Martin Truex Jr. embraces his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, whose reoccurring battle with ovarian cancer has been well-documented, after winning his first NASCAR championship in November. bmarks@charlotteobserver.com
Martin Truex Jr. embraces his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, whose reoccurring battle with ovarian cancer has been well-documented, after winning his first NASCAR championship in November. bmarks@charlotteobserver.com

NASCAR & Auto Racing

Four ideas to keep NASCAR exciting – and make it even better – in 2018

December 27, 2017 08:29 PM

Maybe your New Year’s Resolution is to go to the gym more (whose isn’t?), or to eat healthier or to finally read some of those books you never got around to last year.

Whatever your resolutions: they’re all goals for improving your life. And that’s admirable, so much so that the concept deserves to be applied more broadly than at an individual level. Say, across sports ... or in one particular sport.

NASCAR has seen its ratings dip in recent years, and tracks nationwide have more empty seats than they did a decade ago. But to NASCAR’s credit, the sport isn’t resting and waiting for its inevitable decline. Instead, it’s tweaking and changing rules or traditions to make things better. To improve.

And so, here are four resolutions for NASCAR in 2018 that would not just keep the sport exciting – it would make it even better:

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1. Leave stage racing alone, and let others catch up: This is the perfect example of NASCAR changing some rules to improve competition. Last season, stage racing was introduced as a way to keep viewers engaged through the course of a race and to keep drivers motivated to race their hardest at all times.

And it worked, and extremely well. Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance all season? Yeah, stage racing and the advantage he built up with all those stage wins was a huge part of it. Now ... leave it alone.

Truex and his team understood sooner than and better than anyone else how crucial those stage wins would be, and he deservedly won his first championship this season. But now that the other drivers have seen how essential they are, let them have a full season with no changes to try and catch Truex. If they can, that is.

Martin Truex Jr. (78) and his team understood sooner than and better than anyone else how crucial stage wins would be, and he deservedly won his first championship this season.
Sam Greene AP

2. Build up the playoffs (and keep things interesting): Several of NASCAR’s highest-rated races this season came in the playoffs, with the fall race at Martinsville and the championship in Homestead standing out among them. The high stakes of cutdown races, of picking up stage points ... it’s all designed to keep viewers tuned in, and you saw some of the fruits of that this season with increased viewing numbers.

Build on that. Keep testing out new tracks (like Las Vegas and the Charlotte ‘Roval’) to find the perfect mix of excitement and tradition (within the delicate confines of scheduling). Keep playing with the order of tracks. The playoffs should be the most exciting part of the season, a time when any driver can win if they qualify. NASCAR’s well on the way to a terrific playoffs, so long as it keeps perfecting.

3. More seat time for the next generation: This one’s pretty obvious, but necessary. Like any sport, racing goes through generational shifts. Peyton Manning retires in the NFL, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. follows him out of NASCAR. But while the NFL and other major sports consistently allow for rookies to succeed immediately, it can sometimes be tougher for young drivers to break onto the scene.

The thing is, those young drivers – Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Bubba Wallace – are the future of the sport both on and off the track. Not only will they be the ones in the cars for the next 10 to 15 years, they’re the names and personalities that need to pull in the next generation of NASCAR fans. If NASCAR can’t attract the millenial generation, then its success is limited. Putting younger drivers in the cars and letting them drive out some rookie mistakes is the best way to help the longevity of the sport.

4. Keep embracing social media... but in the right way: This one is tricky. To NASCAR’s credit, of all the major American sports, it is one of the best as far as embracing social media and connecting to fans. Part of that is through the bold personalities of some of the sport’s best drivers, but it’s also an earnest effort from the top down to engage with fans and be innovative.

The problem is when that social media experience starts hurting actual interest in races. Why watch 350 laps when you can get Twitter updates at the major points? In some ways, social media is acting as a DVR for fans: alert me to the biggest and best moments so I can tune in, and everything else is white noise.

Striking a balance will be key for viewership and fan engagement in 2018, but also the near future. Keeping that connection between drivers and fans is key, but so too is making sure people are still watching the races. There’s a way to do both, but the line is a tight one to walk.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks