CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR entered its brief offseason with several nagging problems, intending to fix as many as possible.
What top series officials emerged with is a new scoring format that simplifies the convoluted points system used since 1975. Left unchanged are sagging television ratings, alarming attendance drops and apathy from new and old fans alike.
After 2010 produced one of the most competitive and dramatic seasons in memory, it was competition issues — the new points system, a tweak to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship — and not the overarching threats to the sport’s success that NASCAR chairman Brian France addressed last month in his 2011 preview.
“Look, we’re very satisfied with the most important thing: the level of competition,” France said. “It’s easy to pull out one thing or another. We’re 63 years old; every sport is going to have periods where, for lots of reasons, you’re in a peak or a valley.
“But over the long-term, we’re very confident that ... we’re setting ourselves up to work through any issues that we have, take the sport in a smart direction over many, many years and make sure the business models for all of the NASCAR community work properly.”
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson said simply changing the points system wasn’t enough to fix NASCAR’s larger issues.
“I don’t believe (the points change is) a huge strategy to engage the fans more from an attendance standpoint or a viewership standpoint,” Johnson said when asked what effect the new points system will have. “I think, in my opinion, there are other areas to focus on for that.”
Those other areas — rising costs, a difficult sponsorship market, fading stars, failure to entice the coveted 18-to-34 demographic and overall fan malaise — remain status quo as NASCAR heads into a new season. The unofficial kickoff is this week when Daytona International Speedway opens in preparation of Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout.
The season-opening Daytona 500 — NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl — is Feb. 20.
Last year’s Daytona 500 was marred by a pesky pothole in the racing surface that caused two delays totaling more than two hours, a debacle that some believed set the tone for another year of decline in NASCAR interest.
The television audience was down 10 percent last season, and ratings dived almost 21 percent during the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Attendance was down almost everywhere, and 13 tracks suffered drops of at least 10 percent.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, and Rick Hendrick, the most successful team owner, both recently called for shorter races and a shorter season. Each said they’d accept less money for the cutbacks.
And Fox Sports chairman David Hill, whose network broadcasts the first 13 races of a 38-race season, said the events should run three hours and fit into a four-hour broadcast window that includes 40 minutes for prerace and 20 minutes for postrace.
But as France and president Mike Helton detailed their upcoming tweaks in a news conference at the sparkling — albeit attendance plagued — NASCAR Hall of Fame, neither offered specific solutions to any of the pressing issues facing the series.
Instead, they unveiled a new 43-to-1 points system that should be easier for fans to understand, plus the addition of two wild card spots to the 12-driver Chase field that are designed to place an emphasis on winning.
Indeed, another strong season of competition could go a long way toward solving NASCAR’s ailments.
The 2010 season was highlighted by the relaxed “Boys, have at it” approach of letting drivers show their personalities and settle their disputes without NASCAR meddling. It led to wild accidents and confrontations, from Carl Edwards sending Brad Keselowski’s car sailing toward the fence at Atlanta in an act of retribution, to mild-mannered Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton nearly coming to blows after an accident at Texas.
The Chase finally developed the way France had envisioned, with a nail-biting three-driver championship battle between Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick that went down to the closing laps of the season finale. It was Johnson who emerged victorious, for the fifth consecutive year, as a heartbroken Hamlin carried the weight of coughing a title away long into the offseason.
Insisting he’s now over it, Hamlin is ready to give another go at dethroning Johnson.
“I think everyone is expecting a letdown year. I know it’s not an option,” Hamlin said. “I’m excited about the challenge. There’s fuel. There’s fuel there constantly, whether I would’ve won the championship or not, to be on top of the sport.”
A similar bravado is coming from Harvick and the entire Richard Childress Racing camp. It will start the season marking the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death and will try to close the year with its first Cup championship since The Intimidator’s 1994 title.
“This year is the year to kick Jimmie off that throne. It’s going to be RCR. I feel certain,” Childress boasted. “Nothing lasts forever in life, and (Johnson’s) time will run out. When it does, RCR will be there with these drivers to win that championship. You get a gut feeling, and I’ve got that feeling this is the year.”
Of course, Johnson has his own ideas.
He has no intention of letting up as he rewrites NASCAR’s record books but will do so this year with a revamped Hendrick Motorsports.
A year removed from the unprecedented 1-2-3 final standings sweep by Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, Johnson was the only HMS driver to win a race in 2010 and contend for the title.
Because of that success, Johnson will enter the season with his race team intact. The same can’t be said for his three teammates, whose teams were shuffled just days after Johnson won the title in an aggressive shake-up by Hendrick.
The move instantly was blamed on the ongoing struggles of Earnhardt, who has not won a race or made the Chase since 2008, his first season with Hendrick. But the team owner insisted almost everyone needed a spark, prompting the swapping of drivers and crew chiefs throughout the company.
The new pair of Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte are now in the same building as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, potentially placing the onus on Knaus to help get Earnhardt back to Victory Lane.
Johnson didn’t seem concerned.
“It’s obviously a new year and new set of challenges,” he said. “We’re working hard on all fronts to be a better race team. I feel like we’ll be stronger and better, but we just don’t know until we get into the meat of the season. The first goal is obviously to make the Chase and from there figure out how to win again.”
That’s what Earnhardt has got to do, too.
Headed to Daytona with his third crew chief in three years, he’s looking for a fresh start. He won’t get that as the memories of the last-lap accident that killed his seven-time champion father in 2001 are impossible to escape in this anniversary year.
Earnhardt has thoughtfully answered all questions in the buildup, but it’s clear he’d much rather focus only on racing. He wants to win again, to race for a championship and escape the failures that have plagued him since his ballyhooed move to Hendrick.
“I feel good about the position I’m in now, and I feel pretty confident about it, and I’m looking forward to going into the season and working hard for it,” he said. “We’ll just see how it goes.”
If it goes well for Earnhardt, he just might be able to solve most of those issues facing France and the entire NASCAR industry.