Friday 5: ‘Everything is in play’ as NASCAR looks ahead to new ideas
This weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval could be a start of new ideas, new races and new ways of thinking in NASCAR.
Steve Phelps, who begins his role as NASCAR’s president Monday, acknowledged the possibility of doubleheader races, ending the season sooner and closer ties with grassroots racing, among many topics in an hourlong session with reporters this week.
“Everything is in play,” Phelps said.
For a sport that divided its races into stages in 2017, changed the tracks in its playoffs this year and is expected to soon announce rule changes intended to tighten the racing in 2019, Phelps’ attitude shows the efforts series officials will make to retain fans and reach new ones.
His comments come as NASCAR soon will enter a key period with its scheduling. The five-year commitments with tracks expire after the 2020 season and gives NASCAR more flexibility to change its schedule as soon as 2021.
NASCAR typically announces the Cup schedule at least nine months before the season opener. That timetable would give series officials about 20 months until the 2021 schedule is revealed.
With the call for more short tracks, can NASCAR accommodate fan interest? Speedway Motorsports Inc. has expressed an interest in bringing NASCAR’s national series back to the 0.596-mile Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee.
With the success of the Truck race at Eldora Speedway, would it make sense to run Cup there or on some other dirt track? Could Iowa Speedway land a Cup date? What about midweek races?
Another key question is what about tracks that have lost significant attendance? NASCAR’s charter system allows the sanctioning body to take a charter from a team that has ranked among the three lowest chartered teams in three consecutive years. Is it time to consider taking races away from tracks that have had a precipitous decline in attendance?
“We need to make sure that the race product that we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do,” Phelps said. “I do know that the race day experience or the race day weekend is really important and we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that.
“We need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion. What that looks like. That gets back to a collaboration effort, which we are going to see between our race tracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way that we haven’t in the past. That is really coming together and creating unique opportunities that reach fans and ask them to come out and see what is going on in NASCAR.
“It’s part of our 2019 business plans. We’re working with the race tracks to have them understand that we need to make a change.”
International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, saw a 10.7 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, ISC tracks removed 172,000 seats at its tracks during that time. In July, ISC President John Saunders cited “an issue with star power” as a contributing factor in the company’s attendance decline recently saying, “hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”
Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is controlled by Bruton Smith and his family, saw a 25.1 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, SMI tracks removed 183,000 seats at its tracks during that time.
The declines for both track companies have come in a period that has seen Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 15-time most popular driver, quit driving full-time.
Some in the sport also have raised concerns about the season’s length, suggesting NASCAR should not end in November and compete against the first 11 weeks of the NFL season.
“There’s a lot of discussion about that among the industry,” Phelps said. “There are a lot of things in play. We would rule out nothing at this particular point. We need to make sure that we have all the input, all the information necessary to make an informed decision that will allow us to get to what that 2020 schedule will look like.”
2. Reset button
At the Kansas test this week, Kurt Busch was asked if NASCAR’s leadership issues — Chairman Brian France’s arrest, Jim France taking over as acting Chairman and Brent Dewar’s term as NASCAR president ending — since August have taken away from the playoffs.
Busch said those events hadn’t but noted a change has taken place in the sport.
“What it has done, though, is behind the scenes, hit the reset button and it’s created a refreshment of communication lines between the drivers, the owners and the way that the sport works,” Busch said. “I’ve never seen so much involvement from Jim France, Mike Helton, Steve Phelps, Steve O’Donnell, the whole group. It seems like a weight was lifted off their shoulders through all of this and now everybody is communicating more easily.”
Jim France has been visible in the garage more often than Brian France had been before his indefinite leave.
“If you’ve been at a race track, you’ve seen Jim France there,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s incoming president. “From the moment he was announced as the Chairman, CEO of NASCAR, replacing Brian, he has been at the race track.”
3. Charlotte surprise?
Erik Jones enters Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs.
He is 21 points out of the final cutoff spot. As he looks to this weekend, he knows anything can happen and expects it will.
“I’ll bet you will see a surprise winner this weekend, somebody you wouldn’t expect just because it is going to be a little bit of an attrition race,” he said. “For us, we have to survive, we have to make it to the end of the race.
“We can’t wreck out and not put ourselves in a spot to take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes. We’ve got to hope for some trouble from some of the other playoff guys and hope we can be in position to capitalize on it. Obviously, winning would be the easiest way for us to guarantee it but that’s going to be tough to do.”
Others below the cutoff and in danger of being eliminated after Sunday’s race are Clint Bowyer (four points from the cutoff), Jimmie Johnson (six points from the cutoff) and Denny Hamlin (29 points from the cutoff). Ryan Blaney holds what would be the final transfer spot.
4. Special drivers meeting message?
Justin Allgaier, who has won the last two Xfinity races on road courses, is concerned about the start and restarts on the Roval.
NASCAR will not have drivers go through the frontstretch chicane when coming to take the green flag. If drivers had to go through that chicane, those at the front would be accelerating while some in the back would be braking to get through the chicane.
Instead, drivers will do restarts on the frontstretch and skip the chicane. That means they’ll be entering Turn 1 — a sharp left-hand turn — anywhere from 15-30 mph faster. So, as lead cars brake to make the turn, others behind them will be accelerating.
“It’s such a slow, lazy turn in and the speed that we’re going to be carrying, somebody that ducks to the left could potentially wreck a lot of cars,” Allgaier said. “I think we’re all going to have to really be mindful. It’s either going to go one way or the other. We’re either all going to wreck there or nobody is going to wreck there because we’re all very aware of it.
“I’m hopeful that Wayne (Auton, Xfinity Series managing director) will talk about that in the drivers meeting (and say) ‘Hey, let’s at least make it through Turn 1 at the start of the race.’
“We have generated a lot of hype and a lot of buzz around this race, there’s a lot of attention with coming here … the last thing we want to do is go out there and make a bunch of idiots of ourselves.”
5. Still searching
Eight drivers who won races last year remain winless this season. They are: Kyle Larson (four wins 2017), Jimmie Johnson (three), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Matt Kenseth (one), Kasey Kahne (one), Ryan Newman (one) and Ryan Blaney (one).