Big rewards can mean more thrillers

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

DOVER, Del. – From Day 1 of the 2009 season, NASCAR has taken it on the chin, mostly because the biggest story lines have involved rain, drugs, lagging fan attention and the fact that the sport's biggest star has been a white dwarf.

NASCAR's brass didn't make the right decision on Feb. 15, at least not in the eyes of critics who still feel it should have waited out the rain instead of handing the Daytona 500 victory to Matt Kenseth 48 laps from the scheduled finish.

The brass continue to be second-guessed for rolling out this new winged car, one that's rankled old-school fans who claim the racing was better "back in the day."

NASCAR hasn't treated Jeremy Mayfield fairly, suspending him for testing positive for a drug it won't reveal.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s underwhelming performance has driven a wedge between NASCAR's core fan base, with one side debating the other over why so much attention is being paid to a driver with three top-10 finishes all season.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, which is why last Tuesday NASCAR called drivers and owners to Charlotte for an extraordinary meeting of the minds where they discussed everything from drug testing to the new car.

But is NASCAR really doing that bad of a job?

Rain is a fact of the outdoor sporting life. It was for last year's World Series, this year's Daytona 500, and anyone who thinks they had the perfect solution for those two outcomes probably thinks they know how to mediate peace in the Middle East, too.

Television ratings are down across the board, but so are "American Idol's." And while there have been noticeably more empty seats at the track, NASCAR is still drawing more than 100,000 fans on a weekly basis – not bad for a slumping economy.

And then there's the racing itself, which over the past month has produced the kind of edge-of-your-seat, bumper-to-bumper, go-for-broke action that transformed NASCAR from a regional curiosity into a multi-billion-dollar cash cow.

In Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart waged an epic, last-laps battle for the win. It started with Johnson's crew flubbing their final pit stop, which dropped the three-time defending series champion from first to ninth with only 31 laps to go.

While Johnson, who dominated most of the day and led a race-high 298 laps, worked his way back toward the front, Stewart tried to wrestle away the lead from Greg Biffle. By the time he did, Johnson was there, too, right on Stewart's bumper.

Stewart should have been a sitting duck; he was on two fresh tires to Johnson's four. So when Johnson went to Stewart's low side with a handful of laps to go, the race appeared over. Only Stewart held him off. Then Johnson tried the high side, only to be denied again. And again. And again.

It went like that for lap after lap. Finally, with two to go, Johnson roared to the high side through Turns 1 and 2, testing his car and his mettle against Dover's concrete retaining wall that crept closer and closer as Johnson rounded the corner. When he came out of it, with barely enough room to slip a piece of paper between his car and the wall, Johnson had Stewart in his rearview mirror and the checkered flag in his sights.

"I don't know how it gets much more exciting than that," said Stewart, who finished second for the third time this season. "When you're the fastest car and you're coming as fast as he was, it was just a matter of time of getting the opening that he needed, and we did everything we could to take his line away from him as often as we could, but just couldn't do it long enough."

Said Johnson: "It took a lot of commitment to get to his outside. I wasn't sure the car was going to stop sliding up the track. I thought it was going to hit the fence. Fortunately it grabbed just in time and changed directions and off I went."

Risking it all for the win – that's the attraction, and more than anything it's what NASCAR has been missing. The Car of Tomorrow has made the drivers safer, taking away an element of danger, and with the championship holding more importance than wins, drivers and crew chiefs tend to choose the safer route – pitting when everyone else does, not going for the risky pass – in order to salvage a good points day.

NASCAR has a great product. We saw it two weeks ago in the All-Star race when Stewart was on the winning end of a finish just like the one we saw Sunday. In both cases, they were going for the victory, not the points. Does that tell you something?

If there's fault to be found with how NASCAR is running things, it's here, not in how it handled a rainout, a drug test or the design of a new car. Reward wins more than with a measly 10-point bonus. Give drivers more incentive to go for the win instead of settling for second place. That will stop the bleeding. Well, that and Dale Earnhardt Jr. running well again.

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