Daytona 2013, the first day of Daytona 500 testing: weather looks great...but will these new cars really change things up for the sport?
By Mike Mulhern
And now it's on to a new season....
The Las Vegas champagne parties are history, the cleaning crews have long-since mopped up. And if new champ Brad Keselowski and crew did any un-Penske things at the 2012 awards banquet, well, anything that happened in Vegas pretty well must have stayed in Vegas.
Remember when NASCAR championship parties got wild and crazy?
Remember when NASCAR Sundays got wild and crazy?
Hey, what's going on here anyway?
This past stock car racing season was pretty much eminently forgettable, except for the newest face of NASCAR.
Sunday after Sunday too many boring laps, and little action, unless you like watching engineers calculating fuel mileage gambits.
One can only hope that 2013 provides more fun and frivolity.
Day Two at Daytona, and 12 cars crash while pack racing. Not an auspicious start..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Unfortunately the sport will be played without one major figure, veteran sports journalist Monte Dutton, another victim of the long-running purge by newspaper publishers to eliminate NASCAR beats. After more than 15 years covering this sport, Dutton joins a long list of NASCAR veterans kicked to the curb. He is yet another line item in the newspaper industry's painful-to-watch suicide saga.
Dutton, with his trenchant humor about this sport, will hopefully emerge somewhere. https://www.facebook.com/monte.dutton
Without Dutton, who was syndicated in many papers across the country, this sport of NASCAR racing is now down to just two newspapers with a dedicated NASCAR slot, USAToday and the Charlotte Observer. Virtually every other paper in the country now relies on the AP alone for NASCAR coverage. That means independent journalistic coverage of this sport is now essentially down to three people, Nate Ryan, Jenna Fryer and Jim Utter.
The lingering death spiral of newspapers in the U.S., of course, is nothing new. In place of newspaper coverage of sports has come the ESPN army of web writers, the new power face of sports journalism, for better or worse. At least the Disney-ABC-ESPN empire has money to spend at this.
However TV 'journalism' in general, is, well, a curious creature, with its own agenda.
After 20 years in the sport, Jeff Gordon. Wonder if he and Clint Bowyer have made amends? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile down in the NASCAR trenches....
It's a new year and a new season.
And Day Two of Daytona 500 testing ended early after 12 drivers got caught up in a big crash while pack-drafting. Most of them packed up and went home early. The video: Friday's Daytona crash
Certainly both Daytona and Detroit are betting big that these new car bodies and new model stylings will change things up dramatically.
Over the past couple of years, maybe even a bit longer, this quintessential Southern sport has become too gentrified.
Aw, let's be blunt: NASCAR racing last season was simply an infomercial for the brand 'NASCAR,' which has increasingly lost its sports identity.
NASCAR bosses have simply got a case of the big head. And the blind eye.
Our view of things: HERE
Tony Stewart: Figure 8 racing at Talladega? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Remember those heady days of the late 1990s and early 2000s?
No, the sport didn't die that day in 2001. The death of this sport's iconic figure brought NASCAR racing to the forefront in American sports, in a sudden, albeit tragic, moment.
And Fox and NBC, the new network TV partners, did a great job of presenting this sport to a suddenly much wider audience.
David Hill brought in Fox' bling and pizazz; NBC brought in national sports gravitas.
It was a brilliant matchup. Brian France's finest hour.
And the sport thrived for a good five years in that spotlight, with reports almost weekly about new demographic numbers of fans and records set in so many cities and towns seemly not natural NASCAR territory.
Alas, it all started going south sometime in late 2006, it now appears in retrospect. At the time the slump in popularity and viewers was blamed on soon-to-depart NBC's lack of promotion, according to NASCAR execs, who promised a revival with new fall TV partners ABC/ESPN.
Maybe it was just coincidence, a case of bad timing, but NASCAR's ill-fated and highly-disliked car-of-tomorrow debuted in 2007, and things just haven't quite been the same since.
Remember Kyle Busch, after winning at Bristol?
And now, looming, the Daytona debut of the 2013s, with major redesigns, new aerodynamics, and high hopes....but with such a rush to production that many veteran stock car engineers say they are worried.
It still seems strange, Ford legend Matt Kenseth now driving for Toyota (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The 2013s have been problematic throughout testing, with stock car crews -- again -- not that enthusiastic about NASCAR's own engineering concepts. As late as the October Talladega tests the 2013 project was still in disarray. Extra testing was scheduled; rules kept being tweaked; teams fumed that they couldn't start rebuilding their fleets (16 to 18 cars per driver for the season).
This week the 2013s are at Daytona International Speedway prepping for their debut -- in the Daytona 500 season kickoff.
Meanwhile NASCAR execs appear determined to finagle things to keep drivers from hooking up in two-car drafts on the now super-smooth Daytona track.
And NASCAR's marketing arm is engaged in a hard-sell of the 2013s.
The 2013s are being billed as Gen 6 creatures, whatever that means.
However it is doubtful that NASCAR's problems can be solved just with new machinery. The issues run much, much deeper.
Consider what was perhaps the most shocking day of the 2012 season -- Talladega, October. Now a Talladega 500 featuring lawnmowers should be thrilling. But this particular Sunday morning Talladega Blvd was virtually empty, and the stands were not filled.
And the racing -- well, until the final moments when leader Tony Stewart decided to chop off challenger Michael Waltrip, triggering that frightening third turn melee -- was forgettable.
If NASCAR can't put on a show at Talladega and fill the stands, there is a big, big problem.
When Clint Bowyer stops smiling, it's time to get worried.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now can Brad Keselowski, 28, help save the day?
Keselowski's rally at Homestead to pull out the championship over Jimmie Johnson was more dramatic than it should have been, of course. But then beating Johnson isn't easy; only two men now have done that in the past seven years.
And the Keselowski-Johnson showdown (all Keselowski had to do to win the title was finish 16th in the final race, and he struggled to do that) on ESPN didn't quite play out to a huge TV audience -- the ratings down a stunning 25 percent from 2011.
In fact last fall's 10-race title chase was not very thrilling at all. The chase has not been all that popular in many quarters among fans, and TV ratings for the September-October-November playoffs were either flat or down. Not good.
There are a number of reasons of course, but easily two stand out, for the whole season really -- drivers no longer race all three hours each Sunday, but rather they play to setup for the end-game. Reluctant to take chances and possibly make mistakes, drivers generally just go through the motions until the final miles.
As promoter Bruton Smith pointed out -- in criticism of the game as it's played today -- fans and the sport need cautions, to shake things up, not because they like to see crashes but because they like to see drivers taking risks, taking gambles, trying to make things happen.
Smith has proposed that NASCAR at least layout a few mandatory cautions each race, like other sports have TV time outs and quarters and halftime.
France has pooh-poohed that idea.
But if France has any better ideas on how to liven things up, he hasn't offered them.
Why have NASCAR execs played this sport like they're deer in the headlights?
Unless a driver dares to speak out.
NASCAR execs, for whatever reason, have dumped on the out-spoken Keselowski too many times the past year or so. What was that, a $25,000 fine for criticizing this new electronic fuel injection system? Over the top and unnecessary, except in Brian France's eyes.
So will Keselowski spend this season as that loveable wild-and-crazy guy so willing to speak his mind? Or will he fall in line and become just another shill for the sport?
Maybe we ought to dig up some stories about how Junior Johnson and Richard Petty dealt with the authorities in their prime.
The great NASCAR PR machine is in high gear already, pumping up the 2013s. But will the new iron really make that much of a difference? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)