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Robby Gordon heads to the starting line in Buenos Aires....and NASCAR looks ahead to 2011

  Robby Gordon's Dakar Hummers, ready for two weeks in the wild. Gordon is the Bobby Allison of his era, and frequently in trouble with NASCAR, it sometimes seems. But NASCAR officials would be remiss for not using this promotional opportunity to the sport's advantage (Photo: Robby Gordon)

   By Mike Mulhern


Okay, about time to put away the Christmas toys, throw out the old calendar and pin up the 2011, and get ready for the new season.
   New year, new NASCAR season, new hopes, new dreams.
   And Robby Gordon, down in South America for the two-week Dakar Rally through Argentina and Chile – Buenos Aires to Buenos Aires – is the first man to the starting line.

   Certainly the NASCAR gang up in New Hampshire (Jerry Gappens), Watkins Glen (Michael Printup), and Michigan (Roger Curtis) will have a few days ahead, while snowed in, to ponder the new year and how to sell more tickets.
   So we were over at the shop getting our car tuned up for the 10-month run ahead, and we were talking with John B. there about NASCAR....(and Kirk Shelmerdine had just been in too). But John said he'd about given up paying much attention to NASCAR.
   That got us to thinking – what's happened to this sport over the past few years? Why have so many long-time NASCAR fans just turned it off?
   One thing, NASCAR teams are no longer those legendary Lone Ranger operations, mano e mano. Remember when Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt raced with maybe a seven-man team? Remember Alan Kulwicki? Remember the days before huge multi-car operations?
   NASCAR racers used to known for innovation, creativity....and fun too.
   Now NASCAR racing is just another Detroit marketing arm, with 500-man rosters and economics of scale and manufacturing techniques more important than brain power.
   Maybe if NASCAR's Brian France would limit teams to just two-car operations, the sport might regain some fans.

    Legendary Big Bill France didn't take any guff: When car owner Carl Kiekhaefer, the sport's first multi-team owner, took advantage of NASCAR's rules to win two championships, Big Bill changed the rules, to make things more fair for the rest of the racers. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Why someone like Robby Gordon, for example, with his small one-team crew (maybe 50-strong), should have to try to match up against the sport's behemoths is worth considering. He did finish top-35 at least, but it was a struggle. (And he got embroiled in a few sponsor hassles.) Gordon says his days of running the full Sprint Cup tour are history. He'll be cutting back, maybe only 20 or so Cup races. Instead focusing on his diversity – Dakar, the Baja, Indianapolis, maybe even more (he did have fun with that monster truck for a while.)
   Gordon is the Bobby Allison of his era. Remember Bobby and his 'me against the world?'
   This sport was built by Lone Rangers like that. Now they seem like only so much cannon fodder. Expendable.
   Maybe that's one reason guys like John B. have given up on NASCAR.
   When Carl Kiekhaefer jumped into this sport and tried to dominate it, Big Bill France took care of that problem.
   Ponder: How many new team owners have come into NASCAR – and made it stick – in the past few years?
   Hey, who would want to come into this sport and try to take on powers like Chevy's Rick Hendrick, who has own five straight championships?
   Bigger is not always better.
   And the car-of-tomorrow, which was supposed to level the playing field, with its tight tolerances, may have backfired. What the COT has done is turned this sport into a manufacturing war, with the biggest teams with the most men and the most advanced computer simulations and production operations, dominating play. The bigger teams can simply overwhelm smaller teams.
   Maybe Detroit loves it, but is that good for the sport?
   I remember asking Shelmerdine years ago what he felt was one of the biggest problems facing NASCAR. And he said Detroit. And that's when he was winning championship with Earnhardt and Childress (four, remember).
   Well, the competition on the track in 2010 was some of the best in years, maybe some of the best ever.
   Which makes so pointed the whole question of why are people like John B. turning off NASCAR?
   There must be something more at play here than just the stuff out on the track.

