Editor’s Note: If you missed Part One of Matt McLaughlin’s 2007 Season Preview, click here to catch back up to the pack!
The Busch Series: Unlike Nextel Cup, TV ratings for the Busch Series actually went up this year. That’s despite the fact the series championship was a virtual then literal runaway, with Kevin Harvick winning the title by a series record 824 points. If that doesn’t cause Brian France to rethink the Chase, I don’t know what will. Starting in 2007, all the Busch Series races will be broadcast on ESPN, that’s the good news. But there are a lot of storm clouds on the horizon for NASCAR’s AAA series. Call them interlopers, call them Buschwhackers, call ’em carpetbaggers or whatever you want, but there’s just too many Cup regulars running in most Busch races. Naturally, the Cup drivers tend to win and hog most of the top-10 finishing positions, denying prize money in the process to the ever-dwindling amount of full-time Busch-only teams. And that’s especially bad news, because these days it takes as much money to run a Busch team as it did to compete in Cup just a few years back.
In an announcement that was nothing short of stunning Busch, the AAA affiliate of Budweiser, announced in the offseason they’ll sever their title sponsor agreement with NASCAR at the end of 2007. Sources close to the situation claim NASCAR tried tripling the rate to be title sponsor of that series, a rate Busch was unwilling to pay to continue in that role. The announcement was especially surprising after Busch’s season long commercial celebration of their 25th anniversary involved with the sport, but it seems the A-B marketing executives are seeing those same dark clouds gathering up ahead.
It is my strongly held opinion that the Busch Series needs to differentiate itself further from Nextel Cup. A casual fan can’t even tell a Cup car from a Busch entry anymore. Rumors have been circulating that NASCAR might eventually switch the series from the mid-size cars to the pony cars such as Ford’s fabulously successful new Mustang, Dodge’s much anticipated new Challenger and Chevy’s aesthetically challenged Camaro. Great. I say do it sooner rather than later. At the same time, I’d like to see the series adopt crate engine rules mandating power plants like Chevy’s ZZ4 and Ford’s GT40. The goal would be to limit horsepower to the 450-500 range and dramatically cut the teams’ costs, all while sealing those engines and allowing no modifications. The great differences between the Cup and AAA cars would negate much of the information a driver can glean from Saturday’s race to use on Sunday and might actually reduce the number of Cup regulars racing AAA.
Meanwhile, I’d like to see any Cup driver in the top 25 in points forego any purse money he might win on Saturday and have that money put into a fund for distribution to the full-time teams. And if that doesn’t work, I have what I consider a diabolical scheme to correct the problem. If a driver in the top 25 in points were to enter the companion Busch Series race that weekend, he would have to race his way into the Cup field without having the fallback position that automatically awards a starting spot to any team within the Top 35 in owner points.
The New Kid in Town: One of the bright spots of the 2006 Cup season was watching the emergence of Denny Hamlin as a legitimate superstar on the circuit. Not only did he make the Chase, the kid actually made a serious run at the title. There’s no question Hamlin’s the real deal, and to have a Southern late model driver make it to the bigs in a series increasingly dominated by midwestern USAC-trained drivers was a delight. So this year Hamlin takes up where he left off and wins the title, right? I hope so, but we’ll have to wait and see. Mr. Hamlin might want to have a chat with Carl Edwards during January testing in Vegas. Edwards was “The New Kid In Town” in 2005 but could barely get out of his own way for much of 2006; maybe there really is something to this Sophomore Slump curse after all.
Juan Pablo Montoya: I think a lot of folks, particularly the ones at Texaco, where pleasantly surprised with how quickly Montoya adapted to full-bodied stock car racing late last season. Oh, he made a few mistakes (including flat out getting parked in the Homestead Cup race) but overall Montoya did very well. We’ll have to wait and see how he holds up to the 36-race grind of a full Cup schedule this season. When he’s tired or annoyed Mr. Montoya can be a bit snippy, and that’s being polite about it. Some have compared Montoya to a Hispanic Jackie Robinson, but I think that’s overstating the case. What will be interesting to see is if the participation and presumed eventual success of a Hispanic driver will increase the amount and enthusiasm of Hispanic fans following NASCAR racing. After all, beleaguered track owners with lots of unsold seats could give a flip about a fan’s surname, just as long as the credit card goes through.
Viva Las Vegas: Again, straining to be polite, the stock car racing at Vegas (other than the Truck Series) has often been less than scintillating. You could wear out a thesaurus under “boring” and “tiresome” and still not find the right adjectives to convey the sheer monotony of many races at this track. To his credit, track owner Bruton Smith realizes there’s a problem, and he’s willing to pony up the big bucks to fix things. When the circuit hits Las Vegas early this year, competitors will find new graduated banking in the corners in hopes to jumpstart side-by-side racing at the facility. That same improvement turned Homestead from a trial to a jewel, so I’m hoping for the best at Vegas. In testing, it’s clear that Vegas is now nasty fast as Greg Biffle proved in a fiery testing wreck that injured his shoulder. Whether Goodyear can come up with a tire that will endure the high speeds while still providing enough grip to allow for good racing remains to be seen, though, as their track record in that regard is less than stellar as of late. But if the racing is as good at Vegas as hoped, I surely hope some other track owners (the folks in Fontana and New Hampshire come quickly to mind) take notice and make some improvements of their own. The ratio of dud races to instant classics in NASCAR racing right now is unacceptably high, and it has a lot to do with these dual-use “cookie cutters” like Vegas that sprang up on the circuit during the 1990s.
