Offseason Reason

Just down the street a couple of weeks ago, the Sheraton in Boston became the hub of the baseball universe when the city hosted the winter meetings, the annual executive's convention where a bunch of suits swapped rumors, disparaged each other's judgment, and traded talent with contracts that have more zeroes than the average GNP of a third-world country.

When they left, though, they came away with a half-decent idea of what they'd be putting on the field in a few months - erstwhile used car salesman Bud Selig wasn't thinking about shutting them down faster than you can say "1988 Fiesta."

What a concept, huh? A sport where teams actually use the offseason to figure out what they're going to be doing on opening day.

Switch gears to NASCAR, a sport whose "offseason" consists of a few scant weeks in which owners, crew chiefs and shop workers frantically try to guess how the car changes that may or may not be announced will actually work on the track. In between sessions under the hood and hurried bites of holiday ham and turkey, a few of them actually manage to catch enough zzz's to keep from lapsing into chronic fatigue during the upcoming season.

Then they go to Daytona, praying at the altar of speed with fingers and toes crossed. The fortunate few get to tweak and fine-tune the things they got right. But for those who guessed wrong - hello, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin - the reward is spending the first month or two of the season behind the eight ball, desperately trying to figure out how to catch up to the competition as they drift to the back of the pack and the points standings.

Last year, the hiatus in which nothing happens proved particularly costly. By the time testing got under way at Daytona, it was far too late to change an aero package that bunched up the cars. As a result, it was NASCAR itself that ended up playing catch-up during a season in which Dale Earnhardt's death made safety an issue that constantly kept the sanctioning body on its heels.

Some sports never learn. While we were counting down the number of shopping days before Christmas and the clock was ticking towards a new year on the guys under the hoods, no one really knows whether we'll have a conga line of spread-out cars at Daytona or a tumultuous day of inadvertent right turns and upside-down cars.

Consider a common-sense alternative: A few days after the top drivers get back from the banquet in New York, the changes for the various manufacturers are automatically, officially and formally announced.

NASCAR then puts together and sends out a panel of ex-drivers - after all, we all know how badly Darrell Waltrip wants to get back in a Winston Cup car - to conduct a series of brief tests at the superspeedways and a flat track.

Round one lasts for seven to 10 days, after which the drivers are given a common format to provide feedback to the teams, who then get to use that feedback against the data they've compiled from last year and the working hypotheses they've put together for their cars in the new campaign.

After that, a second phase of testing starts, this time with a new panel of current drivers. One option would be to have the teams meet to select a four-man panel, with one driver representing each manufacturer.

Data from that 7-10 day test session could be correlated with the feedback from NASCAR's group, giving each team a reasonable foundation of baseline information to apply to their preparation for Daytona.

The plan has some potential PR benefits, as well. NASCAR fans are arguably the most rabid and ardent supporters in the sports world, but for much of December they're reduced to perusing stats and making some kind of sense of the silly-season rumors and fallout.

Open test sessions would be one way to give race-hungry fans a December venue. Even if the sessions are closed, allowing the media to attend and report on the results in a limited fashion (e.g., driver interviews) would make the two sessions the NASCAR equivalent of baseball's winter meetings or the draft in the NBA and the NFL.

The driver-selection process alone would become a source of controversy among the competing teams, and NASCAR's selection process for its team could be a vehicle for recognition among the ex-drivers.

Moreover, the entire process would help justify NASCAR's claims that stock-car racing really is a major sport, not a semi-rigged game in which backdoor deals and phantom debris help determine the outcome of the contests.

Is there a downside? Sure, we'd hear some complaining from the drivers, owners and teams who have been airing their gripes about the already-crowded schedule, but rest assured that most of those folks - aside from the drivers - have been burning the midnight oil in the garage for the past few weeks anyway.

In this format they'd have a lot more to show for their efforts, and the preparation would almost certainly lead to better racing. That, in turn, would reduce the amount of tinkering NASCAR would have to do to the cars during the season.

Finally, NASCAR would acquire a pretty effective pre-speedweek vehicle to drum up interest for Daytona.

Ah, the fine art of planning...sounds like a win-win scenario all around.

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