Commentary

NASCAR legends support changes

Originally Published: February 7, 2014
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

A throwback breed of driver -- the all-out, all-race charger -- will re-emerge in NASCAR, reminiscent of "Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Fireball Roberts, people like that, who just put it to the ground and go."

So says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, formerly NASCAR's most colorful and innovative promoter, one of six legendary NASCAR figures whose opinions I sought regarding the sanctioning body's radical changes to its qualifying and Chase formats for 2014.

[+] EnlargeHumpy Wheeler
Getty ImagesH.A. "Humpy" Wheeler is a legendary promoter who likes what he sees in NASCAR's recent rules changes.

The others were five Hall of Fame drivers: Johnson, Yarborough, Bobby Allison, David Pearson and Richard Petty.

"The emphasis on winning is not only going to change the way a race is run, it's going to change the type of driver that we have," Wheeler said. "You're not going to see guys who are 'Mr. Consistent.'"

Winning takes on vast new meaning this year, with NASCAR's "win and you're [virtually] in" standard for making the Chase, and a guarantee that a win during any round of the Chase advances a driver to the next round of elimination playoffs. Beginning with 16 drivers, four will be dropped after each of three rounds until a final four is set for the season finale at Homestead-Miami.

The new Chase format "is gonna make 'em race now," said Johnson, who stands at the pinnacle of NASCAR lore as a moonshine runner turned driver turned team owner. "I say that the racing needs something, and this is something that could very, very possibly bring it back to the old time when they didn't stroke and ride like they're doing right now, [with] about half the drivers just riding 'til the last 25 or 30 laps ... "

"Now they're going to say, 'Forget the points; go win races,'" said Petty, NASCAR's all-time winningest driver, with 200 victories and seven championships. "That's what the whole premise is ... 'You go win races, you're gonna be able to run for the championship.'

"I'm OK with it."

Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, is all for all of the changes NASCAR has made for this season.

The living-legend drivers had mixed feelings about "knockout" qualifying in groups, but were mostly positive on the Chase changes. One exception was Pearson, Petty's archrival in their peak years, second to the King on the all-time wins list with 105, and a three-time champion.

Pearson expressed weariness with all the changes of the past decade, going back to institution of the Chase format in 2004.

"I don't care too much for the rules they've got now," Pearson said, meaning the structure even before the '14 changes. "They keep changing all these rules around."

And now, Pearson reckoned, "They just want to change things around for the public."

Petty put his take on NASCAR's motivation even more concisely: "PR."

But the consensus was that NASCAR needed to jump-start fan interest and enthusiasm -- "They had to do something," Yarborough said.

"They're trying to put the interest in there to get the fans' attention, because they certainly have lost a lot of fans' attention," said Allison, an 84-race winner and the 1983 champion, whose career was cut short by a life-threatening crash at Pocono in 1988. "You can see that by looking at the grandstands and seeing all the seats you could get if you wanted to buy a ticket."

From the interviews emerged something of an indictment of current drivers, who all claim they run as hard as they can, all the time.

The old guys just don't buy that.

"There's been more point racing than there has been racing to win in the last few years," said Yarborough, NASCAR's first three-peat champion (1976-78) and an 83-race winner.

In recent years, "I think it was a deal where there was a lot of guys who just rode around 'til late in the race, and it made a bad race," said Johnson, who sold his race team in 1995 but has remained a keen observer.

Not all drivers will become chargers -- "You got some guys out there that don't race to win," Petty said. But now, "You're gonna be able to go with the [likes of] the Junior Johnsons, or Fireballs, or Curtis Turners. They didn't care where they finished if they didn't win."

Will the Chase change really be enough to jump-start the all-out, all-the-time style?

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
Getty ImagesRichard Petty calls NASCAR's Chase changes a PR move, but he doesn't disagree with them.

"I hope so," Yarborough said. "We need some excitement."

"Until they change the cars, they're not gonna have no excitement," Petty said. "They've got them so aerodynamically equal that the best driver in the world is not gonna beat the worst driver very much."

"The cars are so equal today, it's taken the driver out of it, almost," Yarborough said. "You could almost switch every driver around to a different car before the race started and they'd probably end up the same way."

Current-generation drivers maintain adamantly, by consensus, that they race as hard as they can, all the time, and that settling for a high finish and a good points day occurs only when the car is incapable of winning.

But, "Think about this -- and I don't care what any race driver says; I don't care who he is," Wheeler said. "You're running second. There are 12 laps to go. You are just barely faster than the guy in front of you, but just a tick.

"Then you start talking to yourself and saying -- nobody will admit this -- but you start talking to yourself and saying, 'Hey, if I try to pass that guy we might both wreck, and that's gonna put me down four positions in the points.'

"That's going to go aside, because we were breeding a different type of driver by that [mode]," Wheeler continued. "We were breeding guys who were more consistent.

"People in the grandstands don't care about consistent. They want to see guys bury that car down in the corner and knock the hell out of somebody to get around 'em.

