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NASCAR's Mike Helton says he's seeing blue skies ahead for the sport

  The NASCAR president says he's more confident about the season ahead than he was a year ago (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Mike Helton says he's "a lot more optimistic" about what lies ahead this season for NASCAR than he was during SpeedWeeks a year ago.
   In fact the NASCAR president says he likes the buzz the sport has been getting the past two weeks since announcing a new 'let 'em race' approach for Sprint Cup drivers.
   "Nothing wrong with having good buzz," Helton says with a smile.
   "The message we're trying to send is an extension of a couple years ago, when we told these guys 'It's your character that makes NASCAR,' we need to back off and let that character be more prevailing.
   "So this step, backing off the bump-drafting and letting the drivers mind themselves, is us saying 'We're going to let your personalities be more what they should be.'...and reminding them it's okay to be a race car driver.
   "That's the message in opening up the plate: letting the drivers be drivers."
   Helton says it wasn't a sudden decision. "It wasn't a single moment; it was actually spread out over several meetings with drivers and teams: 'Here's what we're thinking. What do you think about this?'
   "And at the end, it was a comfortable decision."
   Why the sudden push for 'change?'
   Is this perhaps a critical moment for NASCAR?
   "The answer will come better down the road, in 15 or 20 years, when people look back at the history of NASCAR," Helton responded. "And 2010 will come a lot from what we do with the cards we've been dealt.
   "Some of it is our doing – that we've made adjustments around. Some of it comes from outside forces that cause us to react.
   "But the answer will come down the road, better than I can give you right now.
   "Every season is critical for NASCAR...but there a good deal more optimism here in 2010 than there was at this time last year – when there were a lot of uncertainties, unanswered questions, a lot of challenges that circumstances beyond our control put us into...as well as some circumstances within our control."
   One of the changes this year just hit town – Danica Patrick, running in Saturday's ARCA 200.
   "It's huge," Helton says. "It's big. She is a very strong personality. She is well followed. Even when you talk to non-racing folks, when you say Danica Patrick, they know who she is."
   Helton says the big picture is this: "I hope what everybody does get from this is that we're trying. We are listening, and we have been for some time. The filtering process may take some time, perhaps longer than we'd like. But the message here is that NASCAR and its stakeholders and its tracks are listening and trying to adapt.
   "The reaction you've seen from NASCAR over the past several seasons – the double-file restarts, the backing off of restrictions, the earlier and more consistent starting times – are from listening to fans. And we will continue to listen.
   "Our fan council, which started at 12,000 and is growing, and we have people in our research group who do nothing but analyze that data.
   "And we still get letters from fans...and all that is pooled into one bucket, so we can make good decisions...hopefully that fans can embrace."
    The next big steps come after SpeedWeeks. There is a one-day Talladega test with the new flat-blade spoiler and bigger restrictor plate set for Talladega next month.
    But Helton says the more critical test will come the following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the new aerodynamics.
   "Of course all them are critical....and we're working with teams at some track where we typically wouldn't go to, to get this spoiler right when we roll it out...and roll it out as quickly as we can. The Charlotte test will be most definitive."
   Will the new spoiler work better at keeping these cars from flying?
   "I think we can keep the cars on the ground (at Daytona and Talladega) either way (with wing or blade)," Helton said. "We have learned in the wind tunnel how to do that better, and some of that is in evidence here at Daytona."
   But then maybe part of the bottom line in all this is simple – getting Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of that slump?
   "I'm not giving up on Dale Jr. He's a contender, and will be again," Helton said.
    "But the cycle of the sport, any sport, is that players come and go, and you have to cycle through those periods when one of those extremely popular driver is not longer very active or having a bad season or two.
   "I'm not taking Dale Jr. out of this equation."

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   NASCAR's Entry List for Saturday's  Bud Shootout at Daytona
   (Qualifying to be set by drawing Thursday night)

      Driver                 Team                                          Owner                   Crew Chief
1    Jamie McMurray  Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet           Teresa Earnhardt    Kevin Manion
2    Kurt Busch         Miller Lite Dodge                          Walter Czarnecki    Steve Addington
5    Mark Martin        GoDaddy.com Chevrolet               Mary Hendrick        Alan Gustafson
9    Kasey Kahne        Budweiser Ford                         George Gillett Jr      Kenny Francis
11    Denny Hamlin    FedEx Express Toyota                J.D. Gibbs               Mike Ford
14    Tony Stewart     Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet   Margaret Haas        Darian Grubb
16    Greg Biffle        3M Ford                                       Jack Roush            Greg Erwin
17    Matt Kenseth      Crown Royal Ford                       John Henry             Drew Blickensderfer
18    Kyle Busch        M&M's Toyota                            Joe Gibbs                Dave Rogers
20    Joey Logano        Home Depot Toyota                   Joe Gibbs               Greg Zipadelli
24    Jeff Gordon        DuPont Chevrolet                         Rick Hendrick         Steve Letarte
29    Kevin Harvick    Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet                Richard Childress    Gil Martin
31    Jeff Burton        Caterpillar Chevrolet                      Richard Childress    Todd Berrier
34    John Andretti        Window World Cares Ford         Bob Jenkins            Steven Lane
39    Ryan Newman    Haas Automation Chevrolet          Tony Stewart          Tony Gibson
42    Juan Pablo Montoya    Target Chevrolet                 Chip Ganassi           Brian Pattie
48    Jimmie Johnson    Lowe's Chevrolet                      Jeff Gordon              Chad Knaus
51    Michael Waltrip    NAPA Toyota                            Michael Waltrip         Pat Tryson
71    Bobby Labonte    TRG Motorsports Chevrolet         Kevin Buckler           Doug Randolph
75    Derrike Cope        Asset Protect Dodge                Derrike Cope            Tony Furr
82    Ken Schrader        Red Bull Toyota                       Dietrich Mateschitz    Jimmy Elledge
83    Brian Vickers        Red Bull Toyota                       Dietrich Mateschitz    Ryan Pemberton
88    Dale Earnhardt Jr. National Guard/AMP Chevrolet   Rick Hendrick            Lance McGrew
99    Carl Edwards        Scotts Turf Builder Ford            Jack Roush                Bob Osborne


Where to start? Danica this,

Where to start?

Danica this, Danica that......does anyone bother to note how little she meant to IRL? How little impact she had on competition, ticket sales, or sponsorships?

Letting personalities come out - I'm baffled by this obsession the sport has with the myth of having no personality, never mind the obsequious reality of Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, etc. The idea that the sport suffered because drivers behaved more like professionals than like dopes remains a myth.

Backing off policing pushdrafting is a positive sign, but it needs to go further - no more yellow line rule; no more control of the racing by the officiating tower - they're there to handle yellows and to flag off drivers who are causing reckless endangerment; they're not there to police where racers can and can't race or police how fast they go down pit road.

Dale Junior is not what the sport needs - getting Richard Petty's #43 to victory again will help the sport more.

We also await the first sign of a race outside of the plate tracks where dirty air is the ally of passing instead of the enemy and lead changes increase accordingly.



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