The reason NASCAR has declared that "bump-drafting" at Daytona and Talladega speedways is now legal and that the drivers should start "mixing things up a bit" is because the sanctioning body wants the drivers to start policing themselves rather than controlling everything.
So said Matt Kenseth, defending Daytona 500 winner and former Sprint Cup champion during an interview this weekend at the Canadian Motorsports Expo.
NASCAR announced several changes in the last 10 days that it feels will make its brand of stock car racing better. It has decided to do away with the rear wing on the "Car of Tomorrow" and replace it with a spoiler of the type that was on Sprint Cup cars going back years.
Then, last Thursday, it dropped its bombshell announcement that it was relaxing some of its rules and wanted its drivers to show more aggression and emotion on the race track.
"I don’t know about ‘mixing it up,’ " Kenseth said. "I think they’re probably trying not to over-regulate. You know, there’s a fine line between keeping order and regulating everything and I think they’re trying to find that line.
"I also think that by dropping the rule against bump-drafting (when one car literally runs into the back of another, thus propelling both cars forward faster), they’re just saying, ‘You guys regulate yourself. You race and we’re not going to regulate it and you police yourself.' "
NASCAR had slowly been growing intolerant of bump-drafting at Daytona and Talladega – the two biggest and fastest tracks in the Sprint Cup series where restrictor plates (to cut horsepower) are used to control speeds – because it frequently resulted in nasty crashes.
On the morning of the Talladega 500 last November, bump-drafting was banned and the result was a follow-the-leader type of race that disappointed fans and even resulted in criticism of the sanctioning body by some of the drivers.
Kenseth blamed media for much of the fuss.
"I think the thing about Talladega – the announcers made everything seem so negative about the rules – and then after Ryan (Newman) wrecked he made some comments that weren’t good, so I think they’re trying to get back from that a little bit and say, ‘Look, you guys go do what you want; don’t blame us for it,’ that type of thing."
Although NASCAR is suggesting that school’s out, Kenseth – who’s won four poles, 18 races and finished in the Top Ten nearly 200 times in his 11-year Sprint Cup career – doesn’t think the other drivers will get too carried away.
"You have to race these guys every week," he said, "so it’s not where you’re going to take advantage of somebody or you’re going to wreck somebody or they’re going to wreck you. Everybody has their own code of conduct and you try to race people like you’d like to be raced. It’s probably not going to change a lot of things."
He acknowledged, however, that there are drivers in the series who carry a grudge. But not him.
"Yes, there are some people who don’t like each other, and there are some guys you like to beat more than others," he said.
"But I found out the hard way that holding grudges, or animosity toward another driver, or drivers, is counter-productive. It never does any good. I don’t like to be called into the (NASCAR) trailer. I’ve made my fair share of trips there and I don’t ever like going."
Kenseth – who was greeted by hundreds of NASCAR fans at the Expo and signed autographs and posed for pictures for several hours – also had observations on several other subjects:
– Sponsorship: After being with DeWalt Tools since he broke into the Sprint Cup series, Kenseth is now partnering with Crown Royal.
"The sponsorship environment is a challenge. Things work in cycles; they’re up and down. If you look at where we were as a series 10 years ago, and where we are today, there’s no comparison. There’s been tremendous growth. Sure, it’s down a little bit from where it was a few years ago but I think everything in the economy is down. Everybody’s being careful how they spend their money, whether it’s corporations or individuals."
– The popularity of NASCAR. There were empty seats at all the races last year – there was nearly a 15 per cent drop in total attendance over the season – and TV ratings were down.
"You know, it’s funny how it works. I got in the Cup series when it was really starting to grow and through all those great years you couldn’t do anything wrong. Everything was great. But then you get more and more coverage and get new fans coming in and everybody’s looking at it and then, all of sudden, everything’s a negative.
"It seems like the last four years, nothing was right – the races are too long, the races are boring. I mean, it turned from everything positive to everything negative. I think things are a lot more positive than they are negative and I think the racing’s pretty good.
"But an argument could be made for shorter races. I think if you could figure it out, kind of like other sports, if you could figure it out so it could run about three and a half hours, if you could make them all the same, I think that would be a little bit better for the television viewer. Some of our races are pretty long to sit through, like Pocono.
"But I don’t know, because when they poll the fans coming out of the track, from what I’ve heard, none of them want them any shorter. They sit there watching the whole event; they want them 500 miles and all that."
– Danica. The media are excited and seem to be writing nothing but stories about Danica Patrick’s part-time move to the Nationwide series. Ex-driver Kyle Petty, for one, thinks she’ll fail.
"I don’t know a lot about her. Obviously, she’s a marketing machine. You see her face everywhere, in magazines and in commercials. I don’t think it can have a negative impact on the series. I think it’s positive for all of us if it brings more viewership, more new fans who are watching it because of her, whatever.
"As of now, I don’t have a Nationwide sponsor so I won’t be running against her but I’ll be interested in watching on Saturdays and seeing how she does. I think it’ll be fun. It’ll certainly have a lot more people tuning in and paying attention, at least at the start, to see how it goes, so I don’t see how this can really be a negative for anybody."