Bringing Back Nascar’s Roots-Heat Racing at Bristol

On Saturday, Bristol will become the first Xfinity Series race in over 40 years to bring back one of Nascar’s most old-school traditions–the heat race. Heat racing was once a staple part of Nascar, and continues to find a home in the Saturday night dirt bullrings across the nation. In the days of 75 car fields, where half the racers showed up in their family cars, heat races were an exciting way of getting local racers involved and getting the local crowd excited before the feature. Now, the heat races serve another purpose. They aren’t just bringing the Xfinity Series a little closer to its roots. They’re also generating interest in Nascar’s up and coming racers.

The heat races are part of Nascar’s Dash 4 Cash series. At four races throughout the spring and summer, Xfinity drivers will run heat races to set the starting lineup. The top two Xfinity drivers in each race will be entered into the Dash 4 Cash contest. The highest finisher out of these four receives $100,000, and repeat winners can boost the amount of cash they earn. Nascar has made a good move by bringing back the heat races. They’ve taken a classic part of Nascar’s history, and are using it to shine attention on the young drivers who will someday be the faces of the sport. It will get fans interested and create some exciting racing.

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Nascar’s New Rules Package

Nascar racing is at the best its been in years. Here’s why.

After last year’s season, which had great storylines (Jeff Gordon’s retirement, Kyle Busch’s comeback, etc.) but mediocre racing, Nascar experimented with changing the rules package, modifying the car-building specifications to make the racing more exciting. The sport’s first attempts at change, a high-downforce package which saw track time at Indianapolis and Michigan, were disastrous. The racing was sluggish–cars hugged the ground and were unable to pass or do much of anything, for that matter. But Nascar finally hit on something in Kentucky. The rules package they rolled out there would be the basis of the one used in the 2016 season.

Nascar debuted a low-downforce package that created more exciting racing. Downforce is an aerodynamic term, referring to how well the car sticks to the racing surface and can be controlled without sliding. Cars which generate a lot of downforce are easier to control, but drive faster in clean air and are harder to pass. By creating a low-downforce package, Nascar put cars on the track that slide around more; they’re harder to keep steady, which keeps the field close together and the cars easier to pass with. The result has been some of the best racing we’ve seen in years, including two photo finishes in the first five races.

However, Nascar cannot rest on its laurels. As time goes on teams will figure out ways to increase downforce and get around the new package. Nascar’s rules have to keep evolving, reducing the downforce on the car’s to keep the racing fast and exciting. The old adage “If you build it, they will come” has never had more weight for Nascar. If it consistently puts out a good product on track, the fans will start coming back to the sport.

Buschwhacking

Nascar has a buschwhacking problem. The Xfinity Series is being dominated by one driver. It’s not a series regular, or an upcoming rookie; rather, it’s defending Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch. Despite being one of the best drivers in the Spring Cup series, he continues to race in the Camping World and Xfinity series against vastly inferior competition. Busch, who won the first 3 Xfinity races of the year, stormed off on Saturday after a blown tire caused him to finish all the way down in…2nd. Not a good look for the sport.

So why does Kyle Busch keep running in the Xfinity Series? He’s essentially running a Cup-lite operation; helping his team prepare for the Sprint Cup feature by logging laps and perfecting set-ups during the earlier events. But Busch’s dominance is bad for the lower series. Supporters argue that his racing keeps fans watching Nascar’s minor leagues, but it also prevents other drivers from gaining exposure and followers of their own. Any draw that Kyle Busch has is eliminated by the boring racing he creates through his dominance. Kyle Busch is much better than the rest of the Xfinity drivers–that’s why they’re still in Xfinity. Busch has enough competition in the Sprint Cup Series–he should either step away from Nascar’s minor leagues or the sport should force him to do so. As long as Kyle Busch is dominating races, Nascar’s younger drivers are missing out on exposure and experience. That’s something no one wants to see.