"And we lost that."

Johnson was a notoriously hard charger and risk-taker during his 50-win driving career in the 1950s and '60s, and the only driver he sees now who is anywhere near that mold is another Johnson, no relation, a six-time champion.

"Jimmie Johnson runs just about as fast all the time as he does the last few laps," Junior Johnson said. "He's got good quality setups underneath his car and he don't just loaf around out there."

Now, "I guarantee you in five years you're going to see such a driver change, it's going to be incredible," Wheeler said. "And maybe -- maybe -- that guy from the dirt tracks of Iowa, that A.J. Foyt from the sagebrush of Texas, is going to be able to get up there and say, 'Hey, I don't talk right; I don't dress right; I don't look right; but by God there's one thing I do, though: I put my foot in the pedal.

"With the emphasis on winning, losing's going to be such a bad thing," Wheeler continued. "Right now, losing's not a bad thing. And that's what we need to get away from."

Who might join Jimmie Johnson going all-out, all race?

"I think Ryan Newman will," Wheeler said, "because he's a very hard driver. He goes down in the corners pretty hard."

And, "I'm talking about new guys like Parker Kligerman [just now arriving at Cup level this season]. He's a charger," he said. But, coming up through Trucks and Nationwide, "he was not in an atmosphere where that [charging] would really be something to do.

"You've got some guys who know how to run fast but maybe they've been held back for a variety of reasons," Wheeler continued. "I'm talking about guys like Clint Bowyer. Particularly Clint Bowyer, because that guy can drive down in the corners.

"He's got a little bit of [Dale] Earnhardt in him. But he hasn't shown us that because that's not the way people have been racing," Wheeler said.

Also high on Wheeler's list to roar to the fore is rookie Kyle Larson, brought to Cup full-time by owner Chip Ganassi.

"I think he's probably got as much hard charger in him as anybody we've had on the circuit in a long time -- since maybe Cale, somebody like that," Wheeler said. In recent years, "I just don't think the atmosphere has been great for it."

[+] EnlargeCale Yarborough
Getty ImagesThree-time champion Cale Yarborough said there's been too much points racing in recent seasons.

The great chargers of the past "weren't racing a full schedule; they just wanted to win the race," Wheeler said. "And that's what we've got to get back to here."

Junior Johnson sees one possible drawback to win-and-you're-in.

Say "somebody who doesn't run up front all the time gets lucky and wins a race," Johnson hypothesized. "He'll just ride around the rest of the [regular season] races. I mean, he won't go busting his hind end to make sure he's getting in the Chase. He's already in it."

"That's a weak part of it, certainly," Wheeler conceded. "But with as much charging as is gonna be going on ... a driver's job is at risk. If he wins one race, and in the rest of them he finishes, eighth, ninth, 12th, 14th, et cetera, he's gonna be looking for a job the next year. Because that owner's going to want a guy who can win two or three races."

Plus, the Chase seeding -- three bonus points for each regular-season win -- "is going to be a big part of" motivation to win as many races as possible, Wheeler said.

At Homestead-Miami in November, "The last race will probably be a very exciting race with four people," Yarborough said -- although, "I don't see anything wrong with the way we had it back when I did it."

Yarborough won his three titles under the old full-season points format, with no playoff system at the end.

Pearson won three championships that way, in 1966, '68 and '69, and still thinks "The 'Chase' ought to be done all year long," he said.

Allison, on the other hand, wonders whether he'd have won more than one championship if the Chase had been in place when he was active.

"When they first came out with the Chase [in 2004], I was against it," Allison said. "But then if I look at the thing, if they'd had the Chase format, I probably would have won the championship a couple of other times. For instance, in '71, I won nine of the last 19 races of the year."

Opinions of knockout qualifying varied.

Qualifying in groups, in timed sessions, "How are you going to tell who gets a draft or who gets help?" Yarborough asked. "How are you going to know who has the fastest car? So I don't know ... I'd rather see them qualify one at a time. But whatever they think ..."

"Something had to be done for qualifying," Wheeler said. "At Charlotte, we used to pile 'em in there [the grandstands, for qualifying]. Darlington used to have crowds for qualifying.

"And they've just gone to nothing."

[+] EnlargeBobby Allison
Getty ImagesBobby Allison wonders how many more championships he may have been able to win under NASCAR's Chase format.

Now, "there's some exciting things about it -- there certainly needed to be," Wheeler said. "I'm thinking about back in Earnhardt's day, when Kannapolis [Earnhardt's hometown] closed up and came to the track. They don't do that anymore.

"The crowds have fallen and fallen and fallen, and it's become a non-event.

"This way, while it's certainly not original, with Formula One already doing it, with the right track and the right P.A. guy [track announcer on the public address system], it can be made an event," Wheeler said.

Wheeler isn't worried at all about possible spectator confusion during group qualifying.

