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Danger lurks in relaxed rules

The 2000 Daytona 500 was known for lack of passing and the charges of "boring racing" as Dale Jarrett sized up leader Johnny Benson in the final stages of the race. The rules at the time made it very difficult to pass in NASCAR's biggest race without the help of a "push" from another driver. So Jarrett waited until the right time and was able to get his push from another Ford driver, Jeff Burton. Jarrett left Benson in a helpless position with four laps to go and scored his third Daytona 500 victory after leading 89 of the 200 laps.

The media and fans decried it as a boring race, and NASCAR officials decided to make some drastic changes to improve the racing, including a "wicker" across the car's roof that dramatically aided the art of drafting.

When the series arrived at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2000, those changes led to dramatic and exciting racing, including Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s charge from 17th to the lead in the final six laps for what would be the last victory of his legendary career. By the 2001 Daytona 500, the sport was on an upswing after signing a new television contract with FOX and NBC. It was being billed as a sport of heroes with the focus on Earnhardt as a living legend.

The Daytona 500 that day featured several "Big Ones" including a crash that involved Jeff Gordon, who shrugged it off saying that it was the nature of the beast -- the style of racing featured at restrictor-plate tracks that led to such calamity.

But the final crash that day rocked the sport to its very core as Earnhardt was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the biggest race in the sport. And while there are many reasons that led to his fatality that day, making NASCAR a "contact sport" and letting the drivers "have at it" were at least part of the environment that existed in an attempt to avoid "boring racing."

Much has changed in NASCAR since that Black Sunday at Daytona. Earnhardt's death forced auto racing to dramatically improve safety. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its then-leader Tony George played a pivotal role with the University of Nebraska's Dr. Dean Sicking to develop the Steel and Foam Energy Resistant (SAFER) Barrier, which has saved many a driver from bone-crushing injuries during a hard slam into the wall.

NASCAR created a new car, which some people still call the "Car of Tomorrow" even though it has been used since 2007. The organization has incorporated many safety features into the design. And, during that time, NASCAR officiating has been all over the map, from tinkering with aerodynamic rules to create more exciting racing to cases of "over-officiating" such as last fall at Talladega when the series wanted to see daylight between the cars in the massive turns at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.

The drivers went out that day and turned Talladega into a high-speed version of the Festival of Roses Parade for much of the race before bump-drafting led to two major wrecks in the final portions of the contest. But in an interesting reversal, NASCAR officials have decided to step out of the equation and let the drivers police themselves when it comes to bump-drafting at Daytona and Talladega, as well as contact and aggressive driving at the other tracks on the circuit.

NASCAR officials contend they are listening to fans who want a return to the fender-rubbing, hit-and-run form of racing that was a hallmark of NASCAR for most of its history.

"We are going to have an eye on putting things back in the driver's hands," said NASCAR CEO Brian France at the recent Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "They are going to mix it up a little bit differently because we are going to loosen it up. We have been doing that for several years and we are going to continue that. And the goal is to make very, very good racing, better. That's the No. 1 goal that we have. We think we have got the right package to do just that."

NASCAR took a unique approach last year and during the offseason by having a series of "Town Hall" meetings. The fans were involved and NASCAR officials believe the changes are in response to those discussions.

"Our town hall meetings... where we can really get the exchanges going and the back and forth for the drivers and team owners and track operators and everybody talking about one thing -- talking about this is a contact sport," France said. "And we got very, very good input."

While drivers and teams used to have the "Fear of NASCAR" put into them by president Mike Helton or vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, many are now going to be responsible for their own conduct.

"The bump drafting rule as we know it at Daytona and Talladega over the past few years will be totally eliminated," Pemberton said. "I think it's all about how aggressive they feel that they can get to make a pass, how much real estate that they can use up, and it remains to be seen, the outcome of that. But it's back in their hands and I think anything can happen."

NASCAR even considered the elimination of the "yellow line" which serves as the out-of-bounds marker at Daytona and Talladega. If a car goes below the yellow line to improve position, that driver is penalized. If another driver forces a car below the yellow line to keep from getting passed, the blocking driver is penalized.

Ultimately, the drivers believe they still needed some boundaries to keep Daytona and Talladega from looking like a bachelor party gone awry.

"That has been a highly-debated conversation over the wintertime and the general consensus is the yellow line needs to stay, and it will for now, and we will look at it at a later date," Pemberton said. "But now, it will be in play from green flag to checkered flag."

