Time To Let Nationwide Series Shine On Its Own

The postponed DuPont Pioneer 250 Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway may have started late, but it had plenty of action. Trevor Boys emerged as the winner in an exciting finish.

On a day in which Jimmie Johnson started on pole and dominated at Pocono, it was the young guns of the NASCAR Nationwide Series that stole the show in Iowa on a rare Sunday morning race.

After weather postponed the Nationwide event at Iowa Speedway, NASCAR made the call to run the race at 11 ET on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, rain fell again, delaying the race once more and pushing the conclusion well into the Sprint Cup Series’ time slot. The 250-lap event saw hard short-track racing with an old-fashioned side-by-side battle for the win in the closing laps. Two of the sport’s future stars – Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon – raced hard, bent sheet metal, and put on quite the show in pursuit of the checkered flag.

However, with so many eyes glued to the Sprint Cup Series broadcast, one has to wonder just how many fans saw what ended up being the best NASCAR race of the day.

While the Nationwide race may have had the better action of the weekend, it is important to take a look at the reason behind the success.

With the series performing as a stand-alone event, only one Sprint Cup Series driver – Joey Logano – was slated to run the race. When weather forced the Penske Racing driver back to Pocono, the field was set with only Nationwide Series drivers for the first time all season.

Austin Dillon leads the field to the green flag at the start of the Nationwide Series race in Iowa. Dillon was a victory contender and raced hard against Boys for the win.

Knowing it was their time to shine, they took to the short track in Iowa for their chance to finally reach victory lane – something that has rarely happened in 2013.

Since the season-opening race at Daytona, Sprint Cup Series regulars have won nine of the first 12 events – Kyle Busch leads the series with six victories. In fact, each of the 12 races this season has been won by a driver with some Sprint Cup experience.

A double dipping driver is certainly not a recent trend in NASCAR. Drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Harry Gant often pulled double-duty with great success in the Nationwide Series.

In recent years, NASCAR eliminated the opportunity for Sprint Cup Series drivers to win the Nationwide Series championship by making them ineligible for points, but the time has come to do more.

Sunday’s Nationwide-only field put on one of the best races of the season, as well as up-staged the Sprint Cup event nearly 1,000 miles away.

While racing against the likes of Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and others may help younger drivers learn from the best, allowing them to race on their own and contend for wins will further develop their fan base and experience within NASCAR – as well as rejuvenate a series in dire need of a boost.

 

 

 

Trevor Bayne’s Life Has Changed But His Faith Is Unaltered

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s only logical that NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Trevor Bayne be compared to NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and the NBA’s newest sensation, Jeremy Lin.

Bayne sprang from anonymity to the pinnacle of NASCAR when he stunned everyone with his victory in the 2011 Daytona 500.

Lin was an undrafted free agent before he signed on with the New York Knicks. His dazzling play and scoring ability have made him the toast of the Big Apple.

Tebow was far from an unknown. He was a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida. But it was widely suggested the he did not have he mechanics of a professional quarterback and wouldn’t make it in the NFL.

Hardly. Instead, Tebow’s heroics – he led the Denver Broncos to several last-minute victories and into the playoffs – made him a media darling and a nationally recognized figure.

But it wasn’t his play alone that propelled Tebow into the spotlight. He wears his faith on his sleeve. After every touchdown he knelt in quick, silent prayer, a public demonstration of his Christian beliefs.

The practice was quickly dubbed “Tebowing.” It became a controversial subject. While many admired Tebow’s commitment to his faith, others declared the practice unacceptable; that it was a form of unwanted preaching.

Personal religious beliefs, they said, should be just that – personal.

Lin isn’t nearly as demonstrative about his faith. But he admits he’s a Tebow fan.

Bayne is, too. And while Tebow may be criticized, Bayne contends he and the NFL star have more supporters that detractors.

“It is cool to be Christian,” Bayne said. “I think it’s cool Tim and I have support now.  We both want to be good role models and we want to live out our faith and be who we say we are.

“We don’t say we’re perfect and that’s what’s cool about it is that being a Christian you say that you’re messed up and you need a savior.tebow

“So I’m excited that I have support with Tim and the way the nation is kind of wrapped around him, and the same thing for me.

“The support has been unbelievable, but it definitely makes it easier on us to live our faith when people like you guys and when the fans and people like that are supportive of it. That makes it a lot easier on us.”

Fans have been supportive of Bayne ever since he won last year’s Daytona 500. People find the combination of his youth, talent, personality, innocence and, yes, good looks, irresistible.

