Owners, drivers see some need for fixes
CONCORD, N.C. -- I'm tired, frustrated and wet. Spending three hours in a car late Sunday night for a normally 20-minute drive because traffic flow at Lowe's Motor Speedway wasn't controlled properly and enduring another long, wet day on Monday will leave you that way.
But while sitting in traffic on Sunday, seething that it took an hour and 45 minutes to get from the infield parking lot to the track exit, I couldn't help but notice the thousands of fans in the campgrounds.
The same ones that stood by the wire fence adorned with beer cans and signs that said "Honk for 88" and "Toyota Sucks" earlier that day remained. They were even having a good time, too.
It struck me then that NASCAR fans have to be among the most loyal of any sport. Sure attendance and television ratings are down. They are in every sport.
But more than 150,000 were crammed into LMS for the 50th running of the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday and many of them returned on Monday despite the forecast for more bad weather -- which there was a lot of -- and a host of complaints about what is wrong with the sport.
They are a big reason why NASCAR has called Tuesday's mandatory meeting for drivers and management at the Research and Development Center a stone's throw from this 1.5-mile facility.
The governing body knows for the sport to survive these tough economic times something has to be done to improve competition and grow interest.
Nothing against David Reutimann of Michael Waltrip Racing. But his rain-shortened victory that included four stoppages -- three for rain and one for a moment of silence on this damp Memorial Day -- that lasted more than three hours didn't do that.
So how will NASCAR recapture the magic that brought it to national prominence? Preventing sleepers -- as the 600 was in between sprinkles -- is a good place to start.
Kyle Busch had a lead of almost 2½ seconds when NASCAR called a competition yellow on Lap 40. He was 1½ seconds ahead when the first shower came on Lap 70.
He led 173 of 227 laps and would have won had crew chief Steve Addington not overruled the driver and pitted before the final rain ended the 24 hours of Charlotte.
That's what has happened when the new car gets out front.
Fixing the car is the place to start.
Unfortunately, this meeting won't be about that. NASCAR officials have no plans to change the car, arguing that will create setbacks and that the racing has improved.
But drivers and management who will attend the meeting said they believe that's where the most change is needed.
"We've got to look all the way back to when it was created," said Robbie Loomis, the vice president for racing operations at Richard Petty Motorsports. "The car was created for safety. In between that somewhere we probably lost a little bit of the competition."
Much of the blame goes to the tire that wasn't designed in conjunction with the heavier car. It has left Goodyear scrambling to develop compounds that may avoid blowouts but have enough wear to create competitive racing.
"The tires are an issue," said Ty Norris, the general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing. "Nobody is going to hide from that fact."
Loomis would like more room to make adjustments, something the tight rules have taken away from teams. He said he believes that would help the tire issue as well.
"I personally would like to go back to offsetting the cars, allow new rear-end housings and things that will create more suspension travel," Loomis said.
Aerodynamics is a huge problem. As we saw on Monday and in past races, the car out front in clean air has a tremendous advantage and those in the back have handling problems. Some are severe.
"I just can't get mine to handle well overall," fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards said during the first rain delay. "It's not just one thing."
NASCAR has heard all this before. But instead of considering changes to the car it is considering changes to the rules.
Double-file restarts among the leaders are an option. It created an exciting final 10 laps in the All-Star Race and fans seem to like it. Many owners and drivers are behind the move.
"We need double-file starting," said Felix Sabates, the minority owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "They need to take that wing and do something with it, too. Take it off altogether and let the real men drive. We don't want to do those cars over again, but there's got to be some way to fix those cars."
Norris also is in favor of double-file restarts that would put lapped cars behind the leaders instead of on the inside lane out front with the leaders.
"I'd start them next week at Dover," he said.
Team owner Jack Roush said he likes that idea and has a few thoughts on how to make the Chase more exciting, but chose not to share them. He is sending general manager Robbie Reiser to discuss ways to improve the cars even if NASCAR doesn't want to hear them.
"The cars are safe and the tracks are safe, but there may be a way to create more fan interest and more viewership interest on TV," Roush said.
The big concern outside of competition is the economy. All 43 cars had sponsors for the 600, but that hasn't been the case all season. Scott Riggs said he is stepping down as the driver at Tommy Baldwin Racing because he is concerned there won't be enough money to finish the season.
Others are in the same position, and many of the big organizations are fighting to keep sponsors.
"The economy is screwed up," Sabates said. "The sponsors are going away and the money is drying up. It's pretty sad, not only for this sport but everybody in professional sports. We've got to figure out a way to cut our expenses."
Sabates suggested cutting driver salaries, which he said have grown rapidly the past five years.
"You can't give the driver 70 percent of the sponsorship dollar and expect to stay in business," he said.
Many support going from a three- and four-day weekend to a two-day show to reduce total costs. Some suggested having two-day shows with all Saturday night Cup races, although not all tracks have lights.
The cars are safe and the tracks are safe, but there may be a way to create more fan interest and more viewership interest on TV.” -- Jack Roush
"NASCAR might support that, but track operators [who say they need the money from the extra day] won't," Sabates said with a laugh.
Ryan Newman, who finished second on Monday, is anxious to see how receptive NASCAR is.
"There's things with the race cars that we've talked about," he said. "Obviously, there are issues outside the car that have been talked about. I'm not sure if it'll be 45 minutes of 'listen and walk out' or if it's going to be 45 minutes of questions.
"We've been put in a room before and talked to. It's interesting and nice to see [if] we'll have a chance to talk, a two-way street so to speak."
Robby Gordon, who finished third because like the top five finishers he gambled and did not pit before the final rain, isn't sure there's one thing that can fix the sport.
"Negative breeds negative," he said. "It's not just about the race car or about this. It's about positive thinking. Unfortunately, every time you turn on the news today and read the newspaper, it's negative."
Max Jones, the co-owner of Yates Racing, supports many of the ideas above. He's more interested in hearing NASCAR's suggestions.
"They've obviously been doing it a lot longer than I have at this level," Jones said. "They have a monumental task sometimes to keep this going as fast and hard as it has been for the last 50 years."
Most agree the meeting is a good thing and comes at a good time. Some hope a portion of the meeting will help answer any remaining questions about the drug policy that has been scrutinized since Jeremy Mayfield became the first Cup driver suspended for violating it.
Some believe that is the main purpose of the meeting.
But the main purpose should be to improve the sport for its fans, the same ones who happily made it through two wet days while the rest of us complained.
"There are a lot of people sitting in the rain right now," Jones said before the race was called. "The sport has enjoyed a lot of days when everything was going good. We're not in that right now, but it's not broken at all."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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