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NASCAR easing rules; hopes not to go too far in other direction

Welcome to the new theme for the Cup Series, sold in Charlotte Thursday as a catchy movie for a sport hungry to win back its fans. The season-long pep talk began in earnest this week, capped with a red carpet full of changes designed to bring back passion and personality to the forefront of stock car racing.

What remains to be seen is whether they'll follow through. But like any good movie, the preview has come packaged with hype focused on fighting dismal ratings and fan attendance. Officials might as well have held pom poms in a televised press conference focused on new rules and a new attitude that starts from the top.

"What you need to know is how we regulate and officiate the events week in and week out, we're going to have an eye on putting things back in the drivers' hands," said NASCAR CEO Brian France. "They're going to mix it up a little bit differently because we're going to loosen up."

France quickly put his money where his mouth is, with Vice President Robin Pemberton announcing a rule change for the Daytona 500 eliminating penalties for bumpdrafting. Around for a decade, the controversial rulings left drivers concerned about contact and the dreaded black flag, leading towards subdued, parade-style racing at restrictor plate tracks. And following a harrowing last-lap incident in April -- in which the No. 99 car nearly wound up in the stands after contact at Talladega -- it was clear several slaps on the wrist couldn't stop the natural aggression that comes with racing for the win.

"It's time for us to allow the drivers to drive," admitted France. "Over the past 10 years we've dramatically increased safety, and that mission continues. [But] we don't want the rules and regulations to get in the way of great racing and fantastic finishes."

The hope is changes like this one leave drivers going for broke, taking more risks with the knowledge top officials are still trying to keep them in one piece. It's a positive step in changing perception the series has gone overzealous in rules enforcement, pushing regulation in tandem with a conservative points system critics say leaves drivers trapped in a competitive box. Just don't expect Rome to be built in a day, as a push back towards more aggressive style of racing remains tricky in a sport forever changed by the on-track loss of legend Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

"We'll continue to look at rules and regulations as the season unfolds," said NASCAR President Mike Helton, who explained this rule would be the first of several under scrutiny. "But we have to be sure that we don't step too far in the other direction."

A perfect example of that's already popped up, with a head-scratching decision to keep an out-of-bounds zone for making passes at those same tracks (Daytona and Talladega) where bumpdrafting was eliminated. It's a rule proven wildly unpopular with fans and some drivers, even leading to rookie Regan Smith getting stripped of a win in 2008. Restricting how and when drivers make their moves, it keeps the possibility of wrecks like Edwards' in play -- whose debris from the crash injured several fans in the stands that day.

There was "a lot of debate" on yellow line rule, said Pemberton, referring to when the sport asked drivers and crews about a change. "But the general consensus is the yellow line needs to stay. It was not 50/50 ... not even 70/30."

More popular across the board are design fixes announced to improve handling and aesthetic appearance on "stock cars" losing any semblance of the word. The Cup car's wing will be gone as early as March, replaced by a spoiler in what could be a series of fundamental changes. A new front end design per manufacturer, quarterpanel extensions and other aerodynamic tweaks are on the way as the series looks to ditch generic and bring adjustability back into the hands of the crew chief.

"There's no question that in exchanges we've had with the drivers, the team owners, and everyone else, they want to go back to a more traditional-looking race car and a traditional-handling race car, and that change we think will be the right one at the right time," France said.

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"We put the wing in for all the right reasons," added Helton, making the closest thing to an apology you'll get about the last two seasons. "But over the last two seasons, the acceptance of the wing didn't grow."

Early reaction to a week's worth of change seems to be one of guarded optimism, with officials taking an unprecedented step of town hall meetings with each individual driver and team in the series during this process. It's the type of "working together" attitude the Frances, often termed the "benevolent dictatorship" during the 60-year history of the sport, have been reluctant to forge in the past. The sport's also bouncing back economically, with all four manufacturers recovering well and able to remain in the sport.

But there are still valid concerns going forward. No car will drive more aggressively without a driver willing to push the envelope, and there's widespread debate on whether they'll do just that. NASCAR's company line of "loosening up" the rules has actually been in place for several years, but sponsors focused on political correctness -- along with lingering fears of punishment -- leave drivers hesitant to change.

"They're going to have to gain confidence in what that means," claims Helton on the sport's new policy. "If you look at '09, particularly the last couple of races, in the Nationwide Series with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, the last Sprint Cup race with [Juan Pablo] Montoya and [Tony] Stewart, our reaction to those [wrecks] ... No. 1, we gave it a lot of latitude, and when we finally had to say enough's enough, our reaction was a good deal less than it might have been three or four years ago. So that process [of allowing the drivers to figure that out] will continue."

A positive spin won't stop lingering issues surrounding the sport's driver development, though. Truck Series director Wayne Auton raved about the health of the sport's AA series, and while it's true things are improved, all indications are full fields this year will come with half-a-dozen "start and parkers" there to simply run a few laps, pull in the garage and collect a check. The same with the sport's AAA level. The Nationwide Series is still a mess of seasoned pros dropping down to do battle with up-and-comers without the resources or the experience to beat them.

Perhaps most controversial of all is the Jeremy Mayfield trial looming for the Fall of 2010, a lawsuit on NASCAR's drug policy that's bound to bring some ugly incidents out of the woodwork. Already noted in the sport's new rule book this year is a public list of banned substances, which was unavailable when the driver was suspended a year ago.

But while that and other trials (the Kentucky Speedway case) remain pending, France insists on optimism overriding all, announcing a new policy of refusal to comment on cases.

"We want to get out of the idea that we're going to be commenting about every little filing and ruling and motion," he said, claiming fans care little about those off-track issues. "I want to get focused on what I know you really want to be focused on, and that's what happens on the track."

At the same time, France insisted, "We are going to defend the industry against anything in terms of the policies we have to institute, and we are going to litigate them all the way to the end." There's that dreaded inconsistency popping up again. As we all know, any pending lawsuit is going to make public news when it goes to trial, piquing fan's interest -- one area NASCAR has yet to realize it can't control.

So while a lot of positive rhetoric was thrown around Thursday, there's a sense perception can't fully change until the cars hit the track at Daytona. Yes, there seems to be a universal pulling together of everyone involved in the sport to try to right the ship.

But when all is said and done, actions must speak louder than words. Every movie can be made into a great two-minute trailer; but until you actually go and see the whole thing, you have no idea what you're gonna get.