The line of cars stretched for 30 miles on Interstate 71 in Kentucky, all inching toward the town of Sparta four hours before the start of the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Outside the 1.5-mile oval Bruton Smith, the 84-year-old CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, directed traffic, literally ushering in a new event and, series officials hope, a new day for NASCAR. The fans who had beaten the rush flooded the garage, which was as congested as any on the Cup circuit in recent memory, chasing drivers for autographs like groupies after rock stars.
"Today feels like it did in NASCAR five years ago when we had so much momentum," said Steve Hmiel, the competition director for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, as he stood in the number 42 hauler and watched the commotion. "The key now is to keep this going as we move forward."
Yes, for one Saturday night in the South, the buzz was back in NASCAR, but this is one high that won't be easy to maintain. After all, the sport has been hammered by bad news in recent weeks. In late June, Red Bull announced it was leaving NASCAR, pulling the plug on the team it owns and the two cars it sponsors. A few days later Crown Royal informed Roush Fenway Racing that it will end its sponsorship of Matt Kenseth's number 17 Ford after the final race of 2011, a big blow considering Crown Royal had been a sponsor in the Cup series since '05. And even though Saturday night's race at Kentucky, which was won by Kyle Busch, was the second NASCAR sellout of the season, with an estimated crowd of 120,000, six of the last nine races that have been run at the same track as in 2010 have experienced drops in attendance from last season. But most worrisome for the NASCAR executives in Daytona Beach: Fox is considering moving as many as six races next season to the TV Siberia that is the Speed Channel, which is available in about 35 million fewer homes.
Aside from the welcome afforded the sport in its new Kentucky home, there is one nugget of good news for NASCAR: TV ratings were up from last season for 13 of the first 18 Sprint Cup races. How to account for this? Most in the garage believe that the quality of on-track racing is as good as it's been in several years. The sparks should continue to fly over the final nine weeks of the regular season, thanks to a change NASCAR implemented in the off-season. Along with the top 10 drivers in points advancing to the 10-race Chase playoff after the first 26 races, this year the two drivers with the most wins who are between 11th and 20th in the standings will also make it into the Chase. This means, in theory, that there will be plenty of all-or-nothing, win-or-wreck racing over the next two months.
"I will be very aggressive if I feel I can get the win," says Joey Logano, who finished 14th at Kentucky and is 20th in the point standings. "Even though we're back in the points right now, we've still got a shot." And that red-line approach means NASCAR has a shot at maintaining the excitement and good vibe that was generated on Saturday night.