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Boring? It's a matter of perspective

Does another ho-hum Sprint Cup race await us this weekend at Kansas Speedway? Stay tuned. Peter G. Aiken/US Presswire

I have some good news and some bad news. I suppose you'll want the bad news first.

You know those races you've perceived as boring this spring? Bristol? Even Martinsville before its crazy finish? Texas last Saturday night? But wait, there's more: Another 1.5-mile cookie-cutter track, Kansas, is coming right up, this Sunday.

NASCAR isn't worried. At least not enough to consider tweaking rules to alleviate what amounts to engineering mastery of some of the tracks. For, say, Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville and Roush Fenway Racing at Texas, these events have become cakewalks, at least as viewed from the grandstands and living rooms.

This mastery may well yield fewer and fewer wrecks and cautions, and therefore bunching up of fields ... and more and more high-speed promenades where, a la Formula One, your enjoyment will depend largely on your appreciation of car preparation and driver skill.

Truth is, the better the cars and drivers, the less the rubbin' and beatin' and bangin'. That's about where we are, and where we're headed.

Before we elaborate on the bad news, here's a taste of the good: If you can just hang on until 2013, NASCAR is going retro. And your blast from the past will roar to the fore from way back in the 1970s and '80s, when car manufacturers competed fiercely with their unique designs.

You'll be able to cheer for makes again. Your malaise over the sameness of the "current car," as NASCAR now calls the much-maligned Car of Tomorrow, will simply evaporate. NASCAR promises to deliver what you've demanded.

"The fans spoke loud and clear," Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said in a telephone interview this week. But "these projects take a couple of years' time."

Back to the bad news, for some, about this season: "If you grew up and thought that upside down and on fire coming to the checkered flag was what you wanted to see every week," Pemberton acknowledged, "well, then, when that's not there, you do grouse about it, I guess."

And our readers and chatters here have groused significantly, first during the Bristol race, then Martinsville, and most of all during the 234-lap green-flag run to the finish at Texas last Saturday night.

Is NASCAR worried?

"That we have good racing and some people don't like it?" Pemberton responded.

Up in the control towers at tracks, Pemberton can't afford to watch any one car or group of cars. He has to watch all around the track, and, "When you look around, you see a lot or racing."

But it may not be for the lead, which is where the non-purist tends to focus. And it may not produce wrecking, for which some fans are insatiable but which costs teams enormous sums.

NASCAR just may be the most fan-responsive league in sports -- to the point of pandering, I sometimes think. NASCAR knows it needs its fans -- but it also knows it needs competitors more. Without cars and drivers, there would be no show at all to sell to the public.

"People have different opinions," Pemberton said. "But if you race for a living, you never enjoy wrecking your cars."

Jack Roush, the owner of Greg Biffle's winning car at Texas, attributed the clean -- or monotonous, depending on your point of view -- race to "how well the cars throughout the field are prepared and how well they're driven and what a good tire we've got."

Pemberton and I took each of those points. First, the car preparation, emphasizing Roush's phrase "throughout the field." And that leads to why NASCAR isn't planning to change the rules anytime soon.

"What we have learned is the more times you change things around, the more advantage that a bigger, better-funded, more engineering-based team has," Pemberton said. "The more change ... the bigger the gap you get between the haves and the have-nots."

And there are other reasons you don't have many clunkers on the racetrack anymore.

"The talent in the garage, from your lowest mechanic all the way up to your crew chief and driver, is the highest I can remember," Pemberton said, meaning throughout the field. As a result, "things don't fail; nothing falls off of [the cars]."

So debris cautions, to tighten the fields, aren't as frequent.

And whether you like it or not, the vast majority of rubbin' and wreckin' is caused by bad driving.

"I think our drivers now are so head and shoulders above where they were 15 years ago, it's ridiculous," Pemberton said. "I mean, who would have thought you could run three-wide at Bristol, lap after lap, and not wreck?"

