Race season is here, and for the first time in my sports life, I'm excited about it. In my previous 27 years, I was indifferent to the sport. Lots of left turns and the race being decided in the final 10 laps really didn't grind my gears. And I'm not sure if the new, easy-to-explain-in-20-seconds points system is the final answer.
But the NASCAR season's first race is here; the Daytona 500 (1 p.m. Sunday) has a new track and it's taking the sport over the 200-miles-per-hour barrier.
That's enough to pique my interest.
But, I guess it doesn't hurt that I'll be getting paid to cover the race (my first cup race in person) in sunny Daytona for five days.
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The beauty of NASCAR is its loyal fans. I don't think it's going too far out on a limb to say 75 percent of race fans are diehards. Even when it comes to the NFL, college football and especially college basketball, the pool of passion is diluted by either fantasy sports or the fact that people don't care until the end of the season.
I wanted to get local fans' thoughts on the upcoming season, so I threw my line out on Twitter and got a few nibbles.
"I watched it as a kid for Dale Earnhardt," one fan Tweeted me. "But back then, NASCAR was a lot different. By different, I mean better."
I asked, what's changed?
"I think they lost a lot of focus on what they used to be about. Abandoning popular tracks like Rockingham doesn't help," he Tweeted back.
I'm a young fella, I understand and am all for things changing with the times. Either the Rockingham facility wasn't big enough, or the city wasn't. NASCAR is on the verge of turning the corner and really becoming a mainstream sport. Not just a mainstream sport when Kyle Busch says something stupid and there's a fight in the pits.
So what needs to happen in order to bring NASCAR into the same conversation as the NFL? I, someone who has recently become intrigued with racing, has a few suggestions for NASCAR CEO Brian Francis.
The point system went from Algebra 3 to first grade math - one point increments based on your final position and only three ways of earning bonus points. Since races are so long, find a way to better reward the driver who leads the most laps. Racing is like any other sport, the only thing that matters is the final score. But I think if a driver led 75 percent of the race and spins out, he should get more than one bonus point.
There's no doubt, the most exciting part of a race is the final 10 laps. And it's not rocket science, the American attention span is as short as Ted Williams' (the homeless golden voice guy, not the MLB hall of famer) 15 minutes of fame. Shorten the race. Or have two short races to let the top 10 from the shorter races square off in the track championship. Anything to get rid of the four-hour caution flagged marathon events.
Come down hard on cheating. I understand NASCAR is the bad boy sport. But the racing adage, "if you're not cheating, you're not trying" has lost its luster. To see a driver win an event only to learn later that his carburetor allowed him to go 10 miles an hour faster than everyone else, is a complete black-eye to the sport. If someone cheats, don't just take away the winning points; penalize the driver and the crew chief. A 43-point day turned negative-five will really turn some heads.
And finally, shorten the season. Daytona gets the hype because for a short time (and I mean short), our country misses the sport. The NFL stretches from August to early February, giving five months to build hype, idolize the sports stars and stretch storylines into good-ol'-fashion drama. The short turnaround for racing doesn't let the sport breathe. Less is more.
Give NASCAR a chance this weekend. And if you want to Tweet me to let me know how I've fallen off the deep end, follow me @ZellWBTW.