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Five NASCAR media tour takeaways

CHARLOTTE -- What did we learn at the 32nd annual Sprint NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway?

For starters, this northerner learned that it actually does snow in Charlotte -- and that road crews there are surprisingly far more effective at dealing with a couple of inches of the frozen white stuff than they are back home in Indianapolis.

But on a more serious note, we did learn quite a lot about what stock car racing's movers and shakers have been doing and talking about during NASCAR's amazingly short offseason. With practice for the 2014 Daytona 500 just two weeks away, here's the story so far:

1. NASCAR can -- and will -- change the rules whenever it likes

OK, so this isn't exactly news. NASCAR has been accused of managing competition for decades. But back in the day, it was little things, like giving the Fords or the Pontiacs a little extra spoiler height if they weren't competitive with the Chevys.

In the past two weeks, NASCAR completely revamped its qualifying procedure to introduce knockout sessions like the ones used in Formula One and IndyCar. That was a relatively minor change compared to the new-look Chase for the Sprint Cup, which will now feature 16 drivers and three rounds of eliminations to set up a winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16.

There's no question that NASCAR consulted most of its constituents over the past three years before making these changes, but there is also little doubt that the changes likely would have been made no matter what kind of feedback they got.

It's interesting to note that while initial fan feedback about the revised Chase format was overwhelmingly negative in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, an ESPN SportsNation poll was deadlocked at 50-50 some 24 hours later.

It's going to take a full year of competition or more to see if the new system produces the desired effect, but one thing is for sure: If NASCAR wanted to get people fired up about the Chase, it succeeded. And it's going to be a talking point all season long -- which is one reason NASCAR did it in the first place.

As Richard Petty said, "It's just another PR deal."

2. Jimmie Johnson doesn't believe there is a target on his back

Jimmie Johnson has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in the past eight years, and there have now been three changes to the Chase for the Cup format since 2007. It's easy to come to the conclusion that NASCAR wants to see somebody else win the title, but even Johnson himself doesn't think that.

"I think NASCAR probably does care who wins the championship, but they are not laying awake at night wondering how to keep [Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team] from winning," Johnson told reporters during a breakout session at the media tour.

"I don't think NASCAR is picking on me or trying to keep me from winning the championship. Sure, they like history, they like those big monumental moments. But by no means do I think this is an attack on the 48."

Johnson believes that the move to an elimination system is a logical progression for the Chase.

"When the Chase came along, it was a big change in a lot of ways," he said. "We've seen some minor changes since, and they haven't really moved the needle. My opinion, and many share that opinion, is that something big needed to happen. Here it is.

"I commend NASCAR for looking at something big and something different," he added. "It's hard to argue that the NFL system they modeled it after isn't successful. So I see the mindset and the path of thinking they're on. If it's the right bullet, only time will tell."

3. Brad Keselowski can be quiet

Brad Keselowski has gained a reputation as NASCAR's most outspoken driver, so many reporters flocked to him during the media tour, expecting a controversial or compelling reaction to the sweeping changes that NASCAR is introducing across the board.

But the Team Penske driver played it right down the middle, refusing to speculate on the new Chase format ahead of its announcement and tempering his comments after the fact. No problem, because Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch certainly stepped up into the villain's role.

Roger Penske is known for preferring that his drivers make headlines for their performance on the track rather than their quotes or tweets. The veteran team owner insists that nothing has been done to muzzle the colorful pilot of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.

"Brad is Brad," Penske said. "From the day he came to us, I didn't think he got way off the reservation. Maybe some of his comments about NASCAR and a couple other things got him in trouble early on, but overall I think NASCAR likes him. He brings a different viewpoint to the sport, which is as important to you in the media as it is to me.

"Our sponsors love him -- they don't want a guy who just sits there on his couch. Miller and the team are interested in a guy who speaks his piece, and that's what he did last year."

Keselowski chalked up his "new" image to simple maturation -- and continued time spent with Penske, who aside from his success in racing is one of the most successful businessmen in America.

"Nobody wrote me any checks for being outspoken; maybe I did it wrong," Keselowski said with a laugh. "Maybe I need to get some lessons from [Seattle Seahawks cornerback] Richard Sherman!

"I'd like to think I've gotten better over the last few years as a driver, but maybe gotten worse in some ways as a person," he added. "I feel like I've grown a lot as a person and a professional from being around Roger Penske -- understanding his approach to things and how he's been so successful."