And, "When you look at Jimmie Johnson sliding around trying to get back to Biffle [near the finish at Texas], remember: He's at 190-something miles an hour, drifting through the corner."

Johnson indeed was, in effect, dirt-tracking at twice the speed.

All in all, from Pemberton's perspective up top, "The contests these guys have put on throughout some of these events have just been incredible, if ..."

And let's emphasize this if -- "if you're there solely because you like to watch good racing. I'm a fan of good racing."

But many in the audience are fans of good wrecking. They're the ones likely to suffer and complain more and more as this season goes on.

One area NASCAR could control, but doesn't choose to, is the highly durable tires Goodyear has been producing this year, for fewer failures and, again, fewer wrecks and fewer debris cautions. NASCAR could, in theory, ask Goodyear to soften up the compounds.

"Shame on 'em, for being criticized for doing too good a job," Pemberton said of Goodyear, with tongue wryly planted in cheek.

Since embarrassment with tire trouble earlier this decade, especially the debacle at Indianapolis in 2008, Goodyear has awakened anew.

"They're not complacent," Pemberton said. "This is a new Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co."

So: good equipment, good drivers, good tires. Sorry, crash-mongers. You're stuck with cleaner racing. You'll have to learn to appreciate chess rather than checkers now -- appreciate solo driving performances and/or duels without a lot of rubbing or wrecking, as opposed to sitting back and waiting for crashes.

I've always been a purest on the true definition of racing, which is to go faster than the other guy. Period. That's why I enjoy Formula One, Indy cars, even 24-hour sports car racing. Rubbing as part of racing is a consideration only in NASCAR.

But I also understand what you, the majority of NASCAR fans, want, something akin to Pemberton's line about "upside down and on fire coming to the checkered flag ..."
And it's certainly easier and more popular to write about wrecks and controversy than about the aesthetic beauty of graceful solo performances and high technology.



What we have learned is the more times you change things around, the more advantage that a bigger, better-funded, more engineering-based team has. The more change ... the bigger the gap you get between the haves and the have-nots.



-- NASCAR's Robin Pemberton

Now to next year and beyond, and all -- not just part -- of what you'll get.

The current Nationwide models, e.g., Mustangs and Challengers, were NASCAR's first response to the massive complaining about sameness of cars. And you, of course, have loved the change almost unanimously.

The 2013 Cup cars are the next step for you and for the manufacturers.

"The manufacturers are starting to get engaged more," Pemberton said. "They got jazzed up when we started to work on the Nationwide car. I think we all picked up that momentum together."

Now, "we notice as we get down to the end of this [Cup] project, when we start to bring in the parts and pieces, the gloves are kind of coming off for these guys.

"They're almost done holding hands."

That is, the détente of obedience to the strict C.O.T. rules is over. The fires of manufacturer competition are billowing again, harking back to the decades when Cup cars were at the very least the silhouettes of production cars.

"And it's good," said Pemberton. "It will be a lot of fun."

I can tell you what that will mean: Manufacturers sending teams of engineers into the media centers to complain that Chevrolet got some advantage Ford didn't, or vice versa. I've seen it get this nitpicky: One company is allowed an almost meaningless license-plate indentation on the rear body, and another isn't.

So we're assured of constant flaps. And Daytona each February will be the flashpoint as each new model comes out and NASCAR evaluates it. That's the way it used to be.

Returning to individual body designs amounts to NASCAR's bending over backward, because the inspection and policing process will again be, as of yore, terribly complex.

The level playing field "is going to be so much harder to maintain," Pemberton said. "We're going to be able to do it, but it's going to be a never-ending battle for our officials, just to make sure ... everyone's on a level playing field.

"And we knew that going in. Knowing what we know about the positive feedback from the Nationwide car, all the extra work is going to be worth the effort on our part."

So you'll have your brand identity and loyalty back. But one thing you won't get back is all those have-not teams with inept drivers and tire failures causing cautions.

The bottom-line bad news, for this year and next year and beyond, is that you'd still better develop a taste for chess more than checkers. There is no turning back on that.