NASCAR running to steady beat

Having the second race of the season at a place such as Phoenix International Raceway is a vast improvement from the days of yore. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

More touchy times for NASCAR. What's new? They're so acclimated to catching heat in Daytona Beach and Charlotte, you figure they'd freeze without any.

It would be easy to pile on about Eddie Gossage's NRA 500 in Texas, or join the backlashes against the Gen-6 car or NASCAR's suspension of Jeremy Clements for uttering a racial slur.

But I have lived by what the late NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. once said about me -- both before and after he said it. Once he was asked by an editor at a former place of employment, "What do you really think of Hinton?" And France replied, "I think he calls 'em like he sees 'em."

Now, calling 'em like I see 'em, I see more right than wrong. I'm giving NASCAR byes on the NRA deal because that was Gossage's idea, and on the Gen-6 car because it's a work in progress that requires a little patience.

But here are five things NASCAR is doing right, but that we may take for granted, in countdown format:

5. Continuing to schedule early-season races in the warm West, rather than fighting the bleak winters of the Atlantic coast as of yore.

We've been spoiled by Phoenix and Las Vegas for years, but let's not forget when, at promoters' insistence, the follow-up Cup races to the Daytona 500 were at Rockingham, N.C., and Richmond, Va. I've sat through not only rainouts but snowouts in both places.

Even the best weather was usually dismal, overcast, bone-chilling.

First up on the schedule after the notorious fight at the 1979 Daytona 500 was Richmond. The race was snowed out. So they rescheduled for two weeks later. Next they went to Rockingham, where Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked each other again.

By the time they got back to Richmond, there was such a national uproar over the feud that -- well, I'll never forget reporters from Time magazine and the New York Daily News sloshing around that awful infield in ankle-deep mud and water.

Fine impression NASCAR made on the national media that day.

4. Riding the Danica publicity wave for all it's worth without overhyping.

NASCAR's and Danica Patrick's publicists have done a good job of making her available to the media and letting us take it from there. We're the ones responsible for the endless Danica stories, but we're simply responding to the enormous public demand, largely from casual and non-NASCAR fans.

What would constitute overhype? Well, when Daytona media day fell on Valentine's Day, they easily could have paired Danica and new boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. together on a stage draped with flowers and heart-shaped balloons. Then they could have scheduled their prerace press conferences together throughout the spring.

For every hard-liner who grouses about Danica overkill, there are many more on the outside peeking in, curious whether this NASCAR stuff might be worth following in general. And isn't expanding the fan base what it's all about for NASCAR's future?

3. Suspending obscure Nationwide driver Jeremy Clements for allegedly uttering a racial slur as part of a comment.

NASCAR simply could not let this sort of thing go, as it continues to overcome its old image. Even in the past decade, as NASCAR has struggled to "look more like America" by policy, you've had -- fairly or unfairly -- Spike Lee calling NASCAR racist and a cartoonist depicting a NASCAR venue as a Klan rally. Imagine the enormity of the setback had Clements' sound bite gone on MTV.

Regardless of context, Clements apparently used the same word with which a promoter began his sentence in refusing to pay Wendell Scott for a 10th-place finish at Darlington in 1965, as Scott once recalled to me: "He said, '[epithet], you better git yo' ass down the road.' "

As my colleague Terry Blount pointed out last weekend, there's not another sports league that wouldn't have taken similar action in the Clements situation. But NASCAR, especially, of all sports leagues, had to do this.

2. Continuing to minimize driver injuries with ongoing technology.

Nationwide driver Michael Annett will be out for several weeks after surgery to repair a fractured and dislocated sternum at Daytona. Last year the two most serious injuries that prompted ongoing coverage were the concussions suffered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Eric McClure, both of whom apparently have recovered.

Serious as those injuries have been, think of it this way: A once-deadly sport is down to the type and severity level of injuries suffered in other sports. There hasn't been a fatality in a major NASCAR national series since Dale Earnhardt.

Clearly, both football, especially, and NASCAR have work left to do, but NASCAR can no longer be labeled by its harshest critics as a blood sport. Now, it's just another sport.

1. Seizing the bull by the horns on the fan injuries at Daytona.

Injuring or killing paying customers is just not good business. No industry has understood that better, or longer, than NASCAR.

The record is what makes me confident that NASCAR will move as much as it can, as quickly as it can, within reason and seeking to avoid unintended consequences, to prevent recurrences of the 28-plus fan injuries at Daytona.

Bill France Jr. never openly admitted the real purpose of restrictor plates instituted after Bobby Allison's car nearly went into the grandstands at Talladega in 1987. France always claimed plates improved the show.

But evidence was clear that NASCAR wanted to keep speeds below 200 mph to keep the cars of the time from going airborne into grandstands. Fan safety was the real point.

Similarly, in 1999, after six Indy car fans had been killed at two separate events less than a year apart, NASCAR was proactive in mandating tethers on wheels and hoods -- to keep them from flying into grandstands.

NASCAR racing operations vice president Steve O'Donnell has maintained that the tethers on Kyle Larson's car didn't fail in the crash at Daytona, but that the parts to which the wheels were tethered broke off.

A lot of proposals have been flying about, but it looks like O'Donnell and the NASCAR R&D staff and consulting engineers are zeroing in on the likely culprit in this case: gates.

NASCAR is on this, and NASCAR will fix this.

Nobody, down through the decades, has criticized NASCAR more than I have, in more ways. But I've always called 'em like I see 'em.

And what I've seen most clearly, all these years, is that you the paying customer, grouse as you might over each and every little thing, come first. Always.