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Dramatic Changes Put NASCAR on a Roll

Everything NASCAR has done in 2004 seems to have been bigger than life.

First, the complexion of the sport was changed dramatically from Winston’s red and white to Nextel’s black and yellow when the new series sponsor took over. Then came Brian France’s announcement that the season would be split into two parts, first 26 qualifying races to select the top 10 drivers, then a 10-race Chase for the Championship among those 10.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the people’s choice everywhere the Nextel Nation appeared, won the Daytona 500, taking the checkered flag only a few hundred yards from where his father was killed on the final lap of the 2001 race. Later in the season, Junior was docked 25 points for uttering a single vulgar word in a post-race interview after he had won at Talladega, a penalty that loomed large as the championship race heated up.

A pall fell over NASCAR on Oct. 24 when a small plane carrying members of the Hendrick Motorsports family crashed en route from North Carolina to a Cup race in Martinsville, Va. Ten people perished, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s son Ricky and brother John.

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Continuing its drift away from its Southeastern roots, NASCAR awarded a second Nextel Cup race to California Speedway in 2004 and to Texas and Phoenix in 2005, and taking the Southern 500 from Darlington and erasing Rockingham, N.C., from the schedule entirely.

The most significant and far-reaching act of 2004 may have come Nov. 10 when NASCAR announced that it would accept liquor sponsorships for its cars and tracks in 2005, a controversial decision considering that it came less than a year after having eliminated all tobacco-related advertising.

“You can’t smoke, but you can drink,” seemed to be the message.

Crown Royal Canadian whiskey almost immediately announced that it would be a sponsor for selected races on the No. 97 Ford that Kurt Busch drove to the inaugural Nextel Cup championship. The Crown Royal logo will appear on the hood and the car will be painted in purple and gold. This year his Sharpie’s car was black.

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Not surprisingly, the announcement was met with criticism.

“The American Medical Assn. is extremely troubled to learn that NASCAR will soon advertise hard liquor brands through sponsorships of race cars and teams,” said J. Edward Hill, AMA president-elect, in a statement. “NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in America and boasts 75 million fans. We believe it should use its new-found marketing and cultural influence to be a positive role model, not to endanger the lives and health of youth through the glamorization of liquor.

“Our children need less exposure to alcohol, not more. NASCAR and other major sports already bombard adult and youth audiences with advertisements for beer companies. NASCAR’s unwise decision only makes matters worse. NASCAR is only helping liquor companies enhance their image -- fast, risky driving in a cool car goes hand in hand with their product.”

Beer and malt liquor, such as Smirnoff Ice, were permitted before the recent reversal of a 30-year ban on hard liquor advertising.

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In case you’re interested, Jeff Gordon would have won his fifth NASCAR Cup championship if the old points system had been used. Busch, who won the 10-race Chase for the Championship shootout, would have been fourth, 247 points behind. Jimmie Johnson would have been second both ways, 47 behind Gordon or eight behind Busch.

Winners

American Honda riders Steve Hengeveld, Johnny Campbell and Kendall Norman were first to finish the 37th annual Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 last week. They combined to complete the 1,013-mile race from Ensenada to La Paz in 15 hours 57 minutes 37 seconds. First four-wheel vehicle was a Ford-powered Smithbuilt open-wheel desert race car driven by Troy Herbst and Larry Roeseler in 16:18:14.

Rickie Gaunt, who earlier won the Sprint Car Racing Assn. championship, outlasted USAC/CRA drivers to win the season-ending Jack Kindoll Classic at Perris Auto Speedway last Saturday. Rip Williams’ sixth-place finish earned him the USAC/CRA crown.

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Jimmie Johnson was a near-unanimous choice in fourth quarter balloting for American driver of the year. Johnson won four of the final six Nextel Cup races and received 12 first-place votes. Other first-place votes went to World of Outlaws champion Steve Kinser and Nextel Cup’s Busch.

Supercross

Seven-time supercross Jeremy McGrath announced that he would race the first three events of the 2005 supercross season, starting with the Jan. 8 opener at Angel Stadium. McGrath “retired” after the 2002 season and did not compete last year. He will ride a factory Honda.


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