Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 26, 2017

New Rules In Vogue, NASCAR Leads The Way

In a testament to our declining attention spans, the leaders of multiple sports are searching for ways to increase action and decrease the amount of down time during their events. Facing declining television ratings, the NFL announced it would experiment with the number and length of commercial breaks during the closing weeks of the regular season. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred seems particularly obsessed, proposing multiple rules changes including a change to the strike zone and limiting managers’ visits to the mound. Low level minor league games will mirror some softball leagues this season, placing a runner on second base to begin extra innings, with the goal of eliminating five-hour, 16-inning contests.

As spring training began Manfred lashed out at the Players Association for its refusal to agree to most of his proposals, and reminded the union that under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement he can unilaterally impose the changes next year. The one new rule for this season eliminates the ritual of a pitcher tossing four balls outside the strike zone to intentionally walk a batter. Now a signal from the dugout will send the hitter to first base. Ironically, the day the new rule was announced a college game was decided by a wild pitch during an intentional walk that allowed the tie-breaking run to score from third.

But no sport has made more changes to its rules with an eye toward increasing fan interest than NASCAR. Stock car racing began its season as always this weekend, with its most famous race as the opening act. As the 40-car field rolled onto the Daytona International Speedway track for the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon, NASCAR’s premier series had both a new sponsor – Monster Energy, and an entirely new method of accumulating points toward every driver’s season long goal of winning a championship.

Each race is now broken into three stages, with a competition caution marking the end of the first two. The race winner receives 40 points, second place gets 35, third place 34 and so on down to a single point each for the last five places. But now there are rewards for the first two stages as well. The top ten cars at the end of those race segments are also awarded points, with 10 to the leader, 9 to second, down to 1 to the driver in tenth place.

Gone after a dozen years is the branding of the last ten races on the schedule as the “Chase for the Championship.” In its place the first twenty-six races are now the “regular season” while the final ten are the “playoffs.” The sixteen leading regular season drivers qualify for the playoffs, and they all start that portion of the schedule with 2,000 points, plus whatever bonus points they have accumulated during the regular season.

Those playoff bonus points are awarded for winning a race (five), winning a stage of a race (one), and having the most regular season points (fifteen). As has been the case for the past three years, the playoffs will have an elimination format, with the sixteen competitors gradually reduced to twelve, then eight, and finally just four for the Ford Ecoboost 400, the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway the Sunday before Thanksgiving. After all those permutations, the points will be reset for those four drivers so that all begin that last race even, with the absurdly simple result of the one who has the best finish claiming the championship.

In announcing what was described as “an enhanced race format” for this season, NASCAR officials said that by “increasing the sense of urgency and emphasizing aggressive racing and strategy, the race format will deliver more dramatic moments over the course of an entire race and season, with playoff point incentives on the line throughout.” In plain English, awarding points at three different stages in each race will hopefully increase fan interest and add drama to the weekly action. NASCAR hopes the changes will help to reduce a steady decline in both live attendance and television ratings; although it is possible that any new fans attracted to stock car racing by this revised scoring format will be limited to math geeks. Perhaps calculators will join scanners and coolers full of beer on the list of standard items fans bring to their seats in the stands.

Although there was no question that the new format made the entire 59th running of the Great American Race more compelling Sunday afternoon. Kyle Busch became the first points leader of 2017 when he led at the end of one hundred fifty miles, sixty laps around the big tri-oval with its steep thirty-one degree banking in the four turns. Among those in the top ten and thus earning points for the new season were fan favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, as well as defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Patrick added more points by running fifth at the end of stage two, with Kevin Harvick the leader and stage two winner.

Unfortunately what no scoring format can account for are the vagaries of hard racing or the dangers of overly aggressive driving. Before the second stage was complete, both Busch and Junior were done for the day, victims of a crash on lap 104 brought on by a flat rear tire on Busch’s Toyota. Four other cars were caught up in the wreck, which also highlighted the downside of another rules change NASCAR has instituted this season.

Unlike previous years, a car involved in an accident that then goes “behind the wall,” or back to the garage for repairs, can no longer return to the race. Further, if a wrecked car goes to pit row instead, the crew has just five minutes to complete repairs before the driver must either get his vehicle back on the track and be able to run at the minimum acceptable speed (160 mph at Daytona), or retire to the garage, thus ending his or her race.

That meant fans were deprived of seeing NASCAR’s most popular driver, returning to action after sitting out much of last season recovering from a concussion, for the second half of the race. Then two major multi-car wrecks, both brought on by Jamie McMurray trying to force his Chevrolet into space that didn’t exist, dashed the hopes of many of the top contenders. The first accident involved seventeen cars and eliminated Johnson, Patrick and Clint Bowyer among others. Just a few laps later McMurray was again the instigator of an eleven car pileup that ended his race, along with that of Brad Keselowski and rookie Daniel Suarez.

Only twenty-five cars were still on the track and only fifteen of them were on the lead lap when Kurt Busch made a last lap pass to claim his first Daytona 500 after three runner-up finishes. It was a worthy win for a NASCAR veteran, though it felt more like the end of a demolition derby. As for the new scoring format the initial reviews are positive, even if it is rather like saying that not just the outcome of the game, but the score at the end of the third and sixth innings will also count in the baseball standings. Don’t anyone tell Rob Manfred what NASCAR is doing. He’d probably think that’s a good idea.

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Responses

  1. I wonder how the addition of all of this Math to a day of Sun, Booze and BBQ will play out to the fans of NASCAR?

    I had a buddy who was ahead of his time. 20 years ago he proposed a change to the NBA rules: Give each team 100 points and set the clock to 2 minutes. Tough to get sponsors for such a short game, but it does free up the rest of the day for the fans.

    A very informative article, Mike, and an interesting look at where we are today with Big-time Sports.
    Ω


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