Monday, December 29, 2008

Athlete or Not? Are NASCAR Drivers really Athletes?

It's an age old argument, that I'm quite frankly getting tired of.  Listening to a recent Christmas edition of Sporting News Radio, I head a guest host say that NASCAR drivers are not athletes.  "They drive around in circles, for Christ's sake" the host exclaimed.  "Anybody could do that!"

I'll refrain from my usual arguments about the 120 plus degree heat.  I'll refrain from my usual arguments about losing up to 8 per cent of total body weight during a 500 mile race in the summer.  No, I have a different argument that I'd like to bring up that will prove for once and all that yes, indeed, NASCAR drivers are true athletes.

Hand and eye coordination has long been touted as the main ingredient for any athlete.  Yes, any idiot can drive a nice climate controlled passenger car for hours in circles.  Most of us, who happen to be male, have done this with families in the car while looking for our vacation destinations.  Asking for directions?  That's truly a non-sport.

I personally have never driven the family minivan at 180 miles per hour in circles around anything.  I've never been able to get the minivan up to even half that speed on a dead flat stretch of interstate.  My face pours sweat, my perfectly arranged hair sprouts horns, but the dang thing won't go over 75, no matter what I do to it.  I asked a racing experienced guy that I know why that phenomena exists.  His answer was succinct.  "Well, it's like you're driving a dang barn door through the air.  It just ain't going to go that dang fast."  I thought, with my superior hand and eye skills, that I could make a UPS van go 180 on a dead, flat, straight road.

I was wrong.  As it turns out, there was some stupid deal called aerodynamics that made my minivan, and indeed, the big brown truck, move relatively slowly through the air.  A really huge vehicle with a huge profile will go slower than something shaped like a bullet through the air.  I'm guessing that this is why we don't see many bullets shaped like UPS delivery vans.

But, naturally, I digress.  The main point of what I'm trying to say here is that very few sportscasters could maintain control over a 3500 lb stock car at speeds much over 45 MPH for more than a lap or two, on any track in the nation.  There is no CD player, there is no Garmin.  There is no cruise control, nor is there any gas gauge.  In many cases, I'm guessing some of these NASCAR haters couldn't do without a regular shot of thier favorite beverage at regular intervals.

Here's one for you, sports experts.  Try driving any vehicle on a straight line at 180 plus mph for more than 5 seconds.  Now, try doing it while having to steer and turn corners, and try to keep that vehicle out of the wall.  Try doing it with 42 other vehicles on the track.  Try to pass a slower car in front of you without crashing.  It's not a sport, huh? 

Try it for real before you say it's not a sport.  In NASCAR, it's not just Hand to Eye coordination.  You have to have your hands, eyes, feet, and basically your entire brain utterly coordinated, sometimes at extreme heat, pulling extreme G's.  

Do it before you criticize it, please.  I don't know crap about soccer, but I'd say it takes some skills.  Racing takes some extreme skills most sports types have never even thought about.

In the Unemployment Line - NASCAR Faces Tough Times

Not all of NASCAR, obviously, but there are quite a few people who depend upon the sport for their livelihood that are looking for jobs this off season.  The recent tough economic times have been far reaching in the sport.  Hundreds of shop employees have been laid off, beginning back during the racing season.  More than a few drivers are looking for a ride, and even long time writers who have covered the sport for many years are not suddenly without jobs.

No one, of course, ever really seriously suggested that NASCAR as not just a sport, but an industry of its own, was immune to tough times.  No form of entertainment is truly immune, unless you count liquor stores, and that's only if you call drinking entertainment.  It certainly makes for an interesting spectator sport at times, especially during the holiday season.

Two relatively high profile drivers are looking for jobs right now.  Elliot Sadler has reportedly been let go from GEM in favor of A.J. Allmendinger.  Bobby Labonte, who announced he was leaving Petty some days ago has still not announced where he will be in 2009.  One would hope that both drivers find gainful employment for the 2009 season, but times are tough in NASCAR.

