Friday, March 18, 2016

OPINION: How a 40-start cap would improve all three of NASCAR’s top divisions

Last week, I broke down the problem facing the XFINITY Series, how the Cup regulars invading the division are suffocating the series regulars and inhibiting driver development.  This week, I offer my solution: a mandatory cap of 40 starts for every driver who competes in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

Under this universal system, a “start” in a NASCAR race shall be treated as one of a bundle of tickets which, once used by a driver, cannot be refunded.  The plan is simple and plays no favorites: whether you’re Kyle Busch or an up-and-comer in the Truck Series, everyone has 40 starts.  A driver - not a team - earns these tickets whenever he or she is approved for his NASCAR license - whether over the offseason or in the middle of the year.  Regardless of when a driver earns them, they expire at season’s end in November.  A driver can only get another 40 tickets on the same year-by-year basis as their license - no more, no less.

Why 40?  Because it limits Cup drivers the most - the very purpose of this proposal.  The most prolific invaders of the XFINITY Series are perennial contenders for the Sprint Cup Championship, which under current NASCAR rules means that the driver must attempt all 36 races.  With a 40-race cap, Cup drivers aren’t prohibited from running XFINITY or Truck races - even the richest events on the schedule at Daytona, Talladega, Texas, and Indianapolis - but are incurred the strictest limit on how often they do so.  This also makes clear to sponsors that they are prohibited from funding a Cup driver those four times, eliminating the temptation to pour all their assets into one Cup driver.

The 40-race cap also doesn’t punish XFINITY and Truck Series regulars.  In fact, the size of the schedule itself gives them added lee-way: both divisions have shorter seasons than Cup, and thus more starts they can use in the other two divisions.  With this rule in place under the current schedule, a full-time XFINITY driver has seven extra starts - three more than a Cup regular - while a Truck driver has 13 - nine more than in Cup.  This makes logical sense since XFINITY and Truck Series drivers - unlike their Cup superiors - need to run more NASCAR races in order to hone their skills.  With Cup invasions by any one driver reduced, XFINITY and Truck drivers are given greater opportunity to win their own races by competing against fellow regulars.

Best of all, by making a driver’s number of available starts a known value, it makes that XFINITY or Truck driver more marketable to sponsors whose ad budget with the Cup drivers has been slashed by the same system.  With added funding comes better performances, and a better chance of the XFINITY or Truck regular ascending through the ranks.  The first drivers to ascend will be the series regulars of both the XFINITY and Truck Series, teams with the most funding and resources.  As they then enter the Cup Series and are themselves prohibited from running more than a few races in the lower ranks, the lesser-knowns struggling to make ends meet will take their place.  These underdogs will then contend with other upwardly-mobile drivers for Cup teams, a cast of characters that continues to change.  This increased fluidity of the divisions means greater competition, and thus a better racing product.

Meanwhile, Cup Series regulars are given little choice but to focus on their Cup efforts, which will enhance the quality of racing in the sport’s most elite division.  This would put some of the Cup Series’ youngest stars on par with its most prolific title contender.  From the start of the 2006 season through the end of 2015, Kevin Harvick ran 197 XFINITY races and 37 in Trucks while Kyle Busch made 256 in XFINITY and 111 in Trucks.  Yet both drivers only won their first Sprint Cup in the last two years.  By then, Jimmie Johnson - who made just 12 XFINITY races and 1 in Trucks during the same span - had won all six of his.

The most important aspect of this rule is its enforcement, which must be absolute and consistent.  For this rule to work, NASCAR’s sanctioning body must make sure a driver’s 40 starts remain non-transferrable, that is, they stay with that driver.  Starts cannot be sold from one driver to the next, just as a completed check cannot be claimed by another person.  Starts must thus be treated differently from qualifying spots, Top 35 positions, and now Charter medallions, which are all marketed without regulation in a way that disproportionately favors the richest teams.  This is essential to the success of the rule - without it, Cup drivers will continue to pillage the lower divisions for pennies on the dollar by encouraging small teams to take the short money.

Further, in the wake of the Chase exemptions granted to both Kyle and Kurt Busch last year, NASCAR must also resist the temptation to grant exemptions regarding how many starts a driver has.  Clearly defining the “use” of a start is critical for this purpose, and it must also obey the above rule of non-transferability.  My suggestion is that a start is “used” when the driver cranks the car at the start of the race - the same standard already in use for determining who is credited with earning driver points in the official race results.  This allows for situations where a relief driver is called prior to the race - but not afterwards.  It also favors small teams who often DNQ or lose their only car in a practice crash and are thus unable to start the race - both situations which do not constitute a “use” of any of their 40 starts.  Otherwise, there is to be no exception - any misfortune after the start, no matter how soon - including a “start-and-park,” means the start has been used and cannot be re-used.

The 40-start rule is a simple solution to not only save the XFINITY and Truck Series from irrelevancy, but a way to improve the quality of Cup fields.  Just as importantly, it’s an opportunity for NASCAR’s sanctioning body to assert itself by consistently enforcing its own rules.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I had a theory on this as well:

Fix for Cup drivers running in lower series
Create a formula where the drivers have passes to races in lower series. The amount of passes you have correlates to the number that they finish in Cup points the previous year. This year, Kyle Busch would have one pass to use during the 2016 season to run in Xfinity or CWTS races; Another driver like Austin Dillon, who might need some more seat time after finishing 21st in points, would have 21 passes to use in 2016 at tracks where he/she might need help.
A driver not declaring for Cup points can run whatever races he or she likes and that rule applies also for a Cup rookie like Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney this year. They would have an unlimited pass for lower tier races this year and would fall into the system next season, when they have a Cup points finish to base off of.
This would help bring some of the drivers closer as well as help the drivers get seat time who need it. I know a common argument is that Xfinity and CWTS sponsors won’t sponsor the car without a Cup driver in it, but what keeps Joe Gibbs from running his Cup drivers for their “pass” races as well as putting in other Toyota drivers into the program who may need some seat time? David Ragan is in a Toyota and he is a Cup driver, he finished 27th in points in 2015 so that would be 27 passes for him to round out a Cup “All-Star” car at JGR for the season. So, doesn’t that solve the problem?