Expansion Plans Hit a Rut in the Road: Ruh-Roh! When the ISC proposed a new track in Kansas City, Kan. the town rolled out the red carpet. When Roger Penske proposed building his Fontana track on a former toxic waste site, the powers that be gave the project their enthusiastic blessing. The elected officials and voters in the hurricane-devastated Homestead area initially welcomed development of a new track there, too, although in the end the Miami-Homestead project was a Trojan horse, a gift they later learned to regret.
But NASCAR’s plans to expand into the New York metro area and the Pacific Northwest have hit roadblocks. The much ballyhooed Staten Island track was much criticized by local residents, passionate enough about their dislike of the project that a meeting to discuss the proposal dang near degenerated into a donnybrook. And in the Northwest, elected officials and voters have turned a cold shoulder to the ISC’s proposal taxpayers foot half the bill for the new palace of speed. So, to summarize: the Staten Island concept was put on the shelf, while the proposed track in the Northwest is on life support and showing signs of flat-lining. This has got to be a cause of great consternation to the France family, used to throwing around its not insubstantial weight in the political arena, at least in the South. As for damage control, the ISC still swears they will build a track in the NYC metro area. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just rename Pocono the New Yorkland Speedway?) Between the environmentalists, unions, politicos with a handout and those who fear the traffic a proposed track could add to an already gridlocked area, the corporation has some tough sledding ahead, with little hope of governmental largesse in the form of taxpayer dollars funding the project. It’s probably enough the ISC is probably angrily wishing they were still back in Rockingham, N.C.
Scheduling Conflicts: Over the last several years, NASCAR has announced the following season’s Cup schedule in late summer or early fall. While there were only minor changes made to this year’s schedule, hints were dropped at that time bigger changes could be in store for 2007.
Rumors are rampant that NASCAR (and undoubtedly ESPN/ABC) would like to make some changes to the 10-race lineup that makes up the much ballyhooed Chase. Kicking off the Chase at New Hampshire is like holding a MENSA meeting at Chuck. E. Cheese. The circuit just doesn’t often provide much on-track excitement. In my personal opinion, it’s just plain stupid to have a plate race thrown into the 10-race Chase mix, too; plate-race outcomes often hinge more on luck than any semblance of driver skill.
But changes will have to made carefully. Currently, five races in the Chase are held at ISC (read: NASCAR) owned tracks, while three are held at tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports (read: Bruton Smith) and two are held at independently-owned tracks (Dover and NHIS). Any attempt by NASCAR to give a sixth race in the Chase to the ISC at the expense of SMI or the indie owners is likely to cause great frothing at the mouth and a plethora of lawsuits.
Speaking of lawsuits, the Kentucky lawsuit still needs to be settled. Naturally, NASCAR says that the case is without merit, there is no conflict of interest between NASCAR and the ISC (a fairy tale if I’ve ever heard one), and the case will be decided in their favor. They said the same thing about the Ferko lawsuit in Texas but that case was settled out of court and Texas got its second date (the Ferko case will go down alongside moonlighting’s Enselmo case and homicide’s Adeena Watson case as unsolved mysteries of the century). Not settling the suit could expose NASCAR’s business practices and their all too incestuous relationship with the ISC, along with some of its subsidiaries like Americrown and MRN. So, yeah, Kentucky will probably have a race date before 2009. Which means that another track must lose a date. And with all the money he just dumped into his track in Las Vegas, Bruton Smith is campaigning hard for a second date there as well. Tracks like Martinsville and Dover could find themselves on the endangered list. With the collapse of the Staten Island project, Pocono is probably safe another few years, though I am guessing the handwringers in the media who wish they could cover stick-and-ball sports instead will probably have their ill-considered whining rewarded with shorter race distances at Pocono.
And perhaps if California continues to struggle to sell tickets, maybe, just maybe, the Southern 500 will be returned to its rightful place on the Labor Day weekend down in Darlington. I think doing so would be a tremendous PR move for NASCAR, a first sign someone in the organization had heard the alarm clock ringing, had woken up and smelled the coffee. As for California’s second date? Well, Mother’s Day Eve would be open. Am I actually predicting a return of the Southern “By Gawd” 500? Nah. But as Todd Rundgren used to sing,
A thousand true loves will live and die, but a dream goes on forever, the days and the years go streaking by, but time has stopped inside my dream, you’re so far away and so long ago, but my dream goes on forever,