Sponsors have suddenly found themselves with much smaller advertising budgets going into the new year.  Car manufacturers have had to cut support for racing to the bone in many cases.  As of right now, there are apparently only 29 cars that will be fully sponsored in the Sprint Cup series in 2009.  This situation makes me wonder if now might be the time for smaller teams to make a few all out pushes to build a car, hire a driver, even for just a one race deal, and try to get the car and crew to the race track.  It's beginning to look doubtful that the field will be overpopulated with cars in 2009, at least at a lot of races.  Instead of seeing 48 cars battling to fill 43 starting spots, we may see only 39 or 40 teams show up at some tracks next year.  If these small teams can pass technical inspection, actually put a car on the track with a qualified driver, and have some form of over the wall crew, they could be racing in 2009.  It will take some deep pockets, and hopefully some short term sponsors to make this happen, but this could actually be a boom time for small teams just trying to get a toe hold in the sport.

Thinking along the same lines, this could be a good time for small sponsors to get their names on TV in 2009.  Smaller teams might have a better shot at making the field, and even a one race deal with the right team and driver might give a small sponsor more coverage than they ever dreamed would be possible on a national forum.  I keep thinking back to a few years ago, when in 2005, a Dodge driven by Kevin Lepage, owned by a Georgia businessman named John Carter, and sponsored by Patron Tequila finished 9th in the Daytona 500.  That little deal netted winnings in excess of $300,000, which is not a bad race day for anyone.  Storybook endings like this won't happen every race, but all racing is a gamble.  You don't know what you got until the green flag drops, and in a lot of ways, advertising has to be the same way.  You never know quite what you have until you put it out there for all the world to see.  A smaller playing field in NASCAR might mean that some small company, some small race team, and some driver nobody's ever heard of could make a big splash on the national stage.

Sometimes what seems like unfortunate events for many can actually turn into opportunity for others.  Racing is obviously a competitive sport, but what many might not realize is that there is competition well beyond the track.  Sponsors compete to have their names and products showcased in the best possible places.  Crew members compete to get on the best teams.  Even writers and journalists have been hit hard by this economic downturn.  Mike Mulhern, who wrote for the Winston-Salem Journal for over 30 years had his job eliminated this year.  I've not always agreed with Mr. Mulhern's opinions, but I've always had great respect for his writing abilities.  I know we'll be seeing much more of Mike's writing in the future, because he's far too good a journalist to keep away from the sport, and much more importantly, his readers.

Also, careful NASCAR junkies will no doubt notice that Yahoo has basically dropped it's full time coverage of NASCAR as well.  Though there will be some feature and special articles, we probably won't be reading the day to day happenings in NASCAR in 2009.  I wish all the crew at Yahoo who have worked so hard over the years well in all their new endeavors.  We'll be seeing more of those guys on other forums soon, I trust.

Though we all face tough times ahead, it is nice to remember that sometimes, for every dark cloud that covers the sky, often a little rainbow appears.  Ten years from now, I hope to be reading stories about people who found success beyond their wildest dreams in the middle of such hard times.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A NASCAR Fan's Open Letter to Santa Claus

Hey, Big Man! It's almost that time of year again. I know you're busy finishing up the toy production run for this year, and undoubtedly almost finished making your list and have probably proceeded to checking it twice. May a sometimes naughty, but mostly nice racing fan make a few last minute requests?

First and foremost, Santa, please bring us safe racing next year. Let every driver, crew member, official, fan, and passerby return to their homes after the race under their own power. We pray to the Good Lord for the same thing week in and week out, but we figure maybe a little Christmas Magic could help in that area as well.

Please bring us some good racing in 2009. Please let every race have its own unique qualities, its own personality, it's own reasons for fans wanting to watch it over and over again, and to want to come back to the same track in the future for even more.