Lin’s achievements have, at the least, sparked significantly greater attention to the NBA. Tebow did the same for the NFL.

And Bayne can also do it for NASCAR. He’s exactly the type of driver, and person, the sanctioning body needs.

It would certainly help if Bayne became a regular on the Sprint Cup circuit. But, even with all his positive attributes, that hasn’t happened.

Like last year, Bayne is on a part-time schedule with the Wood Brothers – the venerated team with which he won the 500.

He’s still under contract to Roush Fenway Racing, with which the Woods have a working alliance, and is thus “”loaned out” for Cup events.

He did not race in last night’s Budweiser Shootout because of the Woods’ limited budget. Without sponsorship, even if Bayne won the race, it would hardly cover the expense of car preparation and thus be unprofitable.

“We’re just making the best of what we’ve got right now,” Bayne said. “It’s tough to do that when you only have a few races.

“For me, I’m running about the same schedule I ran in Cup last year. It’s kind of one a month with the No. 21 car, but in Nationwide I had hoped to run a full season this year and run for a championship.

“I still haven’t spent a whole full season with one team yet in Nationwide and I think it would be great to have that opportunity, but right now, we’re going to run the first three races and kind of see where we stand, work on sponsorship deals.

“It just shows how tough it is right now. Here we are at Roush Fenway Racing with great things to offer and it’s still tough for us, so we’re working really hard at that.”

Because he made limited appearances with the Woods last year, the team did not make the top 35 in owner points. Which means Bayne is going to have to qualify for the Daytona 500.

But he’s done that before.

“I’m just going to act like I’m locked in here and just try to qualify on time,” Bayne said. “I think our car is going to be fast, so I’m not really that worried about it.

“We qualified in the top 10, I think, at every restrictor plate race last year – qualified third here, we qualified second in the summer race here – but teams work on their cars. There is a lot of tough competition this year.”

Bayne knows that he won’t be flying under the radar at Daytona. Truth be told, he hasn’t flown under any radar since he won last year’s 500. Perhaps his career hasn’t changed much, but his life sure has.

He’s gone from unknown race driver to celebrity.

“It would be hard to even write a book about all the stuff that’s happened,” Bayne said, “but I think when it was the craziest for me was like the second day after the 500.

“Here I am just a kid who has no idea what’s going to happen, and I think we were in New York or something like that and I’m on the phone – maybe it was Connecticut – but I’m on the phone with Vice President Joe Biden.

“I talked to Tebow that day. I met Pamela Anderson, Ellen DeGeneris and George Lopez all on the same day and I’m like, ‘What just happened?’  They were like, ‘Anybody else you want to talk to?  We’ll get them on the phone for you.’”

“Pam Anderson said I looked like her son, so that was pretty cool.”

While his life may have changed, Bayne’s faith remains rigid. He may be a Tebow fan, but he chooses not to be as demonstrative as the NFL star.

He prefers to spread the word by example.

“I use my Twitter as kind of an outreach kind of thing, but as far as messages on my car stuff, that’s all about and for the team,” Bayne said. “I try not to push on people too hard, but I just try to live it out.

“I don’t even want to have to say anything. I want people to look at me and say, ‘There’s something different about this kid. He looks different. He acts different. He has joy.’

“I don’t even want to have to say it, so hopefully people can see it without doing so.”

Despite Great Competition, NASCAR Must Still Deal With An Ongoing Problem

 Menard

Paul Menard's victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after which he and his team got to "kiss the bricks," was one of the unexpected moments of 2011 that led it to become one of the most competitive, and historical, seasons in NASCAR's history. Menard was one of five first-time winners in the past season.

The sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing faces a familiar problem in 2012, one that has bedeviled it for the last three years.

However, that problem is certainly not the quality of its competition. For once NASCAR didn’t have to come up with obscure facts and figures to tout itself as the most competitive form of motorsports in this country – which, incidentally, is a claim it has made repeatedly over the years.

In 2011, there can be little argument that it was, indeed. And no one has to search high and low for statistics to prove it.

Now, I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. Not only was the past season highly competitive, it was also, in many ways, historical.

All it takes to understand that is a quick look at what happened and who made it happen.

There were 18 different winners in Cup racing, which matched those in 2002 and fell just one short of the record of 19 set in 2001.

Five of those winners won for the first time in their careers, and, to make this unprecedented, four of those winners were victorious in four of the circuit’s most prestigious races at three of its most prominent speedways.

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400.

