Stories To Watch In 2004

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The coming New Year is hard upon. Most of us already have champagne on ice, silly hats at the ready, extra ammunition squared away, and (hopefully) a designated driver selected. 2004 will be a season of change in the sport of NASCAR racing (I’m not even sure what we call the top division anymore) unparalleled since perhaps 1972 when the so called “Modern Era” of stock car racing began. (What do we call the period from 1972-2003 now? The Middle Ages?) Here’s a look at some of the intriguing stories to watch for in 2004.

Playoffs- No decision has been made on the so called “26-10” playoff system NASCAR officials have considered adopting to inflate TV ratings at the end of the 2004 season. Among fans the idea with is scorned with a passion almost frightening to behold. I haven’t heard a single driver of note who has had a kind thing to say about the idea. Among the media some elements detest the idea, some cautiously embrace it and the vast majority of writers have adopted a “Thanks for giving us something to write about during the off-season” attitude towards it. But we all know how much NASCAR cares about the opinions of the fans and the media, which is to say not a whit.

More tellingly, not only has NBC loudly endorsed the plan, so has the top brass at FOX who were probably in the best position to relegate the concept to the Scrapyard of Bad Ideas piled high behind NASCAR’s stately Daytona Beach headquarters. (Well, old DW did do some childish whining about how NBC gets all the good stuff.)

But there’s one more line of defense as the ill-considered idea bumbles forwards towards reality; the sponsors. Sponsors paying the freight for multi-million dollar race teams are likely to be unhappy with the notion if their boy isn’t in the top 10 in points after Richmond in September their car might as well be invisible. And even sponsors lucky enough to back one of the anointed top 10 aren’t going to be thrilled with the prospect of NBC ad salesmen showing up demanding huge extortion money to give their boy some airtime.

My gut tells me that the idea will be adopted because it costs NASCAR next to nothing and they stand to profit handsomely from it. And my guess is the day the “Playoffs” are announced there’s going to be more hysterical mewling than there’s been since that Sunday you senile granny decided to give her dozen ailing cats a bath in the washing machine.

The New Rules- An honest observer has to admit the races over the last couple seasons, with some obvious exceptions have been fairly mediocre in comparison to the sort of action that made the sport famous in the ESPN Middle Ages. Even NASCAR has tactilely admitted as much. Plans to increase the amount of on track passing this year call for a reduction in downforce and softer tires from Goodyear.

In theory that might work, but I have my fingers crossed. NASCAR tried the reduced downforce concept before in 1998 with the so called (and ethereal) 5 and 5 rule package and the racing stunk. If there was a pass made in a corner in the early part of 1998 I’ve forgotten it. And two experiments with softer tires in 2003 ended up causing a troubling amount of blistered and blown-out tires. Will the new rules go far enough to eliminate the “aero-push” problem that has plagued racing the last couple seasons? And if it doesn’t, how quickly will NASCAR react?

Round about the time Daytona Speed Weeks broadcasts start I imagine you’ll be seeing ads for the new generation of mid-size Dodge and Chrysler street cars, the Magnum and the 300C. These cars will eventually replace the current front wheel drive mid-size cars including the Intrepid RT that is loosely the basis for Dodge’s Cup car effort. The new car designs are so radically different (and frankly gorgeous) that the current common templates will match the box an Intrepid comes in better than the new Magnum. So how is NASCAR going to allow Chrysler-Daimler to use stock car racing to market their new line of cars without upsetting the aerodynamic apple cart?

Nextel- There’s at least a perception the deal between NASCAR and Nextel came together so quickly that the cell phone company isn’t quite sure what it’s got itself into and has been fumbling the ball since. The announced colors for the new Nextel marketing program are yellow and black (or perhaps black and yellow, I didn’t get the press release) but maybe it’s time to put out an Amber Alert for their race marketing program.

There’s still not a hint anywhere on the Nextel website they are in anyway involved with NASCAR racing. Were you hoping to buy a Nextel Cup T-shirt or cap for your early- adopter type NASCAR friends this holiday season? Well, there’s none available on the official site of the sport’s on-line store. A search for “Nextel” in the stores search engine brings up zero matches. Under “T-shirts” the featured items as this column is written (12-28) are a Ryan Newman Altel (DOH!) T-shirt and a “Winston (DOUBLE DOH!) Racing” garment.

No one can figure out if the new name is “the Nextel Cup”, “the NASCAR Nextel Cup” or the “Nextel NASCAR Cup.” Hey, maybe they are just waiting until the Holidays or the Super Bowl are over to start a major marketing blitz, but right now these folks aren’t even on the radar screen.

Rookie of the Year Scrum- The Rookie of the Year battle this season ought to be entertaining. Among the notables competing this season are Brian Vickers out of Rick Hendrick’s stable, Kasey Kahne driving for Ray Evernham, Brendan Gaughan presumably piloting a Penske-South Dodge, Scott Wimmer driving for Bill Davis, Scott Riggs in Johnny Benson’s old ride, and Johnny Sauter flying Richard Childress’s colors. (Oddly enough none of these guys will be driving a Ford.) There’s a whole lot of talent in the above group even if it seems likely that some of them are moving up to Cup much too soon. And while one of them is likely to be “the next Ryan Newman” at least one of them is likely to be “the next Jason Lefler” as well.

Will Race For Food- Keep an eye on the 99 team early this year to see how the overall race team sponsorship crises is going to play out. Roush Racing won the owner’s title in 2003 so they’re a pretty credible organization. Jeff Burton has proven he can win races. But the 99 team lost Citgo as a sponsor and to date no other corporation has stepped up to fill the void. If the 99 team has to cut back to a part time schedule despite Roush Racing’s success and their formidable sponsor acquisition team, that might spell bad news for other teams looking for sponsors or teams that have a sponsor that’s contract is up at the end of 2004.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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