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At Daytona, 60 + 60 + 80 equals 500

by | Feb 22, 2017

chase-elliott-2016The 59th running of the Daytona 500 gets the green flag this Sunday, but it will be nothing like the 58 races that preceded it.

Each of those 58 races was a 500-mile high-speed endurance contest.  Green flag, 500 miles, checkered flag.  Not so this year.  This year, as part of NASCAR’s latest change to its procedures, the Daytona 500 will no longer be that straightforward test.  Instead it will be the first of the 69-year-old organization’s so-called “stage races,” a race sliced into three distinct segments.  Each segment will have a winner, each segment will award points toward a championship of some sort, and the segments together will total 500 miles.

But before we get into why this is a good idea and why this is a lousy idea, let’s review what it is:  In the Daytona 500 and each race throughout the 2017 season, what was the previous race distance will now be broken into three segments, called “stages” by NASCAR.  A new flag, a checkered flag with green and white checkers instead of the familiar black and while checkered flag which dates back only 111 years, will be used to mark the end of the segments.

The length of each stage will vary depending on the venue and the total race distance, but at all tracks the first two stages will have the same number of laps and the final stage will have a slightly greater number of laps.  The first two stages will each be slightly less than a third of the overall race distance and the final stage will be slightly more than a third of the overall race distance.  At Daytona, the stage lengths will be 60 laps, 60 laps, and 80 laps.  That’s 150 miles, 150 miles and 200 miles on the 2.5-mile race track.

As each of the first two stages ends with the waving of that green and white checkered flag, there will be a break that is expected to last about 10 minutes before racing resumes.  But this is more than just an intermission: The finishing order at the end of each state will award points to the first ten positions, and these points accrue along with the greater points awarded at the end of the race toward a “regular season” championship and a year-end “playoffs” championship.

There are bonus points available also and other wrinkles that make the new system somewhat inscrutable, but our purpose today is less about the what and more about the why.

NASCAR has long desired to be taken seriously as a major league sport, and over the past 20 years it largely achieved that ambition, with growing popularity that by a number of metrics placed it second only to NFL football in America.  There could be a whole series of articles on the roles played in that growth by television and the political split in Indy Car racing  – and we may someday do those articles – but today that growth has stopped and a contraction has been taking place.

NASCAR is not alone here.  All the major sports are seeing declines in attendance and TV viewership, and all the major sports are trying to address the issue.  In baseball, the focus is on trying to speed up the pace of play.  In football, the NFL is coping with objections ranging from over-officiating to National Anthem behavior.  In NASCAR, its once-toughest ticket, the late-summer race at Bristol, Tennessee, has had empty seats of late, as has every other track.  So NASCAR took a hard look at the complaint that its races were “too long” and “too boring” and the new stage races are the result.

The endurance contests on which NASCAR was founded had become less interesting in part because the cars have become too dependable.  There is not much point in a reliability run if every car is reliable.  TV viewers in significant numbers had developed the habit of watching the start, mowing the lawn, then returning to watch only the finish.  With three races-within-a-race, the logic goes, the excitement level and the interest level will increase.

NASCAR, like the other sports, is facing a changing world.  Entertainment choices have mushroomed since the pre-television days of NASCAR and patience for long events has ebbed.   Gone are the days of going out to the fairgrounds racetrack because that was the only option.  Cable television and the internet have brought everything to everyone, and bourgeoning choices have contributed to shorter attention spans.

The NASCAR Chase, introduced in 2004, was its first attempt at devising a playoff system to generate renewed interest.  The Chase format was tweaked virtually every year since, and the new stage system can be seen as being the latest such tweak.

But we see the NASCAR plan for 2017 as being flawed, although for a reason other than those being posited  elsewhere.  Objections have ranged from traditionalists opposed to change of any kind, to nitpickers opining that the stage lengths should be shorter or longer, or that the points should be awarded in a different manner, to pundits noting that the stage breaks will make the overall race take more time, not less.  Our objection is that the stage-race format, like the Chase before it, is being placed on top of an otherwise unchanged racing season.

When the Chase was introduced it was created simply by drawing an arbitrary line at the two-thirds point in the full season.  So nothing really changed except how points were tallied.  We yearned for something more meaningful, such as a change in the mix of tracks comprising the newly-truncated regular season and those comprising the new championship run.  We, and many racing fans, would have liked to have seen a regular-season champion recognized, much as the other major sports have division winners and league champions leading into the playoffs.

The new stage race format addresses this latter complaint, since a regular-season champion will now be crowned, but the playoffs – the name “Chase” has been ashcanned – are still just an overlay on the long-established schedule.

Which brings us to our primary reason for disliking the stage race format: It has been applied to every race, including this Sunday’s Daytona 500.  However valid the reasons for implementing the stage race format may be, the Daytona 500 should have been left alone.  However interesting the stage race format may make an otherwise long race, the Daytona 500 should have been retained in its traditional form.

Let the rest of the NASCAR season consist of stage races and “playoffs.”  Keep what Ken Squier dubbed “The Great American Race” intact.logosurfboardsolo-small

Photo by Chad Sparkes

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