As the 2016 season ended, the three racing series sanctioned by NASCAR underwent changes like the sport had never seen before. It seemed like every day brought an announcement of a new change; changes that went on and on and on, not unlike an old 500-lap race at Dover.
I have to admit, though overwhelmed by it all, I listened intently to each, hoping to hear the one change that I believe would make the biggest positive change in the sport – adopting the "Race for the Green" (formerly known as 20-20).
Briefly, the RFG would eliminate qualifying against the clock to set the starting lineup. Instead, like Daytona it would two "heat" races to set the starting lineup for Sunday's "Main". The difference would be the starting order for these "heats" would be set based on the finishing order of the previous race, with the top 8 finishers in last week's race automatically advancing to the "Main", while finishers 9-24 would race in the first "Heat" while finishers 25-40, plus new entries would make up the next "Heat". The finishing orders of those two "Heats" would set starting positions 9-24 and 25-40 in the "Main" respectively.
The "Heats" would be just short of a fuel run so we wouldn't have finishes like we did at Daytona. You race your way in-the way it should be and the way it's done on bullrings throughout the country every Friday and Saturday night.
After the aftermath of Daytona I couldn't help but think how different this week heading into Atlanta would have been, if RFG had been adopted. Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney would be rolling off from the front row on Sunday. Row 2-AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola, followed by Paul Menard and Joey Logano in row three. Rounding out the top eight would be Kasey Kahne and Michael Waltrip*.
What an interesting starting lineup; what compelling storylines. The race between Busch and Blaney continues on. What a great chance to build momentum for the teams in the second row. Joey Logano rolls off sixth, just like he did qualifying against the clock and Waltrip and Aaron's would have an interesting decision-does he walk away as planned or crawl back into the car for another race because of his great starting spot?
The neatest thing about this is that if RFG had been adopted, all these storylines, all this potential buzz could have started as soon as they dropped the black and white checkered flag signifying the end of the race (not to be confused with the other checkered flag which signifies the end of stages one and two). We would have all week to discuss it, analyze it, and speculate on it.
But if that isn't enough, look at the lineups for the "Heat" races. Matt DiBenedetto and Trevor Bayne would lead this pack of 16 of the first heat which includes Brendan Gaughan, Kyle Larson; Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott; Michael McDowell, Landon Cassill; Denny Hamlin, Cole Whitt; Austin Dillon, Elliott Sadler*; Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick; Joey Gase*, Corey Lajoie. That's quite a lineup with a lot of the top teams mixing it up.
Now that is television worth waiting for and worth watching!
Keep in mind, unlike the Can-Am Clashes the winner of this "Heat" rolls off 9th in Sunday's "Main". There are lots of good cars out there scratching for this win only to see eight cars start ahead of them on Sunday. Talk about storylines!
The second "Heat" provides even more intrigue. There you find David Ragan and Jeffery Earnhardt making up that front row, followed by Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray; Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon; Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Clint Bowyer; Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson; Chris Buescher, D.J. Kennington*; Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch; Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth. New entries Gray Gaulding, Reed Sorenson, Derrick Cope and Cody Ware would bring up the rear with Sorenson being the first one in that group since he attempted to qualify at Daytona. Again, lots of good cars, favorite drivers, mix of makes, big team drivers trying to get to the front, smaller teams doing all they can to hang onto what they've got. If we had a larger entry field the non-Charters would be scrambling to finish high enough to ensure they make Sunday's "Main.”
And it's all for 25th starting position! And we have all week to talk about it!
Can Dale Jr. dig out of this hole? Can Kyle get to the front of this bunch in so few laps? (If I were FOX I'd put a camera on him alone just to watch him bust through the pack. That in and of itself would be even more exciting than what we did get for qualification on Friday.). Can they get by Kez and McMurray? Will this put Johnson back far enough to finally break his stranglehold on Atlanta? What kind of strategy will they have to use in Sunday's "Main" to get to the front and compete for stage wins?
It goes on and on and this buzz could start before the last car was loaded on its hauler in Daytona.
“*”The drivers marked by asterisk above, didn't enter Atlanta. Would they have reconsidered and signed up if they knew whether they were going to start in the "Main" or in the "Heats" if RFG had been in place? Unfortunately, we'll never know.
