Views from the Grandstands

C-O-T needs T-U-N-E-U-P

nascarThe No. 6 AAA Ford Fusion of David Ragan undergoes a template inspection during Car of Tomorrow testing at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Car of Tomorrow may sound like it’s humming, but an overhaul is in order to keep fans and drivers happy

Note to NASCAR: Look at your name. See those last three letters, C-A-R? That’s where you need to focus. Now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the most vocal opponent of the Car of Tomorrow, which is the car of today — or my preferred moniker, CORN for Car of Right Now. But he’s not alone. After the chunky, clunky vehicle was introduced, NASCAR stood firm, saying there should be a level of frustration because “that’s the way our sport works.”

That’s fine if you’re running a boot camp. But trust me, frustrated drivers and, more importantly, frustrated fans are not good for any sport.

NASCAR poo-bahs: Here are three reasons why you need to rethink your no-change stance when it comes to your current on-track auto.

The gray area is more colorful

This sport was founded by outlaws. When they transferred from Southern backroads to mostly paved ovals, NASCAR’s early heroes held onto their outlaw nature. The successful and wildly popular winners remained outlaws, manipulating the gray area of the rules to put the fastest, most maneuverable car on the track.

Not now. NASCAR has created clone cars that perform the same, race after race. Yawn.

So for miles and miles of most races, we end up with the better (and crowd-drawing star) racers trapped amid a bunch of backmarkers, filling the track and clogging up the race lanes. As drivers have noted for years now, once this car gets in traffic, it’s hard to move it out of there.

Or worse, we end up with a parade as the evenly matched cars string out and very few are able to catch up to and race with the others. Yawn again.

Think about what might happen if, for example, Chad Knaus, Bob Osborne, Greg Zipadelli and Darien Grubb were turned loose to work some of their automotively creative magic for, respectively, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart like, say, Ray Evernham used to do for Jeff Gordon.

Now that would be fun!

Parity is for patsies

But, cries NASCAR, what about the smaller teams? The ones who can’t afford to pay big bucks for an inventive crew chief and top tier driver? The car is the great equalizer that, along with strictly policed (and punished) modifications, helps smooth out the tracks for all teams.

Yeah, right. Parity. Puh-leeze.

NASCAR is not alone among leagues in chanting this false mantra of equality. The only thing it has achieved is boredom. And the dream of truly competitive smaller teams is still just that, a dream. The big boys still rule.

Just look at the 2009 Chase competitors. Of the 12 cars in the manufactured playoff system, seven are with powerhouse organizations — Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush and Penske. Actually, you could put Stewart-Haas at that top level, too, because of its affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports. Of the other three Chasers, Ganassi and the revamped Petty operations aren’t exactly slackers. Only the Red Bull machine that squeaked in at the last minute could be counted as a “little guy.”

Let’s face it. The real little guys are never going to be truly competitive, much less win a championship — unless NASCAR gives them a chance to find that little tweak everyone else missed. But until NASCAR lets that happen, the next best thing to do is focus on the big boys. If NASCAR only has 20 top-tier teams racing, so be it. Then there would be really good races between great drivers in the best equipment with lots of open track.

NASCAR always positions itself as iconically American. Well, America is known for rewarding those who come up with the better mousetrap or in this case the better racecar. With the current car, that’s going to be the big teams. Deal with it. Making sure everyone gets to play, even those who shouldn’t be there, is simply sports welfare.

Variety is the spice of the sport

One of the current vehicle’s worst effects is that it’s killed the classic rivalries among NASCAR’s automakers. I know, NASCAR hasn’t run real stock cars in ages, but in the past you could at least find your favorite make as it rounded the track. But today — and be honest — can you easily tell the difference between a Chevy, Ford, Dodge or Toyota? I can’t. That’s so wrong.

In a sport where the drivers are encased in sheet metal, fans need to be able to know with just a glance that their favorite Chevy (or Ford, Dodge or Toyota) is out front. Otherwise, NASCAR is essentially IROC, and we all know how that ended.

Trust me, NASCAR. If you implement these changes, you’ll alleviate a lot of my (and Sprint Cup teams’) frustration with your current vehicle and races.


LOOSE LUGNUTS

Go Grandaddy Who says companies only want the 18-to-34 demographic? The Web hosting company GoDaddy.com has signed on to sponsor Mark Martin’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy for 20 races in 2010. The deal is good for the 50-year-old Martin and Hendrick Motorsports, which extended their partnership through 2011 the same day the new sponsorship was announced. It’s also a bonus for GoDaddy, which will get much more exposure in NASCAR than it does in IRL, where it has been a secondary sponsor for Danica Patrick for the past few years.

So does the GoDaddy NASCAR deal mean the end of the Danica deal and the company’s suggestive ads featuring America’s hottest female racer? I doubt it. Danica has had more marketing than on-track success and is a much more attractive face for the company than Mark. I suspect that the GoDaddy deal is, in part, a placeholder for when Danica makes her eventual move to NASCAR.

About that Danica move For years, she hinted at wanting to give the fendered series a go and it looks like that will happen in 2010. Word is she’ll drive the full IRL schedule next year and mix in a few NASCAR Nationwide and truck series races, under the mentorship of former open-wheel champ Tony Stewart.

IRL officials have to be breathing a sigh of relief that they won’t lose their star driver next year, but the league better start working on how to cope with much less attention once Danica leaves IRL for good. Maybe they should consult with NASCAR, which focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr. only to discover that it often is not a good idea for any sport to rely so much on the success of one athlete. As for Danica, I wish her luck with the transition. She might, however, want to spend some time talking to Dario Franchitti, who didn’t even make it through one NASCAR Sprint Cup season.


Racing Miss USA? Sort of. You’ve got to love it when two iconic American institutions come together. I’m talking, of course, about beauty pageants and NASCAR. During the Miss USA contest earlier this year, North Carolina’s Kristen Dalton was decked out in an abbreviated firesuit, carrying her helmet and a checkered flag. The judges must have liked the convergence as well, as Dalton was crowned this year’s winner. Chalk up another triumph not only for Dalton, but for NASCAR.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

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