Sport begins fight to stay viable

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- There are thousands of available tickets for next week's Daytona 500. Television ratings dropped in 2008 compared to the 2007 season, especially in the final 17 weeks as America started coming to grips with a faltering economy.

Large banners will cover empty grandstand sections at some tracks this year despite sweeping price cuts, and all three of NASCAR's top touring series -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck -- have accepted the fact there might not be enough teams for a full field once the Daytona euphoria is replaced with the weekly grind of the regular season.

Despite the gloomy forecast, the sport believes it's still significant in the country's sports consciousness.

While the National Football League remains king of all sports, NASCAR insists it's every bit as viable as in the past 10 years when, according to ratings and attendance, it moved into the upper tier of major events.

Like everyone else, NASCAR now faces the difficult task of keeping its footing.

"There's going to be some races where you are going to have tough ticket sales, but I think that the main thing is that everyone needs to adjust to the world," Kevin Harvick said. "We're not adjusting to the downfall in our sport; we're adjusting to a downfall in the world. It's not just NASCAR. It's a lot of things."

The racing season starts Saturday night with the Budweiser Shootout all-star race at Daytona International Speedway. While the race doesn't count toward the 36-week regular season, it will be the first time the Sprint Cup Series has been on the track since November. For most, it will be a welcomed diversion from the realities of the difficult days ahead.

The regular season, a stretch of 36 racing weekends that doesn't end until Thanksgiving, starts Feb. 15 with the Daytona 500.

Unlike its counterparts from football, baseball and basketball, NASCAR doesn't have a separate postseason. The Daytona 500 is the biggest race, but in reality it's the first of 36 races; it counts just as much as races at Martinsville, Va., Pocono, Pa., and Loudon, N.H. The championship is determined by the points earned in the final 10 races.

NASCAR has to work harder to sell tickets because it not only has a larger inventory of seats, but it has to do it at two and four tickets at a time. Track operators are offering deals to make races more attractive by cutting ticket prices, reducing prices for concessions, offering free parking and using the drivers' personalities as a sales pitch.

Now the sport faces the challenge of re-inventing itself by returning to its roots.

"This sport does not need resurrecting, it needs to be carried on with excitement," said truck racer Rick Crawford. "Is there something wrong with our sport? No. But we all have to work together and work through it."

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