Not one of these drivers was considered a victory candidate in any of these races – if, indeed, in any other.

That these relatively unheralded drivers won as they did for the first time – and all in one season – has never been done before in NASCAR.

And Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner when he was victorious on the road course at Watkins Glen.

It was routinely believed that if Australian Ambrose won in NASCAR it would be on a road course. That he did so was no surprise.

That may be, but judging from response, his victory enhanced NASCAR’s international appeal – at least in one part of the world. Ambrose is a hero in his native country.

The battle for the championship was like no other in NASCAR’s history.

It came down to a two-man war between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that wasn’t settled until after the final race of the season at Homestead.

Stewart won that race while Edwards finished second, yet another in a series of Chase races in which the two finished within a single position of each other.

The result was the first tie in points ever in NASCAR. Each had 2,403 points.

Stewart won with the tiebreaker – the most wins in a season. He had five, Edwards one.

But the championship drama goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply because Stewart won it in historically close fashion, it was also how he did so.

He started the 10-race Chase ninth in points without a single victory to his credit.

But once the “playoff” began Stewart surged like a tsunami. He won five races, rose quickly to No. 1 in points and, with four wins under his belt, was second when Homestead began, just three points in arrears to a remarkably consistent Edwards.

That set up the dramatic finish.

Stewart has to receive credit for one of the most impressive, come-from-behind runs for a title in NASCAR’s history.

Any decent statistician could put up some other numbers that would support the excellent competitiveness of the 2011 season – laps lead, most lead changes, cars running at the finish and such.

But I don’t believe they are needed. What has been presented here – and, I admit, earlier – should offer solid proof that NASCAR is in no way suffering when it comes to the quality of its competition.

Fact is, it’s thriving.

But, when it comes to being a business and not a sport, NASCAR and its teams are not thriving.

In 2008 this country, and the world, plunged into an economic disaster.

Stocks plummeted, banks failed, businesses folded, homes went into foreclosure and jobs were lost a thousand fold.

Nothing escaped, not even NASCAR. At the end of the 2008 season team members were laid off in droves. Other organizations folded. Sponsors, who suffered a loss of profits, pulled the plug on their NASCAR participation.

Sponsorship suddenly became a gift, not a given. Teams used to single-entity deals that brought in $20 million or more began to beg for limited schedule deals at reduced prices.

For those teams fortunate enough to have it, financial backing was acquired through multiple companies providing full support for 10-12 races here, 4-6 there and maybe even one or two.

And I think it is obvious that speedways suffered as well. Where they once were able to sell tickets with little difficulty, they now had to use creative public relations and marketing strategies to lure cash-strapped fans to come to their races.

It wasn’t easy. Empty grandstand seats prevailed.

I was one of many who said then that the economy was NASCAR’s biggest challenge. It remains so.

The economic malaise has not gone away. It hasn’t for the country and it hasn’t for NASCAR.

We already know of two teams that have ceased operations, both of them part of high-profile operations. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing no longer have four teams, they have three. A lack of sponsorship has caused that.

And the Roush team that features past champion driver Matt Kenseth is still searching for financial backing – as are several other organizations at one level or another.

Red Bull Racing, and its two-car operation, folded. I’ll be honest. The economy might have had something to do with that but I suspect politics might have played a larger role.

Regardless, after 2011, think of the number of racing jobs that have been lost – again.

At present NASCAR does not have as many well-funded, full-time teams now as it did at the start of 2011.

Its speedways still have to find the means to get folks to part with their dollars. After all, the joblessness rate is still high, companies continue layoffs or job elimination (including among the motorsports media), real estate values remain low and gasoline prices are volatile, among many other things.

The problems NASCAR faced after 2008 are still its major concerns as 2012 approaches.

But it is clear that, at least for one season, competition is at an all-time high. That is something that can potentially lures fans, encourage needed media attention and honestly establish NASCAR as something it has always claimed to be – the best in this country.

If what we saw in 2011 is matched, or approached, by what happens in 2012, that can only be good for NASCAR and its continuing challenge to sell itself, and its teams, to the public and corporate America amid a still struggling economy.

2011 Had Its ‘Top Moments,’ But History Was Also Made

 

Stewart

Tony Stewart's five victories in the Chase and his battle with Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship were considered two of the most memorable moments of the 2011 season. The championship was unprecedented as Stewart and Edwards tied in points, but Stewart won because he had more wins.

Already multiple presentations on the “top moments” of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season have been published or broadcast and, quite frankly, I’m inclined to agree with most of them.