Please bring Goodyear a magic formula for tire compounds in 2009, please, please, please Sir! Please don't give us the ugly lump of coal that was the Indianapolis race from 2008 again, Santa! We as fans promise, we'll be good!

Santa, please bring the new car better handling. Please let the drivers race each other for wins rather than simply just trying to keep the car on the track and out of the fence. In other words, Santa, please give us racing again instead of 500 mile tests.

Santa, please bring all the teams more sponsors in 2009. Many of the smaller teams are hurting, and need just a little boost to get them in the races. On a side note, please bring us all more money so we can support our sport by buying tickets and merchandise! Or just bring us the tickets and the merchandise! You know who we are and who wants what! (wink, wink!)

Santa, can you please bring us some good, old fashioned, straight up qualifying? Bring us the fastest 43 cars and let them race. Bring NASCAR some common sense so that they know the top 35 rule is basically making it harder, instead of easier, for smaller teams to get into the field.

Santa, can you bring us a return to racing without the Chase for the Cup? I think the Chase is another deterrent to would be sponsors, because the sponsors that really want to shine want to make sure they are only on a top 12 car every year, which leaves a lot of cars without adequate sponsorship who might be in the Chase if they had more resources. NASCAR has unwittingly created a vicious circle here, Santa, and instead of improving the racing with its so-called play off system, it's only eliminated most of the field from gaining much exposure during the last 10 races of the season. Nothing irritates a sponsor more than not getting air time.

Santa, can you bring the upper management at NASCAR a little extra wisdom for next year? Just enough to show them that monkeying with a great product almost always lessens the value of the product. It seems to me that the racing just isn't as good as it used to be. There are exceptions, of course, but even races that in the past have always been exciting seem to have lost a little of their luster lately. (Try saying that fast three times, Santa!)

Finally, Santa, I implore you to send some of your elves to Detroit and other great cities all over the continent and help get the Big 3 straightened out. NASCAR just won't be the same without Chevrolet, Ford, or Dodge. We know your guys have production down to, well, magic. If anyone can straighten out the mess our automobile manufacturers are in, you and your folks can, Santa! I just know you can!

Lastly, (I know I said finally before, but you know how I am) I'd recommend a little higher spring rate and a round down on the track bar on your sleigh. It will help you in the corners, I think.

Merry Christmas Santa! Merry Christmas to all the Racing Nation.


Your Friend,

Jimmy C

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dodge Says They're Hanging In There

Despite the massive financial problems facing the Chrysler Corporation, Dodge Motorsports director Mike Accavitti says that they will continue to support its NASCAR program. In the short term, this is very good news for NASCAR and its Dodge teams.

I will not delve into the root causes of the financial difficulties which all the domestic automakers face here. There are literally thousands of places to read analysis of the economics involved. As far as NASCAR is concerned, 3 of the 4 automobile manufacturers represented in the sport are in big trouble. Dodge is shutting down all North American manufacturing plants for at least 30 days. Ford has announced that it will extend the annual 2 week shut down of 10 of its plants by an extra week in January.

The fact is this: All of NASCAR's non Toyota teams face drops in manufacturer support in 2009 and beyond. This quite frankly blows NASCAR's carefully tweaked level playing field all to heck. Toyota has already been flexing it's considerable muscles and appears to be ready to dominate the sport should its competitors lose manufacturer support.

Dodge's commitment to supporting its race teams in the middle of such uncertainty is commendable. How effective its support to its teams will be remains, of course, to be determined. Coming off a disappointing 2008 season, and now faced with a financial crises, Dodge has proven that when it came back to NASCAR in 2001, it came back to stay.

I sincerely hope that Ford and Chevrolet will be able to step up to the plate and make the same commitment.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Silly Season Information... and Misinformation

No, I'm not going to tell you all the latest news and rumors in NASCAR in this column. You can find much better (or worse) sources for that information. If you read the rumor mills on a daily basis, as I do, you may begin to feel your head spinning around, or at least your mind within your head. Done deals are refuted within hours, sure things are found to be very unsure at all. It's all part of what we call the silly season, of course, but there are more players in the game every year, and thus a geometrical expansion of possible rumors.

