All too often, NASCAR is criticized for doing things wrong. Sometimes that criticism is justified; other times it's nothing more than a jealous reach by people you just can't make happy, no matter what.
But NASCAR also does a lot right during the course of a season. If it didn't, if it really was soooooo bad, would it have as huge of a fan base as it does, or would it still draw millions of dedicated viewers in front of their TV sets week in and week out? (Don't worry; we'll get to the declining ratings shortly.)
As we write the final chapter of the 2006 season, it's time to not only pat NASCAR on the back for what it did right this season, but also to shake a finger of criticism for the things it did wrong.
As good as 2006 was, 2007 has the potential to be the best season ever … or not. How NASCAR reacts will tell the tale about a year from now.
The top-five things NASCAR did right:
1. Standing by its guns. Sure, there are a lot of critics out there that claim Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team cheated their way to the championship this season. Baloney! Granted, Knaus was caught red-handed playing fast and loose with the rules during the run-up to the season-opening Daytona 500. He was guilty and accepted his penalty of a fine and four-week suspension. But from the moment Knaus returned to the pit box, the No. 48 was the most scrutinized and inspected car in the garage both before and after races. NASCAR did the right thing not only in penalizing Knaus, but also making him and the team an example. There were a few other incidents, but they were minor by comparison.
2. Realizing when things aren't working. NASCAR chairman Brian France gave us the new-fangled Chase for the Nextel Cup playoff format in 2004. With the way the inaugural season played out, France looked like a genius. In its second edition in 2005, the Chase started to show a few ripples and flaws, but concern was minimal. It wasn't until 2006 that some of those flaws became noticeable warts upon the format's face. Realizing that maybe some of the critics of the Chase were right in their disparagement, France wisely decided to listen, rather than ignore. As a result, we'll soon find out France's planned and so-called "tweaks" to the Chase format that will take effect next season. We'll likely see the number of qualifiers raised from 10 to 12 or maybe even 14, an increase in the Chase-qualifying points cutoff from within 400 points of first to 500 points. We'll also likely see some alteration of the points system, with drivers that win races likely to receive additional points for taking the checkered flag.
3. Bon jour, Montreal … eh? After two successive years of exporting Busch Series-style racing south of the border to Mexico City, NASCAR announced this year that it would reverse course and also visit the Great White North of Canada for the first time ever in 2007 when it takes to the legendary Circuit Gilles Villeneuve road course in Quebec province's most cosmopolitan city. Sure, the language may be tricky to learn, but speed and excitement translate well in any language. If the race is as successful as NASCAR hopes, don't be surprised if we soon see Nextel Cup competition in Canada in the next five years, and potentially Mexico or Brazil in the next five to 10 years. Former open-wheel champion Emerson Fittipaldi is chomping at the bit to promote and run a Cup event in his native Brazil, and if anyone can make that kind of race a success, the man affectionately known as Emmo can.
4. The third time was the charm. All three races at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2005 were severely hampered by a track surface that went from bad to worse to virtually unable to race upon. Yet, NASCAR went ahead and held the Nextel All-Star Challenge, the Coca-Cola 600 and the UAW-GM Quality 500. The track was initially diamond-cut – a.k.a. levigated – but the surface just could not be matched successfully with Goodyear tires. The track was then partially resurfaced between the 600 in late May and the 500 in October, but the racing still was sub-par. Finally, the track was completely redone – at the cost of a pretty penny – during the offseason. This time, the track was as good as any surface to be found in the series and provided some outstanding racing in this year's three Cup events held at Lowe's, proving the old saying: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
5. With arms wide open. NASCAR took two major steps – both interconnected – when it warmly welcomed open-wheel aces Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger into the Cup fold. While both drivers start their full-time efforts in 2007, they managed to get a taste of the NASCAR world with a few starts collectively in either the Trucks and/or Busch Series, as well as on the Cup level. Bringing the Colombian-born Montoya into the fold will be a big boost to NASCAR's diversity program, as well as likely attract scores of new Hispanic fans both in this country as well as in Central and South America. It also will serve to showcase NASCAR racing to the world, as Montoya had fans both in the Indy Racing League and Formula One. As for Allmendinger, even though he's short on Cup experience – OK, that experience is non-existent, to be precise – he brings a strong resume from Champ Car with him. Combined, the two drivers will likely serve to cause more open-wheel drivers to consider jumping to NASCAR in the coming seasons. We've already heard rumors about former CART champ and F1 competitor Jacques Villeneuve (who already plans to race in the Busch race in Montreal next August) trying to crack the Cup series for 2007 (which might be too late by now) or definitely for 2008.
