By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bashing NASCAR has been easy pickings the last few seasons.
With its changing formats, confusing rulebook, subjective scoring, sinking ratings and miles upon miles of mindless left turns, NASCAR has taken its lumps in its ascent to the top of American auto racing.
Now it's time to give credit.
An exciting opening month to the season has pumped much-needed life into NASCAR, which has so far delivered on its pledge to return to basics. Decent racing, strong personalities and some juicy dramas have suddenly made NASCAR fun again.
The past week alone proved that.
It started with a flurry of activity from the NASCAR appeals committee. The group issued a handful of rare reversals on season-opening penalties, including a whopper of an overruling that likely saved Robby Gordon's season.
In rescinding the 100-point deduction to Gordon and lifting his crew chief's six-week suspension, Gordon is no longer in danger of having to fold his team because of the errant front bumper he took to Daytona.
Then NASCAR hammered Carl Edwards, stripping him of his points lead because the cover was missing from his oil tank following last week's win in Las Vegas. In its harshest penalty yet, Edwards was also docked the 10 bonus points he earned with the win and would have carried into the championship race.
And then things got really interesting.
Toyota executive Lee White, long silent while Jack Roush has railed against the Japanese automaker's inclusion in NASCAR, pounced on the opportunity to tweak the team owner. In intimating that the Roush Fenway Racing team deliberately cheated in Edwards' Vegas win, White sounded a message the rest of the garage subscribed to.
As driver after driver lined up to assail Edwards' team, Roush grew enraged and focused most of his furry on White, who once worked for the car owner.
"I was not complicit, Carl Edwards was not complicit ... and I'm going to treat Lee White and Toyota for their accusations like they were an ankle-biting Chihuahua and be done with it," Roush grumbled.
The backbiting was fascinating to watch, and joined Gordon's appeals saga and the drama over Edwards' illegal win and ensuing punishment as yet another headline-grabbing moment for NASCAR.
White got the last laugh in this latest battle with Roush, from Victory Lane, where Toyota spent Sunday night celebrating Kyle Busch driving a Camry to its first Cup win. Busch had to beat five Roush cars to do it, including fourth-place finisher Greg Biffle.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," said White, the vice president of Toyota Racing Development. "Everybody associated with this organization are at a level of people that I have rarely been associated with in four decades."
The excitement didn't end when the winner crossed the finish line, either. Tony Stewart led a trio of NASCAR stars in railing against Goodyear and the underwhelming tires the manufacturer brought to Atlanta. The criticism from Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so intense, Earnhardt encouraged reporters to attend Monday's tire test at Darlington Raceway.
Of course, he wasn't one of the three drivers participating. But in crashing the test for Gordon, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman, Earnhardt turned a nondescript event of unmarked cars making individual runs into a media attraction.
It's been that kind of month for NASCAR, which can't seem do much wrong right now. Aside from the debacle three weeks ago in California -- where NASCAR foolishly tried to outrun the rain and started the event when the track wasn't ready then stubbornly tried to squeeze in the race between showers -- everything else has been on the money.
And the ratings reflect it, too. Sunday's race in Atlanta scored an overnight rating of 5.6, up 19 percent from last year. Of the four events this season, only California -- which ran on a Monday morning because of rain -- did not post increased ratings over 2007.
It can be traced back to NASCAR's renewed focus this season on racing and the stars that drive the sport. The sanctioning body fulfilled its promise of allowing personalities to shine when NASCAR slapped the wrists of Stewart and Kurt Busch for their Daytona dustup during the first practice of the season.
The feud helped build momentum through Speedweeks, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. romped early with two nonpoints victories and it culminated with a thrilling finish to the Daytona 500 that saw Newman break Stewart's heart by stealing the win from him on the last lap.
The series then rolled on behind 22-year-old Kyle Busch, who is proving by the week he's the future of NASCAR. The current points leader in both the Truck Series and Cup Series, Busch is showing that drivers really are athletes. He has an intense schedule of three races a weekend -- and he's running up front in all of them.
NASCAR's only significant tweak to its procedures this season was to qualifying, which now groups all cars not in the top 35 together at the end of the session. Even that has worked in NASCAR's favor, creating excitement to what's typically been a mundane exercise in single-lap runs.
Now, all eyes are on who makes the field, and starting next week, the drivers fighting for the final positions should get a whole lot more interesting. From Michael Waltrip in 33rd place in points to open-wheelers Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier in 43rd, big names could soon be missing races.
It's returned interest to what's important in NASCAR, but now it needs to be sustained for the next 32 weeks. There's a long way to go, but this first month shows there's indeed hope to bring this series back to its heyday.