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Changing Rules Still Mean Same Ol’ Racing in 2010

Before we start, I just want to express how honored I am to be stepping into the huge shoes of Tom Bowles, one of the best writers at Frontstretch, who still will be writing his Wednesday Did You Notice? column. I welcome all fans of his previous column in this slot, Bowles-Eye View, and welcome back mine from my past Talking NASCAR TV and Who’s Hot/Who’s Not columns. 2010 is an exciting year with new energy for both NASCAR and Frontstretch, as many changes have been made to both… please enjoy!

After an unusually quiet first month of the offseason, the news of NASCAR becoming lenient both toward the racecars and the drivers generated quite a bit of excitement and analysis. By the time NASCAR officially announced its intentions – ditching the Car of Tomorrow’s rear-wing, allowing drivers to bump draft, and also allowing drivers to “take off the gloves” and show more personality – much was being made about what 2010 would hold and how much different the racing was going to be. Casual and non-race fans began asking me what the changes meant, and if I was excited. But most, if not all, were probably disappointed with my answer.

The racing is not going to change all that much.

Sorry to burst your bubble, folks, but that’s a fact. Brian France and the rest of the NASCAR management team, knowing that both attendance numbers and TV ratings have been slipping the last four years, want to leave the media and the fans with the impression that each race is going to be a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight – that multiple races in the top three NASCAR series will end like the 1979 Daytona 500.

I can understand that to a certain degree; after all, this sport’s been in a huge need of a public relations shot in the arm for some time. Aside from the rising criticism of the racing product itself, NASCAR had gone from record highs in attendance and viewership to a new low in the public eye by the end of this decade. Several moves have left many scratching their heads, such as:

  • Continuing to hold steadfastly to the mantra that “The racing is as good as it’s ever been” by using loop data stats that showed there were more green flag passes than ever.
  • Refusing to admit the problems with the CoT over the past three years, despite constant complaints by the fans and drivers since its debut.
  • Operating behind an opaque shroud during the events surrounding Jeremy Mayfield’s positive drug test last spring. According to Mayfield, whose word, I admit, may not be the most trustworthy these days, the sport failed to even tell him what substance he tested positive for… then was very hush-hush about the situation to the public. NASCAR also implemented a drug policy without including a specific list of banned substances.
  • The unbelievably harsh penalty levied against Carl Long for an oversized engine discovered after a practice session for the exhibition Sprint Open race. The sport refused to budge on the $200,000 penalty and 12-race suspension, which has effectively blackballed the independent driver in the NASCAR garage. Many wondered what lesson NASCAR, who has said it wanted to make the sport more favorable for smaller teams, was actually trying to teach with this penalty.
  • The failure to properly address the safety issues at Talladega after Carl Edwards‘s airborne crash into the catchfence, a dangerous crash that injured seven fans in the stands. ISC raised the fence in response to the incident, but NASCAR seemingly ignored the fact that pieces of Edwards’s car went through it and hurt innocent spectators. Without changing the racing itself, the logical move would have been to eliminate several rows of seats near the fence as a precaution (and since the race was not a sellout in the fall, there surely was room to do so.) However, the track refused to make the fixes, with NASCAR choosing instead to come down hard on drivers in the fall about bump drafting – a scolding which led to long, single-file green-flag runs and still did not prevent drivers from flipping their cars.

These things happened very close to each other chronologically (with the exception of the fall Talladega race), and with each blow, I began to wonder if they occurred because of NASCAR’s hubris or simple ignorance. Only double-file restarts, installed after the All-Star Race, added some excitement to the events and became an olive branch offered toward those calling for changes.

So the sport’s recent moves, announced a few weeks ago, were clearly another way to try and generate positive PR as it tries to clean up the mess. For casual fans or the bystander that is subjected to NASCAR in small bits on SportsCenter, the ploy may have worked. But as a new decade starts and a seemingly more benevolent group of officials sanctioning the races, what effect will some of the new rules actually have?

