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Jeff Gordon hits Daytona in a rock'n-roll mood...while most everyone else seems to be just going through the motions

  Jimmie Johnson (48) and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) drafting side by side with Kasey Kahne (4) and Brian Vickers (83), some of the fastest cars in Daytona 500 testing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   Whoa, now! $4 a gallon gas? $5 a gallon gas?
   Now that would not only put the brakes on the U.S. economy but it probably wouldn't be very good news for NASCAR track owners, who rely on fans willing to travel hundreds of miles to see their events.

   That was just one of the topics being debated here Friday during a morning rain delay.
   Yes, Friday's Round Two of NASCAR's Daytona 500 test was a wet one. But Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray certainly put on a good show off the track, with a humorous rip of quips and one-liners, joshing each other about the foibles of fatherhood, and Gordon offering some poignant recollections about the late Dale Earnhardt, who died here 10 years ago.
    "I still have a hard time believing he's gone," Gordon said. "Especially when you come to Daytona, you remember how amazing he was at this track in the draft. He taught me a lot. And he did so much for this sport.
   "And today we're still benefiting from things he did."

  Game face on, new sponsor, and Jeff Gordon looks upbeat as the Daytona 500 looms (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Gordon, who had some legendary battles and title duels with Earnhardt, recalled one day at this track "There was a big tractor out there, as a promo, for us to get up on and do something with. Dale and Rusty (Wallace) and I were there. And they asked 'who's going to drive the tractor?' Well, we all knew it was going to be Dale.
   "I didn't realize Dale's skills on a tractor till that day. And this was a big piece of machinery; it wasn't a little tractor; this was a big one.
   "And Dale jumped up there and was wheeling it around and throwing the bucket around and all. It was like he had one at home.....
   "Then there was the time here at Daytona when we were all practicing for the IROC race. And I was new to the IROC series, like a kid in a candy store, just having fun, learning those cars.
   "Ken Schrader was leading, and I was running second, and Dale gave me a pretty good push to get under Schrader. And I thought 'Hey, cool. I can get around Schrader.'
   "But before I could even look in my mirror Dale was inside making it three-wide down the backstretch.
    "And it seemed like the longest back straightaway I've ever experienced in all my years running Daytona. It was like that back straightaway went on for five minutes....because it was just that moment in time:
    "I looked to the right, and there was Kenny looking straight ahead, focused. And I looked to my left, and there was Dale, with his arm laid across the roll bars and he was stretched out like he was on the sofa at home. He was just kicked back, driving with his left-hand, and he was looking at me with this big grin on his face.
   "And I realized we're three-wide, and I'm in the middle. And you can't go three-wide into the third turn here. So one of us was going to have to lift.
   "Well, I'm not going to lift.....
   "But as we got closer and closer to three, and I kept looking over at Dale, and I finally realized I was going to have to be the bigger one in that moment and lift.
   "And it was a good thing I did. Because Dale went in there and slid all the way up track toward the wall, in front of Schrader.....and it would have been a helluva wreck.
    "I'll never forget that look on Dale's face, and how relaxed he was in that race car at that moment....when I was freaking out because we were three-wide."


  NASCAR president Mike Helton: Mr. Cool, natch, but maybe a Red Bull or two, or a shot of Robby Gordon's Speed, might raise the excitement level. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   After a very humorless Thursday here, the Gordon-McMurray show was welcomed relief.
   And if cool-and-loose and funny are any indication of who might have an edge here, Gordon could be the one.
   Gordon, now a father of two, joked with new-father McMurray, about the fun of parenting on the NASCAR trail.
   "Becoming a father has made me dumber, I think," McMurray said with a laugh. To which Gordon retorted "Welcome to the club."
   Remember Gordon's run-in with Jeff Burton last fall at Texas – two middle-aged drivers shoving each other on pit road after a big crash?
   "I got home that night, and about 3 a.m. Elle (his three-year-old daughter) was having trouble sleeping," Gordon said. "And Elle asked me 'Daddy, were you wrestling with another driver out there today?'
   "And I said 'Well, kind of....'
   "And she asked 'Why did you do that?'
   "I said "Oh, I got angry.'
   "And she asked 'Why were you angry?'
   "And she was like that; she just wouldn't let it quit. And this was 3 in morning.
   "That just brings everything (about fatherhood) into perspective. It's all so raw and fun....
   "When I called Jeff a day later, and told him that, he said 'I can top that – my 14-year-old was like 'Daddy, I'm going to kick Jeff Gordon's butt.' And I had to tell them, 'No, your daddy made a mistake.....'
   "So we both had a good laugh, about that, and about what kids do. They love to share in the victories and also the agonies of defeat and embarrassing moments.
   "So Jamie, once they get to walking and talking, you'll see."


