The 2017 NASCAR campaign will go down as one of its better seasons this decade, but also among the worst due to the state of the sport.
10 days removed from the championship-deciding Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway where more icons of yesteryear (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth) have hung up their helmets while the future (Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson) are taking the throne in 2018 and beyond. Not only that, 37-year-old Martin Truex, Jr. is a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and Furniture Row Racing are now among the top tier teams after being backmarkers a decade ago. It seems NASCAR are heading in the right direction, but I don’t feel this way after completing my 15th season of watching the sport I admire so much.
I’ll admit, 2017 was a compelling season to watch compared to others and strengthened my interest of following NASCAR. The young guns are on the rise and much like the early 2000s, they’re making noise as the established drivers are scratching and clawing of keeping their spots. It’s not the NASCAR I grew up watching, but everyone goes through that phase and that’s me right now. On the bright side, those young lions will provide excitement on the track and may bring new fans into the sport.
We’re also seeing transition in multimedia as the significance of social media and young reporters carrying the sport’s future has blossomed. This period is a great time for recent graduates who love racing can jump in and make a name of themselves. Just a matter of time we’ll see them become the focal point of NASCAR’s coverage and replace the media icons who’ve eat, live and breathe racing for over 30 years. The transition makes it a fun time being a fan and covering the sport as an independent.
However, I won’t shy away from saying I was bitter all season with constant rule changes, gimmicks, desperate driving antics and having my intelligence insulted as a long-time fan. Part of was being a journeyman journalist and understanding how flawed some of those changes were and couldn’t hold my frustrations anymore. As a result, I said to myself, “I can’t wait for this season to be over” after Watkins Glen Aug. 6. The Cup Series isn’t the only division having those problems, it’s across all three national divisions. After a few days of collecting my thoughts, 2017 will go down as one—if not—my least favorite seasons.
Let’s begin with the stage format. While it has created some excitement to the race and made the entire race distance important. Pit strategies and no room for error became crucial to the race than ever before, but it became a gimmick. This eliminated any possibility of ever having a caution-free race in NASCAR (last seen in Cup at Talladega Oct. 2002). So what if we have three or five stinkers in the fans eyes, at least we get to know who’s the dominant car. Stage racing emphasizes on who can survive the madness and at times, the guy who runs well in the first two stages, often loses. Ask Kyle Busch during the first half of the season.
When you have stage racing, it creates drama and more risk-taking maneuvers that’ll result to more cautions and red flags. This season saw a record-high 20 red flags, but a reduction of cautions for debris and stage racing has a lot to do with those startling numbers. Patience is out of the question, it’s now a lost art because nobody has the time to settle down and paint a beautiful story on the race track. Therefore, we see those big wrecks and often bonehead moves, creating the large number of yellow and red flags. While red flags are necessary, but when you look at each stoppage, the sport has halted the action to give fans extra green flag laps. That’ll never change, even if it sounds fabricated.
Fans have learned to accept this format, others haven’t because of their parody attempt to compete with stick and ball sports. As a traditionalist, I can accept this change, but I haven’t seen this amount of drama where moves are criticized than the 2010s. Everyone has their shallow opinion that’s either correct or right down moronic.
Another problem with the sport is the constant rule changes. We can’t seem to stick with one idea for a full 10-month schedule anymore. Whether it’s the car’s aerodynamics or deciding how to finish the race to appease the fans, satisfaction is almost non-existent. Changes creates problems for casuals and die-hard fans because once people adapt to specific variations, NASCAR announces a new concept. The sport can’t be doing this “trial and error” format every three months without testing the product. Unfortunately, with testing sessions being restricted compared to the 90s and 2000s, it’s hard seeing results before making an official decision on whether to go with the idea or nix it.
Those two concerns pale in comparison to how I felt insulted as a fan. I’m irritated on how certain gifted drivers has been shafted like Kenseth (Cup) and Cameron Hayley (Trucks) and not even considered for another top ride. There are plenty drivers who’s been ousted from NASCAR because of certain drivers who have the complete package, money and connections. If this trend continues, the sport won’t have disciplined drivers keeping the younger ones straight. Outside of Jimmie Johnson, there aren’t any where fans can say they’re 100% disciplined. Once Johnson retires, who’s there to be that disciplined guy? You tell me.
To make matters worse, you have guys who are making callous mistakes such as the aggressive driver Austin Cindric and paid driver Cody Coughlin taking rides and getting in the way of another driver’s potential. Sure, they have the financial backings, but it doesn’t produce credibility all the time. I could care less if they’re marketable, it should be more than making instant cash because history has proven those types of drivers hasn’t lived up the hype.
