Takin' care of business, NASCAR-style
CONCORD, N.C. -- Imagine you're a Sprint Cup driver and want to send a message to a fellow competitor but are afraid of being slapped with a huge point and/or financial penalty. Now imagine the governing body is going to turn its head to some degree and maybe penalize you only a lap.
Whom would you go after?
"There's a couple of guys I'd like to punch," Ryan Newman said on Monday, the first day of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour.
"Who?" shouted one reporter.
"Who?" bellowed another.
"Who, who?" asked yet another.
"We have a couple of owls here," he said as he looked around with a big smile. "I mean, there are guys I'd like to punch at different times throughout the year, but a lot of guys would. There are probably a few guys that would like to punch me."
And now maybe they can.
NASCAR plans to be a kinder, gentler governing body this season and let the drivers police the garage more, as they did in 1979 when Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers introduced the sport to the world outside the Deep South with a donnybrook after the Daytona 500.
Officials plan to be more lenient when it comes to on-the-track issues without letting things get out of control.
They aren't, as the word was a few years ago, ramping things up.
In other words, they are giving the fans what they want.
"That would be good for the sport," Newman said. "I've seen [Matt] Kenseth and [Kevin] Harvick go at it. I've seen Robby Gordon and a lot of people go at it. Jimmy Spencer-Kurt Busch. All of those things have had a positive effect, going clear back to Bobby and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough.
"That's been a part, a very staple part, of NASCAR. Taking those things away is not good. Taking away that physical relationship that the drivers have with each other, good or bad, is not necessarily ideal."
Drivers lost that relationship gradually. It started with NASCAR and team owners not wanting to present a product that might embarrass the sponsors. It became so corporate that it became vanilla.
But with sagging television ratings and constant complaints from fans and many drivers, officials are ready to go back to the future.
That doesn't mean we'll have drivers intentionally taking each other out weekly as we saw with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway or with Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya in the Homestead Cup race.
The last thing a driver wants is for a bad finish to cost him a shot to make the Chase or, even worse, win the championship.
But we should see more aggression, maybe even some popping off at the mouth, that will provide much-needed energy.
Hamlin deserves much of the credit for opening NASCAR's eyes. Officials couldn't help but see how fans responded to his threats to take Keselowski out after several run-ins before Homestead.
They certainly couldn't help but notice the excitement generated when Hamlin followed through.
"When we had our meeting with [NASCAR] about the whole rules changes they said, 'Any other year we would have parked you at Homestead, but we said we were going to loosen some reins, and that's what we did. Let y'all handle it on the racetrack. We don't need to be involved in every aspect of the race,'" Hamlin said during the second stop of the media tour at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
That was a statement. First by Hamlin. Then by NASCAR.
"Instead of just parking Denny for the rest of that race, they gave him a one-lap penalty," said Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. "At least they're punishing us somewhat for being idiots, per se. But they still allow us to be idiots sometimes.
"We are going 200 mph heading at a concrete wall, so we have issues already. When you put 43 of us out there together, it becomes complicated."
But it doesn't have to be so complicated that it stops being fun, that it forces the drivers to be somebody they're not.
Crashes and controversy are to NASCAR like what big hits are to the NFL. You don't want to see anybody hurt, but you certainly want to see them.
"If the fans feel like the sanctioning body, whether it's the NFL or anybody else, has their hands over it too much and [is] taking things away from the competitors, that's what upsets the fans," Stewart said.
NASCAR finally gets it. You'll hear all week about all the changes, from replacing the rear wing with a spoiler to make the car handle better to allowing bump-drafting and maybe doing away with the yellow line at restrictor-plate tracks to let the drivers play a bigger role in deciding the outcome.
You'll hear it because the fans screamed. Loudly.
"It's not about going out and just banging on each other," Stewart said. "The yellow-line rules in particular -- it's just one more variable we have to worry about that isn't about us passing each other. It's something that just took away from what we were doing."
NASCAR lost a lot of that the day Dale Earnhardt died in 2001. Officials began clamping down for the sake of safety to the point of suffocating the competition.
Had Earnhardt been alive, he would have walked into the NASCAR hauler and demanded that the league loosen its grip, but the competitors lost that voice and to a degree what power they had.
Now NASCAR is giving it back. Officials spent the offseason talking to drivers, owners and fans about ways to improve. More importantly, they listened and are acting on suggestions, as we'll officially hear Thursday.
"We're not getting more control," Newman said. "We're just getting back what we had, which is important."
That doesn't mean the drivers plan to go crazy. If they start running over each other for the sake of entertainment, we'll be back where we were faster than you can say "Mike Helton."
"The drivers need to police it and be smart about it," Busch said. "You don't want to just go out there and crash everybody every week. But if Keselowski is doing all the crashing, then obviously we're going to start taking care of him."
That's the way. Throw down the gauntlet now.
And have fun with it the way Hamlin did.
"It was comical to me because you hear it from both sides," Hamlin said. "You hear it from Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., Brad fans. You hear it from our side. Then it starts a debate. That's what's good for the sport. As you get a little conversation between fans, it's really good. Obviously, the TV ate it up.
"I had a little fun with it. I can't lie there."
So imagine you're a driver and there's a competitor you feel the need to send a strong message to. Imagine you won't be parked or heavily fined.
Whom would you go after?
Now maybe you can.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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