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NASCAR looking ahead to season of change

Brian France glanced at the huge red and white Winston banner hanging behind Victory lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway and shook his head.

“It’s going to be real different not to have them around next year,” France said. “Winston has been a big part of this sport most of my life.”

Indeed. Many changes await NASCAR in 2004.

The season-ending Ford 400 was the last go-round for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s Winston brand as title sponsor for NASCAR’s top series. Communications giant Nextel takes over next season in the first year of a 10-year, $700 million commitment.

France, who recently replaced his father as chairman and CEO of NASCAR, knows it’s going to be a culture change after 33 years of Winston sponsorship.

Cigarette money paved the way for NASCAR’s growth from small races in the Southeast to a powerful mainstream sport that draws an estimated 75 million fans and enjoys TV numbers second only to the NFL.

But business setbacks and growing government regulation forced RJR to reassess its marketing strategy, telling NASCAR it was time to seek a new major sponsor.

That decision makes Matt Kenseth the last Winston Cup champion. Beginning with the Feb. 15 Daytona 500, it will be the Nextel Cup.

Since the deal was announced in June, the new sponsor has been virtually silent, preferring to make quiet preparations and give Winston the stage for a graceful exit.

“I’m really impressed with the way they’re approaching it,” France said, referring to the new sponsor. “They’re taking it very seriously and have done a lot of homework, and they’ve been very respectful of Winston’s prior role.”

Winston’s final bow was only one part of NASCAR’s season.

In 2003, there was a key rules change, movement toward a realignment of the schedule, and the departure of one manufacturer and the introduction of another.

For years, NASCAR had been criticized for allowing drivers to race back to the flagstand after a caution flag was waved, a practice considered extremely dangerous.

The weekend that the younger France became boss, former champion Dale Jarrett crashed, bringing out a yellow flag, and found his car sitting helplessly in the middle of the track as the rest of the field charged out of turn four at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Somehow, everyone avoided Jarrett’s car, but the scare was enough to prompt France to make his first major decision, ruling that racing must stop when the caution comes out.

“We needed to find a better way to do it rather than racing back to the yellow, and the new procedures we are putting in place are the first step in the process,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

With a crowded 36-race schedule still top-heavy with events in the Southeast, France Jr. announced in January an initiative he called “Realignment 2004 and Beyond,” an effort to shift races from older, smaller tracks in the heart of traditional NASCAR country to bigger, newer venues in bigger markets.

International Speedway Corp., the holding company controlled by the France family that owns or holds a stake in 12 of the 23 tracks on the top NASCAR circuit, took the first step, shuffling races at three of its facilities.

The tradition-laden Southern 500 will remain at Darlington Raceway, but will move from Labor Day weekend to a November date previously held by North Carolina Speedway. The holiday race is being given as a second event at the newer California Speedway, which seats close to 100,000 and has sold out each of its Cup events since its first in 1997. North Carolina Speedway will have only a February event next season.

In another change, General Motors announced earlier this month that its Pontiac brand will no longer race in NASCAR in 2004. That leaves GM with only Chevrolet to battle holdovers Ford and Dodge.

Toyota could eventually make it a foursome again, though. After racing quietly in NASCAR’s low-level Goody’s Dash series and winning its first NASCAR-sanctioned championship with Robert Huffman in 2003, the Japanese manufacturer will move into the Craftsman Truck Series next season with four teams and six drivers in new Toyota Tundra trucks.

There was also controversy in the Cup series in 2003.

A long-standing feud between Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch boiled over at Michigan in August, with Spencer punching Busch in the face in the garage area after the two bumped and banged on the track late in the race. Spencer was fined and suspended for one race and Busch was fined.

Perhaps the biggest uproar of 2003 was caused by Kenseth’s championship run, which included only one victory — the first time a champion has won just once since Benny Parsons in 1973.

The fourth-year Cup driver gave team owner Jack Roush his first championship, and he did it with consistency, turning in 11 top-five finishes and a series-leading 25 top 10s. Kenseth led the championship from the fourth week of the season and wrapped up the title a week before the finale — the fifth championship in the last six years to be settled before the last race.

Criticism of the 28-year-old points system that rewards consistency over winning grew as second-year star Ryan Newman won 11 poles and eight races but wound up sixth in the points. He failed to finish seven times due to accidents or mechanical problems.

“Maybe we need to have more reward for winning or finishing near the front and less of a penalty for having a disastrous race,” four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said.

Kenseth shrugged off such talk.

“We’ve been able to run up front and be very competitive all year,” he said. “We’ve been able to take days that looked like they were going to be bad days, with trouble like flat tires and stuff like that, and turn them into top 10 runs. I think that’s what a championship team is made of.”

Brian France was quick to point out that the same points system resulted in exciting championships that went right down to the final lap in Busch and trucks.

“There are people who say we haven’t really had a significant championship run and the excitement’s not as good as it could be,” France said. “But we hear that every year and we do look at it every year and I’m just looking at it maybe a little closer than ever in my new role.”

The competition could get a lot tighter in 2004 when NASCAR cuts three-quarters of an inch off the rear spoilers of all the cars and Goodyear supplies a softer tire that wears out quicker than the one in use since 2001.

NASCAR hopes that less downforce and more tire wear will force teams to rely less on fuel and tire strategies and fast pit stops for track position. What it wants is more wheel-to-wheel racing.

“Man, I think it’s going to put the driver back in the driver’s seat,” former champion Rusty Wallace said. “If it goes the way I think it will, you’re going to see better racing and more passing. I can’t wait to get started.”

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