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On the road to Jeff Byrd's Bristol....and the big story is NASCAR's hot start to the new season

 Jimmie Johnson, en route to winning Bristol last spring. But he's barely in the top-12 this year. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


    As we head up toward Bristol – that's Bristol, Tennessee, Danica – for this weekend's Jeff Byrd 500 at typically raucous Bristol Motor Speedway, we've had a few days to catch our breath and reflect on the opening weeks of the NASCAR season.

    Byrd, who died last fall far too young, was for the past 15 years the boss and face of Bristol, a tireless and exuberant promoter who never met a person he didn't really know, within that first five minutes after introduction. Jerry Caldwell, another Winston-Salem native making his home in the Blue Ridge now, has some big shoes to fill in taking Byrd's place.
    The last run up here was melancholy. ( http://bit.ly/c8mhbU )
    Hope this one is more celebratory.
    Certainly Jeff, my old roommate way back when, and a long-time master of the fine art of stock car racing marketing and promotion, would like what we're seeing so far.
    And this is what we're seeing:

    The hottest news is the hot start to the season, in the grandstands at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas, and on Fox-TV for those events. Three different winners in the first three races…an average of 41 lead changes and 16 different leaders a race…and an average margin of victory of 0.834 of a second.

   The sport lost two really good promoters last fall, NASCAR's Jim Hunter and Bristol's Jeff Byrd (R) (Photos: Getty Images for NASCAR and BMS)

   Major point here: Texas TV viewer ratings for the year's first three NASCAR races are up dramatically, which Texas boss Eddie Gossage says bodes well for his April 9th Texas 500, the year's first night race.
   Nielsen reports Dallas-Fort Worth household viewership up 35 percent from a year ago, including a huge jump in the Vegas rating – up a whopping 82 percent. with 120,000 households tuning in. The Texas speedway market is averaging 146,000 households a race, ranking it eighth among Nielsen's top 55  markets. It's not just Dallas-Fort Worth either. San Antonio shows a 52 percent increase in households, Houston 50 percent, and Austin 12 percent; that means Houston is averaging 87,000 households a race, San Antonio 41,000, and Austin 38,000.
   Gossage: "They say Texas is a football state, but with the huge increase in NASCAR's TV ratings in Texas, and the fact the two Texas races draw bigger crowds than places like Indy and Charlotte, I think a case can be made that Texas is a racing state."
    However, the next hot story may be the inexplicable week off that teams are now 'enjoying.'
    Will NASCAR lose Big Mo….and why aren't we racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend?
    Bad move to cut that race from the schedule.

     Kyle Busch, the pre-race favorite at Bristol...and hoping to crack into the top-12 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Much of the credit for the sport's hot run may go to little known Trevor Bayne, upset winner at Daytona against the sport's biggest, meanest guns, and Bayne's successful cross-country marketing binge. (Hey, wouldn't it be a great story if Bayne could follow up that with a win at Martinsville Speedway, the Wood brothers' 'home' track?)
    Give some of the credit to Danica Patrick, who is clearly improving on the track, and whose marketing prowess has never been questioned. Yes, her fourth at Las Vegas was in a gas mileage finish, but she did run strong during the race, quite strong in fact, considering her problems much of last season. But hold the champagne here until she finishes this week's Nationwide race at Bristol, a track that she's never raced at.
   Still Patrick, and her better runs this season, are certainly partly behind ABC's own 22 percent ratings bump for the Nationwide race at Las Vegas, with a final national rating of 2.2, averaging 3,458,988 viewers, according to Nielsen. Also to consider: ABC carried this race, which last year aired on ESPN2 and earned a final rating of 1.8.
    And a lot of credit goes to track promoters Joie Chitwood at Daytona, Bryan Sperber at Phoenix, and Chris Powell at Las Vegas for heavy-handed, in-your-face, and clearly successful good old fashioned promotion.

    Carl Edwards leaping 800 feet off the Vegas' Stratosphere got big headlines of course (though Jack Roush must have missed that news until after his driver won the Las Vegas 400.
   (Powell is already promoting this fall's Indy-car season finale and that $5 million winner's bonus to any outsider who can win – F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, who has been dabbling at NASCAR, is thinking about it. And NASCAR-Indy-car team owner Chip Ganassi is interested in making something happen….with Juan Pablo Montoya? Indy boss Randy Barnard says the Charlotte-to-Vegas double that weekend "is very do-able. If the race ends at Charlotte at 11 pm, and you are on a plane from there at midnight, you will land at 1 am in Vegas. That gives you 10 hours." And Barnard promises plenty of Vegas practice – and naturally publicity for the track – over the summer.)

   Charlotte Motor Speedway, pumping up May's two weeks of speed, drew more than 7,500 fans for Saturday's race fest at the track. And track promoter Marcus Smith is keeping everyone up with construction of the world's largest high-definition TV, on the backstretch. It boasts a 500,000-pound steel frame encasing the 165,000 pounds of video screens that make up the 200-foot wide by 80-foot long television. If that thing were on sale at Best Buy, it would be billed as 2,600-inch screen. And it's high-def.