I certainly agree with many others that Jeff Gordon’s 85th career victory at Atlanta was memorable. Gordon, the four-time champion, won three times in 2011 and is now in sole possession of third place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.

I won’t argue with those who listed Danica Patrick’s achievement as one of the season’s best moments. Patrick finished fourth at Las Vegas in March to set the record as not only the highest finish recorded by a female driver in Nationwide Series competition, but also as tops among all females in any NASCAR national series event.

Patrick broke the long-standing mark of fifth place set in 1949 by Sara Christian in Heidelberg, Pa.

As you know, many more memorable achievements have been mentioned and I daresay all of them deserve a place on anyone’s list.

But I think I’ll go a little further. In 2011, the accomplishments of many were more than “top moments.”

Because of who they are, what they achieved and where they achieved it, all made the 2011 season unique – and even historical.

Frankly, some things happened this past season that have never happened before in NASCAR’s history.

Patrick’s accomplishment is one of them.

But there are many more. And that’s part of the reason 2011 was a unique season.

Consider Tony Stewart. That he won five races in the Chase – his only five wins of the season, by the way – to come from ninth in points to a championship in just 10 races is worthy, by itself, as a “top moment.”

But what makes it more compelling, and history making, is that Stewart won a championship battle that was unlike any other in NASCAR’s existence.

At the end of the season’s final race at Homestead Stewart and rival Carl Edwards were tied for No. 1 in points at 2,403 apiece.

That was a first in NASCAR and it meant the champ would be crowed via the tiebreaker: the driver with the most wins. That hadn’t happened before, either.

That was Stewart with five – all of them, ironically, earned in the Chase. Edwards had only one victory for the season.

The unprecedented closeness of the championship fight was even more impressive, and unique, by its very nature.

Stewart and Edwards raged mortal combat. Unlike how it has been many times in the past, neither made a mistake to give the title to the other.

They stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out. They finished within one position of each other in three of the last four races – and never out of the top 10.

It was truly a scrap for a championship and not one decided by a twist of fate.

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Regan Smith (left) and Trevor Bayne were two of the four first-time winners in 2011. The others were David Ragan and Paul Menard. These drivers not only won for the first time, they won four of NASCAR's most prestigious and popular races.

Yes, Stewart’s five victories are memorable. But the very character of the 2011 championship was unlike any other in NASCAR.

First-time winners always carve a niche for themselves in any season. So it was in 2011, but with a couple of notable exceptions.

Perhaps at no other time in NASCAR were there so many first-time winners. But what makes it all so much more unique is not that they won, but where they won.
I daresay few ever heard of Trevor Bayne, the young driver under contract with Jack Roush who was lent to the Wood Brothers for selected Cup races in 2011.

At age 20 years and one day, Bayne led the final six laps to win the Daytona 500 in only his second Cup start. It was the fourth 500 victory for the Woods team and the 600th for Ford.

Bayne isn’t the first surprise Daytona winner. But, unlike so often in the past, he didn’t win because circumstances turned in his favor. He won because he was competitive and raced like a veteran.

At Furniture Row Racing, Regan Smith was thought of as one of those guys competing with a second-tier team who was most likely to run at the rear of any race.

But, as improbable as it was, Smith, who had no wins, top-fives or top-10s in 104 starts, won the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington.

He led the final 11 laps and held off Edwards by 0.198-second to win.

Many considered Paul Menard as the weakest link in the four-car chain of teams at Richard Childress Racing. Feel free to disagree, of course.

But Menard proved, nicely, that he could win. He did so for the first time in his career in the Brickyard 500 at Indianapolis. He outgunned Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, to earn the victory.

Twenty-five-year-old David Ragan earned his way to a ride with Roush and was, essentially, “under development” for a successful Cup career.

He took a huge step in that direction when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July. Before he gained his first career victory, the best Ragan had finished was third, three times.

Five first-time winners – including Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen – would make any season memorable. But 2011 was a bit more so.

Four drivers who won – Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard – did so at three of NASCAR’s most prestigious venues and in four of its most distinguished and popular races, the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coke Zero 400 and the Brickyard 400.

I can heartily assure you that it’s never happened before in NASCAR.

It’s a first in a season I thought had more than its share of them.

Which means that while we all got the chance to see more “top moments” in NASCAR, we also had the opportunity to witness history being made.

That does not happen very often.

Bayne’s Situation Nothing New In Plate Racing And The Draft

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Trevor Bayne was upset with the circumstances in which he was involved at the end of the race at Talladega. But he didn't do anything wrong. Rather, he was caught up in what NASCAR restrictor-plate racing is all about - which includes strategy and, yes, even politics.

