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

unrest.

“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

cars.

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 circuit.

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

racing.

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

many ailments.

“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

will.”

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

problems.

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

NASCAR.

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

beating you.”

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

sport.

“Hopefully, they’ll like what they see and want to come

back.”