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Sunday, February 09, 2014

ARE NASCAR's BOLD MOVES THE RIGHT MOVES?

I detect a slight whiff of desperation in the air. And it's coming from the direction of Daytona Beach.

Brian France has been dropping hints for the last 18 months that he wasn't satisfied NASCAR had the right mix of competition, entertainment and management. It started at Daytona in July 2012 when the NASCAR chairman said the sport needed more "Wow" moments. He continued on from there, saying the Gen-6 car would produce more side-by-side and exciting racing. He made general comments about changes to qualifying and the Sprint Cup points system.

I'm all for strong leadershp and bold moves, which most certainly is what France has done during the off-season. How all of these changes play out -- on the track and in the marketplace -- will be of early-season interest and I'd say the single most important story of the 2014 season.

To recap: Brent Dewar, a former GM exec, was named Chief Operating Officer. In most organizations I know the COO is No. 2 on the executive management team but the NASCAR announcement said "Mike Helton continues as NASCAR President with continued oversight of all racing operations." I've written my share of these kind of news releases and that type of language raised my antenna as it signals a reduction of Helton's authority. Competition VP Robin Pemberton, the point man on the Gen-6 car, seems to have had his turf reduced with Gene Stefanyshyn in as vice president of innovation and racing development. John Darby was moved to another spot with Indy Car veteran Richard Buck the new Sprint Cup Series managing director.

France's great hopes for Gen-6 were good in that the car's visuals did more connect it to the showroom models, as the automakers wanted. But it didn't make for better racing or more "Wow" finishes. So the rules have been tinkered with and the first test of that package will be March 2 here at my home track Phoenix International Raceway. But this new package is intended primarily for the intermediate-size ovals. If the cars aren't more racier this season, what's next? I wonder if more people changes will follow. I wish NASCAR had taken aero out, emphasized more mechanical grip, and started what would be a long and challenging process to open-up its tire contract and see if someone else has better technology and engineering than Goodyear. I can think of at least two tire companies that I think would.

Revision of the manufacturers' championship system reflect the obvious concerns of Toyota and Ford as Chevrolet has absolutely dominated. NASCAR didn't do itself any good by denying the new "knockout" style of qualifying wasn't an idea adapted from what IndyCar and Formula One do. Since single-car qualifying is boring on just about every oval other than Bristol, I'm good with this -- except that a driver could set the quickest lap overall in the first session and wind up starting out of the top 10. That's tough to explain to fans.

As for the "Game 7" rule to determine the champion, well, I hate it. As I Tweeted, just imagine how the national media will hammer NASCAR if one driver wins six or eight or 10 races out of 36 but someone else is crowned "season" champion with a win or two. A blown tire or getting caught-up in somebody else's accident or hitting the wall because NASCAR didn't throw a yellow early enough when there's oil on the track is going to deny a dominant driver a championship? Ridiculous.

The expanded field (12 up to 16) comes at a time when even the NFL is looking to increase the number of playoff teams. So, OK, but the notion of "elimination" rounds was something already happening because the botton several drivers after the first three Chase races already were essentially out of it. If France had made a cut of four drivers who would run for the championship based on points in the final three races, I could have accepted that. But 35 races of work to be ruined by a blown tire? That's just unfair. That's flat-out wrong.

And, please, stop already with the World Series "Game 7" analogy. I used to cover baseball, was a member of the Baseball Writers Association, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows there is zero legitimate comparison to the World Series and what NASCAR is now doing.

These moves are so sweeping, they seem to leave little -- if any -- wiggle room for France to tinker again. My question: What happens if these rules don't increase TV ratings, media coverage and ticket sales? Where would France go from there? Has he left himself any other serious options?

FAST LINES: Early season candidate for most useless "news" release of the year is the one about how the Global Motorsports Group car went out after six hours into the Rolex 24. The release was issued FIVE DAYS after the race . . . The performance of Michael Strahan during the Super Bowl Vince Lombardi Trophy presentation shows that these type of guys are lost without cue cards and that it's a flat-out mistake to put non-professional broadcast journalists into this role . . . Words used to mean something and cable TV news sure doesn't help uphold this standard. Time was when "Special Report" flashed on the screen, it meant a moon landing or an assassination. Now, Fox News has a "Special Report" Monday-through-Friday, and while the reporting often is good, there's very little "special" about it. "Off-the-record" is a sacred journalism ethic that means what a source says can't be published or broadcast. Yet, Fox News' Greta Van Susteren's show includes a nightly commentary section, where she wants you to know what she thinks, but it's inaccurately called "Off-the-Record" . . . And while we're talking Fox, Sunday show host Chris Wallace's egoism in having his NFL guests autograph a football on-camera while Wallace boasted that it was for his family showed just how out of touch Wallace is with his audience, most of whom can't afford Super Bowl tickets or don't have special access to get such autographs. It's not about YOU, Chris, it's about the NEWS!  Where are the standards? . . . NBC cheerleaded for China at the Summer Olympics four yeas ago, so no reason for surprise it comes right out of the gate at Sochi casting Russa and President Putin in a glowing light . . . Whatever revenue CVS will lose by discontinuing tobacco sales has been regained multiple times in free publicity and goodwill.

[ more next Monday . . . ]