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Junior's atop the NASCAR standings, Jimmie Five-Time wins a fourth Brickyard, yet is this sport regaining any momentum?

Junior's atop the NASCAR standings, Jimmie Five-Time wins a fourth Brickyard, yet is this sport regaining any momentum?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L) and teammate Jimmie Johnson.



  By Mike Mulhern

   Gentlemen, and women, start your second-guessing.
   Did it work, this 'superweekend' at the Brickyard?
   Sure did for Jimmie Johnson. Mr. Five-Time got a big leg-up on rivals in that looming bid to become Mr. Six-Time, with a jaw-dropping career fourth win in the Brickyard 400.
   But did it work for fans...and did it work for the sport?
   The Brickyard 400 for years was one of this sport's biggest races, but lately....
   Now, as the dust settles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- after Johnson's jolting win in the capstone event of the 'three-race/four-day' package first for this track, which jammed Nationwide and Grand-Am action into the Sprint Cup weekend -- it's time to consider how well this thing worked...and what could be done to improve things for next season.
  Did this format work? Did these events all translate well into crowd-pleasers?
  Are NASCAR and the Brickyard starting to get their mojo back, and their fans?
   Is the sport starting to build momentum for the championship playoffs? The 10-week run opens Sept. 16th at Chicagoland Speedway.
   And while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now atop the standings for the first time in eight years,  there is question as to just how relevant Earnhardt is to the long hoped for resurgence of the sport. His Michigan win in June broke a long, long drought, but Earnhardt hasn't had a great season since 2004.
    Is this Earnhardt comeback simply a bit too late in his career to make a seismic difference?
    Earnhardt himself has seemed strangely blasé about it all, for some reason.


    Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally a winner again. But is it enough to give this sport a big boost? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The second half of 10-month stock car racing season is just kicking off, and the first half was marred by way too many flatly boring races.
   Too many crowds have been only so-so.
   Mega-promoter Bruton Smith has reshaped legendary Bristol for the August 25th Saturday night 500, after a surprisingly weak crowd for his spring race.
   NASCAR's marketing division has stepped up its efforts to full-tilt-boogie, even getting hotshot film director Ron Howard to this 400.
   But this whole 2013 race car body design shakeup -- the new race cars are supposed to be more visually similar to corresponding street models -- has been little short of a promotional disaster so far, disjointed and seemingly haphazard.
   Ford put its 2013, two of them, out on the track at Charlotte back in January. But after that NASCAR pretty much left the project on the side burner...until Monday, when the sanctioning body officially announced it was satisfied with all the body parts car makers have submitted, okaying teams to start building the new models.
    On the plus side for the 2013 project, Chevrolet has finally stepped up to the plate, bringing its zingy Camaro to the field of play.
   Maybe it's time for NASCAR and Chevy racing boss Jim Campbell and Ford racing boss Jamie Allison and Toyota racing boss Lee White and whoever the Dodge racing boss is to get together and try to create a new International Race of Champions with these 'muscle cars.' Maybe even with a couple of real International stars, like back when F1 drivers were under Goodyear contract....

  Ford puts its 2013s on the track in January. Where are all these other guys? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   However the current product -- or is it the drivers -- hasn't been very inspirational this season.
   NASCAR has been unable to prod drivers into picking up the pace, or to change the equipment and the race dynamics to make for hotter action.
   Kyle Busch has been content to ride around and keep a low profile, following NASCAR's suspension last fall.
   Kurt Busch has kept his emotions unchecked, on the other hand, but that's not really fired up things.
   Too many drivers appear dispassionate about their racing, methodically going through the paces, almost like working in a sock factory.
    Showmanship is in very short supply so far this season.


  Jimmie Johnson at the head of the pack in Sunday's Brickyard 400. Better watch quick, 'cause he's about to be gone (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Smith has suggested adding scheduled caution periods to each race, like quarter-breaks in football and basketball, TV time outs as it were. NASCAR's Brian France dismisses that idea as a "gimmick," conveniently ignoring his own 'gimmicks,' like three green-white-checkered finishes, like the confusing 'wave around' rule, like double-file restarts, like closing pit road, like the 'lucky dog' rule, and others.
   To be blunt, there is little likelihood of things picking up any time soon out on the track.
   New tires for the Michigan 400 in a couple of weeks could help.
   And Smith's track tweaks at Bristol could help too.


