On the eve of the 50th running of the Great American Race, NASCAR finds itself at a bit of a crossroads. The last five years have seen several high-profile innovations -- the Chase and the Car of Tomorrow, most notably -- that have drastically altered the look and the feel of the Cup series. But after two straight years of falling television ratings and declining attendance, it seems fair to ask, Have things gone too far?
That seems to be what NASCAR CEO Brian France was saying when he met the media last month and decalred that no major changes were on the horizon, promising that NASCAR's goal for 2008 was "getting back to basics." That should be a welcome relief to fans who have been put off by all the recent tinkering.
The powers that be in the sport would be well advised to make '08 all about the drivers, NASCAR's greatest resource. There are still plenty of drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart have reached Victory Lane a combined 43 times in the last three years -- who race all-out every weekend, who run their cars, as Dale Earnhardt used to say, "wide f-----' open." And there's the prospect of exciting racing ahead, enough to galvanize even the most jaded fans. As the season begins, it seems as good a time as any for NASCAR to put the drivers in their cars and turn them loose. It's worked before.
How to Drive ...
Daytona International Speedway
Kurt Busch talks about restrictor-plate racing:
"The truth is that I really enjoy plate racing. It's a different kind of challenge than what we do during the other 32 races of the season. There's a big mental demand and it'll wear you out, but the biggest thing about that type of racing is it truly is a total team effort. I've heard plate racing referred to as a high-speed chess match on wheels and that's a pretty good description, I think. But at the same time, I have enough experience at the track and respect for the other competitors that I realize it can also turn into a scene that could be depicted as 190-mile-per-hour Russian roulette."
3: Times the No. 88 car has won the Daytona 500; it ranks tied for third behind the No. 43, No. 28 and No. 21.
4: Laps led by last year's winner, Kevin Harvick, which tied Benny Parsons (1975) for fewest by a Daytona 500 winner.
109.0: Driver rating at Dayton for Tony Stewart, the highest of any of the 12 drivers who made the Chase in 2007.
Pro Rasslin' Meter
I think any week that includes a fender-bangin', fist-swingin' feud between two of the sport's top drivers has to be a week in which the ol' meter is pointing straight up. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, who were both placed on probation for an incident at last Friday's practice session, tangled here last year, wrecking each other out of the Great American Race, and things figure to stay interesting for the forseeable future.
Marc Serota/Getty Images for NASCAR
We know we've had months to digest this, but seeing the No. 8 dressed in U.S. Army colors for Mark Martin will still take a little time to grow accustomed to.
Feb. 22, 1959: Lee Petty wins the first running of the Daytona 500, prevailing over Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish that took three days to decide.