NASCAR fast tracks changes to improve image, interest

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #19 ARRIS Toyota, stands on the grid prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 23, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) 700003205

DAYTONA BEACH — As NASCAR’s top series prepares to open its season with Sunday’s Daytona 500, one theme touches almost everything around Daytona International Speedway.


The Cup series’ title sponsor has changed, from Sprint to Monster Energy. The rules have changed, again, to try to boost the quality of racing and make every lap more meaningful — and entertaining — across all 36 races. Even the drivers are changing, with new faces from diverse backgrounds replacing some of the sport’s biggest stars.

Not all of the changes were optional, and not all have been popular. But they all stem from one underlying belief: NASCAR’s status quo isn’t working.

“I think you kind of evolve or die,” driver Danica Patrick said.

It might not be dying, but NASCAR’s popularity is undeniably dropping.

Despite the closest finish in race history, last year’s Daytona 500 only drew a 6.6 rating and 11.4 million viewers. That’s the second-worst showing since 1979 and ahead of only the 2014 race, according to Sports Media Watch, a site that tracks sports TV information. Of the 29 races that had comparable year-to-year data, the site reported that TV viewership fell in 22 of them.

At least 14 of the series’ 23 tracks have reduced their capacities, including historic Daytona. With declining attendance, the extra seats are no longer necessary.

NASCAR expects Monster Energy to add new energy with a more youthful image, but the deal reportedly comes with a significantly smaller payout than Sprint’s old deal — a reflection of how much the series’ standing has slipped. The Wall Street Journal even weighed in on the subject this week with the headline, “NASCAR, Once a Cultural Icon, Hits the Skids.”

Theories for the sport’s decline vary, from economics to demographics to shorter attention spans. Regardless, Sunday’s race features some signs that NASCAR is trying to correct…