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Fanning the Flames: It’s Time for a NASCAR Change at the Top

It’s safe to say the boom is over. With NASCAR’s television ratings dropping at an alarming rate (down 16.7% from Atlanta’s 2007 telecast) and a half-full house at said track… Atlanta! A cradle of stock car racing! It is past time for a change at the top of the NASCAR hierarchy.

As rumors continue to swirl that the board of directors could replace Brian France with his uncle Jim, the ever-dwindling masses who now only watch the final 25 laps of each week’s race are optimistic that the sport’s current trends come to a screeching halt. You know the issues, but I’ll list them anyway: An IROC-style car that has taken all ingenuity out of the teams’ hands, a pompous indifference to the sport’s rich heritage, a feeder series in shambles, judgment calls made during races that seem to defy the laws of common sense, I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Jim France watched his father Bill Sr. organize this great sport into something real while his brother, Bill Jr. (with Jim’s help) brought it to prominence. He’s been around the sport for nearly 50 years, and has seen what works and what does not. The turn of the century brought about great growth that saw NASCAR hit unprecedented heights, but the last two years have witnessed first a leveling off, then gradual decline in overall popularity. The rubber-neckers are leaving; only what’s left of the diehards remain.

Speaking of such folk – I’m a huge Kentucky Wildcat fan. Born and raised in the Bluegrass, UK Class of ’98. I thought Tubby Smith was a man of character and a solid basketball coach. That did not mean, however, that I was disappointed when he departed to take the head coaching job at Minnesota. I knew that – although Tubby was an able coach and a good person – the program had stagnated, and a change had to be made if the school wanted to remain a national power. The same can be said for NASCAR. Brian has had his time and, whether you agree with his decisions or not, did the best he could, reaping financial benefits once thought unattainable for his family’s business. But the time for change, with a different perspective that is paramount for the sport to thrive, faces the sanctioning body once again.

Thanks for the questions this week, all.

Q: Isn’t it ironic that in the midst of the worst drought the South has seen since the Dust Bowl that water would be in the fuel at a NA$CAR race? A race that they considered restricting practices, etc. to conserve water? When was the last time you heard of water being in any team’s fuel?Kevin S. Clone

A: The irony wasn’t lost on this junky, Kevin, although the area did have a good dousing leading up to race weekend.

As for water in the fuel cells, I honestly don’t know how that shows up in a number of cars and, to make it more baffling, doesn’t affect some machines ’till the end of the race. Moisture in Sunoco’s supply somewhere along the way, perhaps? Although that’s been denied, I don’t see any other theory that “holds water” at this point.

The last time I remember water in the fuel system playing a factor, and it very well could have happened since, was in the 1991 Dover Busch Series race. Davey Allison had the lead until his car sputtered during the race’s final caution period. That handed Todd Bodine his first career Busch Series victory, while some newcomer named Jeff Gordon ran second that day in a Bill Davis Ford.

One last bit of irony before we move on: Michael Waltrip was fined 100 Gs as punishment for a fuel additive at Daytona. Should Sunoco be fined the same for theirs?

Q: With Alan Gustafson assuming crew chief duties for Casey Mears in 2008 and Tony Eury Jr. sticking with Dale Earnhardt Jr., what becomes of Darian Grubb? He has done an admirable job, in my opinion, of steering the Mears ship this year and filling in for Chad Knaus in 2006. So, is he destined for a trip back to the Engineering Department? – Telli V.

A: He sure is, Telli. Grubb, who has three wins as a crew chief on the Nextel Cup level with Mears and as the interim crew chief for Jimmie Johnson during Chad Knaus’s suspension last season, will coordinate the at-track engineering efforts of both the Earnhardt and Mears teams in 2008.

I can’t say I’m surprised, either. When I talked to him after last year’s Las Vegas win, I got the distinct impression that he was crew-chiefing only because the team needed him. He didn’t seem to long for the spotlight and, honestly, looked a little uncomfortable taking the credit that he felt the team deserved – not solely the driver or the crew chief.

This move just feeds the theory Grubb’s a low-key customer who thrives in the team role. He’s proven that he’s got the chops to sit atop the war wagon, but is just as valuable (and happy) doing his behind-the-scenes thing on a weekly basis.

Q: I’m trying to figure out why Roger Penske thinks it is so important to have Sam Hornish Jr. in a full-time [Cup] car next season. If the guy can’t qualify the car after trying numerous times already, why does Penske think he will have success next year? Some guys are cut out for it, some aren’t.Gerald Swift

A: I’m assuming you are speaking to the rumor that Penske is considering transferring the owner points from Kurt Busch‘s No. 2 team to Hornish’s start-up operation, ensuring he is guaranteed a spot in the season’s first five races. To that, I have to side with Penske: If there is a loophole, you’d best jump through it if you expect to keep up with the competition. Busch has a past champ’s provisional that will ensure his entry for six races next year, anyway – so making such a move does nothing to hurt the viability of the other team.

Backtracking a bit, though, I agree that Hornish has not shown much in eight Busch Series starts over the past two seasons. His best finish in that time came at Atlanta earlier this year, when he muscled her home for a 15th-place finish. The six failed Cup starts are troubling for any team, let alone a Penske-powered outfit. And let’s not forget, with defending IRL champ Dario Franchitti out of the picture, Hornish stands a better shot at continued open-wheel fame.

One less guy to worry about, right? And far less worrisome than trying to learn the ropes of Nextel Cup.

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