"After a period of time, with all these fancy scoreboards we've got, people will be able to see who's the fastest, all the time. And it won't be as confusing as it sounds now. Innovative people will let them know who's doing what."

Allison sees very practical possibilities in group qualifying. For decades, in early practice sessions, teams would have to decide whether to go with a "qualifying setup" or a "race setup." Now, the two modes may come together.

"I can see where that can be a benefit to a lot of people," Allison said. "It keeps them from having to do the qualifying ritual, which will save the teams some money."

Might group qualifying give a clearer picture of who is likely to run well in the race itself?

"Absolutely," Wheeler said, "because there won't be any hiding. People will show their hand."

"They're going to have to set up pretty much race stuff," Petty said.

Junior Johnson disagreed, saying, "You're never going to know who's got the best hand unless you have something of a [one-car] qualifying situation."

And, Johnson figures, through the first two of what will be three rounds of qualifying at most tracks, teams will still go in something of a qualifying mode.

"They'll run the first two segments as fast as they can to get in that first [final] bunch," Johnson said. Then in the last round, "They'll go for the race setup."

Even in the early rounds, which will be timed at 25 and 10 minutes, teams will run only a few really fast laps, to get the numbers into the computer, and then ease up, Johnson figures.

[+] EnlargeJunior Johnson and Darrell Waltrip
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesJunior Johnson, left, won titles as a driver and as an owner with the likes of Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel. Johnson said NASCAR's recent rules changes could be a step in the right direction.

"If they're going to do qualifying in a pack, [the teams] won't do but two or three [fast] laps," Johnson projected. "So it would be about the same as what they'd do on their own [in individual qualifying]."

All in all, "NASCAR knows it's show business," Petty said. "We're 'showing' against football, baseball, basketball, all that stuff."

TV ratings have been flat to down, and attendance has clearly declined in recent years. But most other sports have suffered from declining interest.

"If you look at the statistics, we are holding our own against anybody except maybe football," Petty said. "Against baseball and all that, we're still along about where we were 10 years ago. They're losing fans, too. Football games are not full all the time, either. They might have sold all the tickets but the people are not there.

"Everybody's been hit."

For the big picture of sports in general against a vaster entertainment world than ever, Petty offered "A little history here ...

"When we first started, the only thing happening in the South was racing. We didn't have [professional] football, baseball or basketball. Now, all over the country, there's X Games, there's people running upside down in the street, they're going naked in the park, there's so much competition.

"We're still steady with people over 45 years old. They cuss and raise Cain [about NASCAR ignoring its traditional fan base], but they're going to stay with it. They're the base.

"How do we get a new base once us old guys are gone? I don't know.

"And we're not the only sport that's having the problem of getting new people, because they're all walking around with their computers and their phones and they're punching buttons and ...

"And their attention span is so short now. I'm shorter than I used to be. I used to could sit down and watch a movie. Then I liked to watch hour programs. Now I've got down to where I like to watch half-hour programs.

"I want to see the beginning, I want to see the end, I want to go to something else. The new generation is even more so. That's just a trend of people.

"How do you break out of that? How do you keep the percentages as good as they are? I don't know."

Societal changes are so vast and sudden that "I don't know that in our sport, better racing is going to cause anything like that [a breakout from the doldrums]," Petty said.

"I think what we really need is another Fireball, or another Cale Yarborough, or another Earnhardt, to come along and break everybody's back so that people that ain't paying attention will pay attention.

"When I came along, we dominated so much that people knowed Richard Petty and never knowed what he was doing. Arnold Palmer was the same way. When golf got low, he came along and got it going. Michael Jordan got basketball going again.

"We don't have that personality out there now."

That's where Wheeler's hope for the throwback charger, the plainspoken driver who is good at nothing but racing all out, may be a light on the horizon. But that may all be contingent on NASCAR's radical changes.

Has Petty, who has been around NASCAR since his childhood in the 1940s, when his father, Lee, raced, ever seen such sweeping change, so suddenly, as the makeover of 2014?

[+] EnlargeDavid Pearson
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesDavid Pearson doesn't care much for the changes NASCAR has made in the past decade.

"No, no, no," he said. "They've changed not just one thing, they've changed five or six things." Historically, "they've been really conservative about making changes.

"They're starting to gamble now."

Said Allison, "I think somebody keeps throwing these wild ideas at them, convincing them that 'This will put another million people in the stands.' ... I don't know -- and haven't tried to figure out -- where all the information comes from."

"I don't know whether it's been sent down by Brian [France, the NASCAR chairman], saying, 'Let's change some stuff,'" Petty said, "or whether he's thinking it up, or somebody's got his ear, or whether some of the lieutenants are coming up with it.

"I don't have a clue."

"I think [NASCAR president Mike] Helton's got a lot to do with it," Junior Johnson said. "He likes for the racing to be a business where you put 100 percent into it. I've noticed for a long time that he's really into trying to help the sport, more than any one person I've seen.

"He's smart enough to know that right now, they need help."

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