NASCAR Roundtable: Sprint Cup Season Review

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NASCAR Roundtable: Sprint Cup Season Review

The sun has set on the 60th edition of NASCAR racing. The 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season was one for the history books in terms of the new car used, the records made, and the highlights of an amazing year. Now it’s time to wrap it all up and give attention to some of the major issues that NASCAR faced this year.

 

Prior to the 2008 season, Brian France said that NASCAR wanted to get back to its roots. Did it accomplish that?

Kelly Crandall: Unfortunately, NASCAR’s roots are too far behind it that it can’t go back. In order to go back to its roots, it needs to go back to the old points format. The one that awards a champion based on how they run all year long and not just someone who can be good for 10 weeks.

Sure, the Chase is exciting, but the past two years the man who was best all year long did not take home the Championship.

It would also have to go back to tracks that helped make NASCAR, tracks that the drivers and fans love to see. There is no reason that California should have two dates and it should absolutely not be in the Chase. Just because you moved the date doesn’t mean that fans are going to show up or that the racing is going to be better.

Of course, Darlington and Rockingham will always have a soft spot in the fans' and drivers' hearts, and I don’t think NASCAR has given a good reason on why they are still not racing at Rockingham or why Darlington only gets one race.

These two tracks have always produced good racing, and if NASCAR announced their return there, the places would sell out.

Instead of looking for new tracks to go to or tracks that should or should not have second dates, it would be wiser to go back and stick with the tracks that have made NASCAR successful and gotten them to this point.

All of this plus the new car is not the NASCAR of the old days. France should have specified what he meant when he wanted to go back to NASCAR’s roots, because it doesn’t seem that much has changed.

Patti Rodisch: If NASCAR really wanted to go back to its roots, that would mean the fans. The price of gas might have fallen, but so has the fan enthusiasm.

NASCAR needs to look seriously at how it can cut costs for the fans, including possibly requiring tracks to lower their ticket rates.

Vendors and sponsors already charge so much for memorabilia it would be nice if NASCAR could find a way to accommodate the fan who travels to these races and then spends so much money of tickets, food, and fan wear.

Fans made this sport into what it is. And the declining attendance this year is evident that the fans need a break too, or the numbers will continue to fall next season.

Jen Preston: NASCAR going back to its roots is not happening.

Racing in California when it never sells out, and not focusing on races that once did such as Atlanta, simply is not working for NASCAR.

They are the most fan friendly sport in the world. What other sport lets you get up close and personal with your favorite athlete, going to his garage stall and getting his autograph for free? Nowhere, but NASCAR isn't making it easy on fans during this tough economic time.

Gas is no longer as expensive as it was over the summer, but with merchandise still high in price and unemployment on the rise, things aren't easy for fans. Getting back to their roots means once again connecting with fans: lower prices, ticket packages to get more fans in the stands, and make the racing better.

Mark Eckhart Jr.: As far as going back to NASCAR's roots, I think that only happened from the way the car looks because, let's face it: Guys like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart will never be Dale Earnhardt, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Allison and the other legends of the sport.

Mary Jo Buchanan: NASCAR also said this year they were going back to their roots, including their core fan base. Again, I don't think this goal was accomplished. NASCAR seems to continue to focus on the new fans.

While there is nothing wrong with that and many of the new attractions, fan view, more activities at the track, etc. are enjoyed by old and new fans, the core fan seems to be more disenfranchised with the sport, feeling it too commercial and mainstream.

This is a critical balancing act that NASCAR will have to face in the new year, especially given the economy.

 

The second major announcement was that NASCAR wanted drivers to show more of their personalities and that NASCAR would give them more freedom. Were you satisfied?

Kelly Crandall: When this story broke, there were certain fans and drivers that said they didn’t believe NASCAR. And they were right in doing so.

Before the season even started there were fireworks at Daytona when Stewart and Kurt Busch decided to play tag at 180 mph. Then the two continued to argue when called to the NASCAR hauler for a sit-down with officials.

Busch was the one sitting down after allegedly getting punched by Stewart. The best part was that NASCAR was looking on and did nothing—“what happens in the NASCAR hauler stays in the NASCAR hauler.”