It’s been suggested by many that Trevor Bayne ease up on himself following the circumstances in which he was involved at Talladega.

After all, he didn’t do anything wrong.

Bayne expressed abject dissatisfaction with himself, and others, when he abandoned Jeff Gordon in the Good Sam Club 500’s high-speed draft to assist fellow Ford driver and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Bayne, who races part-time for the Wood Brothers but is under contract to Roush, was distressed that he could not keep an arrangement with Gordon that would allow the two drivers to remain hooked up in a two-car draft until the end of the race, only two laps away.

Instead, Bayne maintained he was “strong armed” to assist Kenseth and added that he would never be put in such a situation again.

Prior to the race, persistent rumors suggested that Ford officials had told their drivers that in the “dancing partner” draft, that is now prevalent at Talladega and Daytona, they should work with other Ford drivers only.

Do not assist any other driver with any other manufacturer.

Jamie Allison, director of Ford racing, has denied such orders were ever issued. He said the only time the matter of Ford drivers helping Ford drivers arose was in conversations before the race. If it could be done, it should in order to show appreciation for their relationships with Ford Motorsports.

Added Allison in a published report, “At the end of the day, when you look at it, it’s very cut and dry. Trevor did what he needed to help a teammate.”

Which is correct. When Kenseth lost drafting partner David Ragan, Bayne felt obligated. He had no choice. He had to abandon Gordon, even if the end results might have been better.

Kenseth came to Talladega as a strong challenger for the championship after his victory in Charlotte. He was in third place, two spots behind leader and Roush teammate Carl Edwards, in the standings.

With a good finish at Talladega Kenseth could have pressed the championship issue. But that would never happen without a drafting partner.

So Bayne was his man. And, as said, Bayne had no choice.

If he had stuck with Gordon while Kenseth lost position after position, what kind of post-race reception do you think Bayne would have received from team owner Jack Roush – not to mention from Kenseth and his No. 17 team?

As a young driver striving to solidify a career in Sprint Cup racing, Bayne wisely avoided any confrontation with the team that has, to date, offered him his best competitive opportunity.

To me, the entire issue is something of a tempest in a teapot. It’s certainly not unique. In fact, when it comes to restrictor-plate racing and the draft – no matter how many cars are involved – this sort of thing has been part of NASCAR for decades.

It’s all meshed into the strategy and, perhaps more so, the politics required in plate racing and the draft.

One of the vital keys to success at Daytona and Talladega is to find the right drafting partner. It’s always been that way.

Naturally, teammates want to help each other – and should. They work with each other many times over practice sessions to determine if they can find the combination that clicks. Sometimes they do. Many more times they don’t.

If things don’t work a team’s next task it to find another with which it can potentially win the race.

Little thought is given to what team that could be. More important, the model of car it uses doesn’t matter one bit.

If a team with a Chevrolet finds that in the draft its highest speeds are turned with another that fields a Ford – and the Ford team likes the results as well – then a deal is made. They will hook up in the draft for as long as possible.

Call it diplomacy or politics, that’s how it has always worked.

While I’m fully aware that manufacturers have issued edicts from time to time, I don’t think any one of them has been stupid enough to decree that teams with their models must help each other only in the draft.

That includes Ford, incidentally, and is why I believe Allison.

For a manufacturer to make such a mandate could potentially remove any chance at victory. You can bet a team that posted its fastest laps drafting with another with a different model is going to be highly irritated. So is the driver.

The goal is to win. It’s what racing is all about. It’s what the team owner wants, the driver wants, the team wants and, most important, what the sponsor wants.

Manufacturers know all this because victory is what they also crave. Wins can provide a heckuva lot of successful sales pitches at the dealerships.

So never expect a manufacturer to make a decree that could cramp any of its teams’ styles. It makes no sense.

Drafting is all about partnerships. And any two drivers can be partners for a single race. There have been some unlikely combinations in many past plate races but sometimes they worked to near perfection – as it was for Bayne and Gordon in this year’s Daytona 500, won by Bayne.

But at other times, for many reasons, as good as the combination might be circumstances force a change.

It might be due to what is unfolding on the track. Or, indeed, it might be due to politics.

But it has happened and will continue to happen. In the future there will be a driver who, at the end of a plate race, will feel every bit as frustrated as Bayne.

It’s plate racing. It’s the draft. It is what it has been, is now and will be.

