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Season of Change

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

Article originally published in 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual

Throughout the course of history, people point to individual years, moments in time for professional sports that turn into living, breathing examples of the term “make-or-break.” As time sets in, the importance of these moments reaches a daunting crescendo, forever changing a sport’s course of direction for the better — or for the worse. In baseball, no one will forget the strike that devastated the game in 1994; in football, no one will ever forget the dawning of the Super Bowl era in 1967. These are moments through which heroes are born and villains appear, from which a sport either rises or self-destructs under the weight of its own decisions.

Welcome to the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, 2007.

On the eve of beginning a second brand-new, blockbuster television contract, America’s No. 1 sport on wheels finds itself at a crossroads perhaps bigger than the day after the Daytona 500 nearly six years ago, when a legend found his grave and NASCAR was born to a nation screaming for a sport filled with fan-friendly athletes their children could admire and competition enhanced with respect, not performance-enhancing substances. Dale Earnhardt’s death back in 2001 produced a NASCAR honeymoon the likes of which had never been seen before in its history; ratings doubled, drivers became national celebrities, and everyone remotely involved with the sport began raking in cash as if there were a national mint printing out money hidden behind turn four at every track.

That honeymoon period, for all intents and purposes, is now wearing off. Television ratings dipped in 2006 for the first time in a half-dozen years; cries of unfair enforcement of rules violations, illegally enhanced competition, and unfair preferential treatment towards certain teams dotted the landscape of criticism coming from all angles, questioning that only seemed to increase each week during a tumultuous season. From the Daytona 500, whose winner, Jimmie Johnson, saw his crew chief suspended for four weeks after rules violations, to the Chase for the Championship, in which the driver winning the most races wasn’t even competing for the title, it appeared NASCAR spent most of the year trying to explain what was going wrong rather than priding itself on what it did right. A sport that never before had to hold itself accountable on a national stage before this decade now seems to be struggling with the rising expectations that come with that type of popularity, all the while trying to keep old-time fans bent on tradition from leaving a sport that’s grown far beyond their level of satisfaction.

Now, in the aftermath of 2006 comes an even bigger challenge: 2007. As the NASCAR powers that be prepare for the future, they find themselves handling a tidal wave of change quickly approaching tsunami status. In examining the oncoming flood, they discover that each wave of change comes with its own level of importance, but all seem armed with a list of consequences that threaten to turn the sport sideways quicker than a last-lap Bristol bump-and-run. The debuts of Toyota and the Car of Tomorrow (COT), juggling a litany of new teams and potential qualifying nightmares, and reenergizing television coverage through a new broadcast partner present a mere fragment of potential roadblocks that, if not deftly avoided, could prove capable of stopping NASCAR’s growth in its tracks, sending it on a permanent detour not easily sidestepped.

“The voices of discontent are always louder than the voices of reason,” says Jeff Burton recently when asked about the constant criticism concerning the sport’s future. “Whatever the discontent is, whatever happens to be the subject, that’s going to be allowed a voice. The whole issue is never heard as much as the two or three people that say ‘The World is Falling, The Sky Is Falling, the World is Coming to an End.’”

That may be true, but there’s no denying that those voices continue to grow louder as the new season looms.

In perhaps the biggest change affecting the sport, a project several years in the making will finally come to fruition in March, with new cars making their debut at the Nextel Cup level that look nothing like their counterparts raced at Homestead this past November. In perhaps the biggest design change since NASCAR went from bigger, bulkier cars in the early 1980s to the sleeker models you see today, the Car of Tomorrow will make its debut in Bristol surrounded by a firestorm of controversy.

