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NASCAR 2010, finally in the rear-view....and now some perspective is in order, as we await Daytona 2011

   Yep, this 'Boys, have at it' did get out of hand every now and then, like here at Sonoma in June (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  Considering the NASCAR season in review, the question might well be asked 'Is NASCAR retreating, or retrenching....or just trying to advance in a different direction?'
   Out on the track it was a hellava season. If you didn't enjoy the action this year, you're just not a NASCAR fan. And even non-NASCAR fans couldn't ignore the slam-bam, in your face racing.
   NASCAR's drivers certainly did their job this season, and more, much more....in some cases way too much more. But, hey, that's racing.

   Quite a year, this 'Boys, have at it.'
    And that philosophy, edict, if you will, back in January certainly set the stage for one of the wildest seasons in stock car racing in a long, long time.
    Making that pronouncement, and the drivers living up to it, is clearly one of the top stories of 2010.


     Ouch! Good thing they make these cars tough. And thank goodness for NASCAR's soft-walls, one of the greatest safety designs in racing history (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  -- And with it, early on, Carl Edwards making the point clearly at Atlanta, putting newcomer Brad Keselowski on his roof in a frightening payback.
    That Edwards-Keselowski thing went on for months.
    Keselowski went on to beat Edwards for the Nationwide tour championship. But after their Gateway-St. Louis melee the two kept their distance.
    On the Cup side, over the summer, Edwards himself posted a two-month run as the tour's hottest driver, making him one of the top title picks. But that electrical problem at California in October killed his momentum. However Edwards rallied back to win the tour's final two races, at Phoenix and Homestead.


    Things did get a little wild and crazy out on the track this season. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


   The 2010 NASCAR season opened with Daytona's shocking pot-hole repair job midway through the season opener. Sorry, but in this age of high-tech everything, it's hard to see how the sport's bosses, who can look out their windows every day of the week at the Daytona track, never realized that a road with that many bumps and dips might not need repaving at least every 30 years or so. Thumbs down on the guys who dropped the ball there. Drilling a few core holes and checking things before the Daytona 500 might have helped the season get off to a better start. 
    But then NASCAR has long needed a director of common sense, to consider such things.


   Yep, that's the pot hole. Good thing for Bondo. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  And while we're at it, NASCAR officials need to be reminded that their 'four-team' limit rule on Cup owners has been a dismal failure and needs to be immediately reviewed. Remember that: when Jack Roush put all five teams in the 2005 chase, horrors, NASCAR had the knee-jerk reaction to insist that team owners couldn't keep expanding and adding teams, that it would upset the balance of power in the sport. Oh, now, let's see: the balance of power today is.....
    As the Roush operation, and the Childress operation, and even the Hendrick operation, have all shown, more teams just means more headaches. Yes, when all a man's teams are clicking, he may seem invincible, like Hendrick last year.  But when something goes a little wrong, well turning around a four-team operation or five-team operation can be a big pain in the butt. The situation, thus, is self policing.
   And as far as the four-team limit (plus the ill-fated car-of-tomorrow) helping bring back the Alan Kulwickis to the sport.....well, check things out in the final Sprint Cup owner standings and consider.
    Ah, but we digress.
    The top stories of 2010.....


    And just where is NASCAR's next Alan Kulwicki? Maybe Daytona needs to change its game plan (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


  -- Another near disaster for team owner Jack Roush was a major story, fortunately not as big as it could have been. Roush, who nearly died in a plane crash in Alabama in 2002, crashed while landing at a Wisconsin air show in late July. He walked away from the plane, but he was hospitalized for two weeks and lost an eye. Nevertheless he bounced back into the sport with a vengeance, just in time to watch his teams break out of year-long funk.


    But Jack Roush's drivers didn't have to wait long for the boss to get back on the pit box (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- The resurgence of the Richard Childress teams. After the struggles of 2009, this season was quite the turnaround. In fact Kevin Harvick was easily the best driver on the tour throughout the season. If the championship were still decided the tradition way, Harvick would have won his first, by a good margin. In fact, in my book Kevin Harvick is this season's NASCAR champion.
    We all know what happened Clint Bowyer in the chase; that entire controversy was not NASCAR's finest hour, and too many of the details are still under wraps. But what happened to third teammate Jeff Burton? He was making a run at the title, and then......

   -- Along with the Childress bounce-back came the resurgence of Chevy team partner Chip Ganassi, who pulled off the rare achievement of winning the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. Give Jamie McMurray a big pat on the back for his career comeback too. Anyone who wins Daytona and the Brickyard, much less in the same year, gets a big thumbs up...for McMurray particularly satisfying after several off seasons.


  Dale Earnhardt Jr. is always the center of attention from the media and fans. But he hasn't been living up to his legacy. Will Rick Hendrick's latest change -- putting Junior as Jimmie Johnson's in-house teammate, and giving Junior Jeff Gordon's crew -- change the dynamic? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Over in the Rick Hendrick camp, while Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were rolling, fitfully perhaps, toward another championship, teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his long struggles.
   Earnhardt hasn't had a great season since 2004, he's won only once since joining Hendrick in 2008, and 2009 and 2010 were two of his worst seasons ever. The Earnhardt story thus continues to be one of the top stories of the season, and he, now 36, appears no closer to turning things around. Hendrick, conceding his last shakeup didn't help things, has just orchestrated another shakeup, seemingly determined to get Earnhardt's career back on track. The Hendrick move to dump Tony Eury Jr. last year and plug in Lance McGrew didn't work. Earnhardt never really seemed in the game this year, and McGrew appeared to become disenchanted with the whole deal.
   While Johnson was rolling, Earnhardt kept struggling. The low point for Jr. might have been Texas, where raw rookie Trevor Bayne outran Earnhardt. Did Earnhardt, in effect, helped drag down Mark Martin's team this season? It looks that way. Martin had a heck of 2009, nearly winning the championship, and winning a bunch of races, but in 2010, with the same group, only more closely tied to Earnhardt, via Hendrick's orders, Martin was rarely seen up front till very late in the year.
   Now Hendrick is essentially plugging Earnhardt into Jeff Gordon's ride, with crew chief Steve Letarte and company, in the Johnson-Knaus shop. Gordon gets shuffled over to Martin's team, and Martin gets shuffled over to Earnhardt's old team. Or at least that's the way it looks.
   At least Earnhardt can bask in that Daytona July Nationwide victory in a Richard Childress car. Maybe Earnhardt now realizes he should have picked Childress over Hendrick when he was making that big career move a while back....


     Jeff Gordon and the apple of his eye: there is more to life than just NASCAR racing.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


   -- One story that has been way overplayed is Danica Patrick.  It was cute back in February, for a few weeks. Then her debacle at California, and things never got better. Her NASCAR work ethic, her understanding of this part of the sport, the whole Danica Patrick thing was generally mishandled all the way around, and she has only herself to blame. If she doesn't want to get serious about this sport – like Juan Pablo Montoya did – then she ought to stick to Indy cars. If it's just about marketing for her....well I'd rather have Aric Almirola in my car than Patrick right now.

   -- Another story that flaked out: Jeremy Mayfield. Strange, strange. And still not really sure what that was all about.


       It's been a while since we all saw this pose: the late Dale Earnhardt, victorious in the Daytona 500. Wonder what he would think of the sport today? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  -- And one story that was way underplayed was NASCAR's secret penalties handed down during the summer to drivers that the sport's bosses felt were saying things they didn't want to hear. TV downplayed that whole sordid affair, and it's unclear if NASCAR execs even got the message that those secret penalties – for complaining about dangerous racing at Talladega, by Ryan Newman, and for complaining about curious late-race caution flags, by Denny Hamlin – sent a very bad signal about this sport to fans everywhere. After all, why should any of us believe anything anyone in this sport has to say, since we all now know Daytona execs hold a big sword over everyone's head?


   -- And another story that should have been played better – NASCAR's wishy-washy game plan with Detroit body stylings. Uh, the Nationwide series should be rebadged as a muscle- car/pony-car tour, with a clear push toward younger male demographics. Ford sees that, and it has its Mustang on the track; so does Dodge. And NASCAR deserves a slap on the wrist for not twisting Chevrolet's arm into putting the Camaro out there too. And that whole 'new' Nationwide' car should have debuted in February at Daytona, not in the middle of the summer when everyone is on vacation. NASCAR's vaunted marketers missed a major opportunity in this whole thing. The sport would be much better served overall if the cars on the track, Sunday as well, more closely resembled the cars real people drive on the real streets of America. But that disconnect isn't the only disconnect between Daytona and the rest of America.