NASCAR On The Rise

The Daytona 500 started NASCAR’s season off with a Chamber of Commerce race with Trevor Bayne winning and Phoenix and Las Vegas have kept the momentum going. Television ratings are up as well as attendance. Motorsports Unplugged comments on the good fortune. www.motorsportsunplugged.com

It’s Early But Evidence Tells Us NASCAR Is On The Rise

It’s very early in the season but I am cautiously optimistic that NASCAR may be on the rise. There’s evidence that it has spiked somewhat in popularity and that, in turn, may lead to improved economic conditions for the sport and its teams.

A key measurement used to determine NASCAR’s appeal to the public has been television ratings. Where they were once very high – likely due to curiosity and the sport’s relatively new, and much-hyped, presence on the national stage – they have dropped significantly over the past couple of years.

Many reasons were given. For example, NASCAR’s popularity had leveled off. Its product, actual racing, had diminished. The sanctioning body’s push to create a family-friendly sport had taken away the rough edge it once had. Its competitors had evolved into clones and their personalities, once so much a part of its appeal, were lost.

Yes, there were complaints of too many commercials, awkward starting times, etc.
But what has happened so far this year is a complete reversal of the past. Television ratings are up.

Reports are the Daytona 500’s numbers were increased by 17 percent in the metered markets. They were up by 13 percent in national ratings and the overall average viewership rose by 17 percent.

Although those numbers fell just short of the ratings for the 2009 rain-shortened race, that they rose from last year’s event, which was interrupted twice for track repairs, is certainly a positive.

Then, for the Subway 500 from Phoenix, ratings rose six percent from the race at Fontana a season ago. They were up an incredible 56 percent from the Phoenix night race last April.

Over the first two weeks of the year, NASCAR’s ratings have risen 13 percent over last year, when the winter Olympics were held.

I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to television numbers. Reckon I’m just like you. But when they increase it has to be good for all concerned, right?

I’m sure there are many reasons why the ratings have gone up. I think one of them is rather obvious. The first two races of the season have provided great storylines, which have attracted wide media attention and been very interesting for fans, as well as the public which has never shunned fascinating tales.

These storylines are connected and have, to some degree, provided some NASCAR nostalgia, something not lost on the old-line fans with which the sanctioning body needs to re-connect.

In a surprising turn of events, Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. More important, he did so driving for the Wood Brothers, a team that has been in existence for 61 years, yet last won the Daytona 500 in 1976 and hadn’t entered victory lane since 2001.

Bayne, a 20-year-old, fresh-faced driver with charm and personality who won in only his second Sprint Cup start, swept the national media. He became an instant star. As has been said many times his appeal to the younger demographic was tremendous.

As effective as that has been the fact that the venerated Woods won again at long last struck a chord with the old-liners. They had something to appreciate.

The combination of a new, young winner who accomplished what he did with one of NASCAR’s oldest teams may have, I think, provided an impetus for novices (some of them teenage girls) and veterans alike to become more absorbed with NASCAR.
Then, at Phoenix, Jeff Gordon emerged the winner and ended a 66-race losing streak.

He’s a four-time champion who had not won a race since the spring of 2009. His last title came in 2001. Since that time, 10 years ago, flecks of gray have emerged in his hair and he’s had two children.

But he’s appreciated by the old-liners, who, I think, were very pleased to see him win.

The links here? Bayne considers Gordon his hero. Bayne wins at Daytona and Gordon follows at Phoenix. A team that can trace its birth almost from the time NASCAR was formed emerges victorious at Daytona. Another, Hendrick Motorsports, one of the sport’s most successful teams, makes dramatic changes to improve it all-around – and a victory suggests it’s done the right thing.

And there’s more here, so much more. The point is that the media does not lack for material. There’s a helluva lot of it. Because of the link between the old and new, there’s interest among fans – and others not so enamored with NASCAR whose interest has been piqued.

Who can ignore such unique, even great, stories?

That is what we’ve had so far in 2011. I have to think that in some way they have contributed to a rise in television ratings or even overall interest in NASCAR. Certainly they are not the only reasons. I suspect those who know television could tell us a lot more.

I also don’t believe it’s possible for such storylines to continue week after week – but, gosh, it would be nice.
But if all of this is a spark to re-ignite NASCAR, so be it. That’s a good thing.
If television ratings, for whatever reason, continue to climb then, logically, it follows the money will too.

Sponsorship is granted largely for exposure. While much of that relies on marketing – and how many folks attend a race – television is the key.

