Same story for NASCAR in New York: king of road

Trump, cast of thousands on scene for celebration of sport's latest conquests

Auto Racing

December 03, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Donald Trump began NASCAR's day yesterday with a little joke.

"I could say fire your engines!" said the star of The Apprentice, the reality TV show on which he has made the phrase, "You're fired!" famous. "But I won't."

Instead, Trump gave the traditional command for "Gentlemen, start your engines," and the top 10 drivers in the Nextel Cup season pushed the buttons that started their race cars' motors in Times Square.

Thousands lined the streets, blocked off by police, as the cars followed a set route to the NASCAR offices on Park Avenue.

"I remember when we came here for the first time in 1982, and no one even knew we were in town," said Mark Martin, who finished fourth in the championship chase. "It was like our own personal parade."

NASCAR has overrun New York, just like it is running over the rest of the country. Just how dominant the sport has become over the past year was demonstrated again at a luncheon and news conference at a fashionable Park Avenue restaurant later in the day that was attended by everyone from ESPN to CNN.

There, NASCAR president Brian France said the sport "has momentum like we've never had before. Our ratings are higher than ever, interest is swelling and our TV partners are thrilled."

And one of the major reasons for this new excitement is The Chase to the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, the postseason, 10-race playoff that saw Kurt Busch win the tightest race in NASCAR history.

Busch will be honored here tonight at the sport's annual awards banquet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel's Grand Ballroom.

But that's not to say everything is perfect.

The Chase came into existence partly because 2003 champion Matt Kenseth won the title while winning just one race. This year's system was supposed to correct that by putting more emphasis on winning.

But while driver Jimmie Johnson won seven races this season, including four of the final six in The Chase, he could do no better than second in the final standings, beaten by Busch, who won twice during the season, once in the final 10 races.

In the end, consistency still mattered most and set off a small debate among the 10 Chase drivers over whether consistency still should decide it.

"I think consistency is a little overweighted," said Ryan Newman, who won eight times in 2003 but finished sixth in points. "This system was supposed to be a solution to what happened last season, but Jimmie Johnson still won more races."

Johnson, however, was not among those seeking change.

"I think consistency should count," he said. "The fact we were able to climb back into the title chase after a disaster in Kansas with six races left shows consistency works in the new system.

"I think that's OK. If we ran a series of 10, 50-lap sprints, then it should be all about winning. But given all the miles we run over 36 races, it should be about consistency."

France said any changes to the current scoring system next season will be small ones.

"We've always said consistency was important," said France, when asked if more changes are planned.

"Now, we think we have a better balance. Jimmie Johnson charged back from eighth to finish second. Kurt Busch overcame adversity, too. Winning and consistency combined to make a great championship race and a great champion.

"I think you saw performances elevated."

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