Uncertainty may equal excitement
The tougher times are, the better NASCAR gets. Hold on to your hats, folks, because 2009 promises to be a doozy.
There is a swirling sense of urgency and suspense about going to Daytona that hasn't been this palpable in many years.
"Anybody who says they're not nervous about the start of this season is lying," says the driver who best articulates the pulse of NASCAR, Jeff Burton. "Or they're just arrogant. One of the two."
Fifty miles north of Cape Canaveral, there'll be a hard landing from way up high.
NASCAR is coming back to earth.
It's been too far out, far too long. Now the crashed economy has knocked some sense back into it.
"We were on such a rocket ride there for a while," says team owner Rick Hendrick, "that people just kept paying more money and more money. It was like there was no tomorrow.
"But now we've seen tomorrow."
The morrow looks tempestuous, the waters uncharted.
And therein lies the thrill.
Teams have foundered. More may follow. Survival is the order of the day. Upstart teams financed with dreams rush headlong into the vacuum of the hard times, scavenging equipment and out-of-work personnel, seeking new fortunes.
There is a Wild West feel to it all. The Marshall Tucker Band plays in the back of my mind, apropos of the last era when NASCAR times were this bad/this good.
And there's fire on the mountain
Lightning in the air
Gold in them hills and it's waitin' for me there.
Welcome back to NASCAR as it was meant to be -- the NASCAR the public fell in love with in the first place.
Not enough people have been around long enough to remember this: The tougher times are, the better NASCAR gets.
Stock car racing was born of the Great Depression, and NASCAR was organized amid the economic downturns following World War II.
And always, the more unknowns, the more charged the atmosphere around the garages.
Without offseason testing, the suspense over who'll come out on top, when, for how long -- and who might suddenly fade -- will linger, maybe grow, well after the Daytona 500.
So the plot should thicken as the season progresses.
The test ban "could affect the latter part of the season even more than the early part," Burton says. "Right now you can kind of race on what you did at the end of last year. But if you're still racing in May on what you did the end of last year, you're in big trouble."
Things won't be totally unrecognizable for new-era fans. The rivalry between Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards remains at crescendo from the end of last season. They finished 1-2 in the standings, and they start 1-2 as preseason favorites -- though with Edwards on top of most polls, which has Johnson a little baffled, since he'll be going for an unprecedented fourth straight Cup.
And "Wild Thing," Kyle Busch, lurks after a disastrous autumn, promising to stir things up again at the very least.
The top 20 cars are still solidly financed, so the fan who can still afford a ticket, and the laid-off fan who must stay home and watch on TV, won't notice any difference at the front of the pack.
Up there, "I think it's going to be as competitive as it's ever been," says Kevin Harvick. But, "I think there'll be some stuff mixed up in the back half of the field, with the new teams and the old teams."
That's where things get interesting -- and whence self-reliance and grit emerge and move forward.
"I do think it's going to get back to the die-hards who really want to do it," Hendrick says. "I think you'll see some people running out-of-pocket because they want to race."
"Everybody who's ever dragged a race car to a track knows you don't do it for money," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., a man who came out of the most famously hardscrabble lineage in the game.
For all the offseason gloom-and-doom reports of teams' folding or merging, "We've had 15 new teams in the various national divisions [Cup, Nationwide and Trucks] come through the R&D center to get registered and certified," says NASCAR chairman Brian France.
"While [times are] difficult," France acknowledges, "we're starting to get some interest from some new team owners who thought the mountain was too high to climb at one point."
The lower entry threshold "is going to bring in some new owners," says Harvick. "It's an opportunity to get your Cup team started and try to make it work."
From these freer, livelier, more desperate entries may come the next Coo Coo Marlin, the next Hoss Ellington -- the next rugged individualist who is out to race, finances be damned. Maybe there is even the next Richard Childress, the very embodiment of what NASCAR used to be, the common man who starts with nothing but guts and determination.
With triumph in ordeal as the very soul of its appeal, NASCAR never could stand more than moderate success. As it hurtled headlong uptown, to the big markets and the giga-bucks these past 12 or 14 years, it grew so fat, so self-certain, so arrogant that it ran away and left its core fans angered and embittered, and the eyes of its new fans glazing over.
Now NASCAR is turning around, looking for something it finally realizes it dropped along the way in its hurry: the common folk.
The common folk in the grandstands, and the common folk in the garages.
"With a lot of the cutbacks, without the testing, it's giving us extra time to get back more to the fans," says Jeff Gordon, once the epitome of NASCAR's elite, who has parked his private jet and has been flying commercial lately. "And I don't see why we shouldn't. They're the ones who built this sport up to what it is.
"And we all appreciate them very much."
That may come as a news flash to legions who felt left behind, priced out, forgotten.
Ticket prices are tumbling down. Not only is the Feb. 15 Daytona 500 not sold out, but backstretch grandstand seat prices have been cut almost in half, from $99 to $55. Company-wide, International Speedway Corp.'s 12 tracks have permanently lowered the prices of more than 150,000 seats, the cheapest ticket being $25 at Phoenix.
Even Bristol Motor Speedway, whose August night race has for decades boasted the toughest ticket in NASCAR -- and one of the toughest in all of sports -- is running special promotions.
Hotels and motels are loosening their vise-grip gouging on rates, which, believe it or not, hurt teams as badly or worse than they hurt fans.
"Historically, hotels have charged our teams and the ticket holders two or three times what they'd charge for a normal, non-race-weekend stay," says team owner Jack Roush. Managers have also demanded "three- to five-day minimums, and that's been a real hardship.
"But we understand they're starting to get off some of that."
"Hotels are not going to have full houses," says Hendrick, "so they're going to have to have attractive rates."
In the garages there'll be harder work done by fewer people, but the precedent -- the deep recession of 1974 to 1976, the nearest thing NASCAR has seen to the current times -- says there'll be a more cheerful, defiant, can-do spirit.
Thirty-six years ago the storied Wood Brothers ran 18 races and won 11 of them with David Pearson as their driver, "and we did it with five people working on the cars," says team manager Len Wood.
Now, compared to other teams, "we think we're down to nothing," Wood continues, "but we've got 43 people."
And that's with the Woods cutting back to a 12-race schedule, a necessity they kind of like: "We're kind of going back to our roots," says Len. Bill Elliott, their driver, knows how to work on the chassis himself if necessary. And, says Wood, "I'm looking for a fabricator who can change tires, a jack man who can change a transmission, things like that."
There'll be fewer waves of private aircraft on Sunday mornings bringing in dozens of ringer athletes to pit the cars. There'll be more guys who turn the socket wrenches on Fridays and Saturdays, then run the air wrenches on Sundays.
All told, what lies ahead is a simpler, poorer, leaner, maybe dearer, more exciting NASCAR -- replete with fans whose priorities are straighter.
"In the U.S., in the world in general," says Gordon, "we were all living a little bit too much in Fantasyland. Not everybody, but a lot of us.
"And I think this is going to get us back down to reality and give us a fresh start."
And so for the first time in a long time, February at Daytona is what it ought to be: a time of beginning again in NASCAR.
You can feel the urgency and the energy -- the fire on the mountain, the lightning in the air.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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