Smooth ride ahead for NASCAR?

Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

Has NASCAR turned the corner?

Is a thrilling finish to the 2011 season combined with higher TV ratings and better attendance at many tracks enough to put NASCAR back on a steady path of growth?

No one is more excited about the potential of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season than NASCAR's top executives, but there also is no one more cautious.

"It's a moving target, whether it's the economy or different elements that affect the way that you do things or causes you to do things," NASCAR President Mike Helton said Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

"I think what we're beginning to see is the return of the level of energy around attendance at the race tracks, viewership, (things) that contribute to the interest level of sponsors and other partners to be involved in a sport.

"There is always a lot of work to maintain."

There is no better example of NASCAR's continuing battle than the work that has gone into this week's three-day test at Daytona in preparation for the 500.

Cup teams arrived with a slew of mandated changes, intended to reduce the influence of two-car drafts, which many fans don't like.

NASCAR continued tinkering with rules Friday, and more changes could be in store for today's final day.

The reason for the effort is the importance of the Daytona 500, the biggest race of the year. The quality of the racing at Daytona can set the tone for a season.

"The outcome, the proof in the pudding of the outcome (of the test) will be the Daytona 500," Helton said. "The biggest thing ... is the level of interest in being sure that we get the racing right."

It's a delicate balance.

Constant rule changes can cost teams more money, but if fans aren't entertained, the sport can suffer.

While 2011 ended on a high with Tony Stewart's come-from-behind win in the season finale to claim his third series championship, dealing with the racing on superspeedways has been a thorn.

The changes implemented so far allowed drivers making single-car runs, much as they would during qualifying, to run laps as fast as 196 mph Friday, far above the pole speed for last season's 500 (186.089 mph).

Drivers racing in both two-car tandems, as well as in a larger pack, were able to run laps that averaged 206 mph.

NASCAR traditionally has tried to keep speeds at the biggest tracks, Daytona and Talladega (Ala.), slower than 200 mph, to keep drivers safe and cars from potentially going airborne.

Sprint Cup director John Darby says wind tunnel testing shows recent changes to the cars have increased the speed at which the cars can lift off.

"There's a balance between what we're comfortable with" safety-wise, Helton said. "It's a test, so we may be a little bit more lenient at a test than we would be on a race weekend.

"We'll see how everything settles out and what kind of rule package we come back with (for Speedweeks). It's OK for now. But we'll have to take back everything we learn and then make a decision after that."

Those decisions can come anytime up to the 500.

"Once (the teams) get through doing everything they think they can accomplish and get done, all of them know, all right, let's wait and see what NASCAR does," Helton said.

"We have a reputation for that, but it's all in the best interest of having the best racing on the race track that we can deliver."