NASCAR ready to fix its issues this season
Ask anyone in NASCAR about the many, many industry ailments and
the answer is that everything will be just fine.
They better be right.
NASCAR opened Daytona International Speedway on Thursday for the
first practice session of what’s expected to be one of the most
critical seasons in sport history. Faced with slumping attendance
and television ratings, and economic woes that have handcuffed
teams and manufacturers, NASCAR has planned a series of adjustments
designed to re-energize the industry.
There’s no doubt that it’s a clear reaction to growing fan
“I think the fans want to see results,” veteran driver Jeff
Burton said. “The fans have been speaking for the last several
years saying we want to see different stuff. I think if we give it
to them, and it’s different, and the racing doesn’t improve from
it, then yeah, this is a critical year.
“When you make changes, because you are making it better, then
it better be better.”
The first test was expected to be Saturday night in the
exhibition Budweiser Shootout, when 24 drivers will run the first
race under NASCAR’s new “Boys, have at it” policy that
green-lighted aggressive driving.
But the drivers didn’t even make it through Thursday’s first
practice session without incident. Contact between Denny Hamlin and
Mark Martin triggered a multicar accident that destroyed several
It was a preview of what fans can expect during the lead-in to
the Feb. 14 season-opening Daytona 500.
“Trust me, we’re not finished,” warned Greg Biffle. “It’s
going to be awesome.”
NASCAR has relaxed its stance on bump-drafting and aggressive
driving, and has encouraged participants to whittle down their
obligatory sponsor plugs and start showing some real emotion. It’s
a clear response to fan complaints that drivers had become too
corporate, and that NASCAR’s restrictions had ruined the racing at
Daytona and Talladega, typically the two most exciting tracks on
The decision by NASCAR to be more lenient has so far been
applauded, even though the true ramifications won’t be known until
the checkered flag falls on the Daytona 500. The policing of
bump-drafting was to cut down on the spectacular accidents that
typically mar Daytona and Talladega races.
“You should care about the racing, and (NASCAR’s) not afraid of
making changes,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who openly challenged
president Mike Helton when he announced a ban on bump-drafting in
the pre-race driver meeting at Talladega last November.
“Do they always get it right? No. But at least they admit when
they don’t get it right and they’ll change it and make it better.
Other series, if they make a huge screwup and racing is terrible,
they live with it.”
NASCAR also is showing a softer side by finally relenting a bit
on its strict stance concerning the current Sprint Cup Series car.
The car was designed by NASCAR to improve safety and cut costs.
Phased into competition in 2007, the car has been criticized by
competitors who found it difficult to drive and lampooned by race
fans who hated the design and blamed the car for ruining
Series officials had been strongly opposed to any major design
changes, but recently announced a transition that will replace the
rear wing with a more traditional spoiler. Testing on the spoiler
has already started, and it could be introduced by late March.
NASCAR has also tried to give relief to struggling track
operators by reducing fees it charges to hold a race. The trickle
down effect should allow tracks to lower ticket prices –
potentially luring fans back into the stands.
But the move has also led to a 10-percent cut in race purses, a
reduction that directly effects the cash flow for race teams.
Even with the belt-tightening, team owners seemed uniformly on
message in gushing about the steps NASCAR has taken to cure its
“I am probably as excited about the future of racing as I have
ever been,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “I can honestly say that
everybody is pointed in the right direction, and we want this
sport, we want it to bounce back and come roaring back. And we
Team owner Roger Penske preached about a cooperative effort from
competitors and NASCAR.
“We’ve got to be sure we do this together, build this back up,
because we need the TV ratings up, we need more people in the
stands and I think we need better competition,” he said. “I think
the folks at NASCAR realize that.”
There’s more to this season, though, then just fixing
The sport is still rife with competition storylines, starting
with Jimmie Johnson’s bid to extend his historical roll to a fifth
consecutive Cup title. He was the media’s 2010 preseason pick to
win the championship – the first time during his run he’s not been
overlooked in favor of another driver.
“I’m thinking it my be a curse,” he laughed. “We’ll see how
it turns out.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate,
will try to bounce back from a horrendous season that rattled his
confidence. If Earnhardt succeeds, it will only strengthen an
organization that Rick Hendrick has established as the very best in
All eyes will be on Hamlin, the trendy pick to upend Johnson
based on a torrid close to last season. But he tore the anterior
cruciate ligament in his knee playing basketball two weeks ago, and
a decision to postpone surgery until after the season has some
questioning whether he’ll still be a contender.
Then there’s his nemesis, Brad Keselowski. The two openly feuded
over the final three months of last season over incidents in the
Nationwide Series. Hired by Penske for a full-time Cup ride this
season, the controversial Keselowski will now be racing every week
against Hamlin – and all the other drivers he’s annoyed.
He’s not concerned.
“It’s so hard to come into this sport and run well when you’re
worried about making everyone else happy,” Keselowski said. “I
just don’t see how you can do that because in competitive sports,
the only time your competitors are happy with you is when they’re
And don’t forget Danica Patrick.
The enormously popular IndyCar driver will begin her transition
into NASCAR via the second-tier Nationwide Series driving a car
owned by Hendrick and Earnhardt. She’ll make her stock-car debut
Saturday in the ARCA race, and has not fully decided on whether or
not she’ll run next week’s Nationwide race at Daytona.
But the crowd of reporters and photographers surrounding her at
Thursday’s media day was at least three-deep, and the buzz about
her arrival has been a tremendous boost to NASCAR at a time it
clearly needs some positive press.
“You’ll have people come in and watch a race that would never
watch a NASCAR race in their life just because she’s there,” said
defending Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. “It’s good for all of
us, and NASCAR, to get some new people to come in and watch the
“Hopefully, they’ll like what they see and want to come