It appears that some rumors are simply created to produce readership. One popular mid season rumor had Bobby Labonte signed, sealed and delivered to Richard Childress Racing's 4 team for 2009. I was guilty of partly buying that rumor. If you look back through the archives here, you will find what I said about it. At the time, I did not myself say it was a done deal at all, but at that particular moment in NASCAR thinking, it was the conventional wisdom. As it turned out, that particular rumor couldn't have been farther from the truth. Bobby Labonte went on to sign a multi year contract with Petty, though he has now announced that he has parted ways after becoming disillusioned by the performance of Petty's new business partner (read majority owner) since Boston Ventures came into the picture.

The latest rumor involving Labonte is that he will join the newly formed Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as the driver of the 41 Target sponsored Chevy. Bobby Labonte has not commented other than to say that he did not have a new ride at the time he announced he was parting ways with the Petty organisation. I will therefore refuse to believe anything I read until Bobby Labonte makes an announcement.

Some formerly reputable news outlets have soiled their reputations in the last couple of years. Remember the 2007 frenzy over the future of Dale Earnhardt Jr.? If you've been more than a very casual fan of the sport in the last few years, you have to remember all the rumors flying around over that deal. Dale Jr.'s departure from DEI and his move to Hendrick was undoubtedly the NASCAR media event of the 2007 season. This year has been much more of the same, only probably the biggest mover was Tony Stewart from Joe Gibbs Racing to his own team at Stewart-Haas Racing, and now being joined by former Penske driver Ryan Newman. Someone, I don't know whether it was Tony himself or not, was wise enough to complete most of the deal before allowing too much talk to get started about where he would be driving in 2009. How the media must have hated not having 6 plus months of rumors to spread about Tony, as they did with Dale Jr. last year!

In the last few days, I've read about how Petty and Gillet Evernham Motorsports were going to merge, then not merge, and now supposedly going to merge again. Will we see a Toyota in Petty blue next year? If so, who will the driver be? I don't have a clue, and chances are, if you're reading this, neither do you. It's one of the fun parts of the sport, not knowing and being surprised, sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not so much. The misinformation aspect of the silly season doesn't bother me nearly as much as how much stock many fans put in the rumors they read and hear about. Folks, never believe everything you read. That should be a basic fact of life, especially on the Internet.

Another word of advice for my fellow fans as well: Don't believe what you read just because it's what you want to believe. Early in 2007, the conventional wisdom among Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans was that he would drive for Richard Childress, and eventually drive his daddy's old number 3 on his car. I thought that was the most likely scenario early in 2007 as well, and never in a million years did I think he would end up driving for Rick Hendrick, and be a teammate of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But that's exactly what happened, and once most of his fans recovered from the initial shock, they supported Dale Jr. in his decision and as a result of guilt by association, many Dale Jr. fans are also pulling for drivers that they once reviled as enemies. There is something else to remember as well: Though there are still some true rivalries among NASCAR drivers, many of these rivalries are blown out of proportion in order to make the most out of the press value. By all accounts, the Hendrick drivers are all at least friends, if not bosom buddies. They respect each other. Mark Martin coming on board for 2009 and beyond is not likely to change that spirit.

For most of us, NASCAR is not the ultimate purpose for our lives. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who do depend on their livelihood from the sport, and in some ways I do as well. I think it's important to remember that it is a sport, it is entertainment, just like football or baseball or basketball. We have fewer major players in our sport just because of its very nature, and therefore we become very attached to our drivers. Rumors should be taken at face value, and my advice to everyone is to not rush to conclusions until the people involved make an official announcement. It's very easy to start a rumor, and it's very easy to lose all credibility for spreading them around as well.