  Kirk Shelmerdine, crew chief for four of Dale Earnhardt's seven NASCAR championships, once said Detroit's car makers were more of a headache for this sport than a plus. Maybe he was right. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  But back to lighter fare:
   So how about a few New Year's resolutions, while awaiting the Twilight Zone Marathon.
   First, for Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, patience. And for Kyle Busch, a double dose.
   Second, for Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, a phone call from Bernie Ecclestone. They're almost too good for the rest of us.
   Predictions for 2011?
    --- A socko Daytona 500, on that grippy new asphalt. No pothole this time. And good TV ratings, maybe even another huge snowstorm to boost the ratings.
   But from there, well, there's that bad 'hole' in the calendar March 13, when the stock car tour should be racing at Atlanta. So it may be hard for the sport to keep momentum early on. And the Phoenix and Vegas stops will have to come up with a lot of punch themselves to follow the anticipated Daytona opener.
   -- What will happen on the NASCAR TV front? Will the sport finally get things turned around?
   -- And what's the TV lineup going to look like?
   Was the on-air talent part of the problem? Is the new guy at Fox, Eric Shanks, going to shake things up? And what's ESPN/ABC going to do? On the surface part of the dip in TV ratings for the championship chase over the fall was the network's move from ABC network to ESPN cable – ratings, remember, were down a whopping 25 percent. NASCAR's Brian France says he likes ESPN's demographics – young and male. But sometimes it seemed like NASCAR got lost in all the other stuff ESPN carries.
   The first good look at what TV men might have planned could come during the late January testing at Daytona (Jan. 20-22). One big TV issue is how will things go without veteran NASCAR producer Neil Goldberg at the buttons.

   Robbie Gordon: Marches to his own drummer. And the sport of NASCAR needs more like him (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- The easy stuff:
   -- Let's go with Carl Edwards winning the championship. Finally.
   Or maybe Harvick?
   Edwards is a streaky racer (remember that two-month summer run when he posted the best overall finishing average), a home run hitter (back-to-back at Phoenix and Homestead, and his nine-win 2008 season), and a good all-around personality (unless you happen to be Brad Keselowski).
   Harvick was Mr. Consistency in 2010, and he would have handily won the championship under the point system used for more than 30 years.
   And what did happen to Denny Hamlin? Can he rebound?

   How about a poll:
   Here are the title contenders to vote on; pick the top-10 finishers:

   Jimmie Johnson
   Denny Hamlin
   Kevin Harvick
   Carl Edwards
   Greg Biffle
   Jeff Burton
   Tony Stewart
   Kyle Busch
   Kurt Busch
   Jamie McMurray
   Jeff Gordon
   Juan Pablo Montoya
   Mark Martin
   Matt Kenseth
   Joey Logano
   Ryan Newman

   -- Certainly the new season should feature more Kyle Busch dramatics.

   -- And Kurt Busch should hopefully have a better 2011 than the dismal stretch run he finished out 2010. From that 13th at Loudon, N.H., through that 18th at Homestead, the older Busch averaged a weak 17.8 finish over the year's final 10. Something drastically went wrong the second half of the season.



  Green is good. But is NASCAR heading down the right path with corn-based ethanol? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  -- And that 'ethanol' marketing game plan that NASCAR has laid out for the new season? Not looking that good, after all, with all the politics swirling around, and questions about the efficacy of corn-based ethanol as a fuel. Since ethanol has maybe 30 percent less energy than equivalent gasoline, fuel mileage should go down, for one. But the question of whether or not it even makes sense to use American corn as auto fuel is still front-and-center. Of course farmers who grow corn love the whole idea, because it raises the price of corn itself. Another issue here: ethanol is corrosive to some fuel lines...and ethanol tends to absorb water.
   Detroit a few years back was pushing NASCAR to go with E-85 for its Truck series, but officials declined.
   For 2011 Cup NASCAR will be using E-15, a 15 percent mixture.
   Typical pump gas for street cars uses a 10 percent mixture, and there is debate about the efficacy of putting E-15 into some pumps.
   Bottom line: Kansas corn farmers may have their own grandstands for that track's two Cup weekends.
   Curiously, Indy-cars have been using ethanol for several years now, but with a Brazilian twist, rather than American corn. Hence the NASCAR promotional push for 'American Ethanol.'

   Carl Edwards: the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champ? He doesn't want the hex, but he closed out 2010 with back to back wins at Phoenix and Homestead, and he's due for the title. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

With the TV issue in NASCAR

With the TV issue in NASCAR coverage (e.g. Neil Goldberg), maybe they should look "outside" their corporate box and bring on Patti Wheeler to run it. She seemed to have been doing it independently for years and with TV corporate $$$$ behind her? She could be the sport's saving grace behind the scenes.

good idea. nascar-on-tv needs

good idea. nascar-on-tv needs more punch, and wheeler could do it. if nascar would loosen the reins on all these tv guys, which i doubt.....

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