The short answer is not as much as you’d think. Restrictor-plate races will shape up most differently, as drivers now will no longer be as gun-shy about bump drafting. However, while the amount of single-file racing in packs should decrease, do not expect each lap to be a virtual wreck waiting to happen. Drivers dread the Big One and want to save their equipment for the opportune time to make a run for victory at the end of the race. That won’t change.

Similarly, the slightly bigger restrictor plate that will be implemented at Daytona, and likely Talladega, will also allow the cars slightly more horsepower to pass each other. Greater throttle response should also help break up the packs… but it won’t eliminate them.

While many perceive NASCAR’s willingness now to let drivers “let it all hang out” for entertainment purposes, the real result of the rule is the drivers have gained the responsibility from NASCAR to police themselves – and that, they deserve. Some believe now that drivers will bump and wreck each other every other lap. I can’t see that happening, but we will see drivers less shy about “fighting back.” Denny Hamlin received lots of praise for spinning out the most popular driver in the Nationwide Series, Brad Keselowski, because he retaliated perfectly against a guy he had several run-ins with. While Hamlin was penalized a lap in the race, NASCAR did not have to do a thing to Keselowski because his punishment was already levied.

But the sport only went so far in loosening up the reins. As for the talk about eliminating the “no passing below the yellow line” rule at restrictor plate tracks, that has died down for the time being. Over time, I imagine that NASCAR will eliminate that rule either for the last lap only or for when the checkered flag is in sight – it is the right thing to do. However, the drivers themselves were weary of ditching that rule because of the increased chance of nasty wrecks – and it is their apprehension is the main reason that the racing in 2010 will not dramatically change.

And for the sport to produce better racing, it’s the men behind the wheel who must step up to the plate. Trips to the big yellow truck may increase if they wreck each other or get into skirmishes after the race, but drivers will still have apprehension about how much aggression they show on and off the track. They answer not just to NASCAR, but to big money sponsors, many of which want their drivers to maintain a squeaky-clean image. With money at a premium, and plenty of teams hanging on by an economic thread (especially in the Nationwide and Truck series), do not count on too many more post-race cussing and shoving matches.

There’s also the championship to consider. The biggest NASCAR rules change in decades took place prior to the 2004 season, when the sport introduced the controversial Chase to the Cup format. This was done in response to criticism of the previous points system that 2003 champ Matt Kenseth manipulated to a tee when he top 10 and fived the sport to boredom. While the Chase format compressed the points and made the Homestead-Miami race more exciting, all drivers still race with the same goal: to win or at least get to the finish line with the best result possible. Drivers were not suddenly making unbelievably daring moves in utter desperation, they were aiming for consistency both before and during the Chase (see: Jimmie Johnson’s last four championships).

Along with driver aggression remaining at a familiar level, the re-introduction of the rear spoiler may not be the answer to a puzzling inability for drivers to pass after catching each other. With the old race car, drivers complained about the same aero push problem – their cars would not handle when they were directly behind someone. The CoT was supposed to put more of the racing back in the drivers’ hands and allow for more passing, but that turned out to not be the case. Now that the old spoiler is back (set to return in late March), it will give drivers more grip, but the old problems that came with it will still be there. The racing may be better – but not dramatically better. At least the spoiler should keep the cars from getting airborne so easily, which had been a big concern after last season….

Looking back, the most positive result from the several changes NASCAR announced is the sport’s willingness to listen to criticism and change accordingly. Its stagnant stance on many controversies in the past few seasons had sent frustrations amongst a decreasing fan base higher than the Bristol grandstands. So, NASCAR’s leniency toward the CoT and toward drivers are steps in the right direction – the beginning to righting a ship that has been rocking on stormy seas. However, if you are expecting each race to erupt into a mixture of rugby and an outing on Jersey Shore, you will be disappointed. The goals of the drivers are the same – and that means the racing will be, too.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 Racing Show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

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