OK, folks, with the new NASCAR season starting on Saturday night, we have a new weekly feature: A mailbag where I answer your questions about the sport. Here’s the first pass with a lot of great questions from fans. From now on, it will run every Tuesday.
If you have a NASCAR-related question, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to include it.
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Q: What driver in his prime would fare the best in the current rule set and why? – Shane
Great question, Shane. Let me preface it by saying the best drivers would have been great in any era. Jimmie Johnson would have been a star in the 1950s, and Richard Petty or David Pearson would be winning lots of races today.
That said, in a current format that rewards winning over consistency, two guys come quickly to mind: Curtis Turner and Tim Richmond. Both those guys were incredible wheelmen and they both tended to win or push the car beyond its limits in trying.
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My question is: NASCAR has gone from requiring the cars that compete to be production cars available to the public to what we have now. Was there ever a hard rule change or was this just a matter of evolution? Thanks. — Rick
It’s been a constant evolution. When NASCAR began the old Strictly Stock Series in 1949, the cars were just that — strictly stock. In the mid-1950s NASCAR began to let teams beef up the front ends of cars because they had a tendency to break parts on the rough dirt tracks they raced on back then.
In the 1960s, NASCAR began to move from dirt short-tracks to big, fast tracks like Daytona, Charlotte and Atlanta. The cars had to be modified with frames and full roll cages to keep the drivers safe.
In later years, NASCAR introduced different generations of race cars. We are now up to the sixth-generation car, which actually looks a whole lot more like a street car than the Generation 5 cars that ran from 2007-2012 did.
One other factor: Most of the cars that have been raced in NASCAR over the last 20 years were based on production cars with V-6 engines and front-wheel drive, while the race cars have V-8s and rear-wheel drive. Because of that, you couldn’t use stock production-car body dimensions for a race car.
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Attendance at NASCAR events has been an issue for several years now. Seating has been reduced at many tracks. Amenities are being added to draw fans back to the tracks. Why not instead, lower ticket prices? – Jerry
Lots of tracks have lowered prices, Jerry. SMI tracks are offering $10 kids’ Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tickets and most tracks are letting kids in free for XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races.
That said, NASCAR and the track operators aren’t trying to sell NASCAR as the cheapest entertainment alternative. They’re selling the quality of experience — everything from the racing itself to on-site concerts and camping — and the new features like wi-fi and bigger seats.
And that’s just smart marketing. When your main selling point is that your cheaper than the competition, you’re selling cost only and not the benefits of your product. And you leave yourself vulnerable to be undercut on prices.
That said, I’d love to see hotels in places like Bristol and Talladega quit gouging race fans. To me, that’s a far bigger problem than ticket prices.
How much say do former race drivers and NASCAR HOFamers have when it comes to changes in the sport? — Nancy
While NASCAR solicits input from a lot of sources, they understandably care more about the opinions of the drivers who are racing every week and still have skin in the game. The Drivers’ Council has a lot of input these days into what goes on in NASCAR. Former drivers not nearly as much.
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On the behalf of some Swedish NASCAR fans ... are there any more talks about a road course race at Charlotte? —Christian
I also got a variation on this question from Brandon. I asked Charlotte Motor Speedway officials this very question last month at the NASCAR Media Tour and got very vague answers.
My personal opinion? The infield road course at Charlotte is way too tight to allow passing and the sightlines aren’t good for about half the track.
If they are going to try to run on the road course — and I don’t think they will — they should start with the Truck Series or XFINITY cars. I would be totally dumbfounded if NASCAR this year decided to run this year’s Charlotte playoff race on the road course. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.
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Did the damaged car rule come from the drivers? In the past few years I've heard drivers complaining about driving wrecked/repaired cars. Seemed like they were worried about their safety or thought that the car wasn't competitive. – Jim
I don’t know if they originated it but they certainly had a lot of input in it. And while we love to romanticize the heroic work of pit crews getting wrecked cars back on track, IMHO there’s nothing dumber — or more dangerous — than working on a car in the garage for an hour so a driver can go back out on track and finish 34th instead of 38th. No need for it at all.
Many, many times we’ve torn up cars go back on track and cut a tire or wreck again. It adds nothing whatsoever to the quality of racing and increases the likelihood of more cautions.
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I know it would be practically impossible to oversee and I wouldn't have a clue how it could be handled but what about a financial cap on teams? The well-funded teams win almost all the races except for maybe a rainout and they win all the championships. It's turned into just about 10 drivers and 4 organization that have a chance to win because they can spend what they need to, to get the results they want. – Bob
Look, I love seeing the little guys win as much as anyone else, but would be totally impossible to police a financial cap, Bob. Can’t be done.
And dominance by the top teams is nothing new. In 1955-56, Carl Kiekhaefer outspent everyone and won 52 races and two championships. In the 1960s, it was the Pettys and Holman-Moody. Then it was the Wood Brothers winning 49 races in the 1970s and Junior Johnson winning three straight titles with Cale Yarborough from 1976-78. And on and on and on until modern day.
And if you set a spending cap, it would have to be geared to the small teams because they have no money. Are you going to tell Rick Hendrick or Joe Gibbs or Roger Penske that they have to cut from 500 to 50 employees, because that’s all the small teams can afford? That would be a nightmare on a lot of levels.
Besides, with all due respect to the small teams, there’s a reason the big teams win: They do the best job. If you somehow magically equalized the field the top teams would still win because they have better people.
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I have a question. How is the order established for spotters? Or is there an order? Thanks for taking the questions!!! – Sherry
Excellent question, Sherry. For the answer, I reached out to Brett Griffin, the spotter for Clint Bowyer, Elliott Sadler and Myatt Snider. Here’s what he told me: “We used to pick for the race based on how we qualify. Now we just pick our spot on Friday morning — first come, first serve. We either stand with teammates or friends.”
Why is their still a concerted effort to come up with a qualifying setup, and not just qualify with the race setup? This currently raises overall cost and is not indicative of how the car will perform in the race. Additionally, smaller lower-funded teams spend too much time, money and effort just trying to make the show in qualifying while the race setup suffers. – Wayne.
Thanks for the question, Wayne. A couple of points: First off, most races these days are only 40-car fields to begin with, so the smaller teams really aren’t “just trying to make the show.” With the Charter system, 35 of the 40 are guaranteed to race anyway.
In 36 points races last year, 27 of them had only 40 cars entered. Eight races had 41 cars entered and the Daytona 500 had 44. So it isn’t like a lot of cars went home last year.
And I doubt that the cars at the back of the field spend much time working on qualifying anyway, because their upside might be qualifying 30th instead of 38th.
I would also argue that the drivers who consistently qualify in back, consistently finish in back, while the drivers who consistently start up front are far more likely to finish up there. Is it a perfect one-to-one correlation? Of course not. But you don’t see the Harvicks and the Keselowskis and the Hamlins qualifying 30th or worse on a regular basis.
NASCAR wants qualifying to be part of the entertainment for the race weekend, which makes sense when you think about it. It’s a big part of the show and the strategy, which is why they emphasize it.
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Do you think that the culture today not really being a car culture as was in the 1950s-80s is going to harm the sport of racing in the long run? — Amy
Of course it was. When I was a kid, cars were the center of our culture. Now it’s tablets and cell phones. Connectivity has replaced mobility as the most important thing for a lot of young people.
And at the risk of sounding like an old fart, life was a lot more fun when cars were sexy and phones were bland, instead of the other way around. Of course, back then not only did we have cars, we actually talked to people instead of just sending texts and DMs.