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France to keep fixing NASCAR until it's broken
Prior to last Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR CEO Brian France said that 2011 would bring “impactful” changes. If anything, these changes may not only be impactful, but a major pendulum swing from racing as we have grown to know it.

The Sprint Cup schedule itself looks to be perhaps the biggest single change, with Atlanta Motor Speedway likely losing its spring date to Kentucky Speedway, while Kansas Speedway siphons the fall date from Auto Club Speedway. Losing a race at Atlanta is a bit like losing the pinky finger on your left hand, while exchanging a date in Kansas Snoozeway for Caliboringya is akin to choosing the leper with the most fingers. In this case, one leaper has a casino now – so you can add gambling to your race weekend in the heartland; just be careful not to end up like Cousin Eddie from the National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise.

It is a sign of the times in NASCAR – if people don’t show up, the show must go on, and at new venues to help support the purses and promotional dollars it takes to put on events of these magnitudes. Look no further than the last two races at Chicagoland and Indianapolis. Chicago drew less than 68,000 people for a Saturday night race, while the Brickyard 400 – the second most prestigious race in NASCAR – pulled a reported 140,000. That is about how many showed up to watch Cup cars trip the bricks at a tire test back in 1993, a year before the inaugural Brickyard 400. Perhaps more telling, the number is 100,000 less than were in attendance just two years ago, and a far cry from the 300,000 that were on hand to see Kevin Harvick blow the quarter panels off his No. 29 RCR Monte Carlo while executing his victory burnout in 2003.

More tracks are shedding NASCAR dates in general. Just yesterday, Dover Motorsports, Inc. announced that its wholly owned subsidiary, Gateway International Raceway, has notified NASCAR that it will not seek 2011 sanctions for its two Nationwide Series and one Camping World Truck Series races. That one of the newer premier tracks in the Midwest is abandoning its pursuit of the most popular forms of motorsport in North America is both shocking and revealing, but not exactly earth shattering. Memphis Motorsports Park, one of the more unique tracks in NASCAR, closed this year after a potential sale did not materialize, after hosting its final NASCAR event last October. Memphis is (or was) a Dover Motorsports entity as well.

Meanwhile, fan-favorite Martinsville and the road course in Sonoma escaped the guillotine this year – but what about in years to come?

While many are content to keep pressing forward and putting a happy face on for sponsors and fans, to say that the sport is struggling is an understatement. But then again, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent – and much higher in some pockets of the country – sometimes a race weekend getaway that will run a family over $1,000 takes a backseat to other priorities.

Next season also brings the advent of electronic engine management to NASCAR, with rumors swirling once again surrounding the addition of fuel injection. You know the end is nigh when the four-barrel carburetor, the iconic engine component that every hot rodder and racer-type is intimately familiar with, looks to have it’s annual discharge boosters on the chopping block. It’s hard to say what is driving this change, be it modernization to get in line with virtually every other racing series on the planet, to help aid manufacturers in creating a legitimate reason to remain involved in motorsports, or to increase efficiency and fuel economy standards to help satisfy the green police who have miraculously been kept at bay from barging in on motorsports for so long.

It’s only a matter of time before a rouge Greenpeace Prius is seeing ramming the pace car like a whaling vessel in the Atlantic.

The idea of bringing ethanol to the Cup Series was touted earlier this year, but talk of that seems to have subsided. Between introducing a new Nationwide Car of Tomorrow, a new spoiler for the Cup machines, proposed new noses for the Sprint Cup cars, as well as the advent of major engine tuning changes, all things that are costing teams beaucoup buck (something that isn’t exactly readily available at the moment – particularly following the 10 percent reduction in race pursues this season). And when Richard Petty’s future in NASCAR is hinging on what AJ Allmendinger does, you know trouble is afoot.

While NASCAR held its annual meetings and state of the sport events in Daytona and Indianapolis this month, more talk has centered around the Chase and what can be done to create drama. This notion continues to irk me, and is precisely why, along with the dire economic situation being experienced by many, the reason the stands are sparsely populated and the sound of discontent from long-time fans continues to grow. The popular notion has the Chase field being expanded to 15, with an elimination-style format where after every couple of races, a driver would be eliminated from contention – not that if after two races being 15th in points would have you actually in contention to begin with.

There is just something wrong to me about being considered championship material when there are already 14 guys who have been better than you the previous eight months.

Brian France has continually suggested that what NASCAR needs is “drama” and “Game Seven” type moments. Looking back at championship battles in the past, I don’t know how more “Game Seven” you can get than in 1992, when the title was up for grabs between six drivers at the final race in Atlanta under the “old” points systems. The most memorable title fights in history were all under the previous season-long cumulative system that rewarded consistency, wins and some good fortune. Ironically, the first year of the Chase, when it was limited to 10 drivers, was decided by five competitors at the last race in Homestead — more in contention at the end with a smaller, yet more worthy field.

With more “impactful changes” swirling in the air than was mentioned throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, the latest appears to be NASCAR pulling in the reigns a bit with its “Have at it Boys!” mantra. No, I’m not talking about the slap-on-the-wrist fine issued to Carl Edwards for hooking Brad Keselowski head on into the wall in front of the entire field at Gateway a couple of weeks back, but rather the revelation that two drivers has been fined for comments deemed harmful to the “brand” of NASCAR. Never mind that the sanctioning body dismissed their claims as false or inaccurate, but for potentially “materially” damaging the sport. Many identified Denny Hamlin’s claim at Michigan that he knew that the caution would fly late in the race after accumulating a nine-second lead, and that NASCAR wanted to make a race out of it.

What NASCAR needs to recognize is that the majority of fans agree with Hamlin. Many could sense it was coming. It wasn’t the first time it has happened, and there is typically a 50/50 chance whether or not the “debris” that brought out said caution is recovered – or even shown on television. It brings up the age old argument over what is better – a SportsCenter highlight reel finish, or letting things play out naturally, and taking a nine-second victory as a pallet cleanser to legitimate the Kurt Busch/Ricky Craven fender slammer on the last lap at Darlington in 2003.

While the changes that NASCAR issued in 2010 have been roundly applauded – earlier uniform start times, the return of the deck lid spoiler, Nationwide CoT muscle cars, and “Have at it Boys!,” much of that good will looks to be undone with further fiddling and fumbling with its schedule, policing of drivers and continued questionable cautions, race calls, and an unabashed desire to create drama for a championship, instead of just letting it develop naturally.

While NASCAR continues to ponder and discuss these impactful changes for 2011 and beyond, it runs the risk of expanding upon its own maxim, which in six short years has lead the sanctioning body to this point: Keep fixing it until it’s broken. Athlon Sports

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