Wednesday, August 4, 2004

It's a bit less sport, a bit more showbiz


Business-minded decisions are reining in on-track action, drivers say

By Steve Ballard
The Indianapolis Star

LONG POND, Pa. - Although it wasn't readily apparent at the time, NASCAR's decision in 1994 to join forces with Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the first significant step in transforming stock-car racing from a minor-league sport into a major-league entertainment industry.

Controversial for both parties when it was announced, the Brickyard 400 gave the speedway its first major event other than the Indianapolis 500 and helped provide the economic backbone for track president Tony George to launch the Indy Racing League 18 months later.

Just as significantly for NASCAR, it signaled the beginning of an evolution that has seen the sport expand far beyond its traditional boundaries and become, for better or worse, a cultural phenomenon.

Schedule, rulebook overloaded

Heading into the 11th Brickyard 400 on Sunday, the 21st of 36 races in a NASCAR Nextel Cup season rife with change, it is the shaky balance of sport and entertainment that is of increasing concern to the competitors.

"The sport is teetering more toward the entertainment side and away from the racing," said Jeff Gordon, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner.

"The business side has grown and become profitable because of the entertainment side. But it has to balance out. It can't outweigh hard-core racing."

First-year chairman Brian France insists it's not a matter of choosing priorities. Better racing makes for better entertainment.

"It's not either/or," he said.

But two former series champions whose careers bridge NASCAR's past to its present, Bill Elliott, 48, and Rusty Wallace, 47, said they believe the sport is over-managed and contend a rulebook written to equalize the competition is only damaging it.

"Too many rules, too many races," Wallace said. "I never thought in my days that I'd see so much change. And so much of it is unnecessary. It seems like every week at the drivers' meeting we're being told something different."

Elliott, now semi-retired, spent much of his career as an owner-driver. He wouldn't try that today, he said, because any competitive edge he might find either would be taken away or given to everyone else for the good of the show.

"NASCAR has definitely taken things in a different direction," he said. "In trying to make things equal, it actually ends up costing everybody more money at the end of the day."

Pursuing fan-happy finishes

Among the entertainment-related changes in the 12 months:

• A new method for determining the champion, with the top 10 drivers after the 26th race to be reseeded five points apart for a 10-race title fight;

• A geographic shift in the schedule, with Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham losing races to Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles;

• A rule that extends a race beyond its scheduled length for a two-lap shootout in the event of a caution in the closing laps.

The latter was instituted only last week; negative fan reaction during a seven-race stretch in which four events ended with the winner cruising across the finish line behind the pace car made the rule change inevitable. But the groundwork was laid in 1998 at Richmond (Va.).

Dale Jarrett was leading with a few laps left when the yellow flag came out. NASCAR took the then-unprecedented action of halting the race and restarting it after the track was cleared. Instead of winning under caution, Jarrett lost when Terry Labonte bumped past him with two laps to go.

"I didn't like it then, and I don't like what it's led to now." Jarrett said. "It's too much about the show and entertainment.

"I understand fans want a great finish, but until that night, if a caution came out, that's just the way it was. This is a sport. It's not about keeping everybody (in the grandstands) happy."

BRICKYARD SCHEDULE

FRIDAY

• 3-5 p.m. - Practice

SATURDAY

• 11:10 a.m. - Qualifying

• 3:10-3:55 p.m. - Practice

• 4:45-5:30 p.m. - Practice

SUNDAY

• 2 p.m. - Driver introductions

• 2:30 p.m. - Brickyard 400 (160 laps)

All times Ohio time

BRICKYARD WINNERS

1994 - Jeff Gordon, 3 hours, 1 minute, 51 seconds; 131.932 mph, $613,000

1995 - Dale Earnhardt Sr., 2:34:37, 155.218, $565,600

1996 - Dale Jarrett, 2:52:02, 139.508, $564,035

1997 - Ricky Rudd, 3:03:26.841, 130.828, $571,000

1998 - Jeff Gordon, 3:09:19.165, 126.770, x-$1,637,625

1999 - Dale Jarrett, 2:41:54.791, 148.228, $712,240

2000 - Bobby Labonte, 2:33:56, 155.912, $831,225

2001 - Jeff Gordon, 3:03:30, 130.790, $428,452

2002 - Bill Elliott, 3:11:57, 125.033, $449,056

2003 - Kevin Harvick, 2:58:22, 134.554, $418,253

x-1998 winnings include $1 million Winston bonus

NEXTEL CUP DRIVER LEADERS

DRIVER POINTSSTARTSWINSTOP 5TOP 10MONEY WON
1. Jimmie Johnson 3,0402041415$3,472,310
2. Jeff Gordon 2,808204915$3,852,660
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,773203912$4,554,350
4. Matt Kenseth 2,623202712$4,240,790
5. Tony Stewart 2,606201710$4,049,320
6. Elliott Sadler 2,50420148$2,938,750
7. Kurt Busch 2,48120248$2,306,460
8. Ryan Newman 2,47220169$2,965,140
9. Bobby Labonte 2,46620059$2,737,160
10. Kevin Harvick 2,42020037$2,888,330
Through Aug. 1




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