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NASCAR’s 25 most influential

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, May. 27, 2011

Everyone in NASCAR wants it, from top executives to the drivers and crew chiefs.

But not every one has it.

The Observer unveils a twist on a popular favorite. Observer motorsports writer David Poole, who died in 2009, used to list the 25 most powerful people in NASCAR each May, when the circuit visited Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Starting this year, we’ll list the 25 biggest influences on stock car racing. Many names remain the same. Some are new. All are debatable.

1. The economy

Nothing has a wider and more immediate effect on NASCAR. Higher unemployment means more fans with less money to spend on racing, and some with none at all.

A slow economy means a reduced presence by sponsors and less sponsorship money available for teams. High gas prices hurt the fans who travel to races by car.

Some tracks have lowered ticket prices, but unless the economy returns to its pre-2008 pace, NASCAR may never be the same.

2. The France family

NASCAR Chairman Brian France, Vice President Jim France and Lesa Kennedy, president of International Speedway Corp., continue to call the shots as far the rules of the sport and where the majority of the races are held.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He’s mired in a two-year victory drought, but he still creates excitement and commands attention like no other. It hasn’t hurt that he’s much more competitive this season.

4. Race fans

Whether by participation in surveys, in online comments on stories, in posts on social media, or by their decisions whether to attend races in person or watch on television, fans have more say in the direction of NASCAR than ever.

5. Mike Helton

NASCAR’s president is the most visible member of the sport’s hierarchy most race weekends and has the most immediate control of competition.

6. Competition on the track

The quality of the competition on the track is what moves the needle. Right now, it’s pretty stout.

7. TV networks

Networks’ decisions on what NASCAR programming they air, and how they present it, brings the most vocal response from fans not at the track.

8. Social media

Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, fans are connecting to drivers, media and tracks more than ever before, sometimes with tough consequences for all.

9. Jimmie Johnson

With five consecutive Cup titles, he is becoming the public face of NASCAR and earning greater respect across all of sports.

10. Bruton Smith/Marcus Smith/SMI

Bruton Smith and his son, Marcus, and their Speedway Motorsports tracks have set the standard for fan amenities and media work areas.

11. Rick Hendrick

When it comes to a standard of excellence in NASCAR, he and his organization hover at the top.

12. Jack Roush

Roush has invested time and money in all of NASCAR’s top series, with excellent results.

13. Richard Childress

The owner of the famed black No. 3 is still hunting championships and wildlife like never before.

14. Kyle Busch

He’s breaking records left and right and could become one of the sport’s biggest stars for a long time to come.

15. NASCAR Hall of Fame

The opening of the Hall has helped the city of Charlotte establish a bigger claim to being NASCAR’s home.

16. Director of communications Brett Jewkes

He’s been given the power to change NASCAR’s relationship with the media for the better. Will he use it?

17. Manufacturers

They are gaining influence, particularly in having cars look more like what’s on the showroom floor.

18. Trevor Bayne

One of the sport’s best feel-good stories, but he has missed a month of action from a yet-to-be-diagnosed illness.

19. Danica Patrick

Like her or not, she garners lots of media and fan attention as a part-time participant.

20. No testing policy

The lack of testing has created a greater divide between the best and the worst teams and hampered the development of young drivers.

21. Jeff Gordon

The four-time Cup champion remains the mainstream media’s spokesperson for NASCAR.

22. Tony Stewart

An outstanding driver and successful team owner in a variety of motorsports series. Simply put, he has clout.

23. Eddie Gossage

Gossage is a track promoter who is always innovative – even if he makes a misstep from time to time.

24. The weather

The one thing NASCAR can’t control, and it has an uncanny ability to alter the dynamic of a race weekend.

25. Darrell Waltrip

Still a fan favorite in the TV booth and exerts growing influence on Fox’s broadcasting decisions.

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