Brian France said Friday NASCAR has every intention of leaving "things in the drivers' hands," and why wouldn't he? The competition is tight, TV ratings are slightly up and after a few seasons on the slide, NASCAR appears to be on the come again.
"There's a 60-year history of how we officiate the events," France explained. "This shouldn't be a big surprise for anyone to try to read us and how we're going to officiate the events. … We said late in the event, if your car is faster than somebody else and there's some contact and somebody gets by, that's NASCAR racing. We celebrate that."
France's comments came during a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway in advance of Saturday night's All-Star race. And for the first time in years, he was left to talk about the positives of the sport, rather than defending its shortcomings.
For sure, there have certainly been a lot more highs than lows so far in 2011.
Trips to victory lane for Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith, in the two biggest races of the season no less, were more than just feel-good stories; they demonstrated just how competitive Sprint Cup racing is right now.
In 11 races this season, there have been eight different winners. Anyone who says the same drivers win all the time simply isn't paying attention. Consider the following:
• Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are not in the top 10
• Six different teams have drivers inside the top 10
• Already, 13 drivers have led at least 100 laps, or only four fewer than in the entire 2000 season
For further evidence of how tight the competition is …
Take your pick of which one you liked best.
• Bayne's thriller at Daytona
• Kevin Harvick coming out of nowhere at Fontana
• Harvick coming out of nowhere at Martinsville
• Jimme Johnson's sling-shot win at Talladega tying the closest finish in NASCAR history
• Smith holding off Carl Edwards at Darlington
Already, there have been six races decided by one second or less, and four of those were margins of less than .2 seconds.
Sure, Matt Kenseth won at Texas by more than eight seconds, but that big of a margin is the exception, not the norm.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is relevant again
Yeah, we know, some of you are sick of hearing Dale Jr. this, Dale Jr. that, but the bottom line is having your biggest star being competitive makes everything more interesting. Case in point: golf. The Masters was must-see TV when Tiger Woods roared back into contention; The Players Championship not so much when Tiger withdrew.
Earnhardt running well begets TV ratings going up (which they have) which begets NASCAR becoming more attractive to networks which begets racing readily available on TV, and that benefits everyone, even the anti-Junior crowd.
For years, NASCAR fans have been screaming for the networks to use a split screen when going to commercials so that they don't miss a single green-flag lap. Well, it finally happened last week when Fox surprised viewers with its own side-by-side version in the closing laps of the race at Dover. A day later, ESPN announced it would use a side-by-side system during the second half of every Chase race.
NASCAR fans are always complaining that no one listens. In this case, it's clear they were heard.
Jeff Gordon is fading
After winning in Phoenix to snap a 66-race winless drought, it looked like Gordon would be a player again. In the nine races since, he's had just two top-10 finishes.
Some bad luck has played into it. Still, Gordon is nowhere near championship form. His pairing with new crew chief Alan Gustafson hasn't worked out as expected, at least not yet. If things don't pick up, Gordon may be left hoping that one win will be enough to get him the wild card into the Chase.
Despite trimming down to just one race, Southern California's Auto Club Speedway continued its struggle to fill the seats. The stands at last weekend's race at Dover International Speedway were just over half full. And just this week, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Jeff Belskus said ticket sales for the upcoming Brickyard 400 are behind where they were last year when more than 125,000 seats remained empty.
When asked about this, and reminded that his father Bill France Jr. once said he doesn't like to see empty seats at races, France replied, "My father was pretty forward thinking, but even he I'm not sure saw the financial crisis that we had in '07 and '08. So that tends to modify your thinking of how we view these things."
France said the plus side is sellouts at other tracks, like the upcoming Cup debut at Kentucky Speedway, but did acknowledge NASCAR would "take a look" at some of the situations.
"There aren't many sports that aren't being affected one way or the other in attendance," he added.
True, but there also aren't many sports (read: zero) whose seasons last almost nine full months.