The top-five things NASCAR did wrong:
1. Car of Tomorrow. While the Chase for the Nextel Cup may still wind up being the crowning glory of Brian France's tenure as NASCAR chairman, the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow is going to wind up being the albatross around France's neck. Granted, there are some new innovations that make the car much safer for drivers, but the added cost and expense of development and production is putting a huge strain on teams, not only the poorly funded small teams but even the biggest and wealthiest organizations, too. And if the hundreds of emails I've already received from Yahoo! readers is any indication, the COT is going to be a huge flop in the 16 races that it's scheduled for. I also think it will be a huge disappointment on television. But perhaps the biggest reason I feel the COT is wrong, wrong, wrong: After decades of support by the Big Three U.S. automakers, NASCAR turned its back on them in their own time of need as new car sales continue to flounder. I've already predicted that if NASCAR takes the COT full-time in 2008, that it will lose at least one of the major manufacturers by 2009. After all, the auto industry has long been synonymous with NASCAR. Remember "race Sunday, sell Monday"? France seems to have forgotten who the sport's real friends have been. If the COT goes forward, France's friends could soon be in very short supply.
2. Oh, what a feeling – not! On the one hand, I have absolutely no problem with Toyota coming into the sport. It actually could be good for NASCAR in the long run. NASCAR fans made their feelings known all season long once NASCAR announced last November that Toyota was entering the Cup series in 2007, and I have to give those fans their due. For the most part, they are not happy. There's the old-time NASCAR fan who does not want to see a Japanese-owned manufacturer compete at the highest levels of a true American sport. There's another contingent of fans that feel Toyota will storm in with an unlimited budget and dominate things within three years (I don't necessarily agree), tilting the parity and competitive level so much that it could drive one or more of the existing U.S. manufacturers out of the sport. While I think Toyota has the promise to be good for the sport eventually, the spotlight will be on high-beam throughout 2007 to make sure it doesn't try to undermine or tear apart what it has taken NASCAR and the Big Three nearly six decades to build.
3. Once again, turning deaf ears on the fans. Fans have become more fickle and antsy in recent years. While NASCAR fans of old enjoyed lengthy 500-mile races, today's fan wants a quicker, more compact race. Many readers have written in to say 500-mile/lap events should be cut to 400 miles/laps, and that 400-milers/laps should be sliced to 300 or 350 miles/laps. NASCAR has yet to make any movement in that direction, even though the overall slide in this past season's TV ratings would seem to prove that races have indeed become too lengthy. Perhaps NASCAR is waiting to see if the ABC/ESPN coverage in the second half of the season will turn the ratings drop around. If not, don't be surprised if the length of some races does get cut in 2008 or 2009 – and it can't come soon enough. There's also talk that ABC/ESPN may shift to a race of the week format on either Monday nights (a NASCAR version of Monday Night Football) or mid-week in the next couple of years. If that happens, it could go a long way towards revolutionizing the sport and giving a much-needed shot in the arm to TV ratings.
4. They pay you millions of bucks and you claim you can't do anything? NBC's coverage of the sport in the latter half of this season drew the most ire from Yahoo! readers that I've seen since the original Fox/NBC/Turner mega-broadcast deal was announced in 2001. The incessant formula of five minutes of race action followed by several minutes of commercials seemed to get even worse as the Chase for the Nextel Cup wore on week after week. Even worse, NASCAR claimed there was nothing it could do, even though it was the one who granted the TV rights to NBC and in so doing did have control over some of the things the network did. But instead of voicing the fans' displeasure, NASCAR buried its head in the sand – perhaps simply content to just let NBC's deal run out. To its credit, NBC did address things somewhat in the final few races and showed some improvement in listening to viewers' concerns and complaints, but its legacy will be more negative than positive in the long run. It's a shame because NBC really did some good and innovative work over the past six seasons – when it didn't have to cut to a break, that is.
5. When is a "win" not a win? NASCAR really dropped the ball at the October race in Talladega when Brian Vickers booted now ex-teammate Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the way and the lead on the final lap. Regardless of what Vickers' supporters say, he was wrong for what he did – and NASCAR was even more wrong for not penalizing Vickers for aggressive driving. If this had been any other motorsports series, Vickers would likely have been stripped of his "win." But this is NASCAR and the sanctioning body turned its back on what was a tainted race finish, doing absolutely nothing. In turn, yet another black eye was cast upon a sport that doesn't need any more, particularly with sagging attendance and TV ratings. And I hate to rub salt into the wound of loyal Junior fans, but had the Vickers incident not happened, who knows how the championship would have played out?