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So does Jeff Gordon still have the touch at Talladega? How about an Earnhardt-vs-Gordon Talladega 500?

  Is this the two-car pack to keep an eye on in Sunday's Talladega 500, Jeff Gordon and teammate Mark Martin? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Jeff Gordon?
   Well, qualifying at Talladega doesn't mean much, of course. And those two-car packs, like we saw during that very curious Daytona 500, may make this Sunday's NASCAR race, number eight of the stock car season, another wild-card event.

    However remember how the Rick Hendrick teams struggled at Daytona? Looks like Doug Duchardt and Jeff Andrews have been doing their homework in the engine shop and wind tunnel for Sunday's 500 (1 p.m. ET, noon CT).
    What happens to engine cooling -- reflect on the issues at Daytona, the rules changes, the problems that Richard Childress' guys had, with blown engines -- is something to keep an eye on Sunday.
    And how many radio channels will these drivers have to monitor? Remember all the confusion at Daytona, with drivers hooking up with as many as 12 other drivers, and using direct radio communication even more than spotters.....
    Certainly there are more than enough things that will likely surprise us all Sunday at Talladega.
    The odds might be good for another strange upset, like Trevor Bayne provided in the season-opener. If so, Paul Menard or David Regan might be good to watch.

Well, Gordon (24) and Martin (5) have been working hard together. And what Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88, here with early-season surprise Regan Smith) can do with this two-car thing, well, that's something else to watch. Earnhardt doesn't like this two-car stuff at all. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Big picture for the sport:
    Here's the line from Lesa France Kennedy's staff at the International Speedway Corp. two months in.
    "The capital (more than $20 million) we spent on the (Daytona) paving project gave us additional national prominence...the success of this project confirms our belief we need to continue our focus on strategic capital opportunities," she says, with a nod toward the current repaving/redesign at Phoenix International Raceway, and major improvements at Martinsville Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, and Watkins Glen, projects costing between $65 million and $75 million.
    "We successfully navigated through an extended downturn in the economy and remained in excellent financial position. While still early in the year, we remain hopeful growth in the economy will continue and lead to job creation. Through prudent cost containment, we expect to see meaningful improvement in our operating margin this year."
   John Saunders, right-hand man at ISC, concedes however "we're keeping a very close eye on the consumer and corporate spending trends. The economy is improving, but concerns remain, particularly in employment levels, consumer confidence and more recent world events.
   "Our attendance-related revenues continued to be our most significant short-term business risk. Advanced ticket sales for our Sprint Cup events remain in the range of approximately 11% and 12% off from last year in units and revenue, respectively. While part of this decline is associated with the timing of our renewals and related programs, fans continue to make their purchase decisions closer to race day."
    Saunders says a whopping 30,000 Daytona 500 tickets were sold in the three weeks before the race.
    Saunders points to the sport's new marketing angles (like using Dale Earnhardt in Nationwide TV ads on some curious channels), particularly toward what he calