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It's only early January, but the NASCAR marketing machine is already in high gear

  Greg Biffle (L) listening to crew chief Greg Erwin (Photo: Autostock)

  By Mike Mulhern

  Less than two weeks into the new year and NASCAR's marketing and promotions wizards are already wide open.
  Over the weekend it was the annual Nashville 'Sound and Speed' show, which seemed to have a lot more pizzazz and showmanship this time around, with Hank Williams Jr., Diamond Rio, Chris Young, Jason Michael Carroll and other country music stars helping pump things up.
  Later this week it's Daytona's annual preseason 'Thunder' fan fest (though that deal really ought to be in Charlotte, where it will likely be in January 2011).
  And then it's the annual January NASCAR Media Tour, through North Carolina stock car shops.
  Then the Daytona 24 Hours....(Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Labonte, Boris Said, Jamie McMurray, AJ Allmendinger, Colin Braun and Paul Menard are the NASCAR men in the field)
  But what's really caught everyone's eyes in the past few days has been the surprise round of top-level meetings called by NASCAR executives Brian France and Mike Helton with car owners, team managers and some drivers -- with the goal of shaking things up and getting fans more enthusiastic about the Sprint Cup season ahead.
  Who would have thought the idea of bringing back that old flat metal rear spoiler could have sparked such interest....
  Finally it looks like NASCAR bosses have decided to address some of the fans' concerns and make things happen.
  And that's good news for everyone.
  Now if NASCAR would just lighten up on some of this overly tight rules enforcement and let crew chiefs get a little more creative, we might really have something going here. The tighter NASCAR holds to its go-nogo gauges and super-tight tolerances, the more the big teams, with their huge staffs of engineers, prosper, and the tougher it is on the little guys.
   Here's hoping 2010 really offers some openings for stock car racing smaller teams.

   Yes, he's still NASCAR's Mr. Popularity....but if Dale Earnhardt Jr. could just start winning again, everyone would be a lot happier, especially car owner Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