Both drivers were given a six-week probation period. So much for letting them loosen up.

But NASCAR wasn’t done.

It then proceeded to sit down all the drivers and told them to keep their mouths shut when it comes to the new car. Apparently you have free speech everywhere but a NASCAR track.

But, alas, the drivers did as they were told and soon Busch and Edwards were testing NASCAR once again. After a bump-and-run in Bristol, Busch decided to express his displeasure with Edwards by running into the side of his car. Edwards responded by spinning Busch out and continuing on.

NASCAR responded by giving both drivers probation.

France really has created a double-edged sword, because fans want the drivers to be themselves and say what’s on their mind and express themselves when things happen.

NASCAR said they would; when they do, however, they get penalized and told not to do that anymore.

Except when it came to Kevin Harvick and Edwards after pictures arose of the two trying to strangle each other in the Lowe’s garage.

Just as they did earlier in Daytona, NASCAR officials turned their heads and said that it was a non-issue.

This brings many questions as to what drivers are exactly allowed to do and how much of themselves they are allowed to be. Running into each other on the track seems to be a no-no, but getting physical is just fine.

Patti Rodisch: NASCAR has been really inconsistent in its penalties regarding the driver’s actions. It has to be more consistent when it comes to non-car-related penalties.

If the drivers are being themselves, and that’s what NASCAR said they wanted, why are they then being punished for it? Unless it is detrimental to the sport in some way, penalizing a driver for speaking out or swearing is ridiculous.

Jen Preston: It's good for the sport to see more driver personality, but they are going about it the wrong away. We have to wait five minutes to hear a driver's interview after he wins, and even longer if two drivers get into on the track and "exchange words" or what not.

Seeing emotion and fire, like what we've seen between Stewart and Busch, or from Harvick, or from Busch, is always good.

Like Jeff Burton told NASCAR.com, "The emotion of our sport is what makes our sport work. If the driver can't show emotion, why watch? The fans deserve to hear the story of what happened on the track from their perspective and see raw emotion."

Raw emotion is what fans want. The fight between Juan Pablo Montoya and Harvick immediately began running on not only ads for ESPN's NASCAR coverage, but was nearly the only footage shown on the commercials for Watkins Glen.

"I was talking about kicking his a** because that's what I felt like doing," was Harvick’s quote. That sells, plain and simple.

Fans love run-ins on and off the track. Like Patti said, they need to be consistent on their penalties. You can't put Stewart and Busch on probation for using their cars as "weapons" against each other and not penalize Harvick and Edwards when a) Edwards was PHOTOGRAPHED choking Harvick and b) Harvick threw Edwards on the hood of his car.

Mark Eckhart Jr.: I would like to see more personality from some drivers in their interviews, but not all of them.

Guys like Edwards give us a great interview, but I’d like to see Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr give us a little bit more because they seem stiff at times during their interviews and don't really expand on the questions they're asked.

However, all in all NASCAR gets plenty of personality from its drivers. All we wait for is the next Stewart blow up at Goodyear, and we're covered for a few weeks on the personality front.

Heath Heidemann: When NASCAR talked about trying to take the step back to their roots, and let the drivers' personalities show, I didn’t think it was going to happen. I still don’t.

NASCAR has grown too big to ever let it happen again. They intervened with Stewart and Busch in Daytona, and again with Edwards and Busch, that time resulting in probation.

Heck, they even stepped in when Stewart mouthed off about the Goodyear tire brand. There wasn’t even the possibility of physical harm on that one!

Their presence in matters of that nature is not necessary. The drivers get it good the morning after from their team owners. Beyond that, if the driver gets a reputation for it, they could face losing sponsorships.

But NASCAR feels they need control of everything on and off the track. They are way too self-policed and they have too much of an itchy trigger finger to ever let the drivers show who they really are.

Mary Jo Buchanan: NASCAR also said this year it was going to let drivers be themselves and let their personalities shine through. That has worked, as long as the personalities of the drivers have been consistent with NASCAR policy.

But when the drivers started to disagree with NASCAR, as they did when they started publicly complaining about the car, all were called together to be warned to stop talking about it.

