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1 FAN FOCUS
NASCAR EXECUTIVES, TEAM OWNERS AND EVEN drivers will all tell you the same thing: The No. 1 issue facing NASCAR in 2011 is bringing fans back to the sport. How bleak was 2010? TV ratings were down throughout the Chase from the previous year—the majority dipped more than 20%—and attendance dropped in two thirds of the races. The most stunning decline was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 25 for the Brickyard 400, which is one of the marquee events on the Sprint Cup calendar. In 2007 an estimated 270,000 fans filled the Brickyard, making it the most highly attended race of the season. But this year that number fell to 140,000, a decline of nearly 50% from three years earlier.
"It can be depressing looking into the stands and seeing those empty seats," says Carl Edwards. "Hopefully the economy will start to turn and fans will come back."
Aside from economic recovery, how can fans be lured back? Next season expect many track presidents to get creative and perhaps follow the model of Dover International Speedway's Denis McGlynn. In 2011 he plans to feature seven "family sections" in the stands, where drinking and smoking won't be allowed, and tickets for children ages 14 and under will cost $10—a price that should appeal to dads. Says McGlynn, "We're trying to make it an offer an older guy can't refuse."
2 RED BULL RISING
NO OTHER ORGANIZATION in NASCAR looks as capable of a breakout 2011 as Team Red Bull. Brian Vickers is expected to return in the number 83 Toyota after missing most of '10 with blood clots, and the team will also have Kasey Kahne—who joined Red Bull this season—for all of '11 before he goes to Hendrick Motorsports in '12.
Kahne, 30, is an elite talent who has 11 career wins and 20 poles. He and Vickers, who qualified for the Chase in '09, give Red Bull two franchise-quality drivers for the first time in the team's four-plus-year existence. Kahne will likely replace Scott Speed, who had only two top 10 finishes last season and wound up 30th in the standings. Because of Speed's struggles, he rarely provided useful setup information to his teammates. This will change with Kahne, who is friends with Vickers and excels at diagnosing setup problems.
Says one longtime crew chief, referring to Kahne and Vickers, "That's as impressive a one-two punch of young drivers as there will be in the sport."
3 THE DANICA WATCH
YOU HAD TO LOOK CLOSELY, but Danica Patrick showed promise in her first stock car season. Competing in 13 Nationwide races in 2010, Patrick was especially impressive at Charlotte in October. In final practice she ran nose to nose with Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick and finished that session second on the speed chart. A day later she neatly avoided trouble in the race, was solid on pit road and came in 21st. Said Patrick after she hopped out of her number 7 Chevy, "I'm sure I'll be better the next time I come back."