As far as I know, NASCAR Winston Cup is the healthiest it's ever been, flowing with honey and money. The challenge in the new millennium is to keep it that way.

The uneasy feeling I have-that there could be trouble in paradise-is probably unfounded, and I certainly hope so. Maybe it's because the sport has gotten so big so quickly, reaching a level with and beyond other pro sports, that a setback seems inevitable.

I do not seek to foster rumors or generate speculation, but simply to offer remarks and observations I deem pertinent.

In the beginning, more than 50 years ago, there was the product, defined as racing, and little else. And that product remains the heart, the essence of big-time Stock car racing. Everything else that has carried Winston Cup from the outhouse to the penthouse has stemmed from, and revolves around, quality racing. Without the quality product, nothing else exists.

Last year, stories that made the biggest headlines-for example, the $2.4 billion (the figure is close, but nobody seems to know the true value) television package and Dodge returning to Winston Cup-were events off the track. Racing can't make all the headlines, but it determines what they will be.

Competition and big money were issues that raised lots of questions among 200 motorsports journalists at this year's Lowe's Motor Speedway media tour. Some people, not confined to media types, say Winston Cup has become dull, even boring, homogenized and antiseptic, "where everybody looks the same, does the same, talks the same, and gives the same answers," says Kyle Petty.

Sameness has robbed the sport of some drama, says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports. The bigger the sport, the greater the risk of sameness, Wheeler adds. "Sameness is OK to a certain extent," he says, "but too much of it begins to hurt."

I don't think Winston Cup is boring. Not every track is a Bristol. It is obvious, however, that racing isn't what it used to be. I'm not talking about wrecks. I'm talking about prolonged battles, keen rivalries, and close, side-by-side, fender-to-fender competition. That's the stuff that's made Winston Cup a great sport, not NASCAR cafs and Thunder stores.

None of this is news to NASCAR's leaders, particularly Mike Helton, the senior vice president and chief operating officer, and Gary Nelson, the Winston Cup and technical director. "I don't know that NASCAR racing is as good as it's ever been," says Helton. "But I know that it's an issue with NASCAR to make it as good as it's ever been ... I'm not giving up on side-by-side racing, and I think it's still there.

"I think such young drivers as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart will challenge the establishment and generate new excitement ... I think we'll see a higher percentage of competitive cars in 2000, maybe 20-25 guys that can win a race. Ideally, we'd have 43 cars capable of winning." This missive was written before the season began, so I have no clue to the first few events.

Of course, NASCAR will strive to put drama back on the track, but how? Speeds need to be cut on the open speedways with aerodynamics-not restrictor plates-without compromising the handling of cars. When approaching turns at Lowe's and Atlanta, for instance, at almost 200 mph, drivers can't concentrate on anything but controlling their cars.

NASCAR has scrubbed a smattering of speed and smoothed the ride by mandating uniform shocks and springs for qualifying and races at Daytona and Talladega, the two speedways where engines are restricted. Drivers were getting beat up physically by no-rebound shocks in qualifying, and the ingenuity of shock engineers had gotten out of control. "We made the rule for the sake of the competition, the costs of racing, and the improved quality of the product," says Helton. "Teams won't have to spend all their time preparing for qualifying and can concentrate more on racing." Actually, the restrictor-plate races, once among the dullest except for raw speed, rank among the most exciting on big tracks.

Winston Cup could use rivalries, not as nasty as the one-time feud between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, but more like Petty and David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, and Earnhardt and many. How about Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr., not for a few laps, but throughout races. Stewart, who takes losing harder than most, may be the next Intimidator. Stewart's sensational rookie season and the rebound to menacing form by Big Earnhardt, the acknowledged Intimidator, got hearts racing last year.

NASCAR could be more consistent with penalties for rough driving. Earnhardt bumped Terry Labonte out of the way on the final lap and went on to win at Bristol-with impunity. Drivers are confused about how much beating and banging NASCAR will tolerate and tend to be conservative for fear of penalties.

