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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Looking towards 2007

2006 is finished. There were plenty of highlights, but something was missing. Every milestone or interesting story was countered with less appealing news. There were great stories like Jeff Burton winning his first race in five years. There were also several less thrilling races that featured very little racing. NBC got record numbers for the Daytona 500, but almost every other race saw declined ratings. Several drivers changed teams and six prominent rookies debuted. Aside from that, there weren’t any major rule changes: no new races or playoff formats. In short, 2006 looked a lot like 2005 and that may have cultivated boredom in some fans.

If change is the answer, then 2007 promises a banner year. NASCAR is introducing a new car, a new manufacturer, and a new TV network. There are several new teams and drivers, including new stars from other racing series. There will also be changes to the point system. It might be too many changes at once for the occasional fan to stay interested.

Car of Tomorrow: It's not an exhibit at Epcot Center, it's the name of NASCAR great experiment aiming for increased safety and better racing rests on the new car design. Many owners, drivers, writers and fans think it’s a bad idea. The spring Bristol race is the first race for the new car. What happens if there are problems at Bristol? Will teams have to bring completely different cars to Martinsville the next week? Phoenix will be the first real aero-sensitive track, and presents the first true test. How will teams with strong short and flat programs like Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, or Denny Hamlin react to having their best cars obsolete?

Two years ago NASCAR made significant changes to the rear spoiler and added softer tires. As a result, two teams, Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, figured out the changes quicker and won eight of the first nine races. Someone will solve the CoT puzzle next year too and take off in a similar way.

Toyota's Cup Debut: As if owners and fans weren't complaining enough about the Car of Tomorrow, there is also the entry of the Japanese manufacturer to Nextel Cup. Two brand new teams plus Bill Davis Racing will drive Toyota Camry's next year. People are concerned about how much money Toyota can throw at their program. Others are upset that a foreign make is allowed entry to NASCAR. Whatever stance someone takes toward Toyota, the actual effects of the Japanese automaker won't be fully seen until 2008 at the earliest. The most important goal next year is getting cars qualified. Only Dave Blaney and Dale Jarrett are guaranteed to start the first five races next year.

ESPN replaces NBC: 2006 saw ratings drop for almost every race. Will a change in networks make any difference? One theory is that the sport’s audience has peaked. Promotions will certainly increase compared to a lame-duck network switching its efforts to the NFL. As much as fans complain about the coverage, my guess is most people will watch the races regardless of the network. Monday Night Football didn’t see any change in ratings when John Madden joined ABC, and I doubt NASCAR will be different. The occasional fan watches because there is something interesting happening on the track, not because of Brent Musberger, Wally Dallenbach or Jeff Hammond.

Rookie class: It’s not as deep as the heralded 2006 class, but this year has plenty of interesting stories. Juan Pablo Montoya will get the most attention and for good reason. Everyone wants to know how a Formula One driver will do in stock cars. AJ Allmendinger is another successful open-wheel driver that will have a yellow rookie stripe next year. David Ragan and David Reutimann both jump from the Truck series. One has 38 NASCAR starts; the other has 107 among the three touring series. Two other rookies will get part-time rides and full-time apprenticeships. Regan Smith, not David Ragan, will share a ride with Mark Martin at Ginn Motorsports. Meanwhile Jon Wood will make his historic debut next year in his family's number 21 car.

The rookie that might surprise the most is DEI's Paul Menard. Menard was one of two non-Cup drivers to win a Busch race in 2006 and is the most Cup-ready driver of the rookie class. Whoever rises to the top of the rookie class one thing is certain: Crashes and angry veterans are certain byproducts with so many rookies in the field.

If change is the answer to more excitement then indeed 2007 will be wild. Of course change in itself is not the answer. Stay tuned.