Debate: NASCAR's burning questions

Originally Published: July 8, 2014
ESPN.com

Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:

Turn 1: What do you make of the news that nine top NASCAR teams have formed the Race Team Alliance to have a united voice on issues owners face in the sport?

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: The France family's worst nightmare, dating to 1947, is now reality. The monarchy is still in place, but is no longer absolute, and will no longer be able to take all it wants for itself. Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Formula One Constructors Association weren't "unions" per se, either -- they were consolidations of power that seized control of, and enormously changed, their realms.

Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman, who was elected the aliance's chairman, spoke in mild, diplomatic language -- but all that means is that the giant has been born sleeping. NASCAR dare not awaken it. Just the idea of those nine teams' haulers pulling out of a garage area on a Friday or Saturday amounts to a nuclear deterrent. Enormous power may be wielded beyond public view. It's a matter of time until the RTA gets a much larger share of TV money, gathers veto power over technical rules changes, exerts pressure on scheduling -- pretty much anything it wants. Bill France Jr.'s old iron mantra of "we can do without you" has just been gutted.

This thing came very close to happening in the mid-1990s. The rumblings were palpable in the garages. But France managed to defuse it. Since then, NASCAR's greed has resumed. The RTA was born of that saying: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." These powerful teams, and this titanic alliance, will not be fooled again. Fans needn't worry. They won't be hurt by this. If anything, they'll be helped.

Brant James, ESPN.com: This should be a disconcerting move for NASCAR, because it might cost it money. Get an international investment banker, a billionaire and a sundry room full of millionaires and car salesmen together and eventually they will begin devising clever means to improve their margins. A main goal could or should be to form a wedge against the sanctioning body's penchant for luring away team sponsors. Offering a potential sponsor a raft of race cars from Hendrick, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas et al could be compelling, and a better deal than signing on with a faceless sanctioning body.

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: My first reaction was to wonder what took so long for this to happen. There has long been a pleasant tension between the sanctioning body and the competitors when it comes to one side handing the other stuff they have to do that costs money (see: new cars, new engines, etc.) while the side giving the orders cashed checks. A unified front from the teams will help when it comes to any future negotiations, be it rules changes, splitting cash or both. Heck, the RTA would prove effective merely by starting any negotiations at all. And there would be benefits to the smaller teams getting on board. If the RTA goes out and finds deals on say, travel costs, then that would help the little guy as well.

John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: I think NASCAR should definitely consider it a warning shot, and the stock car fan base has reason to be worried. An owners' group was probably inevitable, but it should still concern the France family. History tells us that such organizations can be good or bad for a sport. Created in 1974 by Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One Constructors Association helped massively elevate F1 racing into a worldwide juggernaut, but it also stripped power from the sanctioning body. On the other hand, the formation of CART benefited Indy car racing in the short term, but it also increased the political tension within the sport to the point that it ultimately resulted in another power grab -- the infamous IRL/CART war that essentially trivialized Indy car racing in America and around the world. The Frances and NASCAR run a tight dictatorship, but the owners putting together the RTA might be advised to be careful about what they wish for.

Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: I make that powerful men with leverage just made a power play to protect their interests and their assets. From every conversation I've had with industry sources, this is my hypothesis on the Race Team Alliance: I believe at its foundation the RTA is first and foremost based on the desire of the owners to receive more television revenue. NASCAR signed an $8 billion television broadcast rights package that begins next season. The bulk of that money goes to the tracks and the sanctioning body. The tracks are publicly traded, so richer tracks mean happier shareholders. The sanctioning body, of course, is a family-owned business -- our way or the highway. Yet NASCAR is a free-enterprise platform, so the team owner assumes all of the financial risk: The team owner pays for every rules change NASCAR decides to introduce, no matter how large or small. The team owner must procure sponsorship for his teams, or his teams die on the vine. And if he fails in that capacity, what's he left with? A few cents on the dollar, if he's lucky.

It's a different world than it was when Richard Petty tried to unionize the drivers way back when. Back then there weren't a ton of sponsors. Today, Fortune 500 companies allot millions of dollars to market drivers as the faces of their brands. Leverage has changed. Now, whether any of that ever facilitates anything is anybody's guess. But it's a telltale sign that owners believe they need to be unified to protect themselves.

Turn 2: How much of a shock wave did Aric Almirola's win send through the drivers with hopes of advancing to the Chase on points?

Hinton: There's still room for a surprise qualifier for the Chase. And I wasn't stunned that Almirola won. He has had some pretty strong runs foiled by wrecks and bad luck. So rather than a shock, I would call this confirmation to the dark horses that they can get in. As for the likes of Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, I still say they're going to win their way in somewhere, sometime this summer.

Aric Almirola
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsCoke Zero 400 winner Aric Almirola

James: Big-rippled shock waves, considering Almirola couldn't have been one of those "anticipated" winners in the final 10 races, like Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer -- who are currently in on points -- or Tony Stewart. Turning a first Cup win into a playoff berth is massive for Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports, but laden with anxiety for the cadre of drivers on the cusp of the Chase cutoff.

