NASCAR is need of changes

Anyone who follows NASCAR knows things are headed in the wrong direction. It seems there is another story every week about the troubles the sanctioning body is having with ratings and attendence. Everyone seems to have their own set of solutions, some more valid than others. Even the drivers themselves are chiming in with ways they think the sport can make a bounceback.

One thing it can do is look back to Wednesday night.

On Wednesday, the Camping World Truck Series made it’s sixth annual visit to Eldora Speedway, the famed Rossburg, Ohio, dirt half mile. Every year, fans of both NASCAR and dirt racing make their way to the event to watch the 3,400 pound trucks slide around the high banked track in, quite literally, the middle of nowhere.

While it might not be as big of deal as it was the first time the series made a stop in the cornfields in 2013, one will still be hard pressed to find another race on the truck schedule that draws as much interest.

It is for good reason, too. The trucks put on a show unlike any other race in any of the three national series.

One of the biggest complaints people have watching the sport now is how the cars get spread out on the big tracks, there is a lack of passing, and not enough close racing to keep things interesting over the course of a long race.

At Eldora Wednesday night, there was never a lap, or even a single set of corners, in the race where multiple trucks were not side-by-side fighting for every inch. In fact, other than one run by dirt midget ringer Logan Seavey before late caution flags bunched it back up, the lead battle was always close. Grant Enfinger and race-winner Chase Briscoe battled side-by-side for the last several laps and banged fenders all the way to the finish line, where Briscoe won by a nose.

Simply put, it provided — as it does every year — the kind of action and excitement from start to finish the rest of the sport is currently lacking.

Leading up to the event, former NASCAR Cup Series Champion Tony Stewart, the owner of Eldora Speedway, suggested in a SiriusXM NASCAR Radio interview that it is time to bring the stars and cars of the Monster Energy Cup and Xfinity series to the dirt. If NASCAR wants to give it’s top-tier a much-needed, long overdue burst of excitement, it will listen to it’s former star.

Just how in need of the that shot in the arm is the sport? Pretty badly, actually.

Stewart was part of the wave of the sport’s biggest stars hanging up their helmets (in the Cup series at least, he still races dirt sprint cars quite frequently). Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the long-standing most popular driver — was the most recent to do so, following Carl Edwards and four-time champion Jeff Gordon. All four were the superstars of the sport with massive followings among the NASCAR fanbase, and the sanctioning body lost all of them in a three year span. Naturally, the numbers show the effects.

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s crown jewel. From 2017, compared to February’s edition, the ratings fell 22 percent. The numbers have gone down even more during the course of the season. International Speedway Corporation president John Saunders told the Associated Press attendance at the tracks his company owns was down 10 percent just from March through May.

The meter has been headed the wrong direction even before the loss of stars. Their absence has compounded an existing problem.

Do not get me wrong, a race on dirt would create excitement just one week of the long, 36-race season. It is far from a solution, but it can be a start.

Contracts with current tracks run through 2020, so nothing as major as adding a dirt race is changing before then. But when that point does arrive, the status quo has to be changed.

While even adding Eldora to the schedule is a stretch, the reasons why fans find the action there exciting can be a lesson.

First off, it’s a short race, creating incentive for hard racing throughout. I know as a life-long fan of the sport the tradition in running 400 and 500 mile races, and the value of the races being a test of endurance, but maybe shorter races are the way to go.

NASCAR itself even kind of acknowledges this with the stage racing format it has employed the past two seasons, dividing races into three shorter segments with points on the line to create added drama. Take it another step and make the whole thing shorter.

Secondly, it’s short track racing, where the roots of the sport come from. There is no way around the fact it will be almost impossible to get away from the big tracks completely, but there is a lack of short track racing (just six at three tracks on the current Cup schedule, considering Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond as short tracks). The majority of the schedule is made up of the mile and half tracks.

The desire for more short tracks does not just come from the fans, either. Kyle Busch, one of the stars the sport has left, suggested on NBCSN that the trucks and the XFinity series need more short tracks.

Another aspect of Eldora that makes it exciting is how the field is set through heat races and last chance race, similar to most short tracks and dirt tracks across the country.

Outside of the front row which is set by time trials, the Daytona 500 lineup is set with shorter races, and the All-Star race has a short “showdown” race where drivers not in the field try to race their way to a spot. I get just as excited as a fan to watch those races than I do the main events.

Currently NASCAR struggles to even make up a 40-car field in the Cup series. Today’s race in New Hampshire only has 37. It used to be that cars went home just about every week, even with a 43-car field. So a heat race format in the Cup series would not have the same excitement as Eldora, which had 39 trucks attempt to make the 32-truck field, unless the field was shrunk even further. With the charter system and the way things currently operate, that would be hard, but something has got to change and all options should at least be considered over the next couple of years. Letting the drivers race for their spot would add something of value. The sanctioning body has also acknowledged a need for change to qualifying with its switch to the multi-round group qualifying in recent seasons.

Perhaps the exciting part for fans that watch the Eldora truck race is the unpredictability and the ability for a good driver in lesser equipment to have a fighting chance. Wednesday night in one of the heat races Norm Benning in his self-owned, underfunded truck passed a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck. That does happen on a big track. Dirt modified driver Kyle Strickler, wheeling another of the underfunded trucks in the field, qualified for the feature through his heat race while series points leader Johnny Sauter had to use a provisional.

Compare those kinds of upsets to the current Cup season, where the same three drivers (Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex) have won 14 of the 19 races this season.

Regardless of what changes do occur, one thing is certain — they are needed, and soon.

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