So far that key shows improvement, admittedly early in the season. We have to wait and see if that continues.

Phoenix A Comeback For Gordon And Other Musings

A few quick observations on the Subway 500 at Phoenix International Raceway:

— Obviously, for Jeff Gordon, it was a welcome relief to win for the first time in 66 races. The last time he went into victory lane was at Texas in the spring of 2009.

Some suggested that at his age, 39, and with a family Gordon had shrunk into a shell of what he once was competitively- although Gordon and I would argue with that. He has four Sprint Cup championships and a decade ago seemed destined to quickly earn a fifth. He didn’t.

He hasn’t won a title since 2001.

Now, I suspect his many fans will say he’s on track toward another title and he may well be. But it’s far too early to tell, of course.

At the very least Gordon has accomplished something he hadn’t in nearly two years. That’s a start.

And his victory helped him overcome a very mediocre Daytona 500, where he was involved in an incident and finished 28th.

He’s now fifth in points. OK, that is indeed on track for a title, for now.

The Hendrick Motorsports personnel switch that took place over the off-season showed signs of good results – but not much more. Gordon now works with crew chief Alan Gustafson and the crew formerly part of teammate Mark Martin’s group.

That they were able to win in only their second start of the season gives evidence that the alterations just might work – for Gordon, anyway.

We have yet to see how it might pay off elsewhere.

If you ask me, most fans won’t concur the changes have worked until Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to competitiveness with Steve Letarte, Gordon’s former crew chief, and the bunch once with the No. 24 team. That, to them, will provide the ultimate proof that the Hendrick swap worked.

By the way, Letarte was one of the first to congratulate Gordon for his Phoenix victory.

— Gordon ran down Kyle Busch and passed him with just eight laps remaining and then pulled away to win at Phoenix.
Busch had already won the Camping Word Truck Series and Nationwide Series races at Phoenix. He led all 200 laps of the Nationwide race.

Busch missed the Phoenix sweep by just one position. Had he done so it would have been for the second time in his career. He did it at Bristol last year.

With top-10 finishes in the first two races of the season Busch has moved into No. 1 in the point standings. Again, yes, it is early but there are many who contend the only world left for Busch to conquer is to win a Cup championship. To many, he has already established himself as the best all-around driver in NASCAR.

I won’t argue with that.

— Wrecks and other incidents have been a big part of the first two races of 2011.
At Phoenix the most prominent crashfest affected 13 cars, some of which were considered as pre-race favorites.

The mishap also had another effect. It placed some drivers considered championship contenders in a position where they have to make up significant ground as quickly as possible – if for no other reason than to lessen a sense of urgency.

They include Carl Edwards – considered by many the driver most able to end Jimmie Johnson’s championship streak at five – Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray.

Of the group Edwards is highest at 12th in points, 21 points behind Busch.

Oh, and Kevin Harvick did finish fourth at Phoenix, but that, coupled with his 42nd-place run at Daytona following a blown engine, puts him 22nd in points.

Denny Hamlin, another anticipated to make a title run, was 11th at Phoenix and 21st at Daytona. He’s in 14th place.

As for Johnson, a third-place run at Phoenix was decidedly better than his 27th at Daytona. He’s always been something of a slow starter and he’s 13th in points.

Again, please, it’s early. But the point is that some of the expected contenders have some catching up to do – not that this is anything entirely unusual after two races in any season.

— Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had a whirlwind week leading into Phoenix as he received phone calls from the White House – he also spoke with Vice President Joe Biden – was on the set of the Ellen DeGeneres and George Lopez shows and made personal appearances, along with videos, almost from coast to coast. The 20-year-old driver even received wedding proposals.

I’m not surprised. Those who should know say that the personable, good-looking Bayne has really fired up the ‘tweeners. Incidentally, that’s great for NASCAR.

But at Phoenix things came crashing to reality as Bayne wrecked his Wood Brothers Ford after just 49 laps to finish 40th.

OK, let’s be frank. In Cup competition Bayne is a raw rookie. He won at Daytona because of his talent, certainly, but also because he had an excellent car.

And he evolved into one of the best drafting partners in the race – not to mention in a 150-mile qualifying event in which his idol, Gordon, insisted he hook up with him.

Bayne wins at Daytona. His idol then wins at Phoenix. A bit ironic, don’t you think?

But the point is that Bayne, as a rookie who will compete on most tracks for the first time, is likely to have far more experiences such as that at Phoenix than what happened at Daytona.

I don’t think the ‘tweeners will mind a bit. They’re already in his camp.

