- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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First, let me congratulate you on a fine season. Between Daytona and Homestead, you made history both good and bad and rolled with more than a few PR punches, still managing to come out on the other side.
Second, I know you have entered your postseason/pre-banquet hibernation period, so while you snooze, here's a little something to tape to the bedroom wall and look at occasionally between snores.
These are my 10 proposed changes the league should consider, chew on or throw out before we begin 2009, the 61st season of NASCAR racing.
1. Put Herb Tarlek to work for financially struggling teams
Yes, we know NASCAR teams are independent contractors and aren't franchises, and the league isn't in a position to create financial bailouts during these tough times. Brian France made that point abundantly clear at Phoenix.
But that doesn't mean you can't help them out in more indirect ways.
NASCAR has top-shelf sales teams assembled at its offices in Charlotte, New York, Daytona, Chicago and Los Angeles. When times were booming, those salespeople were actually competing with race teams for sponsorship dollars -- "Do you want to be on the hood of a car or The Official So-And-So of NASCAR?"
It's no secret that the league itself is in a perfectly bulletproof fiscal state, so why not dispatch those salespeople to assist lower level Cup Series teams, as well as Nationwide and Truck teams, in inking deals that will save their skins? Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs don't need help, but the teams trying to keep pace do.
2. Leave the Chase alone
Everyone has their theories about how to make the Chase more exciting, but the truth is, Jimmie Johnson's phenomenal success stunk up the show, not the points system. True, the Chase has had a hard time living up to its legendary first finale in 2004, but it still has given us somewhat tight points races compared to the beatdowns we had in the 10 years before it was introduced.
3. OK, you should change one part of the Chase
No one understood why the Chase field was expanded from 10 drivers to 12 drivers in the first place, and after trying it this year, it still makes no sense. Greg Biffle entered the Chase 11th, Matt Kenseth 12th. Biff made some noise in the Chase but was realistically out of contention with three races to go. Meanwhile, Kenseth finished 11th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended up 12th.
So, the biggest star in the sport still isn't going to New York.
Yeesh. Let's contract it back to the nice round number of 10, shall we?
4. Move Sunday start times back up
Making us all sit around and wait all day to start the race at Homestead was the perfect example of why the late-afternoon green flags don't work, especially in the fall.
By waiting until 4 p.m. ET to throw the green flag, you allowed sports fans to become fully involved in NFL games and reluctant to change the channel. That, or they got tired of listening to their kids beg to go to Chuck E. Cheese and finally gave in.
And don't give me this "we need to take care of the West Coast audience" stuff. Ratings haven't exactly skyrocketed since you shifted start times a few years back. Plus, there are enough night races now to keep all time zones happy. And don't tell me it's too late to tell tracks to change their start times for '09. I'm going to a college football game this Saturday, and the kickoff is still listed as TBA.
5. Minimize the domination of Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series
Hey, you and I both know it's good for Saturday business to have Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer on the track, but the fans we're trying to win over from other sports see it as Peyton Manning coming in and playing Arena Football. So why not create a separate points system for Nationwide regulars or limit the number of times a Cup guy can enter a Nationwide event? Let Carl and Clint do like Mark Martin used to -- win 10 races in a dozen starts, then get out of the way and let the up-and-comers battle for the title.
6. Let teams "test" on Fridays
The decision to ban all testing in '09 has been met with a round of applause from everyone except the crew chiefs at the top teams, who just lost their biggest edge over the competition. But there still is a way to let teams gather their precious data.
Since qualifying means basically nothing as it is, slide it to Saturday, and hold two big practice sessions Friday, allowing teams to use their data-gathering equipment (i.e., computers, which are banned on race weekend). That's all they really hold tests for anyway, so the engineers can gather data to bring back to the shop to run simulations. Now we can let them do that Friday and make sure all the digital goodies are removed Saturday morning for qualifying and the race.
7. Create a NASCAR test team
One of the biggest universal complaints about the current way of doing things is how Goodyear selects teams to participate in its behind-closed-doors tire tests. Typically, only the biggest teams are asked to run the tests, and those teams are quick to admit that it hands them a huge competitive advantage.
But Goodyear has to gather information to avoid fiascos like Indianapolis, right?
Why not create a NASCAR test team? Have the league build its new car (which it already does), employ a respected racer (paging Brett Bodine, who already is on the payroll) and employ engineers who can go out and gather data to be distributed to all the teams (there is a hallway full of them on staff at the Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.). Teams might not like the data they are handed, but at least no one can whine about fairness.
8. Hug the hybrid
It was a beautiful thing to see that Ford Hybrid pace car leading the field at Homestead. It will be even lovelier to see a field full of hybrids on the track one day down the road. Yes, I know that can't be done in 2009, but why not be proactive and announce a formal step-by-step plan for implementing hybrid technology at the racetrack?
Yes, I know it's not as sexy as a '65 Chevy small block, but Bill France Sr. always said the cars on the track should reflect the cars on the road and like it or not, hybrid is where we all are headed. At least until we figure out how to make these things run on tap water.
9. Leave Martinsville alone
Poor Clay Campbell.
All the Martinsville Speedway president does is add more amenities and sell out his races, and yet, twice a year, he has to spend all his time answering questions about what he's going to do once his track loses its races.
Let's take a lesson from the public relations disasters of abandoning Darlington on Labor Day, leaving North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, and clumsily introducing the Car of Tomorrow. Sometimes change is necessary, and sometimes it is not.
Do we really need to leave NASCAR's last original track because the salespeople say they can't wine-and-dine clients there like they do in Vegas and Los Angeles? Did they close Fenway Park because it was too old, or did they adapt and embrace?
10. Please don't kill poor Joey
We know Joey Logano is going to be great. You know he's going to be great. But please give the kid some breathing room and let him get his sea legs before you have him making cameos in the next Queen Latifah movie or making small talk about raisin bread and red states with the ladies on "The View."
You have to grow these things slowly. You, NASCAR, before anyone else, certainly should understand that.
Thanks for your consideration of all of the above, and I'll see you in New York for Champions Week. If you need me, I'll be in the lobby bar of the Times Square W, sipping an adult beverage and waiting on the Chase cars to drive by during their victory lap. By then, I should have enough liquid courage in me to give you my next 10 suggestions -- from a drug policy with real bite to naming Humpy Wheeler to the newly created post of commissioner of NASCAR.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.
NASCAR rolled with the punches, and in true NASCAR fashion, it got up off the mat and landed a haymaker. As bulletproof as the league might appear, it can still strengthen its armor -- if it listens to Ryan McGee.