It’s at this time every year that we are afforded a singular moment in which to assess that which has occurred during the NASCAR season and what is on the planning board in the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s the recent election, or the downturn in the economy, but this fan is left with a feeling that change is in the air… and not in the same way that the France Foundation has been executing improvements for the past few years.
In 2008, we felt out a few possibilities in the NASCAR world. We proved that even if you come to the stock car club with a spotless racing pedigree from abroad, it means nothing when you climb into one of our massive monsters and go toe-to-toe with our champions. The rookie class, one of the most highly decorated group I’ve ever seen, fell into oblivion with little more than a whimper. Their rockstar notoriety did nothing to save fenders, finishing orders or sponsor dollars. Like so much mist evaporating on the morning breeze, the names of Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve will likely never be heard from again. In 2009, we are being offered up Sliced Bread as the predicted winner of the Rookie of the Year Award. I don’t know… perhaps all the 2008 RoTY class proved was that you really need more than two races to develop the ability to be competitive with the elite of the Cup boys. Scott Speed took his time during this season to get accustomed to our beatin’ and bangin’ ways. I am thinking Joey Logano and overeager teams would be smart to watch and learn from the man with the catchy name.
The much debated CoT fought its way through its first complete season. The fact that teams unanimously have mixed feelings regarding this difficult machine actually tells me that NASCAR did something right in this department. Crew chiefs, drivers and multi-car shops were finally presented with a puzzle that took longer than a week to put together.
The sudden decision this past week to eliminate all testing at NASCAR sanctioned tracks in 2009 looks to throw a bigger wrench in the effort to master the CoT. The purported reason to save money means nothing. Those shops with giant budgets will drive to Timbuktu to get track time. However, nobody will have the opportunity to compile notes from the field of competition. All’s fair in love and war… I can’t wait to see how the generals in the Cup Series work around this obstacle.
Several years ago, we saw the beginning of the Young Guns campaign. We were told the new boys on the block heralded a changing of the guard in our sport. Out with the old, sort of thing. Well, I didn’t really see that at the time. All the new campaign represented was new commentators in the television booth trying to make a stamp on the sport.
This year, those drivers that defined excitement and competition in the ’90s and first half of this decade began to take the steps of accepting the mantle of elder statesman. The shifting in power was subtle, but ever so significant.
Tony Stewart, a driver with an explosive personality and definitive opinions, announced he would be stepping out on his own, leaving Joe Gibbs without a senior driver in the stable. Dale Earnhardt Jr., even as he didn’t quite make the splash in the standings his army hoped for, developed a new penchant. He began to speak about the sport with passion, intelligence and a reasonable amount of wisdom. Jimmie Johnson, now a three-time champion and labeled a young gun just those few years ago, now is interviewed like a veteran of the sport.
Instead of the invasion of a bunch of youthful rookies knocking the doors down, I perceive that the changing of the guard is occurring at the top of the sport. The organizations of Petty, Penske, DEI and Ganassi are all scrambling to find the respect and recognition for their current cars that came so easily to them a mere four years ago. Sponsor dollars are vanishing along with garages staffed with the best drivers in the sport. Will men like Stewart, Junior and Johnson provide the fresh insight to see this sport into the next decade?
And finally, there was the fan. Or the lack of the fans. Week after week, we saw more and more empty seats. Massive banners covered entire sections of grandstands. Frustration with “boring” races colored on-line chat rooms and bulletin boards. My in-box at home was filled weekly with tracks dropping prices and offering even more attractive ticket packages. It all combines to smack of something slightly like desperation.
Perhaps, like no other time in the past 15 years, NASCAR is about to undergo a year of reorganization. The constant influx of cheap cash, ecstatic fans and eager sponsors is waning with the average Joe’s 401k. The long season and always demanding rhythm of our sport places stresses on the competitors and its proponents. What awaits us in 2009? Maybe, massive reorganizations of the racing schedule, further restrictions placed on engineering creativity and a rookie or two with more than 500 miles of experience in a stock car. Who will be leading this new NASCAR towards the end of the decade? That, I think, will be the greatest surprise of them all.
However, now that 2008 is all said and done, I enjoyed the roller coaster of fast machines, screaming tires and dynamic personalities. I’m already looking forward to the drop of the green flag in Daytona. For there is still one thing assured when NASCAR comes to town, there will be roaring engines and cheering fans. And I’ll be there.
See you next year and enjoy your holidays.