During this past week's media tour, NASCAR took a big, bold step in what Chairman and CEO Brian France termed "back to basics" racing. NASCAR intends to let the drivers drive, putting the racing back into their hands for the 2010 season.
"Over the past 10 years, we've dramatically increased safety and that mission continues," France said. "However, it's time for us to allow the drivers to drive."
"We don't want the rules and regulations to get in the way of great racing and fantastic finishes," France continued. "NASCAR is a contact sport - our history is based on banging fenders."
While this is music to the ears of many fans, including the NASCAR Fan Council that has been advising the sport's leadership, NASCAR will also now face a most difficult balancing act.
First, NASCAR will have to balance this "no holds barred" racing approach with their commitment to safety. Let's face it, many of the rules and regulations that have come about in the sport have been developed to ensure that the drivers stay safe and that no one is using their car as a weapon.
This new balancing act is most dramatically illustrated by the change in bump-drafting rules in Daytona and Talladega, which NASCAR has in effect eliminated. The sanctioning body also announced the use of bigger restrictor plates at Daytona, which will give the drivers even more horse power as they ride closely together in the draft.
NASCAR instituted these very rules to address many of the frightening crashes that have occurred at both of those super-speedways, including Ryan Newman's dangerous tumble and upside down landing, as well as Carl Edwards' flight into the catch fence, injuring several fans.
At that time, drivers had begged for relief and Carl Edwards intimated that "someone would be killed" as a result of the high speeds and bump drafting that occurs at those very tracks.
With the elimination of the bump-drafting rules and the putting of the responsibility squarely back in the drivers' hands, NASCAR will have a most delicate balance to maintain between racing and safety. And the first test of that balancing act will be the sport's very first and most visible race, the Daytona 500.
The second major balancing act with the new "let 'em race" philosophy will be how it is balanced against the wishes of the sponsors. NASCAR is totally driven by sponsorship dollars, whose name is on the car reigns supreme.
So, how will Fed Ex and Verizon, even without logos, feel when Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski continue their feud from 2009 into the new season with "no holds barred"?
How will NASCAR balance out the need to maintain the incredible sponsorship dollars, and the "good image" that goes with it for the drivers with this new contact sport philosophy?
NASCAR will also have to face the delicate balancing act of this new racing philosophy with how it plays on television and with the media. For many years, NASCAR has battled the "rough and tumble" image of "rednecks duking it out" on and off the track.
So, how will NASCAR balance the need for a polished image, especially as it relates again back to the corporate sponsorship dollars, with the new "let it all hang out" type of racing? How will the sanctioning body balance letting the drivers show their personalities while still ensuring the sport does not turn into WWE?
Finally, in this new season, NASCAR will have to ensure the balance of their new racing style with the cultures of the teams themselves. Many of the major team powerhouses, including the Hendricks and the Gibbs and the Penskes of the sport, have fairly strict codes of conduct for their drivers as part of their team culture.
If NASCAR is encouraging drivers to bring back the contact in the sport, how will this balance with the teams' expectations of professionalism in their drivers on and off the track? And of course that expectation is directly tied back to the corporate sponsorship dollars that all teams have worked so hard to cultivate and secure.
Whether you agree with the rule changes or not, and it seems that most fans do, NASCAR will indeed be on the balance beam for the 2010 season. And we will all have to see how well their balance of these many competing factors and interests is maintained.