    Foster Gillett, son of George Gillett and the boss' boots-in-NASCAR.  But missing in action lately, as financial woes mount. What next for Richard Petty Motorsports? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Richard Petty. And the collapsing George Gillett empire dragged the King down too. Gillett, who bought sports franchises 'high,' and then got stuck with a lot of debt, had to sell the Montreal Canadiens and then was forced to sell his Liverpool soccer team, and the whole mess got so messy Gillett stopped showing up at the track, and son Foster Gillett wasn't seen much either. In April star Kasey Kahne announced he was bailing at the end of the season and moving to Rick Hendrick's team, taking Mark Martin's spot in 2012. For 2011 things lingered for months until Hendrick finally made an odd deal with Toyota to park Kahne with Jay Frye's Red Bull team for a year. Kahne himself never made it to the end of the season, bailing out early.

   -- Brian Vickers. His strange medical collapse in May in Washington D.C. forced him to the sidelines, and he spent the rest of the year undergoing medical treatment for blood clots that nearly killed him. He insists he'll be back in the Jay Frye car in 2011.


     Wonder what Billy France Jr. (L, 1958) and Big Bill France (R) would be thinking today about the shape of the sport they created? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Over in the Joe Gibbs camp, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were all in the game....well, on and off. Logano got into some hot controversies early on, with Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle and others. But down the stretch Logano, over last 10 races, scored more points than anyone but the three champion contenders. And Logano is still just 20, with a lot of upside potential, and with Greg Zipadelli running things. Hamlin's performance, right up till the final two races, was almost flawless. If he'd played the gas mileage game better at Phoenix, the championship was almost certainly his. But live and learn. His coolness this season was remarkable. And in sharp contract to that of teammate Busch, who again got into trouble way too often for a championship contender. It's the loveable thing about Busch, that he plays the game his way. But against ice-machines like Jimmie Johnson, well, Busch's way didn't work this time.

   -- NASCAR's fiasco opening to the championship chase in September, with the Clint Bowyer chassis-body controversy, which may have set the downer tone for the rest of the playoffs. How a car could pass inspection so many times at the track and then several days after the race --- after Bowyer's dramatic victory – be suddenly found illegal, well, NASCAR's mishandling of the whole thing left a sour taste in the mouth. And questions still abound.
   Perhaps it is time to just kill the chase and return to the long-time method of determining the champion – judging his game over the full season, not just the final 10 weeks.


     Legendary crew chief Jake Elder: the man who made Darrell Waltrip a real racer, and the man who helped David Pearson win championships, and the man who helped turn Dale Earnhardt into a powerhouse driver. One of the several sports' stars lost this season. Wonder if he'll ever make it into NASCAR's new Charlotte Hall of Fame? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   - Even NASCAR's spiffy new Charlotte Hall of Fame, which opened in 2009, ran into a thunderstorm of controversy this season, not just for its weird induction system – only five men a year, for a sport that had already inducted over 80 men since 1965 into its Hall of Fame in Darlington, S.C., and pointedly ignoring Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip while inducting Bobby Allison, in some bizarre voting by NASCAR's own hand-picked electors – but also for the economic crisis over the financing of the NASCAR Plaza, and for less than enthusiastic crowds at the Hall over the summer....far smaller crowds than NASCAR had predicted when promoting the project.
   What happens to the new Charlotte Hall in 2011? Expect some changes.


    Now maybe Richard Childress (R) is the man Dale Earnhardt Jr. should have paired up with (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


