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Can NASCAR up the pace in 2012?
How does NASCAR improve on the 2011 season?
After all, it appears that sponsorship is recovering, and television ratings and track attendance both are up. What's more, the Sprint Cup championship was decided on the last lap by a tiebreaker, while the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series each crowned a rising star as champion.
Not surprisingly, Chairman and CEO Brian France wants more for 2012.
“Well, the way to top that is to have three drivers or four going for the championship, if that's possible, too,” France said Thursday during his state of the sport address on the final day of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton just chuckled at the notion.
Certainly, the key to success for NASCAR in 2012 will be to build on the momentum of last year — a season that offered 18 winning drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, including five first-time victors. Fans embraced a simpler point system and adding a wild-card driver to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
And NASCAR will not rest on its laurels.
Yes, it’s been a work in progress. The days of NASCAR being a benevolent dictatorship, as was the case under Bill France Jr., have been replaced with more of a democracy between stakeholders, tracks, teams, broadcast partners, sponsors, media and a tremendous amount of fan input.
Being “more open-minded” is a move NASCAR president Mike Helton says the sanctioning body is “most proud of today.”
“What we have tried to do over the past several years is to become more open-minded, so we don't look at it as a fan asking us to change something,” Helton said.
“We look at it more as saying to the stakeholders, which include the fans, what do you think and what do you like and what do you dislike, and then we digest all of that across the board from all of our stakeholders and try to make decisions that we feel like will fit best for the next step that NASCAR takes.
“It's not (as if) a team comes to us and says, ‘You need to change this,’ and we say, ‘Why,’ and the question that they ask us isn't as important to us as the answer that they give us once we say why, and then we can follow it through.
“Same with fans. We don't react necessarily to a fan saying, ‘You've got to change this,’ as much as we say, ‘Well, why,’ and then hear what the answer is. And if that answer makes sense, we're going to go to work on it. If it doesn't make sense, then we have to go to the next question.”
And it was the response from the fans that prompted NASCAR to curtail the extensive pairing of drivers at Daytona and Talladega. Following a successful test for the Daytona 500 earlier this month to discourage tandem drafting, the product for the Great American Race appears strong. And if officials decide the rules need tweaking, NASCAR isn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board and make the show better.
According to Pemberton, the initial rules package for Speedweeks will include the following: "A larger restrictor plate at 29/32, smaller spoiler, softer springs. All of these combinations will help the qualifying be more exciting. We moved the radiator inlet up to the center of the bumper area; that's two and a half by 20 inches. Pressure relief valve will start out at 25 pounds. Another aero change, the rear bumper dimensions were moved downward an additional two inches."
Surely the sport is thrilled about three-time champion Tony Stewart defending his title, along with Danica Patrick defecting from IndyCar and making her Sprint Cup debut and Dale Earnhardt’s progress at Hendrick Motorsports.
With the enthusiasm fans showed for the Pony Cars in the Nationwide Series, the buzz for the new cars on the horizon for 2013 in Cup was felt during the sanctioning body’s message. Cars were in the wind tunnel this week, and Mike Fisher, managing director of NASCAR’s R&D Center, said manufacturers were on schedule for the Sept. 1 submission date. (But he did acknowledge that each one “might have to change the cars slightly” to achieve the parity NASCAR body desires.)
For now, current manufacturing partners Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota seem thrilled at just the prospect of fans identifying their showroom cars with those running on the race track.
After several seasons of development, electronic fuel injection (EFI) will be in place at Daytona. Pemberton describes the project as “a major initiative to us in our sport ... [that] helps make our cars more relevant and our engines more efficient.”
And the introduction of EFI brings with it technological partners such as McLaren and Freescale to NASCAR, perhaps the necessary carrot to entice additional original equipment manufacturers in the future.
However, NASCAR is far from over the economic hump. While there are more sponsors entering the sport, many primaries have cut back from initial 36-race commitments. That can be confusing to newer fans who are more familiar with paint schemes and can’t make out or keep up with car numbers.
Plus, rumors persist about the health of the Truck and Nationwide series. Will trucks exist after next season? Will the NNS continue to have one-third of the field start and park? And will NASCAR’s premier tour — Sprint Cup — have a full field of cars attempting to make the races once the schedule moves out West?
“Well, the economy will do that,” France said. “It will have an effect on the sponsorship model, the funding of the teams, and various reasons teams also move around or get smaller.
“I don't anticipate short fields, but obviously a very difficult economy that's lasted so long has had an effect, and that will continue at some level.”
On a high note, NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity initiative, geared at attracting women and minorities to NASCAR all levels of participation, continues with a class of six in 2012. They are: Jorge Arteaga, 25, Aguascalientes, Mexico; Mackena Bell, 21, Carson City, Nev.; Trey Gibson, 19, Easley, S.C.; Ryan Gifford, 22, Winchester, Tenn.; Kyle Larson, 19, Elk Grove, Calif.; and Bryan Ortiz, 22, Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
D4D graduates Paulie Harraka (who announced a Truck Series deal on Thursday), Darrell Wallace (who is scheduled to race six races in Nationwide Series for JGR in 2012) and Sergio Pena (will race in K&N Pro Series East in 2012, no further plans announced) make big moves up this season.
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