Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Unusual Start for the Unusual Sport of NASCAR

Another season has dawned upon us and the NASCAR Sprint Cup scene could not be more complex than it is already. Fans are either elated or slightly panicking over their teams' performances in 2010, rationally or closely predicting how the drivers and crews will fare in the upcoming races. What's certain is that this season will be the most unusual one yet, and I'm certainly not saying that because of who won this year's Daytona 500 or the fact that a "beloved" four-time champion has captured the past two races.

Three years ago, the sport implemented its greatest change with the cars since 1981 when it phased-in the Car of Tomorrow chassis and body style, which greatly affected the competition on the track. Immediately, Hendrick Motorsports' racers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson picked up where they started during the 2007 season, finding immediate success before other teams like Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Roush-Fenway Racing adapted to the car.

By far, this vehicle was embraced with polarized reactions, with drivers either feeling like it improved the on-track product or worsening the action on the playing field. Instead of front valences and rear spoilers, crews now dealt with splitters and wings. Sounds more like the names of chicken meals than a stock car, if you ask me.

Make no mistake about it - NASCAR made up its mind, adamant and firm on its decision with the implementation of the Car of Tomorrow. It was here to stay and there wasn't a whole lot that teams, fans, or the media could do about the CoT. After all, it'd improved safety features, save teams money, and prove to be a durable machine.

Suck it up or watch IndyCar racing, they probably thought.

Fast forward three years later, where the sport has somewhat made an "Oops, we made a boo boo" statement with the soon-to-be-used rear spoilers on the CoT bodies. Let's face it - wings work only on airplanes, chicken, and the Plymouth Superbird. Just not in today's stock cars.

Whether or not the talking heads want to admit it, the rear wing presented trouble at the high-speed arenas, particularly at Daytona and Talladega. Sure, the boxy cars meant that teams were given the largest restrictor plates since 1989. While designed to be a not-so aerodynamic friendly vehicle, it proved to be a machine that basked in the draft, revitalizing the slingshot draft tactic that seemingly died after the mid-1980s.

While I understand the need for the CoT, which has undoubtedly saved drivers from serious injuries, it has probably done the very opposite which it was intended to do back in 2007: improving the racing product on the track.

Seemingly, the only way that NASCAR has managed to save itself, either by coincidence or maybe with an appearance of a friendly "old" friend, with the races is by way of the late-race caution flag, courtesy of a mysterious piece of debris, or as fans have dubiously labeled it, "Jacques Debris."

Call me old school, but it wasn't long ago when these Sunday spectacles were interesting enough that a late caution flag period proved unnecessary to bunch up the field for the finish. Instead, it was up to the skills of the racers and pit crews to make the dramatics happen, with a 200 mph chess match with decision making and position shuffling on the speedway. More often than not, we got a great show, even if the finish was part of a long green-flag run.

Now, we have parades on the track, often lasting longer than an Extenze pill will help certain readers or a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will entertain the kids in New York City. NASCAR has become something similar to a cycling race, with a peloton and a pack of chasers. However, it's not in the context that would prove most desirable (no pun intended), as the competition is quite distant until that late caution period.

When I first saw the CoT, my first thoughts were that it would kill the racing action and prove to be an unpopular car with the fans and some teams. Save for some short track races in the past three years, where aerodynamics are practically absent as a factor, it has made events at most of the "cookie cutter" tracks even more boring to spectators in the grandstands and fans huddled in their living rooms across the US of A.

Perhaps NASCAR will make a CYF (Cover Your Face) move with the rear spoiler, which hopefully prove to be a much better component to the cars and competition than the wing. While NASCAR is hoping that it produces relatively the same downforce and aero numbers as the wing, this fan and writer thinks it may actually enhance the racing and perhaps save a few drivers from experiencing "A Claritin Moment" aka what happened to Carl Edwards in last April's Talladega horror.

Maybe it'll aid some racers who have struggled to produce multiple victories or a win in the past three seasons, namely Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is a capable driver that just hasn't come quite to terms with the CoT, or Greg Biffle, who has been somewhat overshadowed by his teammates in Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards over the past few years.

Whatever the spoiler does, it will undoubtedly be part of what has become one of the most unusual starts to a very atypical sport. Regardless, we love it, but hopefully, what will become typical on the track is good racing. After all, the only traffic that any individual should encounter on a race weekend is the one going home to points unknown, not on the battlefields of America's finest facilities.

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