  Bristol will be changed for the August race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   One thing that NASCAR's France has been banking on to perk up the action are the two 'wild card' playoff spots. It's not clear that is working. Two men who should be in the thick of the hunt for those two spots are Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon; but Sunday both men all but took themselves out of the playoffs.
    Edwards' electronic fuel injection computer system apparently failed; he almost certainly needs to win two of the next six races to make the playoffs, but he hasn't won in a year and a half.
   Gordon couldn't quite match teammate Jimmie Johnson in the 400; he took almost certainly needs to win two of the next six now also. But Gordon hasn't won since last September.


   The Brickyard 400 crowd: a beautiful day, high 80s, blue skies, but the crowd was a bit light (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
  How to assess the Indianapolis crowds over the four days?
  The 400, after so many years of packed grandstands (about 257,000 seats), had too many empty seats. The last few 400s have played to a half-full house.
   The Los Angeles Times called NASCAR's estimate of 125,000 fans this year "overly generous."
   Estimates of Saturday's Nationwide crowd were hard to make, considering how the fans were packaged into various sections.
   NASCAR called the crowd for the Nationwide 250 at 40,000; other estimates were much lower. And there was the inevitable comparison between NASCAR's Triple-A on the big track versus the series as it ran for so many years at Raceway Park, the short track about 10 miles away.
   NASCAR's dropping Raceway Park is widely seen as a mistake, as good as that racing has been, and as enthusiastic as those crowds. Adding Nationwide to IMS shouldn't have required killing off Nationwide at IRP, the argument goes.
   NASCAR apparently considered running its Trucks at Raceway Park, but that track insisted on a Nationwide event too. And a deal was never struck.
   Adding a Nationwide event at Raceway Park next season seems a no-brainer. One question -- how to schedule such a race ahead of a Nationwide race at the big track, as 'advance' work?
   Or maybe the Speedway and NASCAR need to get more creative. If the Grand-Am series is to run again next season, how to sandwich it into the NASCAR weekend?

   The logistics at IMS of switching back and forth between the big oval (Thursday) and the infield course (Friday) and back to the big oval (Saturday) was, well, awkward and time-consuming. And probably unnecessary

   One obvious option would be to run the Nationwide cars on the road course along with the Grand-Ams. Consider Nationwide runs Montreal, Road America and Watkins Glen.

   Another option: remember that when Indy-cars ran Homestead the same weekend as Grand-Am, both series ran the same day, because the changeover from road course to big oval was smooth and quick. Why not at Indy too?

   And another big point to consider here: Maybe it's time to rethink the whole road course thing: NASCAR over the years has adapted itself to existing road courses; that's now probably the wrong way to look at it -- why not adapt road courses for stock cars instead? Think Riverside Turn 9. And think Bristol's parabolic corners, which have made for three racing lanes. Throw a Bristol 180 into the Turn Four part of the Indy road course and give racers a shot at passing, other than trying to outbrake each other.

   Another point perhaps: why not run the Brickyard weekend road course races counterclockwise -- like they do at Daytona?

  Just ideas to consider.

   This time around the entire weekend schedule was, well, confusing and chaotic, didn't really flow well.    
   Nationwide practice Thursday. A full Friday of nothing but Grand-Am, on the road course. And the Sprint Cup teams didn't even show up till Saturday, for Sunday's 400.
   Not much wiggle room for rain, which pounded the track for a while Friday. If that rain had come a day earlier, then the inaugural Nationwide event here -- which should have been a much more proclaimed event that it turned out to be, jammed in there with Cup action and more all-but-useless rounds of qualifying -- would have taken the green with virtually no practice.
    Likewise, if the rain had come a day later, the Cup teams would have been in a big, big jam.

  Racing in the rain at Indianapolis: Grand-Am sports cars raising a cloud of wet in their wake (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Johnson made such a runaway of the 400 that his top rivals were clearly stunned.
  That raises another -- long-running -- question, of why the action at this track is invariably boring single-file, spread out racing?
  And how to fix it?
   It should be an easy fix, if NASCAR were interested in fixing it, which is certainly debatable. Just look at races at Ontario Motor Speedway and get some clues...like lower speeds into the corner.
   Now big, flat tracks like this, with hard left-handers and virtually no banking, aren't conducive to great action. So, slowing the cars in effect 'widens' the corners.
    This track is going the way of Los Angeles' California Auto Club Speedway, a victim of year after year of simply boring racing.
    Bottom line: the Brickyard 400 can't live on its cachet any longer. NASCAR executives have to figure out a new engineering dynamic here and give fans much better racing.
   Because stock car racing fans aren't going to put with so much blah-blah-blah.


     NASCAR at Indianapolis: The Brickyard 400 had its moments, but are stock car teams really giving these fans the action-packed racing they deserve? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Seasons end

Liked your great article after Indy.!! Now sum up the season from the fans view.. Only as you can.. Thanks Mike.. -//- Pop

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