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NASCAR ready to fix its issues this season


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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ask anyone in NASCAR about the many, many industry ailments and the answer is that everything will be just fine.

They better be right.

NASCAR opened Daytona International Speedway on Thursday for the first practice session of what's expected to be one of the most critical seasons in sport history. Faced with slumping attendance and television ratings, and economic woes that have handcuffed teams and manufacturers, NASCAR has planned a series of adjustments designed to re-energize the industry.

There's no doubt that it's a clear reaction to growing fan unrest.

"I think the fans want to see results," veteran driver Jeff Burton said. "The fans have been speaking for the last several years saying we want to see different stuff. I think if we give it to them, and it's different, and the racing doesn't improve from it, then yeah, this is a critical year.

"When you make changes, because you are making it better, then it better be better."

The first test was expected to be Saturday night in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, when 24 drivers will run the first race under NASCAR's new "Boys, have at it" policy that green-lighted aggressive driving.

But the drivers didn't even make it through Thursday's first practice session without incident. Contact between Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin triggered a multicar accident that destroyed several cars.

It was a preview of what fans can expect during the lead-in to the Feb. 14 season-opening Daytona 500.

"Trust me, we're not finished," warned Greg Biffle. "It's going to be awesome."

NASCAR has relaxed its stance on bump-drafting and aggressive driving, and has encouraged participants to whittle down their obligatory sponsor plugs and start showing some real emotion. It's a clear response to fan complaints that drivers had become too corporate, and that NASCAR's restrictions had ruined the racing at Daytona and Talladega, typically the two most exciting tracks on the circuit.

The decision by NASCAR to be more lenient has so far been applauded, even though the true ramifications won't be known until the checkered flag falls on the Daytona 500. The policing of bump-drafting was to cut down on the spectacular accidents that typically mar Daytona and Talladega races.

"You should care about the racing, and (NASCAR's) not afraid of making changes," said Juan Pablo Montoya, who openly challenged president Mike Helton when he announced a ban on bump-drafting in the pre-race driver meeting at Talladega last November.

"Do they always get it right? No. But at least they admit when they don't get it right and they'll change it and make it better. Other series, if they make a huge screwup and racing is terrible, they live with it."

NASCAR also is showing a softer side by finally relenting a bit on its strict stance concerning the current Sprint Cup Series car. The car was designed by NASCAR to improve safety and cut costs. Phased into competition in 2007, the car has been criticized by competitors who found it difficult to drive and lampooned by race fans who hated the design and blamed the car for ruining racing.

Series officials had been strongly opposed to any major design changes, but recently announced a transition that will replace the rear wing with a more traditional spoiler. Testing on the spoiler has already started, and it could be introduced by late March.

NASCAR has also tried to give relief to struggling track operators by reducing fees it charges to hold a race. The trickle down effect should allow tracks to lower ticket prices — potentially luring fans back into the stands.

But the move has also led to a 10-percent cut in race purses, a reduction that directly effects the cash flow for race teams.

Even with the belt-tightening, team owners seemed uniformly on message in gushing about the steps NASCAR has taken to cure its many ailments.

"I am probably as excited about the future of racing as I have ever been," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "I can honestly say that everybody is pointed in the right direction, and we want this sport, we want it to bounce back and come roaring back. And we will."

Team owner Roger Penske preached about a cooperative effort from competitors and NASCAR.

"We've got to be sure we do this together, build this back up, because we need the TV ratings up, we need more people in the stands and I think we need better competition," he said. "I think the folks at NASCAR realize that."

There's more to this season, though, then just fixing problems.

The sport is still rife with competition storylines, starting with Jimmie Johnson's bid to extend his historical roll to a fifth consecutive Cup title. He was the media's 2010 preseason pick to win the championship — the first time during his run he's not been overlooked in favor of another driver.

"I'm thinking it my be a curse," he laughed. "We'll see how it turns out."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, will try to bounce back from a horrendous season that rattled his confidence. If Earnhardt succeeds, it will only strengthen an organization that Rick Hendrick has established as the very best in NASCAR.

All eyes will be on Hamlin, the trendy pick to upend Johnson based on a torrid close to last season. But he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee playing basketball two weeks ago, and a decision to postpone surgery until after the season has some questioning whether he'll still be a contender.

Then there's his nemesis, Brad Keselowski. The two openly feuded over the final three months of last season over incidents in the Nationwide Series. Hired by Penske for a full-time Cup ride this season, the controversial Keselowski will now be racing every week against Hamlin — and all the other drivers he's annoyed.

He's not concerned.

"It's so hard to come into this sport and run well when you're worried about making everyone else happy," Keselowski said. "I just don't see how you can do that because in competitive sports, the only time your competitors are happy with you is when they're beating you."

And don't forget Danica Patrick.

The enormously popular IndyCar driver will begin her transition into NASCAR via the second-tier Nationwide Series driving a car owned by Hendrick and Earnhardt. She'll make her stock-car debut Saturday in the ARCA race, and has not fully decided on whether or not she'll run next week's Nationwide race at Daytona.

But the crowd of reporters and photographers surrounding her at Thursday's media day was at least three-deep, and the buzz about her arrival has been a tremendous boost to NASCAR at a time it clearly needs some positive press.

"You'll have people come in and watch a race that would never watch a NASCAR race in their life just because she's there," said defending Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. "It's good for all of us, and NASCAR, to get some new people to come in and watch the sport.

"Hopefully, they'll like what they see and want to come back."