The Wood Brothers and the Charter System

At the start of the year, Nascar and its teams announced a major overhaul in the sport’s structure. The group implemented a charter system, whereby 36 teams receive guaranteed spots in the starting lineup and access to better prize money, while other teams must race their way in to fill out 4 spots in the 40-car field. The move was designed to make owning a Nascar team similar to owning an MLB or NBA franchise, with guaranteed race appearances and payouts. The guarantees are meant to help teams attract sponsors looking for stability. Teams can also sell their charters on the open market, providing an out should owners decide they wish to leave the sport. With the cost of competing nearing $25 million a year (Bloomberg Businessweek), drivers and teams need all the help they can get to stay afloat.

Like any change in Nascar, the charter system sparked a lot of controversy. The Wood Brothers racing team, one of Nascar’s most historic franchises, was denied a charter spot. Although Nascar’s reasoning was that the group had only run part-time over the past few years, the team and its fans were enraged, especially since the team will be running full-time this year with rookie driver Ryan Blaney. Now, the team which once raced David Pearson and Dale Jarrett will have to qualify on speed each week while full-time backmarkers such as Go FAS Racing are locked in. The charter system is locked in for the next 5 years–if the Wood Brothers don’t purchase a charter from another team, it could be a long time before they’re locked into the race.

Now we come to the crux of the issue–was this fair? The Wood Brothers have not run a full-time schedule since 2008, but every time they put cars on track they’re competitive–they even won the Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne. They’ve put out 25 top 20’s in the past 5 years despite running a partial schedule, something a lot of other full-time teams can’t say. The Wood Brothers are Nascar’s oldest team, having competed in races since 1950. It would be a shame to see them left out of the new Nascar.

Nascar’s Kickoff

Despite the Daytona 500’s exciting finish, the rest of the race, and Speedweeks as a whole, felt lackluster. With the absence of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the  truck series caution clock, and the excessive commercials during the 500, the whole week was lethargic. Here, we take a quick look at what did click during the first race of the 2016 Nascar season.

While Fox’s broadcast went a little heavy on the ads, the addition of Jeff Gordon to the booth was a win-win for fans and the network alike. Viewers saw Jeff once more, and the network kept Gordon’s fans interested in watching the race. Although Larry McReynolds scaled back his role to make room for Gordon, the 4-time champion showed a lot of potential in the press box. Jeff’s commentary was insightful and provided an insider’s perspective on the garage. Although Gordon still needs time to develop chemistry with his co-announcers, it was great to see the Nascar legend maintain a presence in the sport after 22 years on track.

The rookie battle was exciting at Daytona as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott posted strong performances. Elliott, the race’s polesitter, ran up front early, leading the first 3 laps before an unlucky wreck sent him to the garage on lap 18. Ryan Blaney had some better luck, placing 19th in the Wood Brothers Ford and showing serious speed at times during the race. Both drivers turned in excellent performances (3rd for Blaney and 5th for Elliott) at the first Can-Am Duel; their battle for Rookie of the Year looks to heat up even more as the season progresses.

 

 

Ranking the 2016 Rookie Class

We’re less than two weeks away from the start of the 2016 Nascar season, and one of the most exciting storylines is this year’s rookie class. While the 2015 rookies were lackluster (Rookie of the Year Brett Moffitt can’t even find a ride) the 2016 group has a number of promising prospects. Here we take a look at this year’s rookies and rank them by how likely they are to succeed in Nascar’s big leagues.

Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney, son of former Sprint Cup driver Dave Blaney, will be running a full-time schedule in 2016 with the historic Wood Brothers racing team. Blaney finished 2nd in the truck series in 2014, before being forced to a limited schedule last year. Blaney won two Xfinity races and a truck series race driving for Penske, but what was perhaps most impressive were his performances in the Sprint Cup series. Driving for the Wood Brothers, Blaney notched 6 top 20’s in the 11 races he competed in without engine problems. With the Wood Brothers’ new technical alliance with Penske, expect Blaney to be very competitive in 2016 and to have a long and successful career once he eventually moves to Penske’s full team.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott, the son of legendary Nascar racer Bill Elliott, will be taking over Jeff Gordon’s 24 car in 2016. Chase and Ryan Blaney are equals in almost every way–they are both excellent racers who look to be in the Sprint Cup series for a long time. Elliott has experienced far greater success at Nascar’s lower levels. He burst onto the racing scene in 2013, winning the Silverado 250 at Mosport with a daring last-lap pass. Elliott won the Xfinity series championship in 2014 and placed 2nd in 2015, racking up 4 wins and 27 top 5’s in his two year stint. Chase Elliott has big shoes to fill. If he can translate his lower series success to the Sprint Cup, he’ll be able to write his own legacy.