I plan on posting here again before Christmas, but in any event, I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas. If you don't believe in Christmas, then Happy Holidays. Either way, Seasons Greetings to all of you.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dale Earnhardt Inc., RIP

1999, Mooresville, North Carolina:

Dale Earnhardt is riding high. He's had surgery that makes him feel younger than he's felt in years. He's beginning to win races again. He's finally won the Daytona 500, a goal that he came so close to achieving for 20 years, yet slipped away, often on the last lap. But Dale finally has put that feather in his cap. Dale Earnhardt Inc. is beginning to boom. He's in the process of setting up his 2000 team, which will include driver Steve Park and his son, 2 time Busch champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale has Pennzoil on board as Steve's sponsor, and Budweiser has inked a multi year deal for Dale Jr. Dale spends time putting people in position at DEI, but takes the time to enjoy the hunting season. He spends quality time with Teresa and Taylor. Life is good for Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2000. Dale wins again, win number 76 in his storied career. His son, Dale Jr. wins in his first full season in the Winston Cup, not once, but twice. He also wins the Winston all star race at Charlotte in May. Life seemingly could not get much better for the man most of the NASCAR world calls the Intimidator.

Fast forward once again to 2001. It's February in Daytona, Florida. Dale Earnhardt and his son have just driven as teammates in the 24 hour Rolex race, and had a great time together. Dale's relationship with his often rebellious son as matured to the point that they are more comfortable in each other's presence. Dale Jr. seeks his father's advice on many subjects, and Dale is more than happy to share his experience with him. Dale's team has grown to 3 Cup teams this year, with the addition of long time friend Michael Waltrip, driving the DEI Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet. Dale's teams are running good, and so is his black number 3 Chevrolet which he's driven for long time friend Richard Childress all these years. Life is good, and it's Speed Weeks in Daytona. NASCAR has new TV contracts with Fox and NBC, and now, for the first time, literally all of America can watch every race from green flag to checkered flag every week.

Finally race day is here. Dale runs well most of the race. Early on, he gets bumped by a rookie driving the 98 Ford. Dale puts his hand out the window, at 200 mph, in order to give the rookie a one finger salute. Fox TV replayed the event, and that was probably the first time most of the racing world ever heard of future Cup champion Kurt Busch, who was the recipient of Dale's salute.

On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, two of Dale's cars, the 15 of Michael Waltrip and the 8 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are running 1st and 2nd. Dale runs third, and has to be a very happy man seeing two of his cars running up front in NASCAR's biggest race. Strangely, Dale Earnhardt does not try to race his employees. He holds back, as if to block the field from being able to catch his two drivers. In the process, Dale gets a little bump from behind, swerves down onto the track apron, and then shoots across the track into the Turn 4 wall, and the racing world literally stopped.

Hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton revealed the awful news. Dale Earnhardt was gone.

In the hours and days after Dale's death, DEI and Richard Childress Racing scrambled to recover. All of the NASCAR world reeled from the shock for weeks and months afterward, but these two teams really had to scramble to put their game face back on. Richard Childress recalled later that he was ready to walk away from racing for good at that point, but remembered a promise that he and Dale had once made to each other: If one of them were to die, the other would carry on. Richard decided to go on, and brought up a hot young driver named Kevin Harvick, painted the old black 3 car white, and put the number 29 on the car. A few races later, Harvick won his first Cup race at Atlanta.

At DEI, things were very grim. Dale Earnhardt Jr. later would describe the turmoil that he felt in the days after his father's death. He wondered if his sponsors and fans would leave him, since at that time he felt that his followers were only there because of his father. He was later shown that his fans were genuine, and his sponsors stayed with him.

One week after Dale Earnhardt's death, NASCAR took the show to Rockingham, NC. Very early in the race, Dale Jr. was hit and slid into the wall, in an eerie slow motion replay of the accident that had taken his father's life so recently. Dale Jr.'s day was done, and he was limping when he got out of the car. It later turned out that he was not injured in the crash, but simply had his belts so tight that his feet and legs were starving for blood circulation. Dale Jr. of course survived and went on to win a lot of races in the 8 car in future years. The Rockingham race was eventually won by DEI driver Steve Park, in what must have the been the most emotional victory in his career.