And when particular drivers expressed concerns about the tire problem, they too were called in to meetings with the NASCAR brass. So, NASCAR let drivers' personalities shine through—as long as they were supportive of the NASCAR party line.

 

This season was the first time the Car of Tomorrow was run full-time. Did the car do its job? Any changes you would like to see?

Kelly Crandall: It certainly has been interesting to see some of these drivers struggle so much with this new car. This car is more of a driver’s car, meaning the ones who aren’t afraid to wrestle with this car are going to be the guys who succeed each week. Besides the ones who have an unfair advantage.

The thing that really bothers most people is that the car does not really create that great of racing...sometimes. There have been certain races that have been snoozefests, and the drivers have said it’s because the car just doesn’t drive and you can’t get side-by-side with someone.

So on one hand, NASCAR created a boring car, but on the other hand, it did create a much safer car. If you look at some of the wrecks this year that drivers were able to walk away from and not have a scratch on them, then you know the car has done its job.

Take, for instance, Jeff Gordon at Las Vegas. He hit the inside wall on the back stretch very, very hard and the car was thrown around like a piece of paper.

But the worst part was that he hit head on, just like Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident. Gordon was able to walk away, a bit frustrated, but he did walk away.

And who can forget the wild ride that Michael McDowell took at Texas in March. That was certainly one for the highlight reel and a highlight of the car doing its job.

When that car was done with its demolition derby it was bashed, smashed and charred in all the right places: where McDowell wasn’t.

The car took the brunt of the force and not the driver. So as much as it doesn’t drive well and looks completely foolish, it has done everything that it’s intended to do.

The only changes that would make sense is to give the crews and drivers more say and power in making the car run and handle the way that they want to. Let them decide.

Patti Rodisch: In regards to the new car, there has been progress on it. The passing has improved enough throughout the year to warrant a positive review. But these teams still need clean air to find maximum speed and better handling.

Unless you are leading the race, that is near impossible. NASCAR needs to allow these teams a little more gray area. It’s understandable not letting these teams completely change the shape of the car, but you need to allow them to adjust on the car in terms of aerodynamics.

The old car didn't have a wing, so they had more downforce on these cars, allowing them to find better handling. These new cars are the complete opposite. The wing and the splitter both affect the handling of this car.

One thing that I have noticed is NASCAR is consistent with penalties regarding the new car. It’s nice to see that NASCAR is showing the teams that they cannot mess with anything regarding this car, and it’s nice to know that when someone gets caught cheating they will be penalized.

Jen Preston: Owners had concerns about the cost (even though it was supposed to save money, and may ultimately do that), drivers worried about being able to drive it.

I believe Terry Labonte called it "the worst car I've ever driven"—and fans were concerned about the racing.

The racing honestly hasn't been that great. The lead car has such an advantage that they just pull away on restarts and the only racing is in the dirty air in the back where the car doesn't handle right.

Safety should be NASCAR's No. 1 concern, and I applaud them on that...even though the foam in the door did at first catch on fire in at least two different occasions in the cars of Harvick and Kenseth...moving the driver over, among other features, was a very, very good idea.

However, they can't ignore driver concerns. They're the ones driving the cars, and I think if they call for bigger wheel base or removal of the bump stops, NASCAR needs to hear these concerns and do something about it, plain and simple.

When Earnhardt Jr. says "it's about the most frustrating thing I've had to deal with in this sport, and I've had to deal with some pretty frustrating things," among other comments made, things need to change.

There are concerns about the wings; especially at restrictor plate tracks. Waving cars by is nearly impossible, since no one can see your hand thanks to the wing. This has caused many accidents and arguments by drivers saying they didn’t know the person in front of them was pulling off the track.

Mark Eckhart Jr.: The COT has done its job as far as leveling the competition out and cutting costs down for the teams, big or small. The COT did cause major problems, especially with Goodyear and its tire compounds.

A perfect example would be the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis.

That was a disaster of a race, and it's because the way the COT is built, and having more weight in the front that loads the right front tire more than ever.

If they could take the weight off the right front and redistribute it throughout the car, then there would be less tire problems, and that would help the teams get a better handle on the COT itself.

Heath Heidemann: I dreaded the COT at first, but have come to love it after this season. I think the way the car handles has put it back into the drivers hands. It has forced them to get up on the wheel a little bit more.

