Tom Bowles
Tuesday January 26th, 2010

The Media Tour may be over, but the NASCAR hype Concert Tour 2010 has just begun. Armed with more positivity than fellow Florida native Tim Tebow, officials down in Daytona Beach are just 10 days from starting Speedweeks with a litany of rules changes designed to ramp up aggression and stir fan interest.

But were the rousing speeches, incessant smiles, and promised tweaks to the Cup car enough to make you want to head back to the track? Only you can let us know by being part of the SI mailbag. As always, reach me at tbowles81@yahoo.com or through Twitter at NASCARBowles.

We'll start with one initial reaction to last week's landslide of adjustments, which included the elimination of bumpdrafting penalties at Daytona along with the change from a wing to a spoiler on the Cup car in late March ...

I guess the main problem NASCAR has is letting the drivers run the show. It is just a shame: rule after rule after rule that guts the objective of "just racing cars." Just like in society, the old people with common sense who had raced and worked on cars died off. Now the spoiled brats, who are greedy, self-centered, mean and nasty run NASCAR just like the people who run society. The whole bunch of them are spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. -- Henry, Muskogee, OK

I think you're a little overboard in your assessment, Henry. (Calling men like Jamie McMurray mean? Seriously.) These drivers may make more money than ever, but their desire to win hasn't changed. You can also make the point that their direct involvement with the rules entices them to get more aggressive. If they're given cars that respond to their liking -- which the rules change from wing to spoiler will do -- chances are they'll take higher risks, like more side-by-side racing in the turns. That's what we've been missing on intermediate tracks under this current rules package. Passing is near-impossible with drivers too fearful that a loose car will spin out underneath someone else.

Here's the one thing that intrigues me with drivers of this generation, though. According to sources, NASCAR was initially poised to eliminate the controversial yellow-line rule at Daytona and Talladega, restricting where drivers can pass and allowing them, in essence, to do whatever they wanted. But it was actually the drivers themselves who rebelled in closed-door meetings, insisting on its retention for "their own good." They feel the line keeps them from making daring moves that could cause the "Big Ones" notorious for wrecking half the field at those tracks.

Ten years ago, that wouldn't have happened. Led by Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, the drivers would have relished the chance to take those risks, armed with the knowledge that they're talented enough to get away with them (see: Jeff Gordon, Daytona 500 wins in 1997 and '99). But this generation has joined the sanctioning body in turning their primary focus to safety, led in part by Gordon himself. The shift in philosophy is healthy ... to a point.

It's a tricky balance, promoting safety while maintaining the risk involved in the sport. Check out the X Games, for example, where rally racing has become one of the more popular events. Travis Pastrana wasn't worried about the consequences when he made that attempt at a rally car jump record. He was just determined to win and put on a good show for the fans.

Don't get me wrong; I don't want these men, many of whom I know personally, to end up dead because of some stupid move on the track. But the sport can't just be cars driving on the highway, either. Who sits on a hill and watches that? Guts are crucial to racing's success, and even under the safest circumstances I hope drivers don't forget there will always be an element of risk involved when they go 200 miles an hour. After all, the risks they take become part of why the fans come to watch.

I think the John Darby news is huge. Instead of writing that he is leaving, try to find out the real story. People are shocked by this. Does it have something to do with his memo to the teams about the wings creating lift? Who is mad at him? Robin Pemberton? Mike Helton? He has been there since 2001, and I doubt he is leaving on his own accord. -- Mark Mockovak, Newtown, CT

Ah, the conspiracy theory. One of the most popular trends in sports these days, right up there with Tiger Woods-like affairs and performance-enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, there's nothing to support this one. Not only is Darby still on board until they find a new Sprint Cup series director (which could take months), he's getting a promotion to Managing Director of Competition. Working out of NASCAR's R&D Center, he'll now have oversight over all three national series' directors, officials, inspection processes, and race officiating.

That doesn't sound like a firing to me. Yes, John was an advocate of the Car of Tomorrow, but he's also not the one who came up with the design. Its struggles didn't cost him the job, nor did Ryan Newman's wreck at Talladega where the wing proved a factor in launching his car in the air.