McGee: It's big because he took away a spot from those guys to fight over and he was one of the guys who likely would've been in that group. I think the bubble will come down to points now. You had to have already believed that the Daytona race had the potential to open the Chase door for a smaller team, just as we've always looked at the two road course races. All summer I've looked at it as the last real shot for the little guys to make a Chase run, and you saw that in how those teams really threw everything they had at the entire weekend, including qualifying. Now, perhaps with the exception of Watkins Glen, I think the remaining races will be split up by the big teams.

Oreovicz: Almirola was in the mix to make the top 16 on points, but nobody really thought of him as a legitimate threat to win a race. With the Chase field unlikely to consist of 16 winners, Almirola gave NASCAR exactly the kind of "wild card" it was hoping for when it revised the playoff qualifications. Now it's praying that the final few races leading into Richmond create an interesting and exciting race for 16th place in the standings. With big names like Kenseth, Stewart, Greg Biffle and Bowyer still winless, that seems guaranteed.

Smith: It was huge, but not surprising. Not at Daytona. Plus, Almirola and Trent Owens have made notable speed at times this year. They're inconsistent but competitive. Many of us predicted Richard Petty Motorsports as a threat to do this very thing -- Almirola at Daytona or Talladega and Marcos Ambrose at Sonoma or Watkins Glen. RPM could very well place both of its drivers in the playoffs. Imagine what that means for that team and those drivers? The contractual incentives are almost certainly notable. Drivers like Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth went home from Daytona with wrecked race cars and way more pressure than they entered with. The urgency to win is evident.

Turn 3: Should International Speedway Corp./NASCAR move the Coke Zero 400 start time back to its traditional morning slot?

Hinton: I've been preaching that ever since they went to night racing -- Big Bill France started that race at 10 a.m. ET for a very good reason. Then 11 a.m. worked well, too. Privately, some NASCAR officials know a morning start would be better, but they are ruled by TV contracts. And networks just don't want it. I question the wisdom there. I think they'd be stunned at how good the ratings would be for an old-fashioned 10 a.m. start on the Fourth of July. But they're not going to risk it, so it won't happen.

NASCAR
Daniel Shirey/Getty ImagesDaytona International Speedway

James: Yes. Just lie and say it's in the spirit of traditionalism. Race in the morning, let fans get sunburned or rained upon later at the beach. Let fans at home do the same. Let the drivers scamper home so they can Instagram pictures of each other having a grand time on Lake Norman. Make the race something different, not just another Saturday night race under weather conditions that will always threaten to impact some part of the schedule.

McGee: No. On paper, that looks great, and I have grown tired of night races. But those of us who covered some of those 11 a.m. Firecracker 400s still have pieces of our shoes stuck in the Daytona asphalt because our soles melted into it.

Oreovicz: I don't think that would make a whole lot of difference. Summer storms are a fact of life in Daytona Beach; maybe you could outrun them by starting at 10 a.m., but you might just end up having a delayed race at night anyway. If I was going to make a change, I'd move the race to a Thursday night so that folks could go to the race and still enjoy a full holiday weekend.

Smith: Absolutely not. I love the Firecracker 400 as a night race. It's one of my favorite nights of every year. As it stands, it's one of the most electric events on the tour, to me. Leave it be.

Turn 4: Realistically, what sort of schedule changes should we expect to see next year, and in the next five seasons?

Hinton: Little, if any. We're talking realism, right? So there. We can conjecture all we want about tweaking, and we do every year, and every year it remains close to status quo with the occasional exception of early Chase races. Chicagoland was made the opener to boost interest in that market, and I'm not sure it has helped a whole lot in anti-NASCARland. The only possibility of change would come if the new Chase format yields a spike in interest, so that track operators lobby harder for Chase schedule position.

Brian France
Bob Leverone/NASCAR/Getty ImagesNASCAR chairman Brian France

James: Not a ton, in the short term. Maybe Darlington moving to a different slot. Iowa seems years and many local expenditures from landing a Cup date. NASCAR chairman Brian France said this weekend that "robust" discussions have been held regarding scheduling with a new television deal beginning next season, but it's hard to envision the real tough labor getting done, shrinking the schedule and paring dates from weak or oversaturated markets.

McGee: Realistically? I don't expect much. I think there will be some shuffling of the Chase races, particularly in the first half. And I do think we might get a midweek night race or two during the summer. But I don't expect any big shockers like a road course in the Chase, or taking away races from struggling two-date tracks and plugging them into places like Iowa and Austin, or ending the season earlier in the fall. Is that what I want to see? Yes. Is that what I think we will see? History says no.

Oreovicz: Based on NASCAR's history and tradition, schedule changes will range from nonexistent to minimal. We can make suggestions until the cow jumps over the moon and NASCAR will still retain the same basic schedule. The debate will rage on about adding a road course to the Chase, whether some tracks deserve two races, and where to end the season. My two cents: The finale needs to be somewhere other than Homestead, but I'd bet my next paycheck that the closer will always be staged on a track owned by the France family and International Speedway Corp. Which is too bad, because the logical place to end the season is Las Vegas -- but that will never happen because Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a Speedway Motorsports Inc. track.

Smith: Hang a dartboard on your man-room wall. Take 21 darts and 36 dates. Start throwing. See what happens. Who the heck knows?

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