Some drivers have adapted to it very well, others are still trying to find their feet. They complain of it being loose, and I am sure it is, but how well they adapt to it has set them apart in the field.

Mary Jo Buchanan: When the COT was under development, there were three major goals. The first was to have a safer car. So, the COT seat moved more to the center and there were a great many more reinforcements and other safety features added to the car.

That first goal has been achieved. This has been one of the safest years in NASCAR, with no deaths and no major injuries, the worst being Dario Franchitti's broken foot.

We saw several major crashes, including the wild ride of McDowell that will be forever making the highlight reels with his multiple flips. And we saw the wicked hard crash of Jeff Gordon at Las Vegas. Both of these drivers, although shaken, got out of the cars and walked away. So, the new car definitely has achieved the goal of safety.

The second major goal was to be more cost-effective for the teams. I don't quite think that has occurred, as teams have scrambled this year to test the car and to begin to find their own special ways to tweak it. So, I don't think the cost benefits have as of yet paid off.

The final goal was to achieve closer racing. This goal has definitely not been achieved. The new car is so aerodynamically challenged. If you are the leader, you get that clean air advantage, check out from the rest of the field and no one can pass you. That is something that NASCAR must address in the new year.

Kaitlyn Vincie: The Car of Tomorrow may be boxier and slower than the original model introduced in 1981, but its enhanced safety features and universal design make for a more logical choice as the new-version race car. The design of the car prevents teams from having to build special cars for certain races at intermediate and major speedways.

The COT features the same frame, roll cage and body designed to function on all different types of race tracks. With this development, NASCAR officials feel costs will be cut and money saved for team owners.

Teams will no longer be required to build as many cars to compete in a full season. With the recent economic constraints placed on NASCAR, the COT demonstrated itself to be a cost-conscious car.

 

Because of the struggling economy, NASCAR stated last week that it will be banning testing beginning in 2009. Will this hurt or help teams?

Kelly Crandall: NASCAR is doing all it can to help teams save money and stop laying people off. By banning testing, it should help save money. However, that is only if those teams don’t go and test somewhere else.

Just like it did with the car and every rule, NASCAR will find a way around this if it really wants to.

It seems the larger teams may not be hurt in the long run because they have more resources to work with the car that people seem to be struggling with. If there’s money to spend, the bigger teams will be spending it, and NASCAR won’t be able to do anything about it.

However, while it will also help the smaller teams in terms of money, it will soon be seen whether it hurts or helps them in terms of performance when it comes to working on this car.

The drivers, are still not happy when it comes to this car, and they are still calling for changes to be made. The only way for that to happen is for testing to take place and kinks to be worked out. The cars need to be run at racetracks that are being raced on by the cars in order to get a better reading.

While it’s understandable for NASCAR to want to help teams save money, it should have found another way to do so than putting everyone in a corner.

Patti Rodisch: The economy is going to dictate sponsorships and teams for the next couple years. If as a nation things start to turn around and people begin making money again, then you will see more organizations pick up sponsors.

However, if things continue as is or continue to decline, NASCAR needs to seriously think about ways other than cutting testing out in 2009 to save some money.

This means possibly shortening races and/or the schedule for the future until the nation can begin to trend forward again. This is a sport that needs big business and needs Americans to shell out money because without them spending all sponsors need to make cutbacks. Sports are usually the first place to see cutbacks.

For example Lowe's and Home Depot, all saw decline in sales this past month. Major sponsors for big name drivers are seeing cutbacks. The auto industry is another example of how much NASCAR is affecting the teams out there trying to rally the fans around the auto industry.

If the Big Three can't stay afloat, you will see changes in NASCAR. Teams will truly be affected if Washington can't agree on a bailout of some sort. Starting in 2009, it won't be the only year that we see NASCAR trying to cut cost if things don't improve for the sponsors and for the automakers.

The economy is affecting the garages now, starting with major layoffs from major organizations. We always assumed the smaller teams would get hit the hardest and while that is true; teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing are all facing layoffs in some departments.

