Commentary

NASCAR media tour revealed plenty

Updated: January 24, 2010, 5:01 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- The NASCAR media tour is a winding circus of scribes that packs aboard a trio of Greyhound buses and meanders hither and yon from race shop to race shop in search of the latest news and information, a virtual buffet to serve the speed-starved NASCAR fan base.

If you need driver access, you get it here. All of them. And they have time to chat.

[+] EnlargeTalladega
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtNASCAR says it will be more tolerant of aggressive driving at restrictor-plate tracks, Talladega included.

Hence, plenty was revealed this week, such as …

• Brad Keselowski mailed a "Peace on Earth" Christmas card offering to nemesis Denny Hamlin. How thoughtful. Could've just sent a Tweet, saved some postage.

• In the name of piston preservation, it is best to chauffeur Carl Edwards. During media ride-alongs on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, Cuz blew up one of the boss man's Mustang motors. Big. Edwards didn't look thrilled, but he also wasted little time manning another Mustang. Wonder if he'll have to pay for it?

• Juan Pablo and Connie Montoya are expecting their third child -- prompting euphoria in Montoya's native Columbia and leading thousands to question what's in the water in NASCAR. (The wives of Edwards, Elliott Sadler and Jimmie Johnson also are expecting.)

• Jeff Gordon kissed a seal on vacation. On purpose. On camera. Rick Hendrick has photographs of the escapade, with which to blackmail Gordon for decades to come. That's a man who's become too accustomed to paparazzi.

(Speaking of Hendrick, we were reminded this week of his grace, and in stark fashion. He sent his personal planes to Haiti to assist in the relief effort. The man is amazing. Truly.)

• ExtenZe male-enhancement pills can be utilized as centerpieces, while flanked by sleeping pills, while served with chicken breast. Weird.

ExtenZe centerpieces notwithstanding, five things stood out above all others, key points that will shape the 2010 NASCAR season:

1. NASCAR's decision to promote John Darby and hire a new Sprint Cup director.

Fans may not know much about Darby, so let's pare it down to the basics -- what he did in the Cup series for the past eight seasons is remarkable. Darby, who was bumped up from Busch Series director to the Cup level in 2002, was respected garagewide for his staunch belief in, and backing of, the NASCAR rule book, while at the same time maintaining excellent relationships with competitors.

That ain't easy.

The line is finer than Jennifer Love Hewitt.

And the person who succeeds him will find that out quickly.

"It goes both ways," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "There's enough support group, obviously with John in the position he's in now, and then Robin [Pemberton] and all the other talent in [the R&D Center] helps whatever new series director we find to progress quicker.

"But I'd also tell you the search for, and the expectations for, the next series director is elevated, too, because John's raised it to a level that's been significant."

NASCAR chairman Brian France says it is likely the most difficult position in the industry. Helton concurs. And it's only getting tougher.

"Technology today is so incredible compared to 15 or 20 years ago, [as is] trying to regulate the sport correctly and keep it on a fair playing field," Helton said. "That factors into maybe a different type of person. But the support group that exists helps the new director to progress a lot quicker, and probably pads him a little bit in the bumps that come with it."

Darby will maintain the Cup director post until his successor is both found and fully trained.

His best piece of advice?

Treat everyone the same.

2. Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick are, indeed, prime for the pickin'.

Kahne and Harvick will be the most-coveted free agents after the 2010 season, and each will answer incessant questions about his future until he decides -- and announces -- where that future lies.

Harvick
Harvick
Kahne
Kahne

Both were grilled about it during the media tour, and both said it comes down to one thing: performance.

Now, you may say, "Hey, we already knew that."

We knew of it, and this week only served to bolster the general consensus that neither plans to remain with his current team.

Granted, if they go out and win early and often, there's a chance. Both are marquee talents on the track and for sponsors so, naturally, team executives Foster Gillett (Kahne) and Richard Childress (Harvick) consider it paramount to keep their respective wheelmen in-house.

"Obviously, Kasey is the top priority," Gillett said. "Anybody who knows him knows what a gentleman he is and a great racer. He overachieved with what we had to offer last year. It is my intent to try and keep Kasey. Usually you have good years in free-agent years."

So what needs to happen to ensure Kahne stays?

"I don't speak for Kasey," he said. "We need to race well."

Well … all right then.

As for Harvick, his cars got faster and he got happier toward the end of last year. But he told me in an interview for "NASCAR Countdown" that sometimes it's not about that. Sometimes it's just time for a new chapter.

Childress said this week the door is always open.

Wonder if Harvick will stroll through it.

3. Denny Hamlin is giddy over the role of favorite.

Hamlin's performance in the 2009 Chase means many are anointing him the 2010 recipient of the "Who's Gonna Whoop Jimmie Johnson?" award. He loves it.

"You just have to feel that you're better than [Johnson]. I feel like I'm as good as he is," Hamlin said. "I think I could be better in a lot of different areas to get equal to him, but I think I'm 90 percent of what Jimmie is right now, and I think just a few little areas here and there, not letting things get in my head too much."

Hamlin
Hamlin

Some of those areas are mental. Don't turn nominal setbacks into Chernobyl.

Hamlin says he's more confident than ever and feels primed to make a run at dethroning the 48. He's not much concerned with the first 26 weeks. Just the final 10.

That, of course, is what Johnson and Chad Knaus have down to a science.

Pressure?

"Not any more than I put on myself," Hamlin said this week. "To me, every year, you go in and say -- last year the quote was, 'I didn't want to be a contender any more, I wanted to be a champion.' I was sick of having expectations with no results to back it up.

"I think we did that last year, we just didn't have the reliability to win the championship. That's the bottom line -- we just didn't have the parts and pieces right. I think we know how to win a championship and now it's just going to be executing it."

Yep, I'd say that's confident.

(Remember: We all felt the same way about Edwards this time last year.)

4. Buckle up, boys.

Last fall at Talladega, NASCAR told its driving corps that it wanted to see light between the bumpers of the cars in the corners, i.e., no bump-drafting, and don't go getting overaggressive on us or the only racing you'll be doing is to the airport.

Not anymore.

This week NASCAR made it clear it's going to be more tolerant of aggressive racing at restrictor-plate tracks. Bump-drafting is again acceptable, within reason.

Why the about-face?

"It's letting the guys have back more control of the race itself, where we may have squeezed it down at the restrictor-plate races," Helton said. "We reacted a lot to the things we'd seen, a progression, which is not uncommon. We see something, we react, and if it takes care of itself, we back off.

"Right now, we're saying, 'All right, if what we did in Talladega left you with the impression it left you with, how about we give it back to you, and you all decide how to handle that on the racetrack? And we'll worry about something else.'"

And that's not all.

Helton said NASCAR also is encouraging drivers to be more vocal, to let the personality flow.

Now you're talking, Mike.

Like I said last month, we need some badasses out there talkin' what they're walkin', and the sponsors, owners and sanctioning body need to let it ride.

5. NASCAR is peaches.

To listen to the team owners, drivers and industry executives this week -- all of them -- the sport not only isn't as bad as it seems, it's a hell of a lot better.

I mean, even Geoff Smith -- the Roush Fenway Racing president who is a walking industry checks-and-balances system, never afraid to criticize NASCAR for what he deems an injustice -- instead criticized those who are criticizing the state of the sport.

And he backed it up with a bunch of fancy numbers, too.

It is readily obvious, 2010 is a unified effort to ensure the health of the sport.

And that, to me, is a wonderful thing.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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