Led by Cup driver-owner-turned-engineer Brett Bodine, the car promises to cure several ills that have infected NASCAR over this decade: the dreaded aero push, safety concerns and poor side-by-side racing. The list of improvements is billed as massive: to help safety, there’s a larger, more centralized driver compartment for easy entry and exit. For the aero push, there’s a brand new front splitter, complete with an air dam rule that allows teams only a specific number of inches to move the car up or down. Of course, the biggest change perhaps, concerns the car’s rear end; in place of the traditional spoiler is a rear wing, with the sides attached to the back of the car and its top lifted several inches into the air.

The complete list of changes is too numerous to mention — and growing by the day. NASCAR has fallen far behind on finalizing both the dimensions of the COT and the inspection process; so much so, in fact, that even the biggest teams on the circuit have yet to get their cars approved. Kevin Harvick admitted that RCR planned to test every week from December straight through March just to feel content that the team is prepared enough for the initial inspection process. But several other teams are struggling simply to be ready to go out and test.

“We still only have just one car built right now,” quipped Tony Stewart when asked about Joe Gibbs Racing’s COT preparation in December. “So I don’t know what the plan is going to be. Maybe (teammate) Denny (Hamlin)’s going to drive, I’m going to ride shotgun, and J.J. (Yeley)’ll ride in the back seat, and we’ll switch every third of the race.”

Beyond the simplicity of having cars ready for the March debut, criticisms of the COT run deep. Perhaps the biggest is this: a driver’s ability to make a difference is becoming less and less important with a vehicle designed more to be like a common template IROC car than for teams to add their own personal touch.

“It used to be that the drivers were the engineers,” Mark Martin reminisced when asked about the COT. “They led the team and led the car to be good enough to win. Experience was at a premium. Now, the engineers make the cars. It’s gotten so technical that we (drivers) can’t help as much as we used to.”

The continued devaluation of veteran knowledge means that, more than ever, the COT will likely throw things into the hands of younger drivers capable of adapting quickly to new concepts and car setups. Still, Jeff Burton claims that in the end, the ability to make the new design work will wind up in the driver’s hands.

“There’s certainly going to be a change in how you have to approach the Car of Tomorrow races, there’s no question about that,” he theorized. “At the same token, the cars that will go around the corners fast are the cars that are going to run well. You can’t tell me that Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or that any of the Top 30 drivers can’t adapt to whatever the car is. That’s our job.”

One additional concern about the COT is simply its appearance. With the rear wing contributing to a futuristic, “space-age” type of design, it’ll be more difficult than ever to compare the Fords, Chevys, Toyotas and Dodges that run on the race track with the ones you drive on the street. Fans haven’t necessarily reacted with glee to the pictures they’ve seen on the Internet and fleeting glimpses of future models on the racetrack; drivers are also keenly aware of that fact.

“I’m somewhat disappointed with the way it looks,” says Tony Stewart when pressed on the issue. “I think it’s something that the SCCA (would use). It just looks like a road course car. At the road course races, it’s going to look really cool … but I think to go from what we’ve been driving to what we’re going to be driving is a pretty big change.”

“I believe it’s a possibility,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr. about the chance that the car design might alienate fans. “Everybody asks that question … it’s common conversation about the car. So it’s got to be a concern, you know?”

Of course, these concerns must be weighed with the simple fact that change is coming, like it or not; and, with any type of design implementation like this, there’s bound to be some growing pains.

“I think in the first half of the year it’s going to really separate the fields,” predicted Harvick. “Because there’s going to be some people that really miss the boat. Some of the teams are going to hit it, and somebody’s going to hit it at particular race tracks.”

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“We’ll be ready (for January testing),” Burton said when pressed about the process. “The program is behind — for everybody. NASCAR’s behind. Everybody involved in it’s behind. It honestly needs another six months … but it’s here, and it will work out.

“It’s a huge challenge, it’s a huge undertaking for the teams. There’s a large learning curve we’ll all go through. But I’ve also said that if you gave all these teams Pintos, it’d be one hell of a race. And that’s what we’re going to see.”

