NASCAR gives drivers the green light

1/22/2010 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- The late Dale Earnhardt would have loved it.

Had "The Intimidator" been available, he would have made the perfect pitch man for NASCAR's new initiative.

Earnhardt could have strolled up on stage in his wide-eye sunglasses, turned to the audience, given that trademark smirk of his and said:

"Rules? We don't need no stinkin' rules."

Message delivered, loud and proud.

The actual announcement from NASCAR officials Thursday wasn't quite so dramatic, but it was crystal clear.

"We are putting things back in the drivers' hands," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "We're going to open it up. We want to see what you want to see. We want to see drivers mixing it up.

"This is a contact sport and you're going to see more contact. It's going to make very good racing even better."

Let the boys be boys, or girls go wild (racing-style) in Danica Patrick's case.

NASCAR is loosening the reins on its drivers for the 2010 season, not that it comes as a surprise. If there's one thing NASCAR isn't good at it's keeping a secret.

In this case, it's a good thing, probably a deliberate thing. With the news leaking out earlier, it gave reporters on the annual media tour a chance to ask drivers and team owners how they felt about NASCAR's kinder and gentler approach.

The consensus is overwhelming approval, especially for the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega. And it starts with the season-opening Daytona 500.

Bump-drafting rules? Gone.

"Our regulations on [bump drafting] will be totally eliminated," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "Boys, have at it and have a good time. That's all I can say."

The restrictor plates will have the biggest opening in over 20 years, giving the engines more power, the cars more speed and the drivers more throttle response.

Drivers have begged to see this for years. And NASCAR is listening to what fans want, also.

The ugly rear wing? Outta here. By late March it's gone for good at all tracks. The spoiler returns for a retro look, and with a little luck, improved racing.

But the key point is the headline of the day, courtesy of NASCAR: "Back to Basics Racing."

"Obviously, the racing is going to get more exciting," said John Darby, the outgoing Cup series director. "Drivers will now be in a situation where they'll be their own governing body and police each other."

Sounds like the inmates get to run the asylum, something most NASCAR fans love.

"It doesn't mean these guys have a get-out-of-jail-free card," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "But there's an old saying in NASCAR: 'If you ain't rubbin', you ain't racin'.' I think that's what the NASCAR fans bought into and what they expect.

"Our role is to deliver that correctly while maintaining law and order. But we are the last people that want to over-regulate the sport."

Obviously, the racing is going to get more exciting. Drivers will now be in a situation where they'll be their own governing body and police each other.

-- NASCAR's John Darby

It looked quite the contrary at Talladega last November when strict bump-drafting rules made for a no-touch parade at times.

No doubt the outcry for that day helped lead to this day, a new approach to give the drivers what they want and the fans what they need.

It won't be a free-for-all, but it will be old school. Yarborough, Pearson and Petty would fit right in.

For those old enough to remember, there is a possible downside. Relaxing the rules means more danger. But NASCAR officials believe the dramatic increase in safety makes it worth the risk.

"This car is much safer than five or six years ago," Helton said. "And the racetracks also are much safer."

The real goal of this plan is to revitalize NASCAR and bring back those fans that stayed away from the races last year for various reasons.

The economy played a big part, but not the only part. Some fans wanted to see changes to the on-track product.

Most people involved in the sport believe NASCAR is making good moves, but Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith thinks more needs to be done.

He believes the changes will have a positive impact, but Smith is starting to have doubts about the Chase.

"I'm not as sold on the Chase races," Smith said Thursday. "I think maybe we've overused it and ought to move on to something else.

"We need to put winning back where it ought to be. Get all this points racing out of the way. Stop talking about it and stop writing about it. We didn't start the sport based on points. Let's take half the points fund and put it on the purse."

Felix Sabates, a co-owner at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, thinks a little Dale Earnhardt Jr. success would go a long way to solving some problems.

"Dale Junior's lack of winning the last two years has really hurt the sport overall," Sabates said. "I hope he wins a bunch of races this year because it will bring out fans and be good for everybody."

Even France agrees with that assessment.

"He is the Lakers or the Celtics for us," France said of Junior. "He is the major franchise. If he gets back to a high level it will help NASCAR. There's no question about it."

Maybe NASCAR's new level of race-day tolerance will help Junior, as well.

His dad sure would have loved it.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.