Stroll about a bit and ask 100 hard-core NASCAR fans—if you can still find 100—what they think of the organization’s championship-deciding Playoff system. Chances are you’ll probably get 100 different opinions.
That uncertainty speaks volumes about the state of the sport/business as it wraps its 75th anniversary season this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. There, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney and William Byron will race among themselves—with 34 others out there among them—with the 2023 Cup Series championship waiting at the end. The highest-finishing driver among those four—no one else matters—on Sunday at Phoenix will win the Cup.
It’s been 10 years since NASCAR changed its championship coronation to a one-race showdown among four drivers. No matter a team’s performance during the previous 35 races, everything comes down to 312 laps around the 1-mile track at Avondale, Ariz. (The championship was decided under varying systems at Homestead from 2002-2019).
Many long-time fans probably still favor the 1948-2003 format that determined a champion based strictly on finish-position points earned in each race over the lifetime of the season. They’ll say if it was good enough for Buck Baker and Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt then it’s good enough for Joey Logano and Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick. So what that drivers might build huge points lead and coast down the stretch under the old system. Good for them.
Younger fans—those “passing-through millennials” with shorter attention spans—are for anything that brings a quick and clean ending to any issue. They’ll occasionally glance at the season’s first 35 races and maybe tune into the Championship 4 finale to see who gets to hoist the Big Trophy. Indeed… the times, they have a’changed, and not necessarily for the better.
NASCAR was forced to accept that change because its business model couldn’t survive the old ways. Today, the sport has only a handful of full-season, multi-year, nationally-recognized team sponsors. STP has been long gone, along with Purolator and DuPont and Wrangler and most of the beers, once a NASCAR staple. Series sponsorships seemingly change with the wind. Indeed, it’s rare for even event sponsorships to stick around for more than a few consecutive seasons. After arrogantly adding tens of thousands of seats in the last decade, speedways are downsizing by removing those seats or turning them into signage. (We can’t let TV cameras flash across those empties).
In turn, the NASCAR fanbase has become radically different from what it once was.
Yesterday’s fans were passionate about racing, college football, and pro wrestling (although they knew it was fake). They occasionally grilled out and had the neighbors over for burgers and beer. They were primarily working-class men and women, laborers, small-business owners, mechanics, and craftsmen. They were fiercely loyal to Ford and Chevrolet and wouldn’t own a Honda or Toyota if you gave them one. They were patient enough to let things play out, whether in racing or in life itself. After watching previous generations stoically endure wars and hard times, they never felt self-entitled.
Today’s fans aren’t like that. They’re younger, think they’re more hip and more sophisticated, and enjoy living on the surface, where nothing gets to them. With 100 channels available and bars on every corner, they have more choices about how to spend their weekends. They latched onto NASCAR—but didn’t truly embrace like the older fanswhen the sport inexplicably became cool for a few years in the early- to- mid 2000s.
To many of them, going racing was more a social event than a soul-wrenching experience, certainly not as compelling as Auburn-Alabama or Ohio State-Michigan. Rather, it was something to do when nothing else was available. Going to Daytona Beach in February was a talking point back in the office, where profit/loss statements still ruled the day. They had neither the time nor the inclination to study the nuances of the sports. Show me the champion at Phoenix, they said, and let’s move on to something else.
So, NASCAR did.
It watched its surroundings and listened to its dozens of new hires, all of them young and hip and “with it.” Somewhere along the way, its middle-aged suits decided to follow the NFL, NBA, and MLB in expanding how it crowned its champions. It fiddled with itself until it settled on the 10-team “Chase” in 2004, the year after Matt Kenseth won the Cup with one race victory. Perhaps ironically, the 10-race Playoff series began each fall right when high school, college and pro football kicked off and just weeks before the Major League Baseball playoffs.
That 10-team format quickly led to the 12-team “Chase” in 2007, which led to the 16-team “Playoffs” in 2014. In expanding and adding teams, NASCAR mimicked every other sport by creating a championship journey that included almost anybody who was anybody. Why have a 10- or 12-man “tournament” when you can have damn-near everybody? Leave no fan behind. Let’s keep those mediocre teams relevant as long as we can.
And, really, now… at a combined 0-for-78 did Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Bubba Wallace truly belong in this year’s Playoffs? For that matter, did NASCAR truly need 16 championship hopefuls with 10 races remaining? When the networks and major sponsors said yes, the die was cast.
And the bad news for many is there’s no reason to think it’s going to get any better anytime soon.