Ending a six-year, $400 million dollar television blockbuster contract after the 2006 season, NASCAR has merely continued to up the ante, signing an eight-year, reportedly $550 million dollar deal to partner with FOX, TNT, and ABC/ESPN beginning in 2007. The landmark signing marks ESPN’s return to NASCAR after a six-year absence; the network was deemed largely responsible for fueling the sport’s growth through its coverage in the 1980s and ’90s.

With FOX and TNT planning only minor changes to their approach next year, the focus of the new contract turns to ABC/ESPN, which now inherits the broadcast rights to the majority of Nextel Cup events, beginning with the Brickyard 400 in July, as well as the entire Busch Series season of 35 races. Longtime viewers expecting a return of ESPN’s old broadcast crew, though, are going to be in for an unpleasant surprise. Only Jerry Punch returns from the seven-member announcing team that broadcast their final race together in November of 2000; he’ll be joined in the booth by driver-turned-broadcaster Rusty Wallace and crew chief-turned-television rookie Andy Petree. On pit road, several of the faces are plucked from the former NBC broadcast crew, as Allen Bestwick and Dave Burns join newcomers Jamie Little and Mike Massaro from reporting the stories on pit road.

How these seven on-air personalities develop chemistry over the second half of 2007 will be something to watch, as well as the leeway NASCAR gives ESPN to develop ideas it feels will enhance the sport. Already, a major concept has been shot down. The popular “side-by-side” philosophy incorporated during IRL races, in which commercials were shown alongside race coverage, was proposed and encouraged by ESPN brass but turned down by NASCAR execs worried about the possible loss of revenue such a setup would create. That’s likely not the last idea ESPN will throw Daytona Beach’s way — and it’s not the last one they won’t accept, either.

Hugging the back bumper of the COT in the firestorm of changes affecting the sport, the debut of the Toyota Camry this February will mark the first major “foreign” competition within NASCAR during the modern era. “Foreign” is in quotes, of course, as many Toyotas are actually put together on the North American side of the ocean. Nevertheless, the branding of an American sport with a Japanese name has several traditionalist fans none too pleased. Aware of the potential pitfalls, the Toyota PR department has been working overtime since the announcement was made to calm fans’ fears about a hostile takeover with money and resources at their disposal that far outweigh traditional NASCAR powers Chevy, Ford and Dodge.

“Everything we have done, we have checked in advance with NASCAR,” says Toyota’s Jim Aust in an interview this spring. “We don’t want to be running in a direction that is opposed to what their ideas are, and how they want to run the series. We don’t want to come in and disrupt the organization in any way. There’s no value in that for us, since we’re looking to be in NASCAR for a long time.”

Still, it didn’t take long for the company to make a splash with cash, luring away Dale Jarrett from Robert Yates with a deal worth upwards of $20 million over two years. With all that money getting thrown around, the manufacturer likely won’t be happy with a poor early-season performance, but with the way the current qualifying system is set up, they’re likely to get one. Only two of the seven Toyota teams are guaranteed starting spots over the season’s first five races. Bill Davis’ No. 22 driven by Dave Blaney is the lone team to finish in the Top 35 in car owner points in 2006, locking down a qualifying spot; as for Jarrett, the 50-year-old finds himself the automatic beneficiary of the champion’s provisional driving Michael Waltrip’s Toyota, as he’s the most recent titlist not locked into the field for every race.

The other five wheelmen in the Toyota brigade will have to qualify on their own, facing a Daytona 500 entry list that’ll likely be upwards of two dozen cars competing for just seven “open spots” in the field. That’s opening a whole different can of worms, as longtime single-car team owners such as Morgan-McClure Motorsports and PPI will struggle to compete against the onslaught of newly sponsored Toyota outfits attempting to qualify each week. With over 50 full-time teams looking to attempt the full schedule, something or someone is going to fall, and fall hard; everyone from tiny Front Row Motorsports to Petty Enterprises is vulnerable to the inevitable collapse this environment will produce.

