NEW YORK -- NASCAR president Mike Helton didn't take long to point out that a slickly promoted sport that rose to national prominence in the last decade is about something more than just success on the track.
"We lost some family members," he said Thursday, referring to the deaths this year of drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper. "This loss will affect us far into the future."
Later, Helton said the deaths of Busch Series driver Petty and Winston Cup competitor Irwin in Loudon, N.H., and that of Craftsman Truck Series driver Roper in Fort Worth, Texas, are not something to be forgotten.
"Losing a family member is not something you ever really put behind you," he said.
The family approach is something NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. preached from the time he started the sport in 1947, and Helton sees no reason anyone should ever forgot it. And Helton, who assumed his position only last month when Bill France Jr. stepped up to become board chairman, isn't about to change any tradition.
"Bill France Sr. has a vision for success," Helton said. "He knew that success would be the side effect of one thing - competition."
While the quality of that competition might be perceived to be less exciting to some of the sport's critics, Helton reeled off numbers to make his case. The first 10 of 34 races produced 10 different winners, a record-tying 14 different drivers wound up in Victory Lane, there were four first-time winners and 47 drivers led a lap.
Three-time champion Jeff Gordon, who will watch from the head table at the Waldorf Astoria when Bobby Labonte accepts the Winston Cup trophy for the first time Friday night, says Helton makes a strong case.
"There's so much competition now that you just don't know what to expect anymore," said Gordon, who slipped to an uncharacteristic ninth in the points. "This isn't getting any easier."
It certainly didn't seem so difficult for Labonte, who wrapped up the title with a race to go this season. Generally, the title chase goes down to the last event, but Labonte ended the excitement before the circuit reached Atlanta Motor Speedway for the finale on Nov. 19.
Labonte, whose brother, Terry, won titles in 1984 and 1996, denied Dale Earnhardt a chance to win an unprecedented eighth title by a substantial 265 points. Labonte won mainly because he was flawless if not spectacular, failing to finish only nine laps all season.
"That's going to be difficult," Labonte said of repeating his accomplishment. "But this is about determination."
Changes were announced for next season, including one round of qualifying because Helton said the was little meaningful activity by drivers hoping to make the field in second-day qualifying. Most cars qualify on speed or provisional spots based on car-owner points.
"Wow, I guess this means you only have one lap to get it right now in qualifying," said driver Johnny Benson. "That's going to be kind of exciting."
The other change will alter the format for the renamed Budweiser Shootout, the traditional non-points, season-opening sprint matching pole winners from the previous year at Daytona International Speedway. The race will be lengthened from 25 to 70 laps and will include all past winners of the event even if they didn't get a pole the previous season.
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