4. NASCAR drivers don't like it when fans say they aren't racing hard

One of the reasons put forth by NASCAR for the change to the Chase format was to reduce or eliminate points racing -- the perception that drivers are cruising around, willing to settle for top-5 or top-10 results in an effort to consistently amass points without taking unnecessary risks that sometimes accompany a win-or-bust mentality.

It's unfortunate that not every race has the exciting finish of the 1976 or '79 Daytona 500, or the May 2003 race at Darlington. But it's worth remembering that great racing can occur further down the field. In Formula One, many consider the last lap of the 1979 French Grand Prix one of the greatest battles in F1 history, but Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux were racing for second place, a full minute behind winner Jean-Pierre Jabouille.

We should also take into account that in NASCAR, every point -- in other words, every finishing position -- can dramatically impact the championship. Just ask Carl Edwards, who would have bested Tony Stewart for the 2011 Sprint Cup.had he found one single position on the racetrack over the course of a 36-race season.

Not surprisingly, Edwards takes great offense to the notion that drivers are out there pussyfooting around when they're not in contention for a race win.

"If you see all these guys in a line on the racetrack, you think they aren't racing that hard," Edwards observed. "That's what NASCAR has been trying to address. The cars are so dependent on aerodynamics, such that I can't get sometimes to the guy in front of me. He's making a wake in the air and he's ruining my aerodynamic advantage. Even if my car is faster, I basically can't get to him because I lose my ability to corner fast. No matter how much you make a position worth or a win worth, if you can't get to a guy, there are going to be long periods of the race where it's difficult to pass.

"The test we had at Charlotte [with cars racing in packs using different ride heights and aerodynamic configurations] was awesome," he added. "The format was good, and I think we need to do more of that to try and make the actual racing better. In my opinion, they need to continue to work on less downforce and less dependence on aerodynamic devices. When I go back and watch YouTube videos of races in the past, there were guys running all over each other at big racetracks, and I don't think they were relying on big splitters and spoilers."

Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, shared a similar perspective.

"People like to say, 'Let's put a million dollars on the line at the All-Star Race and see if they all wreck each other,'" he said. "That's not how it works. When you're racing as hard as you can already, you can't create another set of rules to change that. When you're fighting stuff like aerodynamic things on mile-and-a-half racetracks, you can't get close enough to wreck somebody. You can't contrive that.

"From a driver perspective, there's nothing left," Keselowski continued. "There is no set of rules that can make me race harder than I already do. You might not take as big of a risk when you're fighting for 14th or 15th place -- you're just trying to maximize your day -- but when it comes down to fighting for a win, I feel confident that everyone at the Cup level is going to take it."

5. NASCAR is still huge

There's a lot of talk going around about how NASCAR's fan base is eroding, that TV ratings are down compared to their historic peak from five or 10 years ago and about how tracks are reducing seating capacity to eliminate the number of empty seats that aren't being sold.

Yes, the numbers are down in many respects. But take it from someone who has had a front-row seat to watch Indy car racing's much more dramatic decline over the past 15 years:

NASCAR is still huge.

An estimated 400 media members attended NASCAR's 32nd annual media tour, and a glance around the facility of any major NASCAR team provides instant proof that there is still plenty of money in the sport.

I'll be surprised if the IndyCar Series' preseason media day -- scheduled for Feb. 18 in Orlando, of all places -- manages to attract 40 media members, despite trying to take advantage of the fact that many of them will be staying an hour up the road in Daytona Beach during the off days of Daytona Speedweeks between the Sprint Unlimited/Daytona 500 qualifying weekend and the Budweiser Duels on Thursday.

Some say that the change to the Chase format speaks of desperation on NASCAR's part, but almost everyone involved in the sport agrees that some kind of modification needed to happen.

"We've seen a lot of statistics on NASCAR, and the TV ratings are flat to slightly up, which is pretty good in sports today," remarked NASCAR and Indy car team owner Penske. "It's still the No. 2 spectator sport in America when you look at it from a holistic perspective. There's going to be so much more hype this year -- if you look at the Final Four and all those brackets, we're taking a page out of stick-and-ball sports, and I think that will be key."

The bottom line is that NASCAR is still synonymous for racing in America. And that's not going to be changing anytime soon.