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For now, the infamous rear wing will remain on the car at Daytona and for races in the first few months of the schedule before it will be removed and replaced by a rear-spoiler this spring. At Daytona, drivers will have the largest restrictor-plate since the 1989 Daytona 500: 63/64ths of an inch. By adding more drag to the cars, NASCAR officials felt confident they could give the drivers more horsepower.

It is a dramatic change in direction as NASCAR wants drivers to "mix it up" more often.

"Sometimes you can do too much, and that's unsettling to people," France said. "And there are things everybody feels very strongly about. In this case, the spoiler with what that's going to do to change the racing; and there will be a significant change, and depending on which driver and team you are, you'll feel differently about that. But I think that there's no question that in the exchanges we have had, they want to go back to a more traditional-looking and traditional-handling race car, and that is a change we think will be the right one at the right time."

NASCAR has decided to "lighten up" on its competitors in an attempt to improve the show. But that could lead to some unforeseen circumstances. For example, is the sport willing to go back to the fistfights on pit road that used to happen decades ago? And does America really need to see star driver Jimmie Johnson get punched by an angry driver?

"A couple of years ago we were going to allow their character to unfold more," Helton said. "So we started that process of lightening up. We asked Robin and his guys to take a look at rules we could talk about letting up on. We will continue to look at those rules and regulations as the season unfolds, but we have to be sure we don't step too far the other direction. Certainly we are encouraging the characters, athletes and crew members for their personalities to be a big part of the sport."

By allowing its drivers to "have at it," NASCAR is making a big change to the way it officiates and manages racing. But while many of hard-core fans may be foaming at the mouth to see some of the knock-down action return to NASCAR, it's only a matter of time before NASCAR realizes that with some of its drivers, there is no such thing as "self-policing."

These drivers will do everything in their power to get a competitive advantage and that means stepping over the line from time to time.

There's a new CEO for the IZOD IndyCar Series and it's a man who admits he has never been to an IndyCar race in his life.

Randy Bernard was announced as the CEO of IndyCar on Tuesday, February 2. The 43-year-old is currently CEO of the Professional Bull Riders, Inc. and will take over a role that had previously been offered to Indy Racing League founder Tony George, who turned it down last June.

Bernard was contacted on Saturday night, but was waiting until Monday to make his final decision. "The board of directors of the PBR gave me until Monday to make my decision and out of respect to them I waited to do that," he said. "I will make the decision by Monday. I'm very intrigued by the opportunity and I'm very honored they offered it to me but I really want to do my homework. I want to look people in the eyes and see if they want to work with me and make it (IndyCar) bigger. I love the PBR and want to make sure I make the right decision."

Monday morning, Bernard informed Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation CEO Jeff Belskus that he had accepted the position. However, that left IndyCar Series President of Commercial Development Terry Angstadt in limbo. Angstadt was reached by telephone on Saturday night in Orlando, Florida, and indicated that his role may be duplicated by Bernard, who will now be at the top of the IndyCar Series executive chart.

"We'll make it work," Angstadt said. "As long as I have a meaningful role to play, I'm not leaving, but I'm not naive. That is his call. In the last year, we have brought significant money into the IndyCar Series. We're just getting started."

Angstadt was key in striking deals with APEX/Brazil and IZOD taking over as the first series sponsor in 10 years. Those deals are estimated to bring in $15 million annually to the IndyCar Series. As for choosing Bernard, it was not to fill a role or replace any member of management already on staff.

"Randy comes with a strong CEO background, which complements well with the expertise that Angstadt has," said a source close to the situation. "The conclusion that we have come to is somebody has to be in charge. We need accountability."

Combine this move with George's decision to leave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation Board of Directors and suspend operations at Vision Racing, and it's easy to see that there is a new sheriff in town.

"I think we would agree we didn't come into this thing thinking we had a realistic shot." -- Ryan Dalziel after unheralded Action Express won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.

"I heard a loud clank and the car kind of whacked. I thought I'd blown a front tire or something like that, and being so close to the garage, I figured I'd pull it in." -- IndyCar Series driver Justin Wilson explaining why he pulled the leading car for team owner Chip Ganassi into the garage with three hours left in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Nothing was found to be wrong and the team lost the race.

After an offseason that flew by quicker than normal, it's a return to racing action as NASCAR SpeedWeeks gets underway at Daytona International Speedway, beginning with Thursday's Media Day followed by ARCA and Budweiser Shootout practice. I will be hoping for clear skies on Saturday so Daytona 500 Pole, the ARCA 200 and the Budweiser Shootout are run on schedule and I can head to the Super Bowl and hopefully watch the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning try to win another Vince Lombardi Trophy.