was ever a dirt facility designed with NASCAR in mind, it would be Knoxville Raceway, an eight-degree-banked half-mile located in Iowa with impressive media and hospitality options, with an infield to sustain everything that NASCAR requires for an event in the post-modern era.
And for those suggesting that a second race on dirt would dilute the Mudsummer Classic, when was the last time anyone truly said the sport had too many short tracks or road courses — similar novelties in the bigtrackitis-infected modern NASCAR?
A CHAMPIONSHIP 4 THAT TRULY FEATURES THE BEST IN THE SPORT
As exciting as the inaugural elimination Chase proved to be, it had some glaring flaws in Year One, admitting no-win Ryan Newman and one-win Denny Hamlin into the final round over the likes of six-win Brad Keselowski and four-win, non-chase champion Jeff Gordon.
On one hand, the case could be made that Newman and Hamlin performed when it mattered the most while Gordon and Keselowski lacked both the wins and consistency needed to chase a championship under this new format. On the other, Gordon and Keselowski were ultimately penalize for racing for the win at Martinsville and Texas respectively, encouraging teams to opt for a more conservative approach moving forward.
NASCAR shouldn’t tinker with the format until a larger sample size can be analyzed. With that said, it won’t hurt to ask Santa to deliver a more statistically impressive final four entering the Homestead finale next season.
INCREASED CHATTER OF SCHEDULE UPHEAVAL
It’s the rumor that just won’t go away — the one where NASCAR is open to drastically altering the schedule with a new television contract in place, despite every denial from the likes of Brian France and Steve O’Donnell.
The newly-reworked schedule isn’t terrible but also feels like more of the same from over the past decade with only Joliet, Kansas and Kentucky being added over the past 15 seasons. It still has too many cookie-cutter intermediates and tracks that arguably do not deserve a second date based on interest and the on-track product.
A case could be made that venues like Iowa Speedway, Road America and Montreal would all make great additions to future Cup schedules — anything to diminish the era of the mile-and-a-half that has dominated NASCAR in recent years.
(I’m not backing down on my request for a street course event either. Look at the attached photos and tell me that a Vegas street race wouldn’t be a spectacle. If NNS can race at flat Montreal, a Cup race on the right streets wouldn’t be out of the question.)
FEWER DEBRIS CAUTIONS
Asking for fewer debris cautions is an admittedly tricky request but it’s also one that needs to be included nevertheless.
When it comes to safety and competition, the officials who man Race Control would rather be proactive than reactive. Thus, if they suspect there is something on the track that could possibly pose a safety hazard or negatively affect the outcome of a race, they are rightfully obligated to demand the caution.
As one NASCAR official put it in a private conversation with the author at Homestead, “we will never apologize for placing the safety of our fans and participants first,” and they should be commended for that stance.
On the flip side, NASCAR legitimately set a record for the most cautions in the final 20 percent of events this past season and there is a steady perception among several drivers in the garage that officials sometimes use that noble stance as a crutch to tighten the field for the stretch run.
Regardless of where the truth lies, fans and competitors should not have to question the validity of breaks in the action. Fewer debris cautions would be a fine addition (err subtraction) to the overall state of the sport next season.
CONTINUED GROWTH AND PROSPERITY
The 2014 season was one of the most dramatic and exciting campaigns in the history of the sport. You can agree or disagree with the changes, but it’s hard to argue that the end result was not entertaining and produced a worthy champion in Harvick. The sport has much to build on entering the 2015 season with a new schedule, television partner and intense championship format.
Hopefully the sport can take the momentum from the Chase and translate that energy into the full season next year. A healthy NASCAR is good for us in the media, the fans and everyone with a vesting interest in the sport.
Hopefully Santa will place some of that growth and prosperity under the tree in a few days. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!