Admit it. We were really hoping that Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick would manage to snatch up that Cup and provide something slightly different for NASCAR Nation to chew on for the next year. But it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, it probably won’t happen next year, either.
Well, despite NASCAR’s promise to change the Chase, the car and whatever else the fans are griping about, there’s one thing that isn’t changing and the sanctioning body can’t do a whole lot about it at the moment. It’s the roster of drivers that are all set to return in a mere 90 days to do it all over again. They’re all the same guys that ran this year and for the most part, the year before. NASCAR has managed to drive itself into a corner devoid of my favorite team member… the near-extinct rookie.
For the 2010 season we had a single name competing (if you want to call it that) for the Rookie of the Year title. Even way back in February, before watching Kevin Conway execute a season of struggle and insignificance, we kind of knew. Conway would not be providing any fresh fish for the NASCAR elite to beat around the high banks this year. There would also be a lack of new ideas in the garages and therefore we suffered through yet another year of rhetoric from the front office that just couldn’t be followed up on the track.
It takes an annual rookie class to keep our sport on the move. Rulebooks are stagnant things. They contain a defined set of rules that if studied enough by mechanical wizards and chess players can be beaten into submission. And once the equation is solved, and the answer is held by a single entity (see the No. 48 team in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), it will take a new set of eyes and a fearless driver to sift through the miasma of convoluted regulations to reach a higher standard.
That, my friends, is what we have not been seeing for some time in the Cup garage and won’t in 2011 as far as I can tell. For although I spied quite a few fresh faces in the development series over the past months, there are no opportunities opening in the top tier for those up and comers to inherit.
I fear we are actually in a static spiral. Lots of movement can been seen but nothing ever actually happens. NASCAR speaks of changes, the government keeps telling us that the recession is over and sponsors continue to abandon ship in an ever-expanding flood, leaving race teams with no way to meet their tire bills, let alone hire an unproven young talent.
We don’t need a lot of rookies, but having at least two or three to pick on during the year reassures not only investors that the sport is moving in a positive direction, but also gives hope to beleaguered fans who have watched the same race far too many times.
It’s been said that our sport is in decline. As a fan I can ignore a dip in TV ratings, a change in broadcast networks, wiggle a little more comfortably in a suspiciously empty grandstand and even suffer through alterations to the rulebooks. But when drivers retire more than once in their careers and I don’t have new names to learn going into a season, something is horribly wrong and at a far more meaningful level than a points system that nobody actually cares about.
Usually at this time in November, I am writing a column that is full of pleasant memories and the desire for the offseason to zip by so that a new year might bring a slew of new winners and yes, even new losers. However, it seems that there will be nothing new for us to see in the coming year.
The same winners, losers, drivers, teams. I’d love to hear exactly how Mr. France thinks that moving the shells around will make the average NASCAR fan care where the marble is when we don’t even like the marble in the first place.
On second thought, I take it back. Conway was the perfect poster boy for the 2010 season. Certainly, nothing new or exciting happened and not much is hovering on the horizon. Our Rookie of the Year is a clear indicator of exactly where our sport is headed; unless the head office stops goofing around with the points system and starts looking at their pension plan, we’re not going to have a sport at all in a few years time.
And I will miss it.
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