As the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wound down last year, the grind of the nation’s longest season had taken its toll. Although the championship boiled down to two drivers going neck-and-neck down the stretch, the season produced criticisms about the way the most popular motorsport’s sanctioning body handled itself. And through those criticisms, NASCAR’s front office looked towards the offseason with renewed optimism and determination.
For the past few years, NASCAR has been hell bent on tweaking the Chase for the Cup to find a suitable method for the fans without watering down the sport. Even though the new format, which consists of a 26-race “regular season” and a 10-race “playoff system” produced close finishes, the sport couldn’t combat sagging ratings and attendance figures that struggled to capture the American attention as they had in the late-1990s and early-2000s.
Last year, the creation of two “wild card” slots in the Chase and a new points system greatly enhanced excitement, especially given the amount of drivers who could win races over the course of a season. The prospect of a driver in 16th place in the standings being able to go toe-to-toe with a driver four slots ahead of him for the last spot in the playoffs made NASCAR fans drool with anticipation. And indeed, as the regular season waned, multiple drivers tied in wins total drove the wheels off their car trying to get to the front. It made for great racing while unheralded drivers like Regan Smith and Paul Menard jockeyed for position against established stars like Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch.
NASCAR’s other innovation sought to provide excitement back into its feeder systems. It used to be that drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth drove on what was then the Busch Grand National Series. Over the years, the Busch series (now Nationwide Series) became a playground for Sprint Cup drivers, as the less-seasoned veterans dropped down to drive at those tracks and double-dip for money, sponsors, and championships. Full-time Nationwide drivers were scarce, and it became more of an exhibition with a series of points and trophies for the regular guys.
To combat this, NASCAR required all of its drivers to register for points races in one series. That meant Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards couldn’t run for simultaneous championships, and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne won no actual points to the Sprint Cup championship. Owner points were awarded, but driver points weren’t, dissuading some of the drivers from the double-dip.
But NASCAR still faced criticism. While the grind of the regular season was fixed, they failed to combat poor racing at its marquee tracks. They opened up the reigns on the drivers through a “have at it” attitude, which meant the drivers policed themselves on the track until it became out of control. But the “have at it” mentality at restrictor plate racing at Talladega and Daytona became secondary to paired-off drafting, which ruined the single-file bump drafting the tracks became known for.
So NASCAR waited patiently for last season to end so it could unveil new rules and a new attitude for 2012. That new rules package incorporates a smaller engine cooling system, used to dissuade drivers from two-car systems that wore thin on fans by the end of the season. It’ll promote cars to run in packs and bunches, in open, cooler air, something that the restrictor plate races became known for when cars ran 190 miles per hour inches away from each other.
That new rules package highlights a new attitude for NASCAR in 2012. It used to be that the governing body wanted to loosen the reigns on the drivers and let them bump and bang each other on their biggest stages. Instead, the “have at it” philosophy backfired in two major ways.
First, the restrictor plate races, while entertaining in the Daytona 500, were a novelty that quickly wore off. With three other restrictor plate races, fans failed to be treated to what made them so great in the first plate. They wanted to watch the cars be within inches of each other for four hours, within one stupid move away of a massive wreck that everyone walked away from but the cars were mangled in. They wanted NASCAR to let angers flare, helmets to be thrown, punches to be exchanged on pit road when something like that happened. The novelty instead saw them pair off with teammates and try to hustle each other to the front. The pairs that worked together the best and had the best cumulative effect won the races. It created team racing, which was great once, but it wasn’t what restrictors are all about to fans.
By letting the drivers “have at it,” NASCAR enabled them to make deals with drafting partners and then break those arrangements. When a driver couldn’t make a deal, he became effectively screwed out of ever running up front. And nothing could stop it because it was sanctioned by the governing body. But that was more attitudes adjusting to aerodynamics than the other way around.
The second issue was that drivers felt more liberal in making bad decisions that had negative effects on the sport. Kyle Busch’s truck series incident stood tantamount to all of this, when he wrecked Ron Hornaday in a race for a series where Busch couldn’t win a championship because he was registered to a different series. Hornaday was in the middle of the points race, when Kyle got steaming mad at him and recklessly drove into him in a move that, had it been a different series and different car, could’ve really injured another driver. That drew negative attention to the drivers, and it made people in the media question whether NASCAR went too far with letting drivers police themselves.
The cavalier attitude the drivers started to take rubbed off the waning weeks, overshadowing what was the best championship race between two drivers anyone had ever seen. As the smoke (no pun intended) cleared on Tony Stewart‘s ability to go toe-to-toe with Carl Edwards, the final race was even overshadowed by an altercation involving Kurt Busch (Kyle’s older brother) and legendary race reporter Dr. Jerry Punch.
As Busch verbally abused Punch, a cell phone video camera captured it and Youtube made it big news as the race was ending. Busch was fined and reprimanded, going to counseling to control a temper that had issues in the past. But still, damage was done to NASCAR because the days after the penultimate race was filled with news about Busch and the pit road, garage drama instead of letting the light shine solely on Stewart and Edwards. The top stories were, rightfully, about the chase for the trophy. The second story was about Busch, which took away slightly from it all.
As the offseason commenced, NASCAR found its new rules package for restrictor plate racing but also found a new attitude. With drivers acting like pampered, spoiled brats, the NASCAR community finally came down on its brash stars. By parking Kyle in the wake of his incident in the truck series, he had been eliminated from Sprint Cup contention in the Chase, a black eye against the best Chase thus far. It was necessary given his attitude, but something more was done to hurt him.
M&M’s, the primary sponsor, demanded that they pull their logo and colors from the #18 Toyota for the final two races of the season. So when Busch returned to driving, secondary sponsor Interstate Batteries had their colors on the car. It was a bold move that led to talks about Kyle Busch losing his job and just how much leeway he’d be given for reckless actions in 2012, something he’s had issues with in the past.
For Kurt Busch, the penalty was more severe. By insulting someone universally respected as NASCAR’s answer to Peter Gammons, Busch found himself out of a job in the offseason. A former series champion and the cornerstone driver for Roger Penske racing, Busch parted ways in a mutual decision widely viewed as a firing. He found himself without a ride for most of the offseason, landing with little-known Phoenix Racing to start the season. He’ll be sponsored by Tag Heuer, a far cry from the Pennzoil sponsorship that was so coveted by big-name race teams.
The moves against the Busch brothers places the microscope on other “bad boys” of NASCAR. Drivers with a history of “behavioral issues” are due to come under the microscope for their behavior both on and off the track as NASCAR sends the clear message that insubordination in respecting the sport will not be tolerated. Drivers like Kevin Harvick, who is known as “Happy Harvick” for his temper outbursts, are expected to be emotional in their policing of the sport without coming across like brats. It’s a tough test, but it’s NASCAR’s latest message.
The 2012 season represents something interesting for NASCAR in that its the first time they won’t correct the Chase. They brought in an entirely new points system last year for the new Chase format, one that made the races so much more stressful down the stretch and one that enhanced the racing. With that in place, they went to work on fixing the issues off the track and in the boardroom, with the aerodynamics package that’s been the biggest hurdle to the Car of Tomorrow (er…Today) and their drivers’ attitudes. And after seemingly bottoming out in public interest, NASCAR has shown it’s willing to take strides to get the racing back to where it was 12 years ago when it was more popular than any sport in America, the Great American Pasttime, and the greatest way to spend weekends in the summer.