*Did You Notice?…* For everyone involved in this sport, the word “February” serves as an automatic wakeup call of sorts. Speedweeks, the sport’s Super Bowl at Daytona and the start of a daunting, 36-race regular season are now a few short weeks away, vacation over as the calendar turns towards 2012. Typically, the start of those early practices is enough time for everyone to get caught up on an offseason’s worth of news; after all, stability with the sport’s top organizations combined with an uncertain sponsorship climate have made the list of changes each season short enough to fit on those awkward, airplane napkins you get with your free drink.
But not this year. A flurry of sudden, surprising changes left the month of January a time to study up, as there were plenty of notable items to take from both Daytona testing and the sport’s Sprint Cup Media Tour. So if you’ve been laying back, focusing on football and enjoying your stock car hibernation you’re missing out; here’s six important factoids you may have missed which have transformed the upcoming season before it even begins…
*NASCAR Is Getting Rid Of Those Two-Car Tandems; Consequences, Be Damned.*
Over January testing, a kitchen’s sink worth of changes to force pack drafting sent teams a clear message, one reiterated by Robin Pemberton during the “State of the Sport” session that closed the Media Tour. It doesn’t matter whether it takes superglue, sticking all 43 cars together or the threat of now-public fines for pulling any type of two-by-two shenanigans: NASCAR’s version of “speed dating” is to be stopped at all costs.
“We know that the fans want to see more of the traditional style of pack drafting,” said NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton, a statement backed up with plenty of fan polls across the country. “So do we. We won’t be able to totally eliminate the two-car push. It will be a valuable tool that the teams will be able to use from time to time. However, we do believe that we’ve come up with a rules package that will help it be the exception rather than the norm.”
To Pemberton’s credit, the sport has bent over backwards with possible solutions; as of now, teams will head to Daytona with a larger restrictor plate (29/32”), a radiator inlet moved to the center of the bumper area (making it easier to overheat), a smaller spoiler, and a pressure relief valve that starts at 25 pounds among other tweaks. But perhaps the most important one is eliminating driver-to-driver radio communication, making it impossible for “partners” to talk through lining up their cars perfectly down the stretch.
But even with all that work, I still see more questions than answers. Pushing another car, one-on-one has remained the fastest way to go around the track and as Pemberton noted, “we won’t be able to _completely_ eliminate it.” So when “speed dating” does happen, likely in late-race situations the rule changes have made it a dangerous game, where no driver talking combined with engines blowing could make for a 20-car mess. And we know the risks that pop up then… it’s been 11 years since Dale Earnhardt died, and the last thing anyone wants is to start the New Year with a catastrophe. To do that, NASCAR needs to keep close tabs on these adjustments and make sure, through the Shootout and the Duels these rules in the name of keeping fans happy won’t put drivers unnecessarily at risk if they’re still able to do what they’re trained to do: find the fastest way possible around the racetrack.
*New Faces, New Places…*
For a Silly Season that, through November had produced all the excitement of a corporate conference call – indeed, the only alarming news worth reporting was the number of Fortune 500 companies reducing their funding in the sport – 2012 was looking to be a year of the “same old, same old.” And then, like a lightning strike Kurt Busch threw a temper tantrum on Jerry Punch, the whole incident got caught on camera and an earthquake rumbled through the NASCAR garage. When it was over, Roger Penske pulled a Donald Trump, we had two major drivers change rides, including a Chaser and the sport has an added bunch of storylines to follow.
How unique was this offseason? For the first time since 1996, _four_ of the drivers inside the top 20 in points changed the _organizations_ they drive for this year. The chart below illustrates just how rare that number – 20 percent – has been in an era of stability:
*Number of Drivers Inside The Top 20 In Points Who Changed Organizations Following The Season*
*2000-04*: A *grand total* of 3
*2007*: 2 (Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.)
Who are they? Well, Clint Bowyer just didn’t change car numbers and crews at Richard Childress; he bolted for a new gig at Michael Waltrip Racing. Kasey Kahne’s Red Bull team got sold at auction, while he’ll man the vaunted No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports. And of course, in perhaps the most public switch of all A.J. Allmendinger goes from Richard Petty Motorsports to Penske’s No. 22, replacing the cantankerous Busch. The 2004 champ has now shifted to the No. 51, single-car outfit manned by James Finch but whose equipment has “Hendrick” on the side.
