It’s the unofficial start of summer, but things heated up weeks ago in the NASCAR world. Much of the swirl of discussion has been predictable; what driver will go where, who is living up to expectations, when will Junior win, the same things that go around every summer. But there are a couple of stories that came to light just this week that have me scratching my head. While the other happenings and musings are interesting, what happened this week will have repercussions for the remainder of 2008 and, in two related cases, far beyond.
First off, there is the decision by NASCAR to limit teams’ rear toe adjustment to one degree off center. That’s a cut to less than half of what some teams were running, making their cars appear nearly sideways on the straightaways. The change does not affect the cars this week for the Coca-Cola 600, but will be in effect in time for Dover next week. Here’s the war in my head: on one hand, where the heck are these teams supposed to work on these new cars? But on the other, NASCAR has taken away teams’ innovations for years if they outsmart the sanctioning body and/or find a significant advantage, if not outright crucified them – so why should teams get away with something now?
The cynic in me wonders if a team that has been labeled a habitual “cheater” like the No. 29 or the No. 48 would have brought about a change much sooner had they been the first to try the funky setup. There are certainly similarities between the situation and one last year that had the Nos. 24 and 48 scrambling after they played with the front fender in an area that didn’t affect the template fit. In both situations, the cars fit the template, NASCAR, and their competition, just didn’t like what they saw. This time, the offset of the rear end was so great that the cars could barely get on the scales in technical inspection. With the car that grotesquely skewed, there had to be an end, I suppose. And that helps the teams that were not messing with the COT bodies, the ones that were following the spirit of the rules (including both the Nos. 29 and 48, ironically). But I still wonder… where CAN these teams find the speed that separates a champion from a winner and a winner from an also-ran?
Another story that had me doing a double take was the news that came out just today that Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. has purchased Kentucky Speedway. Smith says he plans to have a Sprint Cup race at the track by 2009. Which begs a couple of questions. First off, the obvious: Where is a Cup date coming from? It’s speculated that Smith will move a date from Atlanta Motor Speedway, a track with attendance woes, to Las Vegas, where a sellout is far more likely and the fan amenities are far better. That leaves a couple of options. One is to swipe a date from New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but that makes little sense. NHMS holds 30,000 more fans, and that’s before the multi-million dollar upgrade that SMI has planned which includes more seats, lights if a noise ordinance with a neighboring town can be resolved, and the possibility of a complete reconfiguration (think a change from big Martinsville to big Richmond). The other possibility is that the track will win a date away from an ISC track via the ongoing lawsuit between Kentucky Speedway and NASCAR.
I’ve heard rumblings that SMI may acquire Pocono Raceway, but that’s assuming the Mattioli family, who owns the track currently, are willing to sell. So far they have remained steadfast. Should that be the case, look for a date there. But for now, you have to wonder what Bruton knows that we don’t.
Speaking of Bruton, anyone else wonder why Humpy Wheeler’s retirement announcement came so hurriedly and sounded so… unlike Humpy? Reports have Humpy’s announcement coming this week only because the story was leaked before a planned release, but that the move has been in place for a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks seems like an awfully short time to decide about one’s retirement, in any case. Wheeler’s comments about Smith and SMI were terse, at best. For one thing, Smith’s son appears to be the choice to take over. Is there more to the story? The timing, coupled with the Kentucky acquisition, seems a little too much for coincidence. Surely the fall race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway won’t be moved to Kentucky. Yet… something seems off here.
In many ways and on many levels, these two events may have a huge impact on NASCAR racing this year, and in the future. Right or wrong, it’s now unlikely that a sideways car will determine the champion as it appeared might happen. Kentucky Speedway finally has hope of seeing a Cup race (again, whether that’s right or wrong is open for interpretation). And LMS has an awfully big pair of shoes to fill. The explosives budget might save a few pennies, but the post-Humpy era is likely going to be a little less bright. Will this be the week that alters NASCAR’s future? My money’s on yes.