Bayne May Become NASCAR’s Next “Pied Piper”

Trevor Bayne could be just the tonic NASCAR needs.

And, believe me, the sanctioning body is thinking the same thing.

Bayne’s victory in the Daytona 500 was stunning and heartwarming. He won in only his second Sprint Cup start and became, at 20, the second-youngest driver ever to win on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

His victory captured nationwide media attention and was accomplished in front of a much larger television audience than saw last year’s 500.

All of this, certainly, is good for NASCAR. But perhaps Bayne can do more.

One thing NASCAR needs to do is recapture the youth market. As I understand it, the sport’s appeal in the 18-34 demographic has slipped.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in marketing, but I don’t think it takes one to figure out that should NASCAR successfully cultivate young fans, it has the opportunity keep them for life. That’s the goal of every professional sport.

Bayne could be just the right man for the job.

Yes, Joey Logano has already laid the groundwork. He was 19 when he won at New Hampshire in 2009 and remains the youngest driver to win a Cup race.

His presence in NASCAR, with Joe Gibbs Racing, is now well-established and I have to think he’s admired and followed by younger fans. Certainly he has been a magnet for them – and that’s helped NASCAR.

Logano is already a star and could well become much more in the future. I have to think he appeals to young people. But when compared to Bayne, at least for now, there is a big difference:

Bayne unexpectedly won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race, earned vast media attention and thus gained quick, wide notoriety. That is the big difference at this point.

At 20, Bayne, like Logano, is a catalyst to snare the market NASCAR wants. I suspect it wouldn’t be hard for young people to identify with Bayne as they may have with Logano. Bayne is personable, unassuming, innocent, good looking and a young man of faith. He’s the latest new and fresh addition to the NASCAR world.

And he’s already attracted a wealth of positive attention for stock car racing with his Daytona 500 victory.

He’s all about racing. It’s all he’s wanted to do. We’ve already read stories about how he was racing go-karts at age five and moved alone from his home in Knoxville, Tenn., to Mooresville, N.C., at age 15 to pursue a career.

His father Rocky traveled to Mooresville often to be with his son, who had a job driving for a lower-tier circuit for Dale Earnhardt Inc. His crew chief drove him to work and back until Bayne got his driver’s license.

Bayne quit school but got his GED diploma online.

Seems to me that all of this is a positive example of how a young person’s dedication, and the family sacrifice, is the way to reach his or her goals.

And Bayne, like Logano, personifies it. Coupled with Bayne’s other attributes – and a Daytona 500 victory – NASCAR has a near-perfect link to the youth market.

I think others realize that. I wouldn’t be surprised if, because of what he’s done, Bayne may receive endorsement offers from companies that provide products targeted for young people. It could happen.

Obviously, all would work best for NASCAR if Bayne’s Cup career is sustained and he, at the least, has the opportunity to experience more success.

Bayne elected to run for the Nationwide Series championship because he was scheduled to run in only 17 Cup races, with Wood Brothers Racing, to which he was loaned out by Roush Fenway Racing.

However, we already know that NASCAR, which has declared a driver can only run for one title in its top three series, has told Bayne he can change his mind and compete for the Cup title. He still gets no points for this 500 victory, but the win itself will count toward a run for The Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Which means the Woods are going to have to compete on the full Cup schedule, something the team hasn’t done since 2008, for Bayne to have any chance at a top 20 spot in points before the Chase cutoff.

It’s the Woods goal to run a full schedule. But that will require sponsorship, more than has been given them from Ford, which, along with technology from Roush Fenway, has helped the team raise the bar.

It will also require cooperation from Roush Fenway, which has signed Bayne to a Nationwide deal but has yet to acquire sponsorship.

If the Woods did get funding for a full ride for Bayne I doubt Roush Fenway would stand in the way – at least for this season.

Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood said a couple of days ago that he’s already received text messages from potential sponsors and he’ll likely get more.

I think it would be ideal if Bayne and the Woods got the opportunity to make a run at the Chase. Not only would it allow them the chance for more success, it would also grant Bayne more exposure.

And more exposure would certainly benefit NASCAR in its quest for a market it covets – and needs.

Trevor Bayne, The Woods Brothers: Winning on Faith

Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 on Sunday on his first try and only his second Sprint Cup race with the Woods Brothers, the oldest team in NASCAR. Bayne credits his and the teams Christian faith for the surprise win. Bayne is donating a portion of his winnings to various ministries. Steve Waid interviews Len Wood just days before the Daytona 500. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

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