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State of the Sport So Far: The Good & Bad of NASCAR 2023

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With it being an off-week for all of NASCAR this week, it seems like as good of a time as any to take a step back and look at the sport as a whole. What are some things that NASCAR is doing well, and what are some things that need to be examined?

Good: NASCAR Is Looking to Expand Its’ Borders

NASCAR has a more diverse reach than it ever has. Gone are the days when NASCAR was merely a niche in the Southeastern United States. Full-time drivers such Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace, and one-off drivers such as Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, and Kamui Kobayashi show that NASCAR is appealing to a more diverse audience than it used to.

That is why something such as Garage-56 is so huge. Now people who never would have thought twice about NASCAR racing could give NASCAR a second-look. Adam Stern reported that NASCAR is looking at international venues for races, and now is probably the time to strike.

NASCAR has exhausted pretty much every major U.S. market, so the best way to expand the sport is to go beyond the borders of the U.S.

Bad: Is NASCAR Expanding to the “Right” Places?

Races such as the Chicago Street Race and the Clash at the Coliseum have moved NASCAR from the outskirts of cities into the heart of these places. The question becomes, is NASCAR expanding to places that want NASCAR to be there or places NASCAR wants to be regardless of local support.

This is something NASCAR has to be careful of as they look towards expanding potentially internationally as well. NASCAR may want to be in the Middle East, but does the Middle East really want NASCAR? NASCAR may want to be in Europe, but does Europe really want NASCAR?

NASCAR has to be very thorough and careful with how they build their schedule these next few years especially with a new TV contract. The last time NASCAR expanded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the results became very mixed as time went on.

Good: Younger Stars Are Emerging

With Kevin Harvick retiring, and drivers such as Martin Truex Jr. seemingly retiring soon, NASCAR needs new stars to start emerging. For a long time, NASCAR would promote their “Youth Movement” that simply was not performing. These drivers are starting to emerge.

William Byron is in the midst of his breakout season. Ross Chastain is looking to potentially be that next “villain” that NASCAR needs. Other younger drivers such as Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, and Bubba Wallace are starting to perform consistently as well.

When older drivers step away, the torch needs to be handed to someone. It seems that those guys are ready to take up the challenge.

Bad: Some of NASCAR’s Biggest Stars are Struggling

It’s no secret that “stars” drive sports, and NASCAR is no different. However, some of NASCAR’s stars are not racing as well as they could be.

Every week, people talk about how Kyle Larson is potentially the best driver in the sport, but he sits 10th in points. It’s hard to sell someone like that to a casual fan when they see that performance. Of course, this does speak to the incredible parity of NASCAR, but stars typically sell.

Chase Elliott’s absence in seven races no doubt had an impact on TV ratings. Six of those were because of injury, but one of those was because of intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin. It’s not a good look when NASCAR’s most marketable star is suspended for on-track behavior.

Good: Parity From Last Season is Continuing

Last season, NASCAR had 18 different winners as the Next-Gen car brought competition closer than it ever has. That has continued this year with 10 different winners in 16 races. Not only that, but drivers and teams who were previously back-markers are now in serious Playoff contention.

RFK Racing has both of its’ teams solidly in the Playoffs on points. 23XI Racing has both of its’ cars currently in the Playoffs. Even drivers such as Michael McDowell and Corey LaJoie for Front Row Motorsports and Spire Motorsports are within striking distance of the Playoffs.

One of the goals of the Next-Gen car was to tighten up the competition. This season has continued that trend.

Bad: The Next-Gen Car’s Safety is Still a Concern

The safety of the Next-Gen car was a concern last season, and that concern has been magnified over the last couple of weeks. While this year seems to have been a general improvement, a recent concussion for Noah Gragson at Gateway and a horrifying crash for Kyle Larson at Talladega has called for more changes.

Thankfully, NASCAR is making changes particularly in response to the Larson crash at Talladega. As for whether those changes will work, that remains to be seen. However, the fact that there is a response is a good thing.

Good: The Intermediate Track Product is as Good as it has Ever Been

Last season, the product on intermediate race tracks was one of the best parts of the Next-Gen car. That has continued this year with great races at Kansas, Charlotte, and Auto Club Speedway.

What were previously races that were at-best apathetic towards or at-worst dreaded are now races to look forward to. Even though intermediate tracks do not make up the same portion of the schedule they once did, they still make up around a third of the schedule. Meaning that these races need to be entertaining.

Bad: The Short Track Product Still Needs Work

It’s no secret that NASCAR’s bread and butter are the short tracks. IndyCar is not rolling into Martinsville and Formula One is not racing at Bristol. Unfortunately the product at these tracks, while improved, is still not ideal.

One of the most highly anticipated races of the year, North Wilkesboro, completely flopped in terms of on-track product. If the short track product is not good, then NASCAR loses a large part of what makes it unique.

Good: NASCAR is Cracking Down on Cheating

The Next-Gen car is meant to both cut costs and tighten the competition. How does NASCAR do that? They need to police the car very tightly. As frustrating as it is to watch teams get penalized seemingly every week, NASCAR has to crack down on these types of violations or the Next-Gen car does not fulfill its’ purpose.

NASCAR has also become more transparent about what these violations are as evidenced by the Chase Briscoe penalty. That makes fans and teams much more well-informed as to what these penalties specifically are.

Bad: The Garage Needs a “Cheating” Culture Change

The old saying in NASCAR was “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” The story has been told multiple times about how NASCAR used to not even weigh cars after the race, but times have changed.

The Next-Gen car is a spec race car, and it has to be policed tighter. NASCAR teams have to learn that they cannot experiment in places that they used to. It’s a tighter run ship, and you just cannot get away with what you used to.

Conclusion

NASCAR is a sport that is constantly evolving. Never once in the sport’s history has everything been perfect at one time. This year is no different, and it will be interesting to see how these issues get resolved over time.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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