HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- With the season concluding this weekend, NASCAR President Mike Helton took time to deliver the sport's annual season review and answer questions from the press corps from Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The longtime series executive touted the success of the Gen-6 in the Sprint Cup Series and the mega television deal brokered this season and spoke of the potential of a new crop of young, driving talent. He insisted NASCAR handled the Michael Waltrip Racing controversy at Richmond, Va. as well as could be expected and even offered his opinion on the greatness of championship contender Jimmie Johnson.
And, Helton said, one thing he confirmed through feedback of NASCAR's new Fan and Media Engagement Center was that this sport's fans are "loyal and they're very opinionated, and that's a good thing.''
Helton echoed the sentiment of NASCAR CEO Brian France, who wrote an open letter to NASCAR fans on Friday, saying that among the greatest accomplishments of the year was the successful roll out of the Gen-6 cars.
"What that taught us, the benefits of it, the outcome of it, the high praise and excitement and acceptance, the visibility of our race cars has showed us what we can do collectively at NASCAR with the OEMs, with the race teams and other folks in the sport were able to grow a very popular product and build some strong relationships," Helton said.
Here are some more highlights during a broad-ranging question and answer period:
*On the large group of young drivers coming into the national series?
Helton: "If you've followed us along the last two or three years, we've done different things with age restrictions and different things to help promote that because we've always had issue with the fact that you can go by an elementary or a high school and you're not going to see a racetrack but you'll see a basketball court or a baseball field or a football field.
"So the industry itself, not just NASCAR, but the industry itself, had to work on that, and it's done that, and it's given more chances and more opportunities to more younger drivers and wannabe drivers.
"So our feeder system I think was important, and I think we're beginning to see results of that. But it's really encouraging to see them progress so quickly and be so talented and so good so quickly. That makes you feel good to see familiar names in another generation that helped build your sport continue to grow the sport."
*On whether there would be changes to the driver eligibility in the three national series with the success of the Sprint Cup drivers when they compete the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series races:
Helton: "We believe that it's in NASCAR's best interest currently to have an open model for its three national series and not restrict who participates in them. But what we have done recently is we created a program where a driver has to declare what series he collects points in. So that's a step in allowing the truck or the Nationwide drivers to be dominant or predominant when it comes to the championship.
"But it still keeps our philosophy of having the open series so whoever wants to participate in them can. But as we go forward we always look at what's next as far as possibilities are concerned. But our general philosophy is to make our products be competitive and open."
*On the fallout after the regular season finale at Richmond, Va. when NASCAR ruled that MWR had manipulated the race and took the unprecedented step of adding a 13th driver to the championship field:
Helton: "I think it was a defining moment. ?And I think in the case of Richmond this year in September, I suspect that that moment will be reflected on for many years to come, but the decisions that we made, the reaction in the industry that self?polices itself is indicative of our environment, and we've kind of moved on from that.
"Certainly because of the uniqueness of having a 13th competitor in the Chase, it made a difference on the 2013 Chase format, so to speak, but I think we made the decisions we made after Richmond before we even started the races in Chicago, which was the right thing for us to do. We did it with a lot of thought and engagement by a lot of people in the business to make sure we took the next step correctly to decide what we needed to do and then go on, but I think we've moved on."
*On where Jimmie Johnson ranks among the great NASCAR drivers:
Helton: "I don't know that there's a definition for it yet. Those that have been around in the sport for a long time have seen the evolution of the definition of the greatest driver and the greatest moments, which is what sports is.
"Sports is the only true reality show that exists, and so it has those moments. That's what makes sports so entertaining.
"I think the history books are more kind to you than current moments are, but nobody can dispute the talent that he's got and the organization and the continuity of that organization."
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