With NASCAR's main challenge this offseason of determining how to please fans and improve competition, the buzz about Danica Patrick in select Nationwide races for the 2010 season should not deter NASCAR officials from their task.
Overall, evidence points to a declining interest level in NASCAR, which can lead to the perception that perhaps NASCAR may be in trouble.
Television ratings were down for much of the 2009 season, and ratings play a key role for the sport because they measure fan interest. FOX's ratings for NASCAR dipped 11 percent from last year, with TNT down nine percent and ABC down eight percent. On the flip side, ESPN's ratings were up about five percent. It appears that overall TV ratings have been declining since 2005, and whether that is attributable to Toyota's entrance into the Cup and Busch Series five years ago remains uncertain.
Even though Danica Patrick announced her debut for the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide series, it may take more than marketing to pick up NASCAR popularity. Granted, although most of NASCAR is throwing out the welcome mat for Danica Patrick, Kyle Petty is a bit more cautious about what her arrival means for the sport and the risks she's taking.
Speaking at Sound & Speed, one of the events that marks the unofficial start of the racing season and features country-music singers and NASCAR drivers mingling with fans from across the country, Petty stated, "If she gets in that car and doesn't win races it's not the car, it's not the engines, it's not the team. They only changed one thing. Initially, she'll have an impact on the sport. If she's successful, she'll have a huge long-term impact on the sport...but if she's not successful the only impact she'll have on the sport is she wasted two or three years on a car that a good driver could have been in and could have been developing."
But Kelley Earnhardt, the president of JRM who negotiated the deal with IMG to bring Patrick to the team, appears very confident that Patrick's presence is sure to bolster NASCAR in more ways than one.
"Obviously, she elevates our program and elevates the sport, and it's going to have some different eyeballs on JR Motorsports, in a good way." "It's very exciting. The branding and the stuff that we've done with Dale Jr.—to be where he is in the sport—it's equally exciting to bring her along and just have a new set of eyeballs watching and the female factor, with the young girls and the role-model thing. I'm really excited about it," Kelley Earnhardt said.
What is certain is that the economy will be the white elephant in the room wherever the NASCAR racing series goes. And not only the fan base, but racers as well. People are not going to be traveling from Oklahoma to Talladega. You may only see people there from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia who can drive over for the day and go home.
Ray Evernham, a former NASCAR team owner, stated that he is afraid economic issues could alter the competition level. "It's brutal out there," said Evernham, "the level of competition might end up between three or four owners. It wasn't that long ago that we had 18 or 19 different winners in a season. I don't know if we will see that again." "It seems like (in NASCAR) we are a year behind where the economy is," said Evernham. "I am afraid that in 2010 there will only be 11 cars that have a chance of winning."