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Topics NASCAR must address before season
How will NASCAR top one of the most memorable seasons ever?
After the sanctioning body unleashed the “Boys, have at it” philosophy one year ago, stock car racing at the national level began showing signs of returning to the outlaw mentality of days past.
Drivers reestablished their public personalities. Sprint Cup Series cars regained some identity and pony cars debuted in the Nationwide Series ranks. Rivalries developed on the track and off. Best of all, NASCAR did not micro-manage the competition as it had under Bill France Jr.’s benevolent dictatorship.
But this is a new era for the sport. With sagging attendance and TV ratings, it was time for a tweak and don't expect the changes to stop there. Several possible rules modifications to enhance the sport have been discussed with teams and sponsors. The results should be revealed when teams meet with NASCAR officials next week and during Daytona testing on Jan. 20-22.
NASCAR chairman Brian France will clarify what direction competition will take when he addresses the media at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 21 during the Cup test.
Here are several issues we hope France will address between now and then:
How will the Chase for the Sprint Cup change?
It was not by accident that Brian France floated ideas last summer to alter the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A seven-month gestational period could offer the sanctioning body plenty of time to research possible scenarios and iron out the particulars for qualifying for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
How many drivers are involved in the Chase and how quickly each driver is eliminated over the 10-week stretch will finally be resolved. While 15 appears to be the number NASCAR has settled on for drivers in the Chase, the elimination process has vacillated between how many drivers are dismissed and whether that occurs following each week or every third week. Once the dust settles, expect five drivers to be vying for the title in the season finale.
The 2010 Chase evolved into the tightest contest in the program’s seven-year history. Still, France seems set on creating “Game 7” moments in the postseason. While his desire to have drivers “elevate on Sundays” played nicely with the “Boys, have at it” mentality, attempting to artificially create memories etched on highlight reels will be more difficult to achieve.
What will the future hold for the Nationwide Series?
For the last five years, NASCAR’s Triple-A tour distanced itself from what it was created to do — provide a challenging environment for up-and-coming drivers and racers competing with limited budgets.
After 2005, the last year a driver (Martin Truex Jr.) who competed solely in NASCAR’s feeder series won the title, it became vogue to refer to incoming Cup racers as Buschwhackers. Not only did many of the Cup competitors seize wins, points and money from the Busch Series (now Nationwide) regulars, the veteran racers commandeered championships as well.
The 2010 Nationwide season provides a perfect example of the Sprint Cup dominance with Brad Keselowski winning the title and his Cup peers (and recent Nationwide champs) Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch finishing second and third, respectively. Fourth-place Justin Allgaier was the first full-time Nationwide-only driver represented in the standings, followed by seventh-place Trevor Bayne. Allgaier was also the only Nationwide-exclusive competitor to win a race.
For the 2011 season, the most likely scenario has NASCAR drivers declaring which specific series they want points counted toward a driver’s championship. While Cup drivers can compete in both Nationwide and Camping World Truck series races, points will only be awarded to their specific owner.
In November, France said he did not want to see the Saturday/Sunday racing “homogenized.” He preferred the Nationwide Series have its own identity. Certainly, the introduction of the pony cars gives the tour a unique look. The ability for Nationwide regulars to blossom without being overshadowed by Cup drivers will allow the most talented racers to distinguish themselves from the field and potentially attract sponsors and owners in order to advance to the next level.
Where did all the rookies go?
With Raybestos pulling out of the Rookie of the Year sponsorship, what lies ahead for future freshmen drivers?
NASCAR’s first Cup rookie was selected in 1954. Twenty years later, a point series was established to determine the honor. This season, Kevin Conway just showed up and ran uncontested in the Sprint Cup division once Terry Cook dropped out. The selection of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon as the top Nationwide and Truck rookies of the year, respectively, certainly was more legit.
However, throughout NASCAR’s history there have been stout competitions for the Cup rookie title. Consider the battles between Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte in 1993, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2000, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in ‘01, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson in ‘02 or Jamie McMurray and Greg Biffle in ‘03.
Next year, the talent pool for incoming Cup freshmen has dwindled down to one candidate -- Trevor Bayne. Although Steve Wallace will attempt the Daytona 500 next month, it is not clear what his future plans will be.
Bayne, 19, is expected to run 17 races for the Wood Brothers. While there was no room in the Roush Fenway Racing lineup, Bayne could very easily become the future of that company. He is NASCAR’s version of a true freshman. Bayne has exhibited potential in the Nationwide Series (where he will continue to run under the Roush banner) to the point that Roush and Ford wanted to see what the youngster was capable of achieving at the Cup level.
The cause for a dwindling rookie talent pool is two-fold — a lack of sponsorship for unknown racers that have been unable to establish a reputation in the Cup-dominated Nationwide Series and the impatience of owners and agents to move drivers to the top tour sans seasoning. The absence of Cup drivers between 25-year-old Kyle Busch and his teammate Joey Logano, 20, is stark. Hopefully, the changes NASCAR is making to the Nationwide Series will help fill that void.
How will NASCAR deal with the NFL?
The introduction of the Chase seven years ago was an effort to garner attention of sports fans as the National Football League is just heating up. Despite NASCAR’s valiant effort, the sport has hit a plateau.
And now with the NFL contemplating expanding its regular season to 18 games for 2012, how will that impact the NASCAR schedule? The NFL’s regular season schedule kicks off in early September and ends the first week of February, which has conflicted with the Budweiser Shootout. Two additional games would bleed over the Daytona 500 — NASCAR’s season opener.
Teams have expressed concern that the NASCAR schedule and the individual races are too long. The sanctioning body has taken the message to heart and cut laps from events but has shown no interest in shortening the schedule. The opportunity exists to contract the schedule by removing off-weeks or running a race during the week. However, France feels the size of events creates limitations for fans that would preclude NASCAR from moving races to mid-week.
But there’s another wrinkle involving the NFL which could heavily impact NASCAR — the possibility of a work stoppage for the NFL in the coming months.
When asked whether France plans to capitalize on the NFL’s audience if the failure to reach a new collective bargaining agreement for players triggers a work stoppage he insisted he wasn’t “monitoring” the situation. But make no mistake, a lockout could be just what NASCAR needs to fix its problems.
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