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Has NASCAR seen the light?



Empty seats and slipping TV ratings have always pulled hard at the heartstrings — or should I say purse strings — of NASCAR. The sanctioning body has kept the Sprint Cup Series under its thumb for several years now and in the process many of the changes that it implemented hurt the racing that ultimately was responsible for filling those seats and seeing to it that those TV sets were turned on each weekend.

When Bristol Motor Speedway has to go and beat the bushes to sell its tickets, then you know that there is something wrong with the sport that we love. Some may point to the economic condition of our country as the source of the ills that have hit the sport, but more than any other factor, NASCAR had tied the hands of the drivers to the point that the hard racing that everyone enjoyed just isn’t there anymore.

NASCAR has apparently got the message and during a stop on the recent media tour in Charlotte, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton summed up the new rules for the season-opening Daytona 500 by telling the drivers, “Have at it, boys.” Rule changes announced by the sanctioning body include no limitations on where bump drafting can take place and the use of a larger restrictor plate. Both of these changes are intended to put more of the outcome of the race in the hands of the drivers.

Even NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said that he would like to see the drivers “mix it up,” and apparently he just wasn’t referring to what takes place on the track. It appears that the sanctioning body is not going to be throwing a penalty flag every time a driver bumps another on the track or gets out of the car and says exactly what is on his mind. It might be hard to believe, but it sounds as if France, Pemberton and the rest of the ruling class of NASCAR are wanting the sport to turn back towards the way it used to be.

Now don’t go getting pictures in your mind of “Days of Thunder” type of racing where Cole and Rowdy never finished a race with all of the fenders on their cars. It does sound like “rubbing” will once again return to the sport without any fear of a driver and crew chief ending up in NASCAR’s hauler after the race for one of Mike Helton’s famous lectures.

The recently announced rule changes should definitely amp up the action at Daytona next month, but one more stop at Daytona in the summer and the two Talladega races account for just four races on the long and grueling 36-race schedule. If France is willing to stand by his word and allow drivers to “mix it up,” the remaining 32 races on the schedule will benefit greatly.

The last great piece to the puzzle of returning the Cup Series back to the exciting level it once enjoyed will be the reintroduction of the spoiler sometime early this season. Testing has already started on the use of the spoiler and while it remains a huge unknown at this time, the hope is that it will put more of the handling back into the hands of the drivers, which is what fans want so desperately to see.

I’m sure come race day at Daytona that NASCAR officials will be biting their nails hoping that all of the changes will not only create a great show for the fans in the stands and at home in front of their televisions but will also keep the racing safe. NASCAR will never compromise the safety of its drivers but it is now willing to put some of that responsibility into the the drivers’ hands.

As in every other rule change, NASCAR will be watching as the season progresses to see if the drivers are handling their newfound freedom on the track. Fans are probably already dreaming of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick assuming the role of track bullies, and who knows what the loosening of the leash will do to the Busch brothers. Regardless of the outcome, the anticipation for the start of a new season is now higher than it has been in quite some time, so let the racing begin.

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