NASCAR seeks boost to steep decline with strong Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) 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…