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ThatsRacin.com


NASCAR grabbed new fans, but can it keep them?

ThatsRacin.com Opinion

- tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Mar. 02, 2013

I doubt anybody watches the NBA and thinks, “This better be good or I’m never going to watch LeBron and Kobe and Chris Paul again.”

I doubt anybody watches the NFL and thinks, “This better be good or I’m never going to watch Peyton and Cam and Adrian Peterson again.”

Thousands of potential NASCAR fans, however, will turn to the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at 3 p.m. Sunday (Fox). And if they don’t like what they see, many will return to their regularly scheduled programming.

So when does baseball start and when does March Madness begin?

Television ratings for the Daytona 500 last week were impressive. Ratings rose 24 percent from 2012 and were the highest they’ve been since 2008.

Ratings rose outrageously in several large cities, among them San Francisco and Los Angeles, not known for their racing appreciation. In Chicago, they jumped 91 percent. Danica Patrick, who started first in Daytona, grew up in Illinois.

The increase is a little skewed, however. In 2012 the Daytona 500 was rained out Sunday and pushed to Monday night.

But the enthusiasm, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. rightly pointed out, is real. Fans cranked out AC/DC as they gathered around a fire in the Daytona International Speedway infield and talked about racing over wine in a low-lit Lake Mary, Fla., Marriott bar.

If you need a reason to believe, listen to drivers talk about the Gen 6 cars that made their debut in Daytona. Racers all but pull out their cell phones and, like proud parents, show off pictures of their new vehicles.

Here’s the blueprint. Look. You can see the camshaft.

Here it is in the factory. Here it is making its first lap. I’ve covered at least 10 Daytona 500s, and this one felt almost like it did in the old days when Dale Earnhardt ruled and NASCAR emerged as a national sport. I said almost.

Unfortunately, the race was drab and devoid of passing until the end. In other words, it was a restrictor plate race. But it lacked what most restrictor plate races offer, and that’s the oh-my-gawd wreck that sends cars into the air and eliminates a third of the field.

Yet after the oh-my-gawd wreck at Daytona Saturday, when a 12-car crash spewed debris over the catch fence and sent a wheel through it, many of us were gratified not to encounter another.

Some of the newcomers who helped jack up ratings for the Daytona 500 will watch the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

They might tune in to watch Patrick beat the fellows or be beaten by them. The latter is more likely. Patrick qualified terribly and will start 40th. The shorter the track, the more important the starting position. Phoenix Raceway is only one mile.

But there are other compelling story lines. If you like the idea of somebody unconventional beating the boys, I give you Mark Martin. In what other sport, aside from billiards or H-O-R-S-E, can a 54-year-old whip the young guys?

In Daytona last week somebody said that Martin, who will start first, had the body of a 25-year-old and the face of a 70-year-old. But give Martin this. He is a pure racer. You saw that on the last lap in Daytona when he almost pushed Earnhardt to victory.

Despite his age, Martin moves almost as quickly on the track as he does when he speeds by a restaurant whose cuisine includes fat.

A Martin victory would be a good story. A victory by Earnhardt or Patrick would be a better one.

Unless Earnhardt or Patrick prevail, however, the race won’t be as much about who wins as about how.

So, yes, the pressure on NASCAR is huge.

Put another way: The opportunity is tremendous.