Tom Bowles
Thursday July 30th, 2009

NASCAR heads to Pocono this weekend, the site of the sport's latest effort to spice up competition: double-file restarts. Now eight-weeks old, the move debuted with great fanfare, and has been lauded by most in the garage.

But with ratings still down as much as 18 percent at some races, the sport shouldn't stop tweaking now. Especially during the beginning of an August stretch in which viewership traditionally starts to lag, there are plenty of ways NASCAR can keep improving as they look to rebuild their perception of a sport on the decline.

With that in mind, here are five short-term moves for stock car racing that could spark both interest and better competition:

This is the time of year when the coverage on and off the track starts to shift under NASCAR's Chase for the Championship format. As of now, only 18 teams have a realistic shot of qualifying for the Chase, leaving the other 25 buried in the corner of the garage with little or nothing to shoot for except next season. With the media coverage rightfully shifting toward the title contenders instead of the full field of 43, sponsors of the other cars are unhappy, and those drivers are frustrated.

It would be one thing if these teams were sent to the sidelines and allowed to make preparations for next year. Yet unlike other major sports, all cars will be out there competing with the Chasers once the postseason begins in mid-September, with sponsors paying millions more simply to watch them stay out of the way of the title contenders. But if NASCAR insists on a 43-car field, why not give the guys on the outside looking in something to shoot for? My thought is to put together a $1 million bonus for the non-Chaser who scores the most top-5 finishes during the second half of the season. That'll give everyone from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (now 22nd in points) to small teams like Robby Gordon's something to run for instead of simply moving over for the Chase contenders.

This weekend's race at Pocono is often criticized for its length. After all, a 500-mile race isn't exactly ideal for spectators. While most MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL games are under three hours, a race at a track like Pocono takes three and a half on a good day. What's worse, one of the sport's biggest tracks often leads to a spread out, road course style of racing, with a single-file parade spread out all over its 2.5-mile triangle.

For years, I used to champion tradition over truncating races just to make them more exciting. But there's no longer a reason to use 500 miles as the benchmark standard for Cup events. With little to no mechanical attrition, teams are capable of making parts last the entire distance without so much as a second thought.

A suitable compromise is to let a handful of races stand on their own historical merits (the Southern 500 at Darlington is one such example, along with stock car's other "majors" like the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600). But at places like California, Pocono, and Texas, maybe it's best to shorten the distance to 400 or even 350 miles per event. After all, a shorter race leads to a greater sense of urgency for drivers, causing more passing and greater aggression at the back of the pack as people know they can't sit back and just ride.

Along those same lines, starting races at 2:00 or 3:00 PM puts a lot of folks on the East coast watching races until well past the dinnertime hour. How about starting these things at 1:00 EST instead, giving people a chance to feel they're not wasting a whole day in front of the television?

Much of the latest criticism in the sport surrounds penalties and policies the average fan can't see. Juan Pablo Montoya's speeding penalty at Indy was the latest on-track example of subjectivity in which fans can do little more than trust the sanctioning body's call. Here's the problem with that: trust between the sanctioning body and the fan has eroded to the point some don't believe anything they can't see with their own two eyes. Even though NASCAR Competition Director John Darby came out and said Montoya sped in not one, but two zones on pit lane, it wasn't enough for fans who wanted more data to prove it.

When there's a penalty in football, baseball, or hockey, ten camera angles give us the perfect view. But when it comes to penalties like the yellow line and speeding down pit lane, NASCAR's reluctant to open up its books to the general public. How often is there a debris caution, for example, in which fans aren't shown the debris which actually necessitated a yellow flag? For all they know, officials simply wanted to spice up the race and chose to bunch up the field by throwing a discretionary caution.

To fix this problem, NASCAR needs to feed the media video and data evidence when they make a call that changes the outcome of a race. Fans respond best when they can see what's in front of them; after all, how can you argue a call when you're going on an officials' word and nothing more? And while they're at it, the sport would behoove themselves to make some policies clear to their own participants as well. Some drivers were confused about double-file restart policy for weeks after it was first introduced, but never got the exact answers they sought. Ditto with a drug policy that's formed an ugly lawsuit with Jeremy Mayfield, in which drivers were never given access to a full list of banned substances they're being tested for.

In a year dominated by Hendrick chassis -- five cars have combined to win 10 of 20 races on the schedule -- fans are tuning out as the same team runs up front week in, week out. Still, NASCAR's inability to land successful challengers running their own equipment in the face of the struggling economy may be more troubling. The dozen new owners who showed up to run the Daytona 500 are mostly sitting on the sidelines at this point, with a handful showing up each week only to "start and park" as they don't have enough money to run the distance.

As a result, 2010 appears to be a year of consolidation, not expansion, as those left in the sport are deploying an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality. Hendrick, who already supplies engines and chassis to Stewart-Haas Racing, may soon find themselves with a handful of new clients in 2010, with Team Red Bull among those most interested in using their services. Meanwhile, Roush Fenway Racing already supplies engines and chassis setups for Yates Racing, giving those two organizations alone the responsibility of providing equipment for nearly 15 cars on the Cup circuit next season.

So much for NASCAR's four-team rule, a change next season designed to leave room for others to enter the sport. Instead, it's allowed owners to skirt around the program by supporting programs without putting their name on the race shop (if a team gets engines and chassis from another program, like Hendrick, how "independent" are they?) It's a troubling trend, in place for nearly a decade, that's seen the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer.

To close the gap, NASCAR needs to impose some sort of moratorium on costs involved with competition; but that's easier said than done. All the owners are private contractors and can come and go as they please, putting the onus more on the ownership themselves to find a way to stop the spending and curb their expansion in favor of diversity of competition.

Considering NASCAR just had a town hall meeting to try and fix the problems ailing the sport, they'd be well-advised to do another with the sport's top owners from each manufacturer: Ford's Jack Roush, Chevy's Rick Hendrick, Dodge's Roger Penske, and Toyota's Joe Gibbs. Only when the Big Boys sit down and make agreements on some sort of cap will the spending spree finally stop at acceptable levels.

Searching the landscape for NASCAR's 2010 Cup rookie class, you'll find ... no one as of yet. Right now, the sport's feeder series are suffering from both a lack of money and driver talent, making stock car rookies diamonds in the rough. Not only could we be without a true rookie for the first time in several years next season, there's no Joey Logano-type superstar on the horizon.

That brings us, of course, to the chase to bring Danica Patrick to NASCAR. Love her or hate her, you have to admit she's a driver who elicits an opinion from just about anyone involved with racing. Bringing her over to the stock car side of the fence would demand the type of attention-grabbing headlines NASCAR sorely needs with all the negativity it's combating this season.

New drivers bring new buzz, and the move alone could send shockwaves big enough to bottom out NASCAR's slide. But the series shouldn't stop trying should they finally lure open-wheel's biggest draw over the fence. Other drivers like motorcyclist Ricky Carmichael, part-timer with potential Boris Said, and even an up-and-comer with the last name Earnhardt (Jeffrey) who could provide a spark.

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