As the sun rises over the Florida beaches this morning, the roar of stock car engines will again come to life. Daytona 500 testing will be underway, and the 2008 NASCAR season won't be far behind.
Over the next few weeks, it'll be a chance for the sport's top series to get back in the news; and more than ever, that's exactly what they need to do.
The right way.
Look, I've never been a fan of January testing. I'm beginning my third year as a traveling media member in this series, and I've never been down to cover it - this year is no exception, as my travel plans don't involve Daytona until February. And while Frontstretch's own Mike Lovecchio will be down there filing reports, most years I'm not yearning to be the guy standing in his place. It has nothing to do with my love for the sport; it's that as I've pointed out many times before, testing speeds give us little insight into who's actually going to be good for the Daytona 500. This month is for the bad teams to overextend themselves, producing speeds they won't replicate next month in order to woo potential sponsors; meanwhile, the good teams hold their hand close to the vest, refusing to show their aces lest another organization discover and capitalize upon their Daytona secrets. Instead, they produce an artistic masterpiece of going through the motions - an understandable philosophy that still leaves you scratching your head and wondering, "Why even bother to publicize this thing?"
But this time, there's a reason to be in Florida.
As the newly-minted Sprint Cup series begins to writes its own story, this test badly needs to give some answers as to how the 2008 season will unfold. And the answers may not come from on the race track - rather, they'll come from the quotes of the peoples that drive this sport; and in honor of the beach, their mission will be all about stemming the tide.
Right now, if you haven't noticed, the sport is suffering from a serious long-term perception problem. Thinking over Matt McLaughlin's insightful piece for this sport to try and win back longtime fans, it seems NASCAR's biggest problem right now is the overwhelming, well-deserved pessimism coming at it from all sides. It's one thing to say an athlete is in a serious slump; it's another to say his career is over altogether. And truth be told, in this unsettling offseason the word on the street is that NASCAR's torn its ACL, pitching elbow, and separated its shoulder all at once.
It's not just that ratings are down - more and more people with pull are writing that it's an irreversible trend. The Car of Tomorrow isn't just being labeled a mistake; it's being labeled something that's going to take years to even race as well as the Car of Yesterday. In today's era of cheating in sports, last year's NASCAR crackdown didn't give us the impression this sport was nice and clean; rather, it left us wondering what the sport has yet to find.
You get the picture. Whether you're a crewman, a writer, a fan, or a driver, you're likely to have that same unsettling feeling in your stomach; dissatisfaction.
Recent news hasn't gotten any better; in just the past seven days, two Nationwide and one independent Cup team now appear on the verge of closing down, more negativity within a series in which the consolidation of power is causing fans to walk away in droves. Yet in the face of it all, CEO Brian France has chosen to make a bold, brazen choice himself that - no matter what you think of him - will serve to define his role with the series.
Keep the status quo.
France has led a mood of the NASCAR brass that's been indifferent and, well, defiant against statistics that suggest the era of unlimited growth for this sport is on the verge of ending. For most of us, that sparks fears of serious concern, especially when that ending has come attached with a downward spiral. But that's France's prerogative, putting the series in a precarious position - and in serious need of a spark by its constituents.
So, that spark will have to come from this Daytona garage. Writers are desperate to find some sort of silver lining to write about, to give fans reason to care. From the conversations I've had with fans this offseason, you discover only so many stories can be written about the Jimmie Johnson three-peat and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports. Fans are tired of the dominance Hendrick to a large degree; so no, the good vibes have to come from somewhere else, no matter how well-run that organization is.
What fans want are answers they haven't heard. They need quotes by drivers saying the CoT has been helped by offseason testing, that they're suddenly not bad after all. Not on vacation this year, Tony Stewart needs to be himself, tick someone off or say something juicy that shows things at Joe Gibbs Racing are going to be dicey with him, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin on the same team. As for Busch, he needs to do something to feed what could be an amazing rivalry with the sports popular driver - Earnhardt - as he struggles to come to terms with the fact he was 5th in Cup points, and still lost his ride.
It sounds simple, but creating storylines for the season that don't involve NASCAR's inevitable demise could prove a building block upon which negative perception can turn. As we near the beginning of the Sprint Cup, a breath of fresh air is going to need to come at some point.
It badly needs to start now. The enthusiasm needs to come from somewhere; otherwise, expect the negative criticism to reach a deafening roar.
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