Daytona 500 serves as laboratory for innovationsWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s certainly not beyond NASCAR’s slide-rule guiding principles to lend a hand, often impulsively, to fix a supposed procedural pothole.
And so it is that NASCAR embarks on a new Sprint Cup Season with new-fangled innovations that will get their first test in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14.
You have to hand it to NASCAR for giving its participants more of a free hand in developing their individuality, the guiding creed being, “Have at it boys,” or, “Boys will be boys,” or, “If you ain’t being contradictory you ain’t being competitive.”
You get the picture.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has a few predicaments that have to do with tedium.
It has Jimmie Johnson for instance. He became the series’ first consecutive four-time champion last year, an amazing accomplishment. But here’s the rub. J.J. appears unable to transcend the sport. He’s a very nice, handsome, well-spoken individual with a lovely wife, a very charitable heart and he’s one heck of a race-car driver.
But he ain’t no Earnhardt.
Here’s NASCAR’s dilemma: Johnson is also on the Sprint Cup’s best team, Rick Hendrick Motorsports, and has the best crew chief in Chad Knaus. There’s nothing to say Johnson won’t win a fifth consecutive title this year. Nothing at all.
NASCAR also has had a problem with its new cars. Fans think they’re aesthetically incompetent and competitively unreceptive. In an attempt to right that wrong, NASCAR has dumped its wing-and-a-prayer approach and will replace all rear wings with snazzy-looking spoilers, you know, like the old guys used to have.
What the Sprint Cup Series also didn’t have last year was good competition at its two restrictor-plate races, especially at Talladega. With bump drafting disallowed in an attempt to encourage additional safety, racers stayed in line hoping to avoid the inevitable “Big One,” as in massive wreckage, and live to race another day. But the fans and the media were bored and NASCAR reacted by bringing back bump drafting in the corners at Daytona and Talladega. It will create more unsafe situations but death-defying crashes or just the heightened anticipation of such an occurrence should sell a few more tickets.
What NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series also had last year was lower TV ratings and attendance, not unlike most other major sports. Purses have been reduced this season and ticket prices have been lowered at most tracks.
But the major problem persists. The product has become uninspiring. Characters don’t seem welcomed and racing venues are cookie-cutter designs with no inimitable footprints, no nuances to call their own.
What the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series doesn’t have is a successful Earnhardt, Jr., its most popular driver again last season. Junior hasn’t come close to being able to live up to his reputation in recent years let alone accentuate his popularity.
Earnhardt, Jr., is also on the Hendrick Motorsports team along with Johnson, Mark Martin, who will sit on the pole for the start of this year’s Daytona 500, and Jeff Gordon. The three, if you remember, finished one-two-three, respectively, in last season’s final Chase Championship points. Earnhardt was a career-worst 25th, but maybe there’s a recovery afoot. Earnhardt will start from the outside of the first row Sunday based on his qualifying speed that was just a tick slower than Martin’s.
Hendrick says Earnhardt has displayed a new spring in his step. Maybe it will lead to a new leap in faith.
Hendrick is pooling all of the additional resources he can muster to get Earnhardt on track again. There have been crew chief changes and other sundry adjustments along the way but the biggest adjustment of all needs to be Junior’s attitude in regard to total dedication to his livelihood. That’s where the slippage has been most prominent.
Earnhardt recently added Danica Patrick to his NASCAR Nationwide team, with her first race scheduled for this Saturday at Daytona. Cynics might declare that the two deserve each other.
Earnhardt has gone 57 races without a victory, his last triumph coming in a fuel-mileage race in June of 2008 at Michigan International Speedway. That broke his 76-race winless streak. Patrick’s only victory in 81 starts on the IndyCar circuit over the last five years was in Japan in April 2008. That’s when race leader Helio Castroneves allowed Patrick to pass him late in the race when Castroneves and his Roger Penske team got confused as to which lap they were on in an attempt to save fuel. Or so the story goes.
NASCAR’s latest repair kit has a new set of instructions. They state that drivers don’t have to be rule-driven robots and will have enough leeway in regard to behavioral swings to actually confront other contestants on both verbal and maybe even physical levels.
Drivers are being asked to police themselves and respect general etiquette. The official expressed wish from NASCAR command central is, “Have at it, and have a good time.”
That’s not to say NASCAR has totally disassembled its police force or that more unrestrained aggression and emotion will be totally tolerated. It just means there will be more, “Get out of jail free” cards available.
There will be some who will try to take advantage of their new-found freedom. You can bet one of them won’t be Jimmie Johnson.
Tags: Daytona 500