Eyes wide shut in Daytona Beach?

Eyes wide shut in Daytona Beach?
Oct 14, 2007, 4:04 PM

Eyes Wide Shut in Daytona Beach? Commentary by Bill King One of the guilty pleasures of a race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway is the inevitable appearance of H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler [see below] in the media center, usually early in the week's ...

Eyes Wide Shut in Daytona Beach?
Commentary by Bill King

One of the guilty pleasures of a race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway is the inevitable appearance of H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler [see below] in the media center, usually early in the week's festivities, always unannounced and pointedly casual. The experience is enhanced if the Winston-Salem Journal's Mike Mulhern spots Wheeler. Mike - a renowned pot-stirrer - knows that Humpy always has something thoughtful and often edgy to say about the current state of racing.

Friday was that day. I'm not one to drag out my recorder and coattail Mulhern (www.journalnow.com). I just like to listen.

Wheeler covered a range of subjects, elaborating when prodded by Mulhern. These two have an almost symbiotic relationship. The beneficiaries are both Wheeler and Mulhern's readers, who include the minions at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach. It's one way Humpy saves on his phone bill.

The central theme of Wheeler's Friday dissertation was that NASCAR needs to continue tweaking the product. In a nutshell, Wheeler likes the COT - the concept anyway - but the car still needs work. He likes the Chase because of the added media attention down the stretch. He'd like to see a halftime during each race with a nice cash bonus going to the midway leader.

He'd like to see a redistribution of monies to put more into the purses. [Note: the Indy 500 significantly increased its purse last week.] In the same vein, Wheeler would like to see more emphasis placed on winning. "Fans come to the racetrack or tune in on TV to see a race, not a 'points-race race'." This year, NASCAR gave the Chase drivers 10 bonus points for each victory during the first 26 races. It's a step in the right direction, but "That's not enough," said Wheeler, suggesting a 50-point victory bonus would really stir the blood.

One item briefly touched upon was the starting guarantee for the top 35 teams in the Nextel Cup points each weekend. It's an intriguing subject, as I've always been interested in decisions that lead to unintended consequences. And here we leave Misters Wheeler and Mulhern.

Although couched in verbiage to hide the true motive, the top-35 rule has proved a benefit to race teams whose chances of a top-20 points finish are just north of nil. Helping these loyal spear carriers make every race allows them to keep their sponsors happy and their financial situation bearable. It also allows NASCAR to neutralize claims that only franchising would give these mid-pack teams value and keep them afloat.

A traditional franchise would allow team owners to sell that franchise to whoever writes the largest check. Currently NASCAR controls who can come into the sport. For many reasons - some actually very good - NASCAR does not want to relinquish that control or have it limited in any way. The recent influx of billionaires into team ownership positions has been totally transparent - no front men for the Russian mafia.

But while offering a placating degree of protective support to mid-level teams, NASCAR has created a bottleneck for new teams trying to make the field - a situation exacerbated by Toyota's entrance into Cup competition. With 35 guaranteed starting spots for existing teams, only eight are left open to new teams, several of which are big-bucks operations.

New teams trying to make the field must concentrate on their qualifying set- ups. With many races carrying the "impound" label, these teams must start the race with the fast and loose set-ups it took to get them into the field.

Qualifying at Talladega last weekend proved the extreme case. The ten quickest cars were all fighting for the available eight spots on the grid. As a consequence, the ninth and tenth quickest qualifiers trailered up, and the first four rows were made up of extremely loose racecars. That the "big one" didn't happen on the second lap is testament to every driver in the field understanding there would be no racing until the top eight qualifiers found a spot near the back where they could run in tenuous control through the first couple of pit stops.

So from the moment the Talladega Superspeedway gates first opened until a third of the way into last Sunday's UAW-Ford 500, the competition was artificial - made so by the top-35 rule, which was enacted for business reasons not related to the actual racing on the track.

Can you say, "unintended consequences"?

NASCAR is in a quandary. Money is literally pouring into the sport. Who will be the next billionaire-of-the-month? Can the existing smaller teams survive without the top-35 rule? Can the sport continue this unprecedented value growth with the top-35 rule bottlenecking the free market?

Meanwhile, NASCAR has allowed a free-market environment to evolve in the Busch Series with fulltime Cup drivers now winning Busch championships. These interlopers are no longer limited-schedule "Buschwackers". They run every race. Many are now Busch team owners, picking off sponsors that can no longer justify a Cup program but do benefit from the association with a well-known Cup driver or Cup team.

Where the Busch Series has become the wild, wild West, the Cup Series is potentially stunting its growth with the top-35 rule. Sometime in the very near future, NASCAR is going to have to get out of the way and let market pressures put a hand on the Cup helm. There is no question that Cup teams with limited resources will suffer. They may have to retreat to Busch or find their own billionaire.

[Note: Humpy Wheeler - president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway and president of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns Lowe's, Las Vegas, Texas, Infinion, Atlanta and Bristol - is simply the best promoter in the racing industry. He's also the keenest of observers, infinitely quotable and an original thinker of the first order.]

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