    New Bristol boss Jerry Caldwell gives Danica Patrick a big basket of goodies. Patrick is having reason to smile when she arrives at NASCAR tracks this season, because she's running much better (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Bristol's Caldwell, when he heard Patrick say she didn't know where Bristol really was, Virginia or Tennessee, came up with a huge gift basket of Tennessee love: with a bottle of Jack Daniels Black (Lynchburg), a box of Goo Goo Clusters (Nashville), Moon Pies (Chattanooga), Cracker Barrel Apple Butter (Lebanon), Ridgewood Barbeque sauce (Bluff City), a cookbook of Tennessee recipes, and of course a Bristol Motor Speedway tee-shirt.
    That's not all Danica got in the basket: CDs of Tennessee artists Elvis Presley (Memphis), Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins (Sun Records), Dolly Parton (Sevierville), Usher (Chattanooga), Kenny Chesney (Luttrell, and he recorded his first record in Bristol itself), Tennessee Ernie Ford of course, and Memphis-Stax greatest hits from 1957. And that's not all either: a copy of 'Days of Thunder,' with Tennessee's Fred Thompson, and 'Pulp Fiction,' by Knoxville's Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Penn Warren's 'All the King's Men (he's from Clarksville), and Alex Haley's 'Roots' (he's from Henning). And there was more, a Tennessee Vols football pillow, and a Tennessee Titans wristband. She may need that pillow and that Jack Black for the ride home after Saturday's Nationwide run here.
   "We're thrilled to have Danica coming to Bristol," Caldwell says, "and I figured the best way to introduce her to Tennessee was to show her some good old-fashioned Southern hospitality."

   And drivers are doing their part, overtime, promoting NASCAR.  

     -- Kurt Busch isn't taking the off week off. In fact he qualified 12th in Pro Stock for this weekend's NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., and will face Erica Enders in elimination set for 11 a.m. Sunday. Busch was clocked at 211.46 mph.
     Is Enders intimidated by Busch? "It doesn't matter, Kurt Busch or George Bush, we're going to do the same thing, put our helmet on the same way."
     Busch's dabbling in Pro Stock dragsters is curious. It will be interesting if he takes this NHRA stuff to the next level – Top Fueler Tony Schumacher earned the top spot at Gainesville with a 3.814-second pass at a track-record 325.45 mph.

    -- Brad Keselowski stepping it back up, off the track as on. After several highly publicized run-ins last spring and summer with Carl Edwards, Keselowski turned low-key last fall, and more business-like in focusing on winning the Nationwide title, over Edwards.
   His new program to help injured veterans with NASCAR weekends is admirable. And his spirited social media work is refreshing (particularly after NASCAR's own ill-handled Twitter crackdown last summer on Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, which was roundly dissed).

   -- Keselowski isn't the only one moving to help wounded veterans. Bristol's Caldwell will unveil The Empty Chair Memorial, a physical symbol of the thousands of American POW/MIAs still unaccounted for, on the frontstretch grandstands, just behind the flag stand, in a Missing Man Ceremony Friday.
   Martinsville Speedway's Clay Campbell, in a promotion with long-time sponsor Goody's, is hosting Cory Collins, a victim of a 500-pound IED in Iraq now walking with a prosthetic leg.
    And Ryan Newman is heading to Fort Bragg Monday for an appearance with the 82nd Airborne


    Kyle Busch (18) and Jimmie Johnson (48), at last summer's Bristol night race, one of life's great adventures, for drivers and fans alike (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

It will be interesting to see

It will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm for Nascar keeps up through the monotony of the 1 1/2 mile tracks that have infested Nascar. For the beginning of the season fans get to see races on a wide variety of tracks, so we don't have to watch all those 'aero push' races back to back.

You're still attacking the

You're still attacking the wrong thing, anon. The 1.5 milers aren't the problem; the COTs and the speeds remain the problem.

speed is one of the big

speed is one of the big problems this sport's leaders refuse to address, for whatever reason. slower is better. more downforce is better. this isn't rocketscience -- or it shouldn't be. 200 mph into the first turn at Las Vegas, a 1-1/2-mile track? too fast, simply too fast. you want better racing, give these guys more downforce and cut the cubic inches. simple, done.

NASCAR has caught a lot of

NASCAR has caught a lot of flack for the cookie cutter mid size tracks. However, I have been watching NASCAR since about 1970. Michigan, Charlotte, Atlanta, and even Texas World Speedway provided some very good and interesting racing many years ago. I understand why newer tracks were designed to imitate them. Smokey Yunick even proposed a series to compete with NASCAR that had all tracks identically shaped (which I thought was foolish. I liked variety even back then.)

It is the cars that have changed and made these tracks uninteresting. You would think that NASCAR could come up with some sort of requirements to make today's cars' aerodynamics like they were many years ago. (Maybe make them all run 1972 bodies to go with their carbureted engines?)

and check the speeds for the

and check the speeds for the 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s at those mid-size tracks. much slower.....

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