   Mr. Five-Time, Jimmie Johnson, resting between drafting laps Friday at 195.495 mph with new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two topped the day's speed charts for a while, until Toyota's Denny Hamlin and teammate Joey Logano got hot late at nearly 197 mph. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Denny Hamlin led Friday's second round of Daytona 500 drafting at nearly 197 mph.
   Hamlin, in Mike Ford's Toyota at 196.868 mph, kept that brand atop the leader board here. Toyotas and Chevrolets have clearly been fastest in drafts, but Ford teams may be looking more toward single lap qualifying-type runs so far.
   Drivers have been reluctant to draft in large packs. But there have been a number of tight two-car drafts, even though drivers insist the Talladega-type two-car breakaway won't work on this tighter track.
   The top 10 in Friday afternoon drafting: Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Kasey Kahne, all well over 194 mph.
   In single car runs Clint Bowyer was fastest at 185.250, a  bit quicker than defending 500 winner Jamie McMurray and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya.
    Right after Friday's Jeff Gordon-Jamie McMurray media show, three of the sport's big guns, president Mike Helton, Cup tour director John Darby, and competition boss Robin Pemberton took the stage – for a 'competition update,' in what was, in contrast, an unenthusiastic, in fact rather dull performance, in terms of pure entertainment here, in discussing possible rules changes for 2011 and other items.
   The one topic everyone here wanted to talk about – the proposed new championship points system – was only talked around, without specifics.
   It is only a few weeks before the start of the new season, and the playoff format and rules are still unknown. That might raise some questions about NASCAR's credibility in all this, though Helton insists that "things move a whole lot quicker than they used to," and that "fans are quick-studies when it comes to tweaks."
   This particular championship, though, might be more than just a 'tweak.'
   And while Helton says nothing is official, listening to drivers here, it appears a done-deal that NASCAR will switch from the long-standing Latford points system to a new 43-42-41-etc points system for the 2011 championships in all three national series, Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck.
    It also appears that 10 men will make this fall's title chase based on the new points system and that two more men will make it a 12-man chase based on their regular season wins – read that as the Jamie McMurray amendment, since last year's Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner failed to make the chase.
   Official word of the change could come next week during the sport's annual pre-season media tour in Charlotte.

   Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's old crew chief, now heading the team that Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives for (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Why NASCAR would now be changing the championship rules is unclear, particularly since three men went into last fall final races with great shots at the title.
   The Latford system has been used since 1975.
   The proposed 43-point system would in fact exacerbate the major problem with the current points rules: that a DNF, or bad run, is very costly to any title bid. Under the planned new system a DNF or bad run would be even more costly....which logically would make 'stroking' or conservative racing even more important.
   And that might just make it even easier for Jimmie Johnson to win another title.
   Johnson says he's worried NASCAR might be shooting itself in the foot by changing the championship rules again. And Johnson points out that any such championship tweak will not be "a huge strategy to engage the fans more, from an attendance standpoint, for a (TV) viewership standpoint.
     "In my opinion there are other areas to focus on for that.
     "Now (with a new points system) we've got to reeducate our fan base and any new fans coming in.
     "Are we going to confuse everyone even more, and shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit? I don't know. Time will tell."
    Is NASCAR just looking for a Stop Jimmie Johnson rule?
   And then a big question is how might fans react to such a change. Fans over the past few years have expressed displeasure with a number of NASCAR's big changes, from the car-of-tomorrow to the chase itself.
     Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart (2002 and 2005) says "I didn't think it (the points system) needed change the first time (2004).
    "The fans kind of help dictate what they want. The fans can kind of help....if the fans are aware of the options. I think the fans will tell us what they want.
    "And I think as long as we all know what it is at the beginning, I don't think the competitors really care. As long as it's the same for everybody, it's fair."
     NASCAR says it's got a 'Fan Council' that it uses as a sounding board, but it doesn't appear that NASCAR has asked those fans about the looming championship rules changes.


  Did Tony Stewart (here at the evening's FanFest) really hit an Australian Rules Football player with his helmet, in that altercation last week -- dubbed by some as The Blunder Down Under? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But fans would like to see some changes. According to one poll, fans would like:
   -- to get rid of the 'chase;'
   -- to have more autograph time at the tracks;
   -- to rotate the tracks in the chase;
   -- to have the race cars look more like street cars;
   -- to have heat races (apparently instead of single-lap qualifying);
   -- and to eliminate the 'wave around,' the lucky-dog rule.
   Gordon responds to that by says "That proves the fans know their sport and are watching.
    "I agree with a lot of those things.
   "I would like to see more organized autograph sessions.
   "The one I might disagree on is taking the 'chase' away. If we went back to the old system, and the championship was locked up with three or four races to go, instead of going to Homestead with the title on the line, we'd all get bored. Having three or four drivers battling it out for the title is exciting and good for the sport.
    "And I don't think anything they do to the points system is going to push people to want to win more. We're already doing everything we can to win. It's in our nature.
   "The win means more to you than anything else. The points are just the icing on the cake."


   Jeff Gordon, in primer, Daytona testing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

This is why I put little to

This is why I put little to no stock in the credibility of modern race drivers. For Gordon to say "We're already doing everything we can to win. It's in our nature" is flat-out false. Almost nowhere is there any savagery in trying to take the lead; no one is fighting to take the lead with any determination. If they are trying as hard as they can to win, where are the 50-lead-change races? We have them at Daytona and Talladega, yes, so where are they at Charlotte? Or Atlanta? Or Vegas? Or Pocono? Or Michigan? Or Fontana? We certainly see some spirited battles at Pocono and we saw some surprising fights at Fontana, yet never is 50 lead changes even remotely threatened. And places like Pocono are tracks built for 50-lead-change racing.

