Commentary

NASCAR media tour: What we learned

Updated: January 31, 2011, 4:45 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After four long days and nearly 20 industry grip 'n' grins, we learned plenty on the NASCAR media tour. We learned that Tony Stewart eats more, weighs less and engages in a taxing daily workout regimen of remote-control curls and volume-button presses. We also learned that back in his Gibbs days, according to Coach Joe, Smoke juggled a trio of girlfriends simultaneously. Impressive. Wonder if it was those blondes in the Old Spice turkey leg commercial? Hmm …

We learned that Kurt Busch is dabbling in drag (racing) and that Brad K still thinks Kurt's brother is an ass. (I'm sure that'll keep Kyle up at night.) Incidentally, we also learned of a stellar prank Kurt played on little brother on Kyle's wedding day. On the bottom of Kyle's shoes Kurt wrote, "Help. Me." Classic.

We learned that Brian Vickers felt cheated in 2010 when he spent eight months on the shelf with blood clots. Quoting Dale Earnhardt, BV said, "He said being out of the car was like watching his wife cheat on him. Sitting on top of that box, I know exactly what he went through." That would smart.

[+] EnlargeStewart/Gibbs
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesTony Stewart, left, and Joe Gibbs took a stroll down memory lane Thursday during the NASCAR media tour.

We learned that the NASCAR baby boom isn't over at Roush Fenway. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are all expecting.

We learned an intriguing parallel between the ownership styles of Chip Ganassi and the Rooney family that owns his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers -- a humble, almost anonymous approach that employees appreciate. We learned that Richard Childress is confident entering 2011. In fact, he called his shot: "This year is the year to kick Jimmie [Johnson] off that throne. This is the year to do it. It's going to be RCR, I feel certain."

We learned that various media outlets vehemently disagree about coverage strategies, and if you're going to voice yours, pick your spots. It ain't all peaches in NASCAR. But it ain't all bad, either.

I remind myself every day that, despite its flaws, NASCAR racing gives a lot of people hope.

We learned that Dale Earnhardt Jr. questioned his will to compete in the days after his father died 10 years ago. We learned that Shane Hmiel is on the road to recovery and may yet wheel again. That is my prayer. He is a warrior.

Here are five key points from the 2011 media tour:

• 1. It's time for shorter races. Addressing the media Monday evening, Fox Sports chairman David Hill said long races mean less interest. He couldn't be more accurate. Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt both echoed that sentiment this week. Junior made the point that it's no simple alteration. You don't just up and shorten a season without massive political ramifications.

But to me, for the long-term success of the sport, shorter races may be pertinent. Shorter races would mean fiercer competition. Look at the Truck series. There's no time to ride. Get to the front now, because there is no later. So is NASCAR onboard? Have they investigated the possibility?

"We have," chairman Brian France said Wednesday night. "And you see we've done that over the last several years. I think you see with Atlanta being a 500-mile race, going to Kentucky, that's a 400-mile race. California going to Kansas, you're seeing that's a 400-mile race.

[+] EnlargeMark Martin
AP Photo/Mike McCarnMark Martin, who'll drive the 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports in 2011, says retirement won't be an option in 2012.

"So there will be alterations as we go down the road to shorten them up by a little bit. … But 100 miles changes a complexion of a race depending where you are, for sure. And we're going to continue to look at that."

• 2. Everything new is old. The new points structure NASCAR announced this week offers simpler math, so theoretically it will it be easier for fans to grasp. After hearing all the intricacies from France, that focus on simplicity seems to be the basis for its implementation.

Thing is, fundamentally it is very similar to the former system, just with smaller, more manageable numbers. That's fine. The issue is winning. After years of saying it wanted wins to carry greater emphasis in the quest for championships, NASCAR unveils a points structure that awards consistency. The top 10 in points make the show. That is achieved with consistency. After the points reset, the most consistent driver over the final 10 races will win the title.

That, then, is a consistency-based system. Here's a hypothetical for the sake of argument: Say Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick both win five races during the first 26 weeks. Then Johnson wins four Chase races and leads the most laps in every one of them but finishes 20th in six others without leading a lap. That's 336 points earned during the Chase. In those same 10 races, Kevin Harvick finishes fifth every weekend and doesn't lead a single lap during the entire Chase. That's 390 points. He dominates the Chase. Obviously it would be rare for JJ to finish so poorly so often. That's not the point. The point is it could happen.

Competitors are largely indifferent on the matter. They agree it will be easier to understand, but it won't change the competition any.

I do like the wild-card entrants. Here's why: The guys in 11th and 12th place in points entering the Chase are never a factor anyway, and a win-and-you're-in scenario over the final few races before the Chase could make for some fireworks. That's the one area wins carry more weight than they used to.

• 3. Money, money, money, money! Money! The economic climate is improving in NASCAR. Last year, the Charlotte media tour was a downer. Several teams, including Earnhardt Ganassi, Penske Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, announced new sponsors for 2011. Two of Ganassi's -- Widia and LiftMaster -- are new to the sport. Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said Wednesday that, during a three-week span recently, ticket sales are up 30 percent over the same three-week span last year.

Hendrick said, "I feel like we're coming back now. The automobile business is selling more cars. The economy feels better. I have to say that NASCAR has gone above and beyond to reach out and work with all the teams, the drivers and the crew chiefs and listen to the fans. I just feel better about our sport in general."

That requires more than just sponsors on hoods, Ganassi said. Teams and sponsors these days forge a true partnership.

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"With affinity marketing, if CEOs say no [to sponsorship], no one would be overly surprised," Ganassi said. "It's important to have a relationship. You don't want it to depend solely on that relationship, but you don't want it to depend solely on performance, either."

• 4. Mark Martin retire? Nope. Martin said Wednesday he is "absolutely, without a doubt, going to be driving race cars next year." Martin is NASCAR's Brett Favre, without the drama or, umm, text messages.

• 5. The King's taxi: Richard Petty's brand is part of NASCAR's fabric. The iconic feathered cowboy hat and jet-black shades. The blinding smile. The lanky gait. The handshake and the swooping, curving autograph are important links between past and present.

By the end of 2010 Petty almost sailed off into the sunset forever. Petty said this week that his union with George Gillett nearly didn't make it to the end of the season. He gave credit to his employees for sticking it out, that over the past five or six weeks no one knew if they'd have a job the next day. Ray Evernham stepped in and helped foot the bill so Petty could keep cars on the track through the season finale.

Now Petty has a new lease on speed. He partnered with Andrew Murstein, president of Medallion Financial, and will serve as chairman of the company. In 1937 Murstein's father began buying taxi licenses in New York City, called medallions. Eventually, he acquired hundreds of them that now trade for $800,000 apiece. He views all investments similarly.

"Like with those medallions, I hope that 70 years from now my children are involved just like Richard's family is involved in his business," Murstein said.

So do we. NASCAR fans need something to believe in. The King's brand is a cornerstone of that belief.

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

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