At first, it appeared that DEI was going to be just fine. Dale Jr. was successful, as was Michael Waltrip. Eventually, Michael Waltrip left DEI, beginning his own team with the entry of Toyota into NASCAR. By 2006, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began to become increasingly frustrated by the lack of performance that he and all the DEI cars were experiencing. In 2007, Dale Jr. began negotiations with his step-mother, Teresa Earnhardt for possible control of the race team. Teresa rebuffed Dale Jr.'s offer, and eventually Dale Jr. left the company that his father had started, mostly in order to give his children a place to race if they so wished.

During this time, Teresa Earnhardt had struggled with a changing racing world. As DEI's competitiveness declined, she responded by hiring Max Siegel, a recording industry CEO, and made him a top manager in the company. What Mr. Siegel knows about racing is still a closely guarded secret, but one which is not highly in demand, judging by the steady decline at DEI.

And now, late in 2008, what was once known as Dale Earnhardt Inc. is no more. In it's second merger in 3 years, DEI is now part of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. No one named Earnhardt is currently racing for the company. Dale's grandson Jeffrey ran some races in the Camping World East series in 2008, but was replaced by another driver before the end of the season. EGR currently has 3 drivers, Martin Truex Jr. who will be sponsored in 2009 by Bass Pro Shops, Juan Pablo Montoya who will be sponsored by Big Red and others, the 8 car driven by Aric Almirola and currently having no sponsorship, and the 41 car, driver currently unnamed, and possibly sponsored by Target. Bobby Labonte, who recently announced that he was leaving Petty is listed as a top candidate for the 41 car.

My entire point is this: In 8 years, DEI has gone from a top contender, week in and week out, to at best a 3rd tier team. Hundreds of employees have been laid off over the last 3 years as mergers, first with Ginn, and now with Ganassi have occurred. DEI has hired marketing geniuses but have virtually nothing to market, other than the memory of Dale Earnhardt. Many are saying that what was once DEI is now on the verge of just being a memory.

Hard times abound now for virtually all teams in NASCAR. Even the top teams such as Hendrick and Roush have felt the pinch of a tightening economy and car manufacturer woes. DEI, however, has been sliding down an abyss for years, it would seem. This, to me, is one of the truly sad stories in NASCAR in the 21st century.

The company that Dale Earnhardt left behind on February 18, 2001, was a strong one. It's since become only a very thin shell of the greatness it once was and held.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The State of the NASCAR Nation

2008 saw a serious decline in ticket sales at the tracks and a drop in TV viewership in general for NASCAR. Layoffs abound at the many shops, and the Big 3 American automakers are in deep financial doo doo. Is NASCAR simply an innocent victim of the times? Well, yes and no.

Certainly, higher fuel prices during much of the 2008 season led to lower ticket sales at the tracks. Try as hard as they could, the TV networks covering the races, especially in the latter half of the season could not hide the numerous empty seats at many of the tracks. But NASCAR should share the blame for lower ticket sales as well, since even though they're not selling as many tickets, they haven't lowered the prices on most of them either. If you want people to come to the track to watch your races, price the tickets accordingly with the economic times. That only makes sense. Why would most people miss paying the rent or the light bill just in order to go see a race? The answer, of course, is that most people wouldn't. The US is currently enjoying low fuel prices at the moment, so hopefully that will translate to more people going to the track in 2009, but if even a medium range ticket costs somewhere in the range of $70 - $100 at some tracks, will people bother to make the trip? I wouldn't.

