We've got the new car. We've got the Chase. We've got the free pass, or the Lucky Dog as some call it. The world of NASCAR has changed much in the past 10 years. Has it all been for the better?
In terms of safety, I heartily applaud NASCAR's efforts to keep the drivers and crews safer. Many did not like the HANS device when it was first mandated, but I'm guessing that the head and neck restraint system has probably saved a few driver's lives since 2001. Though Dale Earnhardt might have fought that rule tooth and nail, he might still be alive today had NASCAR mandated the HANS device before 2001. So might Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. I also applaud NASCAR mandating the use of helmets for all crew members that climb over the wall to service the race cars on pit road. It just makes sense, just as much as it makes sense to make your children wear head, knee and elbow protection before you turn them loose with a skateboard. Racing is and always will be a dangerous sport, but any measures made to make it safer have to be a good thing in my opinion.
I believe that NASCAR's attempt to even out the playing field with the new car is still a work in progress. True, the teams build fewer cars than they used to, but are they really saving that much money? When an ill handling car seems to be attracted to the fence like a magnet to a refrigerator door, is it really saving the teams money by having to spend endless hours in the shop cutting away twisted metal and fabricating new bodies for banged up race cars? Sure, beating and banging happens in every race, but some drivers find the new cars so ill mannered and bad tempered that it seems that more cars are being wrecked, not just during races, but also during practice and qualifying. Many of the drivers complain that in many cases, it's nearly impossible to set up the race car so that it handles well in traffic. It seems that the new car mostly likes to run at the front, without cars in front of it. A car that grabs the lead on a restart almost automatically becomes the fastest car on the track, and the only way that cars back in the field can catch the leaders is for a caution to occur. To me, that's not racing, at least by old school standards. Sure, there have always been dominant cars and drivers in the field, but the new car seems to be an advantage to those who are in the front, and a disadvantage to many who are in the back.
This phenomenon does not apply to all tracks, obviously. Last week's race at New Hampshire saw very good racing all through the ranks. At other tracks, such as California, it just seems that follow the leader is the game. If you can get to the front for a restart, you might have a chance. If you're mired back in the field all day, there's little chance you will be able to charge to the front in the closing laps, it would appear. Hopefully, the technical folks at NASCAR will find a way to help prevent yawn inducing races, if they insist on racing at tracks that are inherently set up to be boring in the first place.
Again, in the interests of safety, I like the rule that there is not racing back to the yellow flag when a caution comes out. Having cars scattered sideways across the track while other cars try to beat each other back to the flag is often dangerous, and I agree that the field should be frozen at the point that the yellow flag flies. Giving a free pass to a driver who is a lap down is more questionable in my mind however. If the driver got beat on the track, why help him get a lap back that he lost by getting beat? Maybe one free pass per driver per race, or maybe each driver gets so many free passes per season, or some other system would make more sense to me. Drivers can and do make up laps on their own, on the track, and under competition.
The Chase is the most complex change, at least in my opinion, that NASCAR has made in recent years. We have all read about how the last few seasons would have turned out had the Chase not been instituted in 2004. We've read about how past championship races would have shaped up had the Chase been in effect back in the 1990's and early 2000's. All I can say is that the Chase does offer some advantages, mainly by creating something to really race for with 10 races left in the season. Arguments continue, however about whether enough emphasis is placed on wins, or simply driving in a consistent manner is still what matters the most. I agree that the Chase should include 12 drivers instead of 10, so I see that as an improvement. Do we really need the Chase at all though? I'm still having a tough time making up my mind on that.
For whatever all my or anyone else's opinions matter, these and other complaints and arguments are really nothing new in NASCAR. The subjects of the complaints and arguments have changed, but that's about all. When we get right down to it, nothing really matters except what NASCAR itself deems will sell more tickets and improve TV ratings. Our opinions will certainly not fall totally on deaf ears, because there are always other fans that will agree or disagree with us. As far as NASCAR itself goes, however, it is what it is, or more importantly, it will be whatever NASCAR decides it's going to be.