I think it would be fun to see how the drivers would respond to question after question all week about their less than ideal starting positions for this week. Let's face it; for the drivers who are in the "Heats" no matter where they finish it isn't great. Everyone knows that before they leave Daytona. Everyone knows they have no "do-overs", the slate is not wiped clean after Daytona, and so they get a fresh start against the clock in Atlanta. The pressure for these guys is on and on all week long. How will they respond?
The pressure is on for the other teams as well. Those teams not used to consistently running up front suddenly find themselves going directly to Sunday's "Main". Talk about attention. Can they run well enough to hang onto to what they have? How will they race it on Sunday? Will the newfound focus land them any additional sponsorship which could help their season efforts? The entire season has suddenly been ratcheted up...
And we're just heading into race two!
The focus for the week is on racing. The story lines that we now see after qualifications are complete on Friday, could begin Sunday night, Monday night at the latest and give everyone something to talk about all week which is a vast improvement over what we have today. I can't speak for your office or workplace but after the race rerun around the water cooler on Monday, racing is shelved until the next Monday. RFG keeps the conversations going all week as we know who is ahead and behind before they roll into “Hotlanta.” That's buzz… vital buzz the sport needs for sustenance and growth. Segment racing won't get it nor will convoluted race procedures and additional point systems.
Only the "Race for the Green" can do that.
Hidden behind it all is the knowledge that how the drivers finish on Sunday in Atlanta determines where they start in their Western Swing, first in Las Vegas. Vegas' finishes determines the start at Phoenix with the finish there setting the grid for Fontana. Suddenly, under RFG that usually boring and nondescript race has increased importance because the finish there sets the lineup for Martinsville, a track where a good starting position is absolutely critical.
Under RFG, with each race's start building off the previous week's finish, each race is important; what happens at Daytona affects the entire season and each race's importance increases. Without stages and additional points systems every lap matters. No riding, no testing, no taking races off under RFG.
Criticisms received from previous RFG articles was "it's too complicated". Turns out, with all the other changes and "Enhancements" implemented since then, understanding RFG is a walk in the park. Borrowing an old tag line from Ty Dillon's sponsor, compared to the other series changes RFG is so simple "Even a caveman can understand it"... even one amped up on Monster Energy!
When I look at the week that was without RFG and imagine what it could have been like with RFG I shake my head at the opportunity lost. The buzz would have been incredible and the pressure on the top teams would have been intense. Instead we got a recap of carnage, fussing about things from the segments to the five minute repair rule, to the Monster Energy Girls’ attire, to the colors on the segment flags. Truly, opportunity lost.
Friday, instead of two great "Heat" races with cars racing against cars, we got cars racing against a clock. Instead of drivers being rewarded for their racing, instead of Daytona winner Kurt Busch being rewarded with Atlanta's pole and first pit selection he rolls off 13th. Instead of seeing him and Ryan Blaney roll off side by side, leading the Atlanta pack, we see them doing so from the seventh row after their race against the clock. Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman would at best be starting 9th and 10th under RFG, roll off as the Atlanta front row as a result of the "do-over” given with the current race against the clock. Instead of answering questions about how he will dig out of a ninth place start, Harvick is basking in the glory of a pole run. Kyle Busch is the largest beneficiary under the current system. He starts third now, when RFG would have put him at best 25th. How different would his week have been? Under RFG, Aric Almirola would have enjoyed a week knowing he would be starting fourth, but after racing against the clock now finds himself mired in the obscurity to 30th starting spot. Stories like that abound, but the saddest thing is under the current system, Monday through Friday night we have little Atlanta race buzz but with RFG, the Atlanta "Main" and "Heats" would have buzzed all week.
How different would the week have been? How great would that have been?
Sadly, we'll not know in 2017. That's a shame. A real shame.
Author's Note: By the time this article is posted, the Atlanta race will have run and the Premier Series will be well on their way, heading west to Vegas. And as they drive into another week of the 2017 season without RFG, the buzz from that race will disappear like the Atlanta skyline in their rear views. Another opportunity lost.