In the 1990's, NASCAR had a very viable product that was growing by leaps and bounds. In 2000, they inked the first of their huge TV deals with Fox and NBC. New tracks were being built, and NASCAR seemed to be destined to move into the backyards of all the major American markets, and even some in Canada and Mexico as well, as well has even providing NASCAR's style of entertainment in countries overseas as well. The sky was the limit, or so it would seem.

Actually, the limit came way lower than the sky, and was embodied by the man named Brian France. As did his father, Bill France Jr., Brian came into control of the family business burning with desire to change the sport and make it ever bigger and better. Brian France began tweaking with practically everything, including qualifying, initiating the Chase for the Cup, and directing that the sport level the playing field, by developing the Car Of Tomorrow. Brian France also began an aggressive campaign to enter markets previously largely untapped by the sport. Forays into New York and Seattle encountered hard resistance, and eventually NASCAR capitulated.

In no particular order: The Chase for the Cup has been thrilling at times, but boring at other times. My biggest beef with the Chase is that it's probably been driving sponsors away from the sport since well before 2008. At first, only the top 10 drivers in points got in, but that was later expanded to the top 12. The net benefit of this was that NASCAR could claim they had a playoff system, as do stick and ball sports. The net disaster is that NASCAR is driven by corporate sponsors. Sponsors that weren't on cars in the top 10 or top 12 were hardly given any TV time once the Chase started. The result? Sponsors began only competing to be on teams that they viewed to be likely to make the Chase, and ignoring smaller teams that desperately needed the funds in order to compete. Remember Eastman Kodak? They're gone. Hopefully not forever, but as of now, Kodak has left the building.

The Car Of Tomorrow sounded like a very good idea, since it was designed to be safer and more cost efficient than it's predecessor. The COT has been a partial success, at best. The new car, as it's now called, seems to be able to absorb more punishment than the old car did. One chassis can also be used at a wider variety of tracks than could the old car. It's probably the safest car ever to run in NASCAR. But with the improvements, so came the drawbacks. In my humble opinion, the racing has suffered since the COT was introduced. The cars are ill handling, meaning that most of the drivers are simply trying to keep the car on the track and out of the wall, rather than racing other drivers. Many teams have still not figured out how to effectively race the car. One week, they hit the setup, other weeks they miss completely, and never find it. Only 3 teams seemed to have figured out the COT's mysteries in 2008: The 48 team of Jimmie Johnson, the 99 team of Carl Edwards, and the 18 team of Kyle Busch. Most of the other teams were mired in mediocrity for much of the season. That, to me, does not spell exciting racing.

Possibly my biggest problem with Cup racing, and indeed all NASCAR series is qualifying. Many times in 2008, we saw qualifying rained out, and starting position was set by points. NASCAR claims that they want to allow easier access to the top levels of the sport to small teams, but the very system it has devised is killing small teams. I understand that qualifying is a scheduled event, much like the race itself. TV has schedules to keep, but why just cancel qualifying because of rain on Friday afternoon when Saturday blooms bright, beautiful, and most importantly, dry. For examply, small team owner John Carter, of Toccoa, Ga, attempted several races in 2008. He managed to get into one, mostly because of NASCAR's prohibitive qualifying policies. This was the owner who's driver at the time, Kevin Lepage, finished 8th in the Daytona 500 in 2005. Today? A reliable source tells me that John Carter's shop has a big 'For Sale' sign on it.

With the general financial crunch that most of the country is feeling, it's understandable that many corporate sponsors are leaving the sport because of their own difficulties. More are likely driven away by the fact that the NASCAR system favors the super teams such as Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs, RCR, and a few others. With massive layoffs at the shops, beginning in the middle of the season and continuing today, there is a huge feeling of disbelief among both the fans and the teams themselves. 2009 appears to be a very important year for NASCAR, because the very survival of the sport is at stake.

In a perfect world, the higher ups at NASCAR would examine their history and discover that certain things that worked well for them in the past have been abandoned, at least partially. I say let the racers race, let the crew chiefs innovate, and let the best car and driver win.