“It’s going to be a major problem for the sponsors,” says Jeff Burton about the possibility of a dozen DNQs each week. “The top 35 thing is great … we have to find a way to take it to the next step. But I disagree with just saying OK you’re a team owner, you’re in every race, you’re guaranteed that every time, no matter what. I think if you don’t do a certain amount of things (to remain competitive within the top 35), you completely lose the opportunity to compete.”

No matter what solution is reached, only one thing is certain: upwards of a half-dozen teams and drivers may lose their financial ability to compete full-time by the time the 2007 season is complete.

Needless to say, these are only three of a myriad of big issues heading into next year. There have been reports the Chase for the Championship will be tinkered with, but any adjustments will supposedly be minor; a rumor involving adding 10 points for the race winner could be in place by the end of January. While the Chase still doesn’t make everyone warm and fuzzy inside, with some claiming it doesn’t promote enough aggressiveness, most drivers are on board with promoting only minor changes to a system that’s produced championship battles that went down to the final race in each of its first three years.

“I could care less, really, what they do and what they change,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I think what we had is awesome … if they want to try to improve it, I’m fine with that.”

“Remember, this isn’t a win or lose game like football or basketball,” says Burton. “It’s a major difference. When you finish second in a football game, you lost; when you finish second in a NASCAR race, you didn’t lose. The guy that ran 43rd lost, so the points system has to show that as well.”

Showcasing the degree of respect NASCAR has gained across the globe, an influx of open wheel drivers continues to pour into the sport, headlined next season by Formula 1 defector and former CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya, on hand to run for Rookie of the Year with car owner Chip Ganassi. Capable of luring in the Hispanic audience NASCAR has long coveted, the Colombian will be thrown under the microscope, making an already-difficult transition that much more daunting.

“I mean, he’s fast, he can go fast, he’s proved that to me already,” Jeff Gordon says about Montoya. “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for him. I think it’s racing in these tight quarters, learning how to use your mirror a lot more than ever before, and listening to your spotter, getting used to hearing somebody talk to you that much and having to pay attention to what they’re saying (that’s important).”

So far, Montoya needs to take heed of that advice; in his Cup debut at Homestead, he tangled with teammate Casey Mears, then got involved in a tit-for-tat incident with Ryan Newman that ended with his car up in flames after being punted into the turn one wall. A similar kind of incident at Daytona or Talladega would take out half the field, turning NASCAR ballets into demolition derbies of the highest caliber.

Among Montoya’s open wheel cohorts entering the series in 2007 is champ car vet A.J. Allmendinger, with a part-time Busch Series effort being started by reigning IRL champ Sam Hornish, Jr. Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier are among those rumored to be considering a full-time switch over the next year or two. All of them lack stock car experience, making an easy transition out of the question; Allmendinger has already DNQ’d for a Nextel Cup event, and Hornish hit the wall in both of his two career Busch starts.

Of course, all those drivers will be battling to tread water in the choppy waters of the NASCAR world that have been increasingly difficult to navigate. With the winds of change reaching a screeching howl, there’s so much going on, it’s enough to make any driver’s head spin.

“You think about what’s going on next year,” says Burton. “We have the cars we’re running today that we’ve got to make better. We’ve got the Car of Tomorrow we’re still developing. Chevy’s coming out with a new package. I mean, there’s a lot.”

As for the sport itself, preparation has turned to wary anticipation, criticism reaching its peak on the eve of a revolutionary storm that will forever alter the landscape of everything it touches. The eye of that hurricane looms just offshore; the sky, once blue, has turned ominous, as the wind picks up like voices screaming into their heads. Undaunted, NASCAR aficionados stay the course, preparing for the worst while hoping forecasts are wrong and that the whole thing will just blow over. Appearing ready and willing to handle what comes their way, they claim they’re fully prepared to ride out the storm ahead.

In this year of change, they’ll need every bit of preparation they can get.