NEW YORK -- Judging by the NASCAR-clad gallery stationed just outside the awning at Manhattan's elegant 21 Club on Wednesday afternoon, respect for stock car racing is growing in the Big Apple.
Take the guy in the Jeff Gordon hat and tee. And wristbands.
His face is pressed between the bars of a wrought-iron fence like a child sneaking a peek at the tree through the stairway banister on Christmas morning.
But this guy isn't after toys. He's after Jimmie Johnson.
The Nextel Cup champion is standing on the veranda just outside the restaurant, going through the motions of an interview with CNBC. As he speaks, wristband boy is darting around in the background like a gnat at the picnic table.
And as Johnson winds up the interview, Gnat King Cole starts boxing out like Dennis Rodman, bobbing, weaving, dropping elbows. It's all about the John Hancock.
So Johnson signs the autograph for him, and the look on his face is utterly priceless, somewhat akin to Will Farrell's mug in "Old School" when he's discussing the wonder of cold beer -- "It tastes so good when it hits your lips" -- a contorted sort of bliss.
Pretty cool, really. The first 21 Club luncheon I did was with Bobby Labonte in 2000. We rolled in, rolled out. Not a soul. And those who did happen upon us were interested in Joe Gibbs, the then-former coach of the Washington Redskins. Not Joe Gibbs, champion NASCAR owner.
And now, six years later, on a random Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., in the heart of commercial excess, there are no less than 30 people waiting anxiously to greet the champion of the NASCAR world.
I mean, an assembled crowd for the so-called Victory Lap is understandable, expected. Very loud -- both audibly and in appearance -- cars are easing through their city, wreaking logistical havoc on Broadway.
But this is different. This is a devoted group of fans, true fans that pull out the garb, put on the hat and tee and stand outside a restaurant for hours just to catch a glimpse of a NASCAR driver.
All we hear about these days is declining ratings and disinterest.
Tell that to the guy in the wrist bands.
Q: Marty, do you think they should "tweak" the Past Champions Provisional for 2007?
-- Lisa, Mount Calm, Texas
Unequivocally yes, Lisa. The current Past Champion's Provisional program is antiquated and unfair, and it's time for an overhaul.
Now, for the record, I'm all for taking care of the veterans that for so long took care of you. That's fine and warranted. Give them a pension, not a free spot in a field.
The current trend of former champs such as Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte showing up on a part-time basis with guaranteed positions in the field is a joke, and makes a mockery of the parity in Friday qualifying -- 35 spots separated by three-tenths of a second at Bristol Motor Speedway, for example.
Maybe the answer is to limit the number of times a driver can use the free pass -- NASCAR has its own definition of the "Free Pass," but this one's much more applicable -- a la the Busch Series, in which drivers can only use one Past Champion's Provisional for every six race attempts.
For Cup, I say each former champion can use the freebie three times. Total. That's enough, because it includes the requisite condition that the former champion maintains some semblance of competitiveness.
Right now, the last guy to win the title -- that isn't in the top-35 in owners points and wasn't fast enough to make the show -- can use it as many times as possible. That's ridiculous, and quite frankly is a slap in the face to the teams busting their cans to gain a hundredth-of-a-second.
And now is the time. With more than 50 fully-funded teams in 2007, earning one's way into the field is prudent. There's truly no place for handouts any longer.
Q: Marty, as quickly as these organizations can turn for the worse, do you see RCR resting on their success or are they structured to building on this year's improvement? Also, as a 29 fan, I was very impressed with (Kevin) Harvick's maturity this year. What has calmed him down? Thanks and good luck!
-- Wade Weis, Scottsbluff, Neb.
I have every confidence that Richard Childress Racing will maintain its current performance level, if not take it up a notch, Wade. Realizing his once-elite company had fallen into mediocrity, Richard Childress took a step back, instituted a solid infrastructure of crew chiefs, engineers and shop personnel and delegated, took the hands off, let them do what they do.
In today's NASCAR that is critical. Ask Robert Yates. He's currently learning that lesson.
As for Harvick, there are several reasons for his newfound calm. First, he knows his worth, having tested the proverbial waters earlier this year before ultimately choosing to remain with RCR. That, in turn, forged a new respect for owner and driver. And speaking of owner, Harvick is one now, so he better understands Childress' stance on things.
And, like anything else, running well fixes everything.
Q: Marty, I realize the season has just ended, but I have a question: In looking at the progress made by the 8 team on the intermediate tracks (I FINALLY got to give my Roush fan buddies an "in your face" at Fontana this year) would you consider (Dale Earnhardt) Jr. a serious threat to win the title next year?
-- Ted, Sacramento, Calif.
No question, Ted. How couldn't Earnhardt be considered a title threat after a resurgent 2006? He very well may have won this season's title had Brian Vickers not dumped him at Talladega and had he not made a costly mistake at Martinsville.
Don't forget, though, a big factor in the 2007 outcome will be the Car of Tomorrow transition. That's 16 races, nearly half the schedule. Whoever makes that transition the best is in prime position.
Right now Hendrick Motorsports is the only organization to have had its COT chassis approved.
And it stands to reason that that -- much to the chagrin of the other nine guys here this weekend -- puts Johnson in prime position to repeat.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.