Ryan: Heat races in Sprint Cup? It’s worth taking the temperature

8 Comments

CHARLOTTE – All of the focus entering the 2016 Media Tour was on NASCAR’s move to insert a page from its Sprint Cup playbook into the Xfinity Series.

Usually, such changes flow upward instead of downward, and that’s why it’s important another wrinkle introduced to the junior circuit Tuesday shouldn’t be overlooked.

Heat races.

Coming to a Sprint Cup track near you?

We certainly have more reasons to hope so now that NASCAR seems to be taking the industry’s temperature on the concept.

The hue and cry surrounding the Xfinity Series’ new Chase-style championship, which had spawned increasingly rabid speculation for months, drowned out the significance of the makeover to the quartet of Dash 4 Cash races.

The events at Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway will feature two heat races preceding a main event. The concept helps break racing into more digestible portions, ratcheting up the urgency for an attention-starved society whose capacity for sitting through a three-hour show deteriorates with each new social media craze or smartphone app. At Richmond, for example, a 250-lap main event has been transformed into twin heat races comprised of 70 laps and a 140-lap feature race.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Two years ago, many were expecting heat races were on the short-term agenda in the Sprint Cup Series … before Chairman Brian France stunned the industry by radically changing course in favor of reformatting the championship playoff with elimination rounds and points resets.

The bold overhaul was a smashing success, yielding a compelling regular season during its 2014 debut and annually guaranteeing a captivating finale.

But the playoffs naturally lost some luster in the second year, in part because of a 2015 season in which NASCAR scrambled to try a bevy of new rules packages aimed at delivering a jolt to on-track action that sometimes was lacking (especially on 1.5-mile superspeedways). There was an era several years ago when NASCAR would be cautious heaping changes on fans, but the sanctioning body embraced a more nimble strategy last year. If a competitive change shows encouraging signs of being an upgrade, implementation will be swift.

Thus, this year’s heat races in Xfinity are worth monitoring because they already have drawn broad support from some prominent names in Cup.

Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is among those who had expected NASCAR to take a shot at heat races after the 2013 season, and he quietly has lobbied for the idea when asked about solutions for reaching a younger audience. In the wake of group qualifying bombing at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has suggested 20-lap heat races to set the field at restrictor-plate tracks.

There have been many examples of trying competition tweaks in lower series before introductions to Cup. Multiple attempts at a green-white-checkered finish and group qualifying are among the many examples that were given a test run before a large-stage debut.

In an extremely limited version of such a trial, heat races already have ginned up a massive amount of drama in the Camping World Truck Series’ first three visits to Eldora Speedway. In 2013, unlikely veteran underdog Norm Benning became a nationally trending folk hero on Twitter via a fender-banging charge to the main event. A last-chance heat race made it possible.

Eldora is a dirt track, and its truck race is a one-off that is a less-than-perfect sample size for the efficacy of heat races in Sprint Cup. More testing is needed in traditional stock-car settings, and the addition of heat races to the Xfinity Series hopefully is the next stage in a stair-step process that historically has borne competitive fruit.

The time hasn’t arrived yet time for heat races in Sprint Cup – but Tuesday’s news shows that it soon could.