AFTER THE green flag drops for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, the race, in terms of its size, scope, sophistication and, of course, speed, will be light years beyond anything the first participants could have imagined on Feb. 22, 1959. Most of the changes in NASCAR over the years have been organic to competition, as teams and drivers have taken advantage of technological advancements to go ever faster. But in the last five seasons the folks who run the Cup series have instituted several high-profile adjustments—some intended to improve safety, but most aimed at increasing the audience—that have radically altered NASCAR's look and feel. After two years of falling television ratings and declining attendance, it's fair to ask, Might the changes be going too far?
Brian France, CEO of NASCAR, seemed to acknowledge as much last month, when he delivered his state-of-the-sport speech to the media in Charlotte. He announced that there were no more changes on the horizon and that the goal for 2008 was "getting back to basics." (Well, Sprint did replace Nextel as title sponsor of the Cup series.) That should be a relief to hard-core fans—i.e., those with a grasp of stock car racing deeper than being able to quote from Talladega Nights—who have been put off by all the recent adjustments. The Chase for the Cup playoff format, introduced in 2004, has had the unhappy consequence of rendering the last two months of the season meaningless for any driver not among the 12 who qualify, a disastrous circumstance when a major draw misses the Chase (such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. last season and Tony Stewart in 2006). As well, the debut last year of NASCAR's first foreign manufacturer, Toyota, wasn't popular with many fans who loved Cup racing's devotion to a red-white-and-blue lineup of Chevy, Dodge and Ford. And the poor-handling Car of Tomorrow—now NASCAR's car of today—with its rigid design template, has done away with almost all of the significant differences among manufacturers.
"We're at a turning point in this sport," says Humpy Wheeler, the president and G.M. of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., and NASCAR's most powerful promoter. "We need to make this car of today work. We've got the finest drivers in the world driving these race cars. All they need to be able to do is get the car into the corner and make it work."
Those drivers remain NASCAR's greatest resource, and the powers that be in the sport would be wise to put the focus on them in the effort to win back fans. There are still plenty of drivers—Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and 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. Will Johnson complete a historic Cup three-peat in 2008 while fighting off even stronger challenges from his teammates? Can the American manufacturers continue to outrun Toyota, who with its move to Joe Gibbs Racing may be poised to enjoy its first Cup success? And how will fans and established Cup drivers take to the influx of open-wheel and international talent that is flowing into the series?
These are questions that should galvanize even the most jaded fans. On the eve of the Great American Race, it's as good a time as any for NASCAR to quit fidgeting, put the cars on the track and turn them loose. After all, it's worked before.