For those going to Daytona for the two-day fan fest, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Travis Kvapil, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Kelly Bires will be on tap Friday, and Saturday's lineup includes Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann, Scott Speed, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Brad Keselowski, Sam Hornish JR., Kevin Conway, Todd Bodine, Colin Braun, Morgan Shepherd, Michael Annett, and others.
  Kvapil, and he's not alone, says he's curious about NASCAR's planned changes with the Cup car...after two years of doing very little, apparently, to make it work better. "I'm not sure what their goal is," Kvapil says.
  Carl Edwards says he wants NASCAR to go even further with its changes. Edwards' flipping crash at Talladega may have been part of the impetus for some of the likely changes, though NASCAR execs may try to downplay that aspect.
   Greg Biffle, one of 2010's disappointments (but then the past season was a disappointment for just about everyone but the Rick Hendrick gang), says he's interested in seeing how newcomer Danica Patrick does in NASCAR:
   "It's going to be great for our sport, as far as recognition and awareness, and bringing some popularity over, and bringing some of her fans.  It'll be our first female driver in a
while, so that will be good for us. 
    "I'm looking forward to seeing how she performs on the race track. 
    "I'm glad she's decided to come over and give it a try.  It's very difficult. 
    "I hope she does well, and I'm looking forward to racing with her a little bit."
   Of course there are the shadows of Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish hanging over this venture. Those are two more successful Indy-car racers who struggled in NASCAR; Franchitti gave it up before the end of the season, and this may be the key year for Hornish, his third, and his first two have been struggles, although with signs of promise.
    Biffle knows well that even someone as talented as Juan Pablo Montoya didn't have instant success. And Scott Speed, whose rookie season in NASCAR, after a Formula One career, was very ragged.
   "These cars are very hard to drive," Biffle says dryly.
   Even noted road racers like Boris Said and Ron Fellows, who are comfortable in stock cars on road courses, have struggled on the ovals.
   "The oval track with these cars are very, very difficult," Biffle says.
   Last year that was true even for a veteran like Biffle, perhaps the tour's hardest charger, and one of its fastest drivers. Biffle showed a few glimpses of promise in 2010, but otherwise it was a downer of a season.
   Biffle -- one of NASCAR's several animal rescue advocates, with a new calendar of NASCAR pets at gregbifflefoundation.com -- says Daytona's SpeedWeeks is a creature all its own, with its own engineering and driving dynamics, and probably not much of an indication of the upcoming season may have to offer.
   The Shootout opens things Saturday night February 6th (though Patrick's ARCA run earlier that day may get more publicity).
    Before sizing up 2010, "Really we need to wait until California (Feb. 21), Atlanta (March 7), and some of those other tracks," Biffle says. "Daytona is kind of in a class of its own....It's hard to get a feel for where you're at at a restrictor plate track."
   And then remember how 2009 opened -- with Matt Kenseth winning the Daytona 500 and following it up with a victory in the California 500....and then came the Chevrolet deluge.
   Certainly that's incentive for last year's also-rans.
   As disappointing as 2009 was for Ford teams and Toyota teams and Dodge teams, everyone who wasn't in a Chevy, Biffle says the off-season -- since the Nov. 22 race at Homestead, Fla. -- has been fast and furious.
   "We've worked very hard this winter getting weight out of our cars, getting the center-of-gravity down, lightening them...working hard on our data acquisition, and trying to understand
our (computer) modeling better...working on aero," Biffle says. "New geometries, new shock packages, new bump-stop stuff...."
   For Biffle and the rest of the Jack Roush guys, the addition of some of the old Ray Evernham Dodge staff could offer some insight....even though the past year of the George Gillett-Richard Petty Motorsports operation was, well, a bit chaotic, to say the least.
    Testing, Biffle says,  looks key. He did a Goodyear tire test at Phoenix, new teammate Kasey Kahne did a tire test at California's Auto Club Speedway, Biffle is doing a tire test at Texas Motor Speedway
    "So I think we're going to have a good mixed-bag of data from those three tracks before the season starts," Biffle says.
   And he says he wants to see more testing as the season goes on. The testing question is still up in the air, from the NASCAR standpoint, with the testing ban at Cup and Nationwide tracks still in effect, but possibly subject to change. NASCAR officials says they may have a lot of news to break during the Charlotte Media Tour stop at the R&D center in a few weeks.
    "Hopefully Carl gets a chance, and David and Matt, to do some more tire testing," Biffle says.
    "And if NASCAR makes a few rules changes along the way, that (may) give a chance for all the cars to get on the track:  If they're going to do a mass tire test, like
before Indy (last year)....those things help us."
    On the plus side, perhaps for Biffle and his teammates, there will be a few more teams in the Ford camp this year, (partly to help use up some of those old engine parts, now that Ford is moving to the new NASCAR engine).
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   Jamie McMurray: a little off-season workout fun...for the Daytona 24 Hours (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jr has been exposed and i

Jr has been exposed and i don't think they can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. All emotional links to him have been removed, DEI, 8, Bud. Plus everything could always be blamed on Teresa and he always came out smelling like a rose. They can try to tilt the balance his way to help him out but i don't think you will ever see the Jr nation return to what it once was. When they change rides/sponsors/numbers more than they change underwear, fans lose emotional links to all of it and the connection fades away. Thats something that the overpaid big wigs and the overpaid marketers don't get.

RH happy...?

"Yes, he's still NASCAR's Mr. Popularity....but if Dale Earnhardt Jr. could just start winning again, everyone would be a lot happier, especially car owner Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)"
I do not believe that Jr. will ever be truly competitive at HMS and the sooner he is out of there the better. If Hendrick would be a lot happier if Jr. would start winning, he would have taken some of the money Jr. brings into HMS and hired Addington as his crew chief. He would not have let Tony Jr. make his chassis from 2007 DEI specs. Jr. would not have had more parts failures than his other 3 teammates put together, etc., etc. Marybeth

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