Chris Buescher

The man Chase Elliott lost this year’s Xfinity series championship to is Chris Buescher, the 23-year old from Prosper, Texas. While Elliott’s racing style was often boom-or-bust, Buescher took a more conservative, methodical route, racking up 2 wins and 20 top 10’s en route to a championship victory. Although he drove for Roush in the lower series, Buescher will be racing for perennial backmarker Front Row Motorsports in the Cup series. Why? Although Buescher is a top prospect, funding is very tight for Roush these days. Rather than add a 4th car to their stable, Roush formed a technical alliance with Front Row, bringing Buescher in this season. Expect to see Buescher in a Roush car sin the near future, possibly as soon as next year–Roush driver Greg Biffle is the oldest Sprint Cup regular and is entering the final year of his contract. If Biffle bows out, Buescher could fill his seat.

Brian Scott

Lastly, we have Brian Scott. Scott has shown himself to be a capable racer in the Xfinity Series–although he has never won a race, he’s recorded 73 top 10’s in the past 5 years. While many other drivers would have lost their ride to younger prospects, Scott has held steady, supported by his family’s Shore Lodge sponsorship. Scott brings this money to Richard Petty Motorsports this year, taking over Sam Hornish’s ride. Scott projects to be at best, a racer like Paul Menard–a consistent, if mediocre driver who can occasionally put together a strong performance. However, don’t count him out just yet–many great drivers, such as Jimmie Johnson, were lowly-regarded in lower series before making the jump to the Sprint Cup. Scott showed decent speed in a limited schedule for Richard Childress Racing last year–maybe a change of scenery is just what he needs.

The Caution Clock

Last week, Brian France announced a new race feature that angered many Nascar fans–the Caution Clock. The clock, which will only be rolled out in the Camping World Truck Series in 2016, will cause a competition caution to fly 20 minutes into every green flag run. While many have accused Nascar of creating manufactured excitement, the Caution Clock has pros and cons–I break them down below.

While the caution clock would be a radical departure from traditional Nascar racing, it does have some pros. It would create more exciting racing. Despite what purists may say, very few fans enjoy seeing long follow-the-leader green flag runs. The caution clock would also eliminate Nascar’s penchant for debris cautions. The sport has long been criticized for waving the yellow for tiny pieces of debris on the track, just to bunch up the field. These cautions are often unpredictable; at least with the caution clock, teams will know when yellow flags will fly and can strategize for them. Finally, the caution clock wouldn’t exactly be a major game changer. Brian France has already stated that it will be turned off when there are 20 laps to go, and even while it is on, it will be used sparingly. This chart, created by Reddit user dmcgrew, demonstrates that the caution clock would have rarely come into effect during last year’a truck series. There are only two races in which it would have flown more than once. Ultimately, despite all the controversy, the caution clock could have almost no effect.

cclock

Most Nascar fans, however, are against the change, and for good reason. The caution clock would eliminate long green-flag runs, but the excitement it creates is manufactured, not real. It would interrupt exciting battles for the lead and could lead to more commercials, as broadcasters would show them every 20 minutes, at minimum. The caution clock would virtually eliminate an exciting part of Nascar races–green flag pit stops. With the caution clock coming out every 20 minutes, teams would rarely get an opportunity to pit under green and make up positions through strategy calls. The caution clock would put an end to the tension fuel-mileage races create, with drivers making passes on track while anxiously trying not to run out of gas. The caution clock would dramatically change Nascar strategy, and not necessarily for the better.

At the end of the day, we won’t know what the Caution Clock will do until we actually see it in a race. It could end up adding excitement to mind-numbing green flag stretches, or it could break up exciting green flag battles and strategy calls, preventing teams from ever making green-flag pit stops. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.