Changes designed to drive up interest in NASCAR

Michael Waltrip climbs into his car for practice yesterday.

Race-car drivers have opinions. Fans and the media also have opinions. These views aren't always brilliant, but they usually have substance.

Sometimes, it seemed NASCAR wasn't listening. Finally, last month, NASCAR listened.

Brian France, NASCAR's chairman and CEO, said rules changes would be implemented to put racing back in the drivers' hands.

Among the changes are larger restrictor plates in the race cars at Daytona and allowing bump drafting anywhere on the race tracks. Larger plates increase the air flow to the engines, producing more horsepower.

"NASCAR is a contact sport," France said. "Our history is based on banging fenders."

Another change is replacing the rear wings on the cars with the traditional spoiler. This is designed to give the cars more down-force. The spoilers are expected to be in place by next month.

"Without a doubt," said four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, "the cars will drive differently and respond differently in traffic."

Drivers have complained that the rear wings make the cars difficult to maneuver.

With more high-speed bump drafting, tempers will likely flare. Driver A bumps Driver B out of the way. Driver B crashes and calls Driver A an idiot. Jeff Gordon is OK with this.

"I think that's great," he said. "I think that's what's missing in the sport. It's missing because we've become very corporate. The reason [is] the sport is expensive. We have to have big sponsors. Depending on who your sponsor is can dictate your actions on and off the race track . . . more off the race track."

Hornish not a hit

Jimmie Johnson has been involved with a couple crashes caused by Sam Hornish Jr., who is still making the transition from Indy cars to stock cars.

Asked last week who he'd like to learn from, Johnson named teammate Mark Martin. Then Johnson said: "The guy I wouldn't want to learn from would be Sam Hornish. He hits way too much stuff, including me, at important times of the year. And then he never said a word.

"Wouldn't you think, with what is on the line, you would walk up to a guy [and say], 'It wasn't my fault, somebody hit me?' The guy just doesn't talk." *