  -- While the hot action on track was remarkable, nearly every week, TV ratings for the sport continued to plunge, for the second straight year.
   Neither NASCAR nor TV executives could explain the drop....or offer any specifics about which areas of the country and which demographic segments were hardest hit – curious, since to fix a problem, first the problem must be defined. And the action on the track certainly didn't seem to be the problem here.
  Meanwhile over on the NFL side football was racking up some of its best numbers in years.
    The dichotomy between NASCAR-on-TV and the NFL-on-TV was quite dramatic. And it may set the stage for tweaks to this sport, particularly the championship chase, by CEO Brian France....though given the three-man title shootout in Homestead, among Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick, France would be hard-pressed to come up with any better finale. (One possibility – give bonus points for each lap led, which would certainly change the dynamic of many races, like Talladega.)
    Football was so much the TV king that TV stations even pre-empted August's Bristol 500 for NFL preseason games. What a slap in the face.
    Curious perhaps was NASCAR CEO Brian France's strange insistence that he saw nothing wrong with the TV product. France even said he liked ESPN's demographic game plan....even though Fox' David Hill in the spring decried NASCAR's plummeting numbers of young male viewers and said that should be NASCAR's biggest concern.


     Now this is the way the championship chase should have kicked off: underdog Clint Bowyer winning the opener and giving us a warm and fuzzy story to work with. But NASCAR's Director of Common Sense was on vacation that weekend in September......(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Not only were TV ratings way off during the season, and down a whopping 25 percent for the playoffs (from an already down 2009), but crowds were generally off again too. NASCAR tracks worked to revamp seating to downsize their stadiums, by 10,000 to 12,000 or so. The championship in Homestead played to a crowd estimated at about 55,000....which proponents of a Las Vegas finale will certainly trumpet, since Vegas typically draws 150,000 fans for its one Cup event.
   On top of that NASCAR even dropped a Los Angeles Cup event, a stunning admission of failure in that market, which once boasted three Cup events, including the season opener and the season finale. NASCAR decided to move that Fontana, Calif., race weekend to Kansas City, in conjunction with the opening of a new casino there.
   The whole NASCAR tour might need a good, hard review. Too many races, for starters. What does Montreal bring to the table; is that venue being used to NASCAR's best advantage, or as just a gimmick stop? What to do with the Joliet-Chicago track, which just doesn't seem to be getting traction, and which in 2011 will kick off the chase? And the playoffs still open in the middle of September, lost amid college football and the NFL. Rethinking that should be at the top of the list.  Is Dover in play? There's been a lot of business action within that company. Dropping Atlanta's spring date, and leaving just a hole in the calendar? Who dropped the ball there? Or is NASCAR just scared to play against the ACC basketball tournament? And what really to make about that new Cup date at Kentucky Speedway? Does that really add to the sport?


    Another loss for NASCAR: Mr. Can-Do, Les Richter, with California's Gillian Zucker (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


  So the top story of the 2010 NASCAR season?   
   Surely, you will say, it's Jimmie Johnson's record-breaking fifth straight championship. Only two men in NASCAR history have won more titles, and neither Dale Earnhardt nor Richard Petty got to Number Five quicker than Johnson.
    And Johnson made it all the more difficult by struggling through much of the season and having to rally back from behind in the final race to win.
    But Johnson, just 35, will win more races and more titles.
    So the top story of the 2010 season?
    Not just Denny Hamlin's loss in the championship game....not just Kevin Harvick's loss in a title fight he really won, as the best driver over the entire season, and not just the last 10 races....not just the loss of fans in the grandstands week after week, not just the loss of TV viewers, for more than two years running now.
    But, really, the loss of some of the sport's key leaders, movers-and-shapers: Jim Hunter and Jeff Byrd, both in their prime; and sports legends Les Richter, NASCAR's veteran West Coast promotion man for so many decades and Bill France Jr.'s Mr. Go-To in times of trouble, and Jerry Long, the R. J. Reynolds exec who did more to make the sport of NASCAR racing what it is today, and who did more to save the sport in its most trying times. Plus top trenchmen like Ed Shull and Jack Flowers. Good men all, and missed, in many ways.
    Good leadership, and independent thought, especially in this sport, is precious commodity.
    More to the point, perhaps, racing is a performance-driven business: If you don't get the job done, it's time to put someone else at the wheel.
    Perhaps it's time for Jim France, the man who owns majority stock in this sport, to consider the Ford Motor Company playbook – the Alan Mulally gambit. Maybe it's time to go outside the family and find someone to run the show, to size up things from a different perspective.
    Or maybe we should all just keep riding the wave till it breaks.....

     Alan Mulally: the miracle man, from outside the family, who so dramatically turned Ford Motor Company around. Maybe there's a job for him somewhere in NASCAR. (Photo: Autostock) 


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