The Camping World Truck Series main issue is having several unproven drivers who got into the sport by having the “complete package” on their grid. As the field gets smaller due to high-level costs, the harder it’ll be staying in the sport and we’ll see small teams go extinct. Top teams have also left the series such as Red Horse and Brad Keselowski Racing, so no one are safe. If it continues to be expensive to compete in NASCAR, then we’ll see an F1-sized field someday. That’s why I admired Furniture Row Racing’s rise in the sport, they started from the bottom and now they’re an established first-class operation. Expenses will decimate those stories from happening anytime soon.
It also doesn’t help when those guys have struggled keeping their trucks intact and it has damaged the product, resulting this season as one of the worst in history. I thought I was watching ARCA all season with cautions coming out less than ten laps into the race on a regular basis. The series could use a balance of old vs. new school to make Trucks exciting like it used to be when former Cup veterans revived their careers while producing newer mainstays. Now the once thrilling series may be on life support as we enter the “Double 20s” in less than three years.
In Cup, sponsorships ditching the sport has been saddening. With Target leaving Chip Ganassi Racing altogether after 27 years and the outlandish rumor of Monster Energy being dissatisfied with NASCAR—the backlash about the Monster Energy Girls attire during February’s Speedweeks at Daytona was bad press for both parties—and perhaps end their deal. It’s frustrating how those companies aren’t sticking around because they don’t view the sport being marketable, thanks to television ratings rivaling WWE and attendance taking a nose dive for several years.
This will be the sport’s problem in 2018 because without Dale Jr., a large core of the audience won’t be watching. We’ll hear it all season long and I hate to admit, the sport will have a hard time maintaining a 2.0 Nielsen rating. What will happen is primary sponsorships will no longer exist if the sport continues to lose its marketability.
Back in the day, there was one concrete sponsorship fans can identify like the black GM Goodwrench Chevrolet (Dale Earnhardt) and the American colored Valvoline Ford (Mark Martin). Do you think people will recognize Paul Menard’s dozens of sponsorship variations he’s had at Richard Childress Racing? No. Sponsorships aren’t what it used to be and now more than ever, teams are bleeding for sponsors to keep their team operating.
This season left a bad taste in my mouth and I was burnt out watching and covering NASCAR. The negatives outweighed the positives and a lot has to do with my career as a multimedia personnel. Covering the sport has opened my mind on how flawed NASCAR is and feel I should be out there making a difference, rekindling the lost spark I once had for my favorite sport. That’s why I began compiling the number of red flags per season because it’s one subject not being acknowledged by anyone other than Fox Sports, who has kept track of red flags on their website since 2004.
Like Brock Beard’s LASTCAR, covering last place finishers in the sport, I’d love to be the guy who keeps track of those red flag numbers and wish it’ll lead to something bigger than I ever imagined. Call it desperation to live the dream, but the subject can’t be ignored much longer. While it wasn’t a fun year as a fan, there’s one bright outlook in the sport and that’s the series in between Trucks and Cup.
Outside of the quote-on-quote “Cup leeches,” the Xfinity Series was the brightest out of the three NASCAR national series. The product improved, we saw a diverse set of winners from different walks of life (ex. Whelen Modified Tour driver Ryan Preece and season veteran Jeremy Clements) and a thrilling championship battle between JR Motorsports drivers William Byron and Elliott Sadler.
With the limited amount of starts the Cup drivers can race, it has allowed guys like Cole Custer to showcase what he’s made of by obliterating the competition at Homestead. Having Cup guys has its purpose, bring more people to follow the series, but when Xfinity regulars start succeeding without many of the top-level drivers, that’s where stars can be born.
That’s what the series used to be all about and we’re on the verge on seeing a renaissance of series grown stars. The Xfinity Series competition can only get better and I’m looking forward how the championship battle will unfold and with more restrictions on Cup drivers competing in lower series, it’ll happen.
While my level of interest isn’t high as it used to be, next season must be an improvement. They don’t have a genuinely relatable superstar with over five seasons of Cup experience that isn’t in a Toyota nor a strong audience to rely on. The sport must get their act together on how to end a race and figure out what works for the car to produce a great product. Constant changes have harmed the sport’s direction and it’s a matter of time when a failed trial becomes irreversible.
The 70th anniversary of NASCAR will be the season of uncertainty because of the lack of mainstream star power and more “trial and error” attempts, but its future looks bright with younger drivers on the spotlight and the quality of competition refining once Speedweeks rolls along.