Daytona Beach, Fla.
The good news for NASCAR is that all signs indicate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500.
A victory for NASCAR's most popular driver, in his return to racing after a concussion sidelined him the second half of last season, would be a massive boost for the sagging series. Earnhardt's star power has been one of the bright spots of Speedweeks and his strength on the track has been obvious every time he's behind the wheel of his Chevrolet.
Earnhardt was part of a Hendrick Motorsports qualifying sweep for Sunday's season-opening race. Chase Elliott won the pole, and Earnhardt will line up next to him on the starting grid. Elliott added a win in a qualifying race, and Earnhardt led 53 of 60 laps in a second qualifying race before he was passed at the end.
So the Hendrick cars have speed, the drivers aren't cowering from the Toyota teamwork that dominated last year's race, and they are ready to go bumper-to-bumper with the Team Penske fleet.
It means Sunday could be a strong opening day for NASCAR, particularly if Earnhardt can pull off his third victory in "The Great American Race." He's not ready to call himself a favorite, and thinks he'll have his hands full with the Joe Gibbs Racing group and Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
"Watching the last several plate races, I think the Gibbs guys have the market cornered on the favorite," he said. "The Penske guys are really strong. So I think it's their race to lose. The Hendrick cars are going to be up there trying to mix it up."
NASCAR needs Sunday to go off without a hitch.
The series is under heavy scrutiny because of sliding attendance and television ratings, plus the title sponsor deal with Monster Energy came in at a fraction of what NASCAR was looking for when it began shopping the naming rights almost two years ago.
NASCAR celebrated its deal with Monster in a Las Vegas announcement, and has hitched its wagon to the hope that Monster can attract a younger demographic and raise the excitement level at all the events. But there was little signage around the track during Speedweeks, and one of the few indications Monster is the new sponsor were the scantily-clad women around for some of the pomp and circumstance. There's been no television advertising and NASCAR was even the subject of a critical examination in the Wall Street Journal.
NASCAR has countered with a JGR announcement that defending race winner Denny Hamlin and FedEx have signed long-term extensions, while Team Penske locked in Logano and Shell-Pennzoil through 2023.
"People are talking about the health of the sport, and this is a watershed moment," Roger Penske said of an extension that took nearly a year to complete with Shell.
Both FedEx and Shell-Pennzoil are major sponsors who spend something close to $20 million a year to brand the race cars and market to the NASCAR audience.
"This is a very positive story in our sport, to see the commitment of a very large company like Shell and Pennzoil are and for them to be able to sign up with this team really makes a statement for not only where Team Penske is, but for where NASCAR is as a sport," Logano said.
Problem is, NASCAR doesn't yet know exactly where it is.
NASCAR will launch a new advertising campaign on Sunday called "Ready. Set. Race." and a crash-filled 30-second TV ad was revealed Saturday to promote the 500.
In an effort to add excitement to the racing — something both the television partners and Monster wanted — all events will be run in segments this year. It means the Daytona 500 won't exactly be a 500-mile race of attrition, but will instead be cut into three parts. There are points on the line for each segment, giving drivers incentive to race hard for the entire race, and one final long push to the checkered flag.
It's a risky move for NASCAR. Some fans, particularly longtime watchers, are horrified at the gimmicks NASCAR is using, but a rising crop of young drivers are eager to give it a try.
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