Also missing is gamesmanship, played out in the past by championship contenders. Yarborough and Waltrip used to talk a lot of trash, delighting the media and prompting fans to take sides. "Considering the rookie crop this year, we may have the best driving talent in the history of NASCAR," says Wheeler. "It's a tremendous opportunity to raise the sport to the next level."

Money continues to pour into the sport. R.J. Reynolds has doubled the Winston Cup point fund to a whopping $10 million, assuring this year's champion $3 million and the runner-up at least $1 million. The sum is 100 times greater than the $100,000 posted when Winston became the series sponsor in 1971. The point money will mostly benefit the leading drivers, those who win, and car owners. Drivers deserve every cent they can get, and car owners are the group probably hit hardest on the hip. There may be a negative aspect in terms of competition, however. It remains to be seen whether the big money will serve as an added incentive to competitors to race harder or is another reason to chase points.

Terry Labonte says that if he had to choose between the $2 million he received or the trophy/ring after he won the '96 championship, he would have chosen the latter. Three-time champion Jeff Gordon, Labonte's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, says the extra money is nice, but that he doesn't race for money. "Money won't make us race any harder than we are," says Jimmy Makar, crew chief for Bobby Labonte. "We want to be winners and champions. If you do well, the bonus is neat; it's gravy." Makar echoes the sentiments of those that win the lion's share of races and prize money. The top seven drivers in the '99 point standings won 30 of the 34 races and grossed more than $32.7 million in overall earnings. The next 18 finishers won three races but grossed more than $27.6 million. Joe Nemechek got the other win, although he finished 30th in points.

NASCAR's new television package with NBC, Fox, and Turner Broadcasting kicks in next year. Critics contend that NASCAR was driven by money, choosing two networks with no experience televising Winston Cup races and dumping longtime favorite ESPN, as well as CBS, ABC, and TNN. The criticism is unfair. It behooved NASCAR to get the most money it could because it was dealing for competitors and track owners, not solely for the sanctioning body. NASCAR receives 10 percent of the rights fees, tracks 65 percent, and 25 percent goes into purses.

Fans are upset at the prospect of losing familiar TV personalities, but when the new package is in place, they're going to see faces they know-Darrell Waltrip and Buddy Baker, for sure. And they're likely to see Benny Parsons and Dr. Jerry Punch if ESPN releases them from their contracts. What fans will notice most among TV talent is the absence of Ned Jarrett, the best, who has retired from the booth. NBC and Fox have no experience in Winston Cup, but they have the technology and resources to do a commendable job. NBC's performance in its Winston Cup debut at Miami-Homestead was inconclusive because the race was such a yawner that there was little to work with.

NASCAR is accused of placing more emphasis on its marketing blitz, driven by greed, some say, than on racing. NASCAR is making tons of money. Its 50th anniversary celebration was a financial windfall. NASCAR has more partners than a square dance, issues more licenses than a state, and counts numerous official sponsors touting everything from chocolates to lawn mowers.

Four years ago, Brian France, the man behind NASCAR's aggressive marketing, said, "Competition, without question, drives everything we do. Everything is based on having an entertaining product, which is close competition. If we ever forget that, we're in trouble. That's why NASCAR's marketing will never run NASCAR ... We're going to be credible, officiate, and perform without regard to marketing issues." Amen.

France takes exception to criticism that races are less exciting and that NASCAR is greedy. France says NASCAR's marketing has raised the visibility of the sport tremendously, and that no one ever said NASCAR isn't a for-profit organization. I don't care how much money NASCAR makes, unless it is done at the expense of the product.

But it doesn't matter what I think. It's what the fans think that is the top priority. Faced with ever-increasing ticket prices, fans deserve NASCAR's best effort to deliver a quality product. The extra TV revenues may help stabilize ticket prices, but don't bet on it. Furthermore, they deserve fan-friendly speedways that they can get into and out of within a reasonable time. The guy with his family in the chicken-bone bleachers deserves the same considerations as the guy in the suite.

Wheeler says Winston Cup's lofty status is like a dog that has chased down a Mack truck. "We have gotten about everything we've asked for," he says. "Now what do we do with it?"