NASCAR in 2009: Four questions

  • Scott Whitmore
  • Thursday, February 5, 2009 10:35pm
  • Sports

It’s almost time.

Saturday, 28 of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup drivers take to the track at Daytona for the non-points Bud Shootout.

A week later, all three of the NASCAR’s national series will see action, including the Granddaddy of them all, the Daytona 500.

So, very soon a whole lot of questions will start to be answered — and some more will be generated. Sitting here in the calm, quiet of my loft, typing away on the laptop, my head is churning with questions:

— Who’s going to run well this year?

— What’s going to happen with all the one-car startups and recent mergers?

— Which driver will be in which car/truck and who’s sponsoring them?

— Can any of the smaller teams compete with the Big 4?

It’s too hard to think about them all, so let’s start with four simple, broad questions for NASCAR in 2009.

Seems like everywhere I look these days, on the Web, in newspapers or magazines, the economic outlook for NASCAR specifically, a sports in general, is being looked at.

Let’s face it, sports are entertainment, and when times get tough, entertainment dollars get re-allocated to things like rent/mortgage/car payment, food and a new pair of shoes for the kid.

And yes, Virginia, the price of gas is already starting to go up again.

Constantly searching for the best use of their advertising dollar, sponsors are cutting back, too. That’s made it harder on race teams, who are cobbling together deals to keep their cars on the track. We’ve seen an upswing of smaller, startup teams — and that’s good news — but how many races will they be at after Daytona?

A lot of tracks are finally taking note and cutting ticket prices — a trend I expect to see continued. It may be too late for this season, however, as a lot of folks have already made up their minds. A month or so ago I wrote here that there will be a lot of empty seats at tracks this year and I’m going to stand by that assessment now.

To go back to the original question — has NASCAR seen the bottom yet? I don’t think so, but I’m basing that more on my gut than any facts or figures.

The Camping World Truck Series is the most threatened, in my mind, which is a pity because it’s also my favorite racing. Too many “casual fans” don’t agree, however, and the hardcore fans may not be enough. I expect both the trucks and Cup series to start at least one race with less than a full field at some point this season, probably near the middle.

This question won’t be answered for some time — maybe not until the end of the season — but it’s one we need to keep asking ourselves throughout.

I’m not talking here about which drivers will make it into the Chase or will compete for the Nationwide or Trucks title.

No, I’m wondering which teams will still be around at the end of the season.

Can Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates go the season without imploding? How about the new startup operation of Washington’s own Larry Gunselman and the Brothers Bodine? Or Jeremy Mayfield? Or Tommy Baldwin Racing? Or … well, you get it.

NASCAR’s relatively short off-season is a good/bad type of thing. Good in that we don’t have to wait forever to see cars on the track again, bad because lots of these folks have been thrown together in a relatively short time, which means the first part of the season could be pretty rough.

And the way the points system is, a poor start can be pretty hard to make up for down the stretch. The measure of these teams may be how well they handle the early adversity as things settle out.

This is a bit more focused question than the previous two, but I think it may be one of the more fun ones to watch get answered.

As I’ve said before, I’m of the opinion that this is going to be a good year for Tony Stewart. I think the change of scenery — including getting a different Cup crew chief for the first time — and challenge of being the owner-driver won’t slow him down a bit.

Of course, everyone knows the story of Stewart’s replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing — Joey Logano. Sliced Bread was the face of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series TV commercials before he was old enough to drive in any of the races. Logano is talented and a proven winner at every level he’s raced at up to this point.

His debut in the Cup series last season wasn’t much to write home about, but then again he didn’t get a lot of time to learn the Car of Today/Tomorrow. One of those races was in the then-Gibbs satellite operation at Hall of Face. And Logano’s response to that situation may be an indication of what’s to come.

He complained because HOF — crew, car setup, etc. — wasn’t up to the standard he has come to expect from Gibbs. Now, with Gibbs he’ll get the best of everything, but what happens if he struggles early and/or often? Who gets blamed then?

I also think Sliced Bread is going to be a polarizing driver — fans will either love him or hate him. NASCAR may have a next-generation Jeff Gordon on its hands, but if that’s the case Logano has some big shoes to fill. Let’s not forget Gordon’s past championships and victories — love him or hate him, you’ve still got to respect what he’s done.

OK, let’s wrap this up with another big-picture question that asks, in essence, what could/should NASCAR be doing — instead of what it is doing.

Last season NASCAR said it was going to get back to its roots, focusing on improving the on-track product and letting the drivers be themselves.

In response, they got the Harvick-Edwards throwdown, the tire debacle at Indianapolis, drivers having to be muzzled after they complained too much about the boxy Car of Tomorrow and some of the most boring racing ever seen in the top-most Cup series including a less-than-dramatic Chase memorable only because it was Jimmie Johnsons’ third straight title.

Now, in the truck and Nationwide Series, the racing shorter, looser and more fun, and the championship battles went down to the wire. Drivers got into each other — verbally and on the track — but without all the drama that went along with the Cup soap opera.

What’s wrong with this picture? Compared to Cup, NASCAR spends a fraction of the time or effort promoting its No. 2 and No. 3 series, yet for a race fan that’s where the action is — at least the action I want to see.

Don’t know who the drivers are or which driver runs which number? Isn’t that part of the fun for a true fan — digging into that stuff, maybe coming up with someone to root for and follow up the ranks?

I’m excited to watch John Wes Townley race in the Nationwide Series this season, and I kept track of him last year in the trucks. Why? Because Townley is from Watkinsville, Ga., which is the itty-bitty little town that I lived in during one of my two tours of duty at Naval Supply Corps School.

For the Cup series, NASCAR needs to find a way to capture the fun of the short track without losing the glamour. Making the CoT more competitive would be a start, and dumping the Chase would help, too ¬— but it’s more of a mindset than a tech fix.

I go to my local track — Evergreen Speedway — expecting to have fun watching the races. To a bit lesser degree, I feel the same way about watching the Nationwide and truck series. Cup, on the other hand, does not generate that feeling in me.

At the same time, NASCAR needs to put on a real, hard push to get more diversity onto the track. Stock car racing’s Tiger Woods and Danica Patrick (or Ashley Force, Melanie Troxel or Hillary Will) are racing somewhere in America, and NASCAR needs to keep looking for them, and then put them on a reasonable career path toward the top-tier. Because being the salvation of NASCAR may be too much pressure to put on one driver, spread the load around.

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