The proposed new points system is NASCAR decision-making at its worst - taking the weaknesses of the problem and making them worse. Instead of adding massive point bonuses for winning races and leading the most laps each race, NASCAR is making stroking for points MORE valuable instead of rewarding real performance.

Finally, $4 per gallon for gas, maybe - $5 I'm not seeing; the market is more favorable to people than that.

So, Nascar's new 'fix' is to

So, Nascar's new 'fix' is to change the points? I haven't heard many fans who care about the point system, so they are 'fixing' something that isn't broken. Again. They make changes just to say they are 'listening to the fans', when they aren't. Changing the points isn't going to get people to the tracks or in front of their TV. The biggest mistake is putting so much focus on the 'chase', which makes 26 races pretty much irrelevant. When your viewership goes DOWN significantly during the final 10 races, that should tell them there is a baxic flaw in the system. For years fans were fine with having a driver sew up the title with 2 races to go, because they watched for each race individually, NOT to see who wins the title...that's just the outcome of having a good season. And it made a lot more sense that crowning someone who had 10 good races. I believe it was the media who made such a big deal out of Matt Kenseth winning a championship with one win, not the fans. Basically, everything that was in place while Nascar enjoyed a surge in popularity has now been changed. How much sense does that make?

Don't wipe the slate clean

Don't wipe the slate clean after 26 races, start chase with the points that the drivers have at that point. Or reward the leader with 10 points.
Put stock back in stock car racing!!
Get rid of restrictors, race with a small block 305ci with max 400hp and don't say it can't be done. Remember V-6s that were at Daytona and Talladaga in Bush series, they were some good racing.

Glad to see a driver voice

Glad to see a driver voice his approval of The Chase and tell it like it is. Under the old points system, I can only remember two occasions where it truly came down to the last race: 1989 and 1992. Wallace edged Earnhardt in 89 and Kulwicki edged Elliot and Allison in 1992. If any other points championship came down to the last race since 1985 until the Chase started, I don't remember it.

Most of the time, the points championship was locked up, all but mathematically, with 3-4 races to go. Sometimes, it was locked up even sooner. If you think fans aren't watching during the fall now, there will be less than half of that tuning in to watch a race that truly is a meaningless championship race at the end of the season.

Hopefully NASCAR will keep the Chase but tweak qualifying to include heat races at each race (not just at Daytona) and will also improve the schedule to only go to most tracks once and the 6-7 great tracks twice. Having some action tracks in the Chase is definitely something else that needs to be worked on.

The first point

The first point fireballroberts has missed is that in those previous points races the drivers still put stock into winning races as opposed to points. The 1992 season was the turning point for how drivers appraoched the season - it marked the departure point for drivers focusing on winning instead of points.

The second point he misses is that the Chase has NOT improved the points contest; instead it has corrupted it by artificially locking out 3/4ths of the field and making the emphasis be entirely on best average finish over ten races, not the balance of the season.

The Chase format has failed. It was the answer to a question that only Brian France asked. Why he seems afraid to simply increase race winner and most laps led point bonuses to make winning and leading directly decide the championship is baffling.

Qualifying does not need heat races and just what are the six-seven "great" tracks? And "action" tracks? They're supposed to be about racing. The only tracks that can be said do not deserve two dates are the short tracks and those that presently don't have two dates - Atlanta, Darlington, Homestead, Fontana, Vegas, Chicagoland, and the road courses, and Atlanta is a borderline case, a good track with a history of two dates but with a demographic that is not as good as advertised.

Jeff contradicts himself in

Jeff contradicts himself in the last discussion. He says
"If we went back to the old system, and the championship was locked up with three or four races to go, instead of going to Homestead with the title on the line, we'd all get bored."
Then, he says
"And I don't think anything they do to the points system is going to push people to want to win more. We're already doing everything we can to win. It's in our nature.
"The win means more to you than anything else. The points are just the icing on the cake."
So, Jeff, how about the thrill of winning one or more of the last 3 races of the year even if the title has been decided already? Shouldn't that goal be enough to keep you from getting bored?
Fans are saying that they want each race to be important in and of itself. The chase has diminished that aspect and it should be dropped.

The broadcasters carry a big

The broadcasters carry a big responsibility for the emphasis upon the championship. I have seen many years where the winner of the last race is almost ignored on television to focus upon the champion, even when the championship was almost locked up before the race started. The people who sacrificed to come to the race and those who watch on TV are lead to believe that winning the race was not that important in the "big picture".
This happens to a lesser extent when a drivers position in the points is emphasized more than his position on the track at many races.
Focusing upon the championship is so ingrained in the current broadcast teams, that only a complete housecleaning and replacement with those committed to valuing each race will bring progress. Current pre-race planning for the announcers and camera work is all focused upon the championship.
They can show a list of the current points battle changes just before the closing credits. That is about all we need.

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