"Be as fair and consistent with every competitor that you can," Darby said when asked how the new director should be. "And be a great listener."

Everyone I've talked to has verified he was all that and more, and no one seems to openly dislike him in the Cup garage. Sometimes, people just want to move on and do other things. I think it's that simple in Darby's case.

How do you see Kasey Kahne doing this year, with it being the final year of his contract AND switching manufacturers. Do you think there will be a bidding war after the season? -- Jamie, Vilonia, AR

It all depends on the first two months of the season. For Kahne to have any chance of staying with RPM, they'll need to prove that their merger with Yates has put him in a better position to win a title for 2010 and beyond. It's clear that Roush is taking an integral role in the development of the program, which he hopes to turn into their answer for Stewart-Haas over at Hendrick. (I saw him having lunch with crew chief Kenny Francis the other day.) But as much as Kahne loves Francis, the organizational structure around them remains chaotic at best, with sponsorship issues remaining for his teammates at the #19 and #43 (Elliott Sadler and A.J. Allmendinger, respectively).

If Kahne starts off strong (say, with a win and a handful of top 5s in the first two months), there's an outside shot that he'll sign on Foster Gillett's dotted line -- especially if Roush becomes an advocate. But anything less (which is likely, considering the manufacturer change they must adjust to) and I think he'll be testing the waters of free agency. Turning 30 this year, Kahne knows his next contract sets him up for the prime of his career, and the mere financial instability of this team over the last 18 months is enough to dissuade him from taking a long-term risk.

Here's the lone problem for Kahne in free agency: who's going to have a spot for him? Richard Childress will have an opening with Kevin Harvick leaving, but considering their recent downward spiral, that's a lateral move for Kahne. Stewart-Haas Racing could be a possibility, but with Harvick all but signed for a third team, I don't know if they'd add a fourth for 2011.

That leaves Joe Gibbs Racing and Roger Penske. It's no secret that Gibbs would like to expand to a fourth car, but they refuse to do it unless the circumstances are exactly right. If the other three teams start clicking this season, I could see Kahne making the jump as long as sponsorship is secured (Gibbs is anti-alcohol, so Budweiser's a no-go). And don't count out Penske if Kurt Busch struggles with Steve Addington. Busch and Penske have had an off-again, on-again relationship, and if the driver decides to opt out of his contract, Kahne could slide right in. How's that for a sponsorship coup? Miller Lite gets the driver of its biggest rival ...

No matter what, expect Kahne to command big bucks in this market. He's easily the biggest free agent we'll have unless Busch or Denny Hamlin watch their deals fall apart.

How will Denny Hamlin's Torn ACL affect his season? -- Several readers

Inside the car, it's hard to say. The people I've talked to who have had this injury tell me it won't be that painful, especially since Hamlin has still got two weeks to heal. (By the way, for those who thought surgery was an option, he would have likely missed the first three races, making him a longshot for the Chase. In a contract year, that's not how you start off.) While drivers are athletes (in my opinion), how hard will it be to press on the clutch?

"No matter what people may think," he Tweeted this week. "This injury will not stop me from being a contender this year."

I agree . . . sort of. Where I really think it will hurt him is off the track. Basketball is his passion, the biggest physical and emotional outlet he has. As someone whose confidence goes up and down like the tide, what's he going to do for stress relief the next time he's got two DNFs in a row? Athletes need to be at their peak both mentally and physically to succeed, and it's imperative that Hamlin finds another hobby that interests him to keep the self-esteem up at all times.

Tweet Of The Week: "By the way the wife is pregnant with our 3rd child!!! Very happy about it!!!!" - @jpmontoya, officially announcing the upcoming addition to his family via Twitter. Juan Montoya is the fourth driver expecting this year, joining Carl Edwards (baby due in February), Sadler (February-March), and Jimmie Johnson (July). What are they putting in the water at the track these days?

Have a nominee for Tweet of the Week? Email me at tbowles81@yahoo.com or tweet me yourself -- my handle is NASCARBowles.

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