Commentary

Welcome back to a sunnier NASCAR day

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Here comes the sun, du dn du du
-- George Harrison of the Beatles

Welcome back.

It's been a long cold lonely winter

Longer than just these past few months, in NASCAR.

It seems like years …

And it really has been, in NASCAR.

The gloom set in after the autumn of 2008, when the stock markets crashed and the effects cascaded down through the most money-dependent of sports.

Teams folded, teams merged, teams clung to financial life rafts, 10 percent of the work force was laid off, other workers went unpaid … that left only a handful of rich teams to compete, and you the fan base grew restive, discontent.

Here comes the sun

It came out on Richard Petty's face, that famous grin beaming through again, on a bleak and drizzly day back in January.

The near collapse of Richard Petty Motorsports last fall was in a way the coldest, darkest moment for NASCAR. If the King went under, that would amount to disembowelment of NASCAR's very spirit.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
AP Photo/Eric JamisonThings are definitely looking brighter for Richard Petty and his team.

If you doubt that, listen to how concerned all the other teams were.

"All the teams," Petty reiterated. "They'd come and say, 'Is there anything we can do to help you?' This was start and parks all the way to Hendrick, Roush, whatever. Everybody said, 'What can we do?'"

They helped keep the King afloat until he could find new financial backing. He found it with Andrew Murstein, CEO of New York-based Medallion Financial, who will leave Petty in charge of the racing.

Here comes the sun

"Before, I was on the outside looking in," Petty said of the failed partnership with sports financier George Gillett, who almost took RPM under. Now, "I can fire, hire, whatever. I've got complete control of the racing part of it."

Murstein will worry about paying the bills and adding sponsors.

If Richard Petty Motorsports can rise from the abyss, the sun is breaking through on NASCAR.

And I say

It's all right

No, no, no, I'm not going by NASCAR chairman Brian France's remarks during the media tour that "Enthusiasm is up" and "Energy levels are up."

He always says stuff like that. I'm talking about the pulse of the garages and shops, and the brightening skies about money.

All across the media tour, we heard teams announce renewals of contracts with existing sponsors, and additions of new ones.

Joe Gibbs said two major sponsors had re-upped with his team "because, they tell us, 'This works,'" as a marketing strategy.

We saw promise of variety in winners. This year, beware the two-car teams.

Petty on the surface fields Fords for AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, but "we're also working with a four-car team from Roush," Petty said of the Ford team collaboration, "and the Wood boys are coming into the fold. So I look at it as a seven-car team."

The supposedly two-car Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya) is part of a six-car team where it counts: under the hood. McMurray won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 last year mainly because EGR gets Chevrolet engines from the Earnhardt Childress engine co-op with Richard Childress Racing.

McMurray, said Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards, "could win 10 races and dominate this thing."

Then again, Ford's FR9 engine has finally come to full fruition, Roush's chassis issues have been resolved, so that Jack Roush himself feels "the best about this season that I have for any year that I've been racing in the last 22 years" that he has fielded NASCAR teams.

Roush, especially with Edwards, threatens to make a run at the five-year reign of Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson as champion.

At RCR, Childress himself has all but guaranteed to "kick Jimmie off that throne," and even when he parsed words he didn't back off: "I didn't guarantee it. I just said we were gonna do it."

So if your own "long cold lonely winter" has lasted five years, check the eastern horizon this morning …

Soon the sun will shine into fascinating blackness, the new $20 million surface of Daytona International Speedway, which by consensus of opinion will make for the scramblingest Daytona 500 in recent memory.

"The handling aspect we're used to having at Daytona, the tire wear issues and concerns, they're all gone," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is nearly always a factor at Daytona even when he's slumping elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeClint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Richard Childress and Kevin Harvick
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonClint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Richard Childress and Kevin Harvick may just have the plan to take the title away from Jimmie Johnson.

And Earnhardt has a new crew chief, Steve Letarte, in from Jeff Gordon's branch in the Hendrick Motorsports swap. Letarte is bent on smoothing out Earnhardt's emotional roller coaster, and has the bright and booming personality to do it.

Ease Earnhardt's frustration, stop him from pressing too hard, and you might just start him winning again. Letarte is a bunch better than Dr. Phil at this sort of thing.

NASCAR tried to make a splash by "simplifying" the point system, but it looks to me like much ado about very little. Yes, after second place come one-point increments to replace the old five-, four- and three-point drop-offs. But up top, the reward for winning remains relatively the same -- not enough.

But here comes the sun on the Chase: Winners who don't keep up in points will have a safety net for making the playoffs. The last two of the 12 berths will go to drivers outside the top 10 who have the most wins, as long as they're in the top 20 in points.

Chip Ganassi himself cracked that it's "The Ganassi Rule" because McMurray won the top two Cup races last year and didn't make the Chase. But going by the year before that, it could be called the "Kyle Busch Rule," for in 2009 he won four races but didn't make the playoffs.

There's one change to the cars you could call lipstick on a pig if you wish. But covering up the jury-rigged-looking splitter will turn out to be a huge cosmetic lift for the public.

What with the ugly wings scrapped last year, and the noses looking normal again this year, I suspect the public's nagging sense of annoyance at the appearance of shade-tree mechanics will ease significantly.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

The cars look less obnoxious, and that alone is enough to brighten the attitudes of fandom.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Roush Fenway is back strong, RCR is strong and gaining, Joe Gibbs Racing will continue to challenge for the title, and so Johnson's vise grip on the Sprint Cup standings could be loosened if not broken.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Daytona will be a whole new game with the new surface. What could happen in the 500? Look at it this way: the last time the race was run on new pavement, in 1979, it ended in The Fight, between Cale Yarborough and the Brothers Allison, Bobby and Donnie.

And little noted nor long remembered was that a rookie named Dale Earnhardt ran up near the front most of the race, and would have been in the mix at the end, had he not been too hard on fuel mileage and had to pit late for a splash.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Even after all the slam-banging of last season, nobody at NASCAR said this offseason, "Boys, do not have at it." So on the rowdiness goes.

The grandstands still won't be jam-packed, the ratings may remain in the doldrums for a while and Johnson still isn't going to punch anybody out to make you think he's colorful.

But all in all the financial gloom is lifting, broader competition is dawning and NASCAR's singular symbol, in cowboy hat and sunglasses, is still standing, grinning.

Welcome back.

Here comes the sun, du dn du du

Here comes the sun

It's all right

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.