2012-02-02 / Sports

All About NASCAR, Danica, And The Busch Boys

By Gerald Hodges
THE RACING REPORTER

The state of NASCAR, Danica Patrick, and the Busch boys was the central theme during this year’s Annual Media Tour in Charlotte.

Brian France and Mike Helton, the two top dogs in the NASCAR organization said they intend to build on the success of 2011 as the new season begins with the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

“The sport is in a very good place, and we’re going to work even harder to achieve the very best things for the sport of NASCAR well into the future,” said France.

France pointed to initiatives begun a year ago – a simplified points structure in all three national series and a “Wild Card” twist in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that placed a greater emphasis on race victories – which culminated in what France called “a championship battle that will be talked about for decades to come.”

While the 2012 season will be one of continuity rather than major change, NASCAR will introduce electronic fuel injection into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and implement rules designed to restore traditional “pack racing” at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

“We have had a breathtaking number of close finishes at those tracks, but the fans want a mixture of styles, including a return to a more traditional ‘pack racing’ and that close side-by-side competition that’s unique to Talladega and Daytona,” France said. “ NASCAR and the teams are working hard on this and based on the test earlier this month, we’re encouraged that we’re making progress.”

“The industry has never been more united in growing the sport.”

France said the organization is “very encouraged” by increased television ratings across its three national series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. He also pointed to attendance gains at a number of venues.

“While we are still in a tough economic climate that is still difficult, we are pleased with some positive steps we saw last year,” he said.

NASCAR will continue to fine drivers who do not speak well of the sport, but the penalties will no longer be secret.

“If you challenge the integrity of the sport, we’re going to deal with that,” France continued. “What’s really interesting is I can’t tell you how many owners or drivers come up to me and say, “Thanks for doing that because some of these comments were irresponsible and unhelpful to growing the sport.” Now, having said that, you can be critical of things you don’t think we’re doing well, in particular a race call. You can say, “I don’t think I was speeding; I disagree with that.” We understand that. It’s when you go after the integrity of the sport is where we will step in, and they will be public.”

“In the past two years, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman were punished for making comments that NASCAR deemed detrimental to its brand. Keselowski privately was fined $25,000 for criticizing the switch to fuel injection during a fan forum at the NASCAR Hall of Fame last November. When news of the penalty leaked, it drew plenty of derision from fans and news media.

“In terms of going public with it, we didn’t have a real strong position on that. It seemed to bother some people in November when we talked about this. So we didn’t feel strongly (about the fines being private). If (mak- ing them public) is something that people think is a good thing, we were happy to do it.”

As ususual, Danica Patrick was swarmed over by the media.

She said she is skipping the Indy 500 and temporarily giving up on her dream of winning it to run the Coca- Cola 600 at Charlotte and use the Memorial Day weekend to focus on NASCAR.

She is also beginning to start reading and believing her own P/R.

“The cars are very fast, as you guys saw at the test, so I feel good about that race,” she said. “I feel good about Daytona and I think there’s a real chance, if luck falls our way, that we can perhaps win. A guy like Trevor Bayne last year showed that.”

Patrick will be in the spotlight all season and will struggle at times as she continues to adjust to stock cars. We’ll have to see how well she can hang in there during the actual races.

Maybe after a couple years she will be ready to challenge for a win.

While Kyle Busch is trying to clean up his act after being suspended for a Cup and Nationwide race late last year, Kevin Harvick, who had a couple run-ins with him, didn’t hesitate to express his dislike for his biggest rival and to continue to stoke the fire.

“He’s just such a jerk most of the time,” Harvick said. “… He’s really the only guy in the sport, the one guy that I just don’t like.”

Busch must try his best to stay out of trouble this season – and Harvick knows that – but he has never backed down from anyone and likely won’t stand for Harvick continuing to ridicule him.

If Harvick continues to be a thorn in his side, Busch likely will strike back, stirring up more trouble and continuing the long-running feud.

Kurt Busch also was a hot topic during the media tour, with much talk about him losing his ride at Penske Racing at the end of last year and his outlook for 2012 at Phoenix Racing.

Though Busch is driving for an underfunded, singlecar team, don’t be shocked if he does much better than expected.

Phoenix Racing has Hendrick Motorsports cars and engines and has hired several experienced crewmen. Don’t be surprised if Busch wins a couple of races and maybe gets into the Chase.

Racing trivia question: Who won the 2011 Daytona 500?

Last week’s question: What year was the first Daytona 500 held? Answer. 1959. It was won by Lee Petty.

Contact hodges@race500.com.

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