Estimates say nearly 1,000, but we know there will be more than that. Many teams could be sitting to see what happens with the automakers and what happens in the next couple weeks with sponsors. The current economic situation will be felt for the next 3-4 years on this sport as teams adjust to life in America's new economy.

Jen Preston: President Mike Helton says the ban on testing will save race teams "tens of millions" of dollars. According to reports Rick Hendrick and Ray Evernham have given, testing costs anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million per car per test.

So, let's say Hendrick spends $600,000 per test and tests all four of his cars 20 times a season. That's about $48 million. Whether or not teams are going to get around that rule with testing at Virginia International, Rockingham, Pikes Peak, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course or anywhere else is yet to be seen.

Not to mention the massive paychecks drivers get, which I talk about in my last article. With the Big Three in major trouble, it'll be interesting to see how much money they keep sending NASCAR's way.

I believe Chevy may have pulled their sponsorship from a track (it may be the Richmond race, but I'm not for sure) and Ford has cut back on its Truck and Nationwide Series support, so not only is this effecting the Cup but the two other NASCAR series as well.

Sponsorship is also a big deal, with only about 30-32 cars having full sponsorship. A year ago, we had 50-plus cars showing up to races and now we barely have 43 thanks to the sponsorship mess.

Teams with no or partial sponsorship includes Ryan Newman's car at Stewart Haas Racing, Reed Sorenson at Gillette Evernham Motorsports, and Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland at Yates—only one Yates car (Paul Menard) has sponsorship confirmed for next season.

The next thing the economy is doing to NASCAR is forcing teams to cut down. So far, Hall of Fame has laid off a substantial amount of people, Woods Brothers laid off about 90 people, Stewart Haas let go 16, Hendrick has fired 14 including Johnson's former spotter, DEI laid off anywhere from 116-120 people, Ganassi fired 70-plus after he shut down Franchitti's team due to lack of sponsors, Petty just announced they were laying off 22, and I believe Gibbs has let some people go but as of yet I haven't found a number.

Sponsorship loss has probably been the biggest problem, forcing a lot of teams to either shut down or cut back on their schedule.

Mark Eckhart Jr.: It’s fantastic that Chevy and Ford are sticking with NASCAR even through the tough economic situation because those manufacturers are HUGE to NASCAR. I don't want the sport to be run over by foreign companies like Toyota and Mitsubishi, because those definitely were never in NASCAR's roots.

NASCAR has banned testing and continues to try and help the teams in any way that they can, and that's what the teams need. It's about time NASCAR rose up in the face in pressure and took charge instead of reacting to disaster for a change.

They are facing the economic problem head on, instead of letting it destroy our sport first, and then wait for France and Helton to try and dig their way out of a problem.

Heath Heidemann: I think the economy's affect on NASCAR is not going to be pleasant, but I do feel it is necessary. Much like Wall Street, oil, and housing, the spending has gotten out of control, and needs to reset itself. Teams have been growing, and growing, and now it’s time for each of them to figure out what is justifiable and what is not.

Sponsors in this time will start looking at what they are getting for their dollars. Sure, the lower teams do not get them the exposure, but is the sponsor trying to work with the driver for promotions, or just letting the car do the talking. They might see a better return if they utilized their opportunities better.

NASCAR’s ban on testing does not make a lot of sense to me. I understand the cost-cutting move of it, but testing is testing. They gave permission to test other places, which still is an expense, just not on a familiar track.

There is still gas, tires, wages, and, in some cases, a hotel stay involved. At the end of the day, they have saved nothing. If they want to ban testing, ban it altogether.

Mary Jo Buchanan: So, we are at the economy. I think that NASCAR has no idea how big the economic downturn will be on the sport. This is true not only with the teams, drivers, and sponsors but also with the fans. NASCAR has done nothing to encourage tracks to lower ticket prices or to help fans find jobs, as other stick and ball sports have done.

NASCAR is behind the curve on this one; they should be talking about this as they prepare for their ritzy banquet at the Waldorf Astoria and should be announcing some new fan help programs before the year ends.

 

NASCAR certainly seems to be in trouble and the 2009 season is approaching fast. Will things change for the better or worse? The only common thing from fans alike is that things, everything, needs to change in order for the sport that we all have come to love will remain on track.

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