It’s been nearly two weeks since Brian France spoke the words that made everyone covering NASCAR do a double take.
“We’re going to minimize change the best we can,” he said of the upcoming season ahead. “Change is good to a certain point – but we’ve done all the changing we think the sport can stand, and now we want to build on that. And that means getting back to basics.”
With that, on the eve of the 50th Daytona 500 the NASCAR brass finds itself in the midst of pondering a change in direction, working on a future that’s based on history they only recently chose to rewrite. The path to reconnect the two won’t be easy – now without the guiding hand of Bill France Jr. to lean on for advice and support, the powers that be will have a far more difficult time figuring out just what those “basics” really are. After all, Brian France has made so many adjustments to the format of how the series works, it’s hard to even tell the NASCAR of 2002 from the one we have just six years later.
Sometimes, even the most hardcore of longtime fans forget what that was like, how the sport worked then compared to how it functions now. That’s why it’s important to take a breath, think back and remember what exactly “getting back to basics” means on the eve of a season critical to halting NASCAR’s decline.
For in the beginning, it all starts with a dream.
Every year at Daytona, over four dozen drivers and teams show up because of their passion to achieve it. Sure, there’s money, there’s points and even pride on the line; but at the end of the day, teams are at Daytona because all they want is their hands on a trophy they haven’t stopped thinking about since almost every single one of them were five. And through that youthful desire, the Great American Race embodies a great American spirit; with hard work and the right combination under their belts, every member of every crew truly believes their car get to the front and take the checkered flag at the end of 500 miles.
Of course, the chances for the privileged prove far better than those without. Over on one side of the garage, Hendrick Motorsports heads to the starting grid with all their ducks in a row and the expectations befitting of a reigning champion. With solid financial backing, one of the best four-driver lineups the sport has seen in quite sometime and a line of engineers that would make Lockheed Martin blush, the team is more than prepared – they’re entrenched as favorites here for years to come. For them, making the field is already predetermined; Speedweeks is simply about putting themselves in position to win. Along those same lines, other high-dollar car owners roll into town already focused on the ultimate task at hand; Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing all take the shortcut, not the long road ahead to potential Victory Lane.
For them, Daytona’s importance is just as pronounced as anyone else; but the way in which Speedweeks embodies the basic principles the sport was founded on isn’t because of them. Instead, the most unlikely of sources bring us a connection to the NASCAR past France desires now – men like James Hylton and Carl Long.
Hylton – a racing veteran of nearly five decades and the 1966 Cup Rookie of the Year – nearly turned the sport on its ear last year by qualifying for the Great American Race at 72 years old. Piloting an underfunded, single-car effort that had a one-off sponsorship deal with Retirement Living TV, Hylton used pit strategy within his 150-mile Gatorade Duel to put himself in position to make the starting field. In the end, a missed shift proved the ultimate downfall; but for one fleeting moment, fans were forced to forget the unending domination of the multi-car superpowers and focus on the living, breathing hard work of an independent whose best racing days had long passed him by. Looking back, all the veteran wanted was a chance to be a part of a race he hadn’t made since 1983 – the conservatism of the season-long championship and the worries of media criticism were meaningless to him. While others were spending millions to later cave under the weight of unrealistic expectations, Hylton simply did what every stock car racing fan used to believe they could – he showed up at the track with little more than a shoestring budget, put forth both a lot of hard work and the heart of a champion, then played the odds in hopes of seeing his dream come true.
Of course, the odds for teams like Hylton’s are harder than ever before. The modern rules of the Top-35 qualifying exemption mean that his underdog team was fighting for one of eight spots in the Daytona 500; in Hylton’s case, that meant finishing no worse than second among cars not yet qualified for the race in the Duels. The rule is far more difficult than the one it replaced, when the “locked-in” drivers were merely two and even men named Gordon, Earnhardt and Stewart had to technically race their way in. Back then, the Hyltons of the world truly started on a level playing field with everyone else; but even under this format, at least they’re still willing to try.
Try is what Long will do, hoping to make the Great American Race for the fifth time this decade. In each previous attempt, the independent driver best known for flipping end over end in his self-owned No. 46 car at Rockingham hasn’t come close to making the field; but showing up with teams lucky to pull the hauler in the infield, he was just happy to have the opportunity to try. This year, he’s in a bit better shape, paired up with the No. 08 E&M Motorsports machine that has sponsorship from Millstar Tools and Rhino’s Energy Drink. But as a true single-car team, the task won’t be easy. Long doesn’t get to share information with three teammates, nor will he put his car through a wind tunnel to check for aerodynamics. A team of engineers won’t follow him through the garage area; instead, it’ll be a hard-scrabble group of semi-volunteers. But make no doubt about it, if you stopped Long in the garage area and asked him what his chances were, he’d tell you he believed he could win as much as any other driver out there.
But the list of Davids signing up to defeat Goliath is growing smaller by the day. Just in the past month, the single-car team of Morgan-McClure Motorsports – themselves the owner of three proud Daytona 500 trophies – closed up shop, confirming they won’t be around to try for a fourth. Robert Yates Racing has become but a B-list extension of powerful Roush Fenway Racing; and owner/driver Robby Gordon has all but sold his team to Gillett Evernham Motorsports, becoming a secondhand cog in a wheel full of multi-car corporate pizzazz. Call me crazy, but the ultimate underdog has a little less of a ring to it when they’re simply No. 4 on a multi-car race team totem pole.
Of course, Gordon claimed he made the move in order to keep his team competitive. That’s the world of NASCAR 2008; for every Hylton who strives to be independent, there’s two Gordons that sign up for the mansion across the street because the future as an underdog is simply too bleak to make a go of it. For if you’re not in either category, you’re just another Morgan-McClure – resigned to relive the past rather than build on a future in a sport they once loved more than any other.
Once France awakens this Monday morning – a stick-and-ball sports fanatic – I’m sure he’ll research a Super Bowl upset of the ages. The most popular sport in America featured that David vs Goliath matchup we crave in which the underdog (the New York Giants) upset a heavily-favored opponent in the near-perfection New England Patriots. As he sips on his coffee and ponders the future, I’d hope he gets lost in his own dream. It’s one where underdogs in his own sport could prosper as such, a place in which fans once again have a list of those teams to choose from – and the belief that an unlikely upset could one day happen in NASCAR once again.
That, to me, is the start of what “back to basics” is all about. And France is right about one thing – he must turn the tide.