Who made out the best through that whole mess? Clearly Allmendinger, who has a chance to win immediately in top-tier equipment; already, he’s started the year with momentum, pulling off a Rolex 24 victory in Grand Am.
“It has been an amazing ride to get to this point. I’ve worked hard for five years and went through a lot of ups and downs to get to this point,” he said in late January. “Right now, this is my time to have a chance at it.”
Compare that to Busch, who is pulling a Newt Gingrich-like “lowering of expectations” at the moment with the equipment he has available.
“Things change and happen for a reason,” he said. “At the end of the day, is it money you put in your pocket or the fun you have doing it?”
That laid-back attitude would appear to be short-lived; after all, if Busch was unhappy with Dodge’s top cars how is he going to feel driving a bunch of C-level Hendrick Chevys? Yes, you better believe there’s going to be a significant upgrade in equipment received but still… Finch is based in South Carolina. There’s a certain level of disconnect that won’t be overcome.
Meanwhile, a lot of the Media Tour was the “same old, same old” for many superstars; the Jeff Gordons, Greg Biffles, and Brad Keselowskis emerging from their winter cocoons trying to sell us on the fact 2012 will be their championship year. For them, worries about sponsorship, crew chiefs and personnel are on the backburner as multi-year deals have left their future secure. But at least, for the first time since the Earnhardt-Kyle Busch swap there’s some major moves to buzz elsewhere.
*For the powers that be, 2012 Is The Year Of The “Status Quo.”*
In the meantime, that Jeff Gordon-like consistency is exactly what NASCAR is gunning for in 2012. After a razor-thin championship battle led to a TV Ratings and popularity boost, this sport believes, rightly or wrongly, that’s enough to leave things virtually untouched. There will be no changes to the Chase, no moves to help entice new ownership and no major adjustments to the rules, sans the introduction of automatic fuel injection and the kamikaze effort to change the four plate races. The only minor tweaks are the public announcement of any fine – a removal of secrecy that’s long overdue – along with a long, hard look at the “Boys, Have At It” policy in the wake of Kyle Busch’s suspension. But by and large, officials were happy with 2011 and feel November’s momentum is enough to offset any potential problems.
“While we all know that the economic climate around the country is still difficult, still presents challenges for everyone in the industry, we’re pleased with some of the positive signs that we began to see improve last year,” explained NASCAR CEO Brian France. “We’re encouraged by ratings increases across all of our national series. We were very happy to see some gains in attendance at a number of venues, including here in Charlotte, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami and Phoenix. And we’re very happy to hear the announcement last month by the CEO of Sprint Dan Hesse in December, announcing that they will be part of our series entitlement sponsor for a long, long time [through 2016]. We were also happy to renew our XM relationship on satellite radio.”
“A lot of important work was done in 2011 to position us for the future.”
Much of that effort is going into the new car, set to debut in 2013 (see Part II tomorrow for more). But it’s clear through France’s rhetoric that despite continuing concerns, most notably sponsorship erosion and the inability for cars to pass on intermediate tracks they’re looking to make it through the season with what they have. It’s almost like clearing inventory before the next batch of fresh goods comes in; you survive on what you got, hope you make one last profit and then start over again.
To a large extent, I understand that stance in the wake of the closest championship battle in history. But alarming signs in the Cup garage still exist. Less than 50 cars are on track to attempt the Daytona 500, and backup cars will likely roll off start-and-park trucks in order to get to 43 the following week. Powerhouses like Roush and Childress have scaled back their programs, in some cases laying off workers yet refusing to lower the cost of sponsoring their other cars. The result? 10, 11, 12 companies will combine in some cases just to make the $25 million it’s taking to get those cars on the racetrack. And some of those ovals, Nashville being the latest are shuttering operations or facing insurmountable financial deficits.
Certainly, NASCAR the business model is a different animal than the quality of on-track competition. France is hesitant to interfere, beyond the four-team cap as the sport has always treated owners as private contractors. But with another round of major sponsorships up this season, combined with an improving economy another round of team cutbacks may force his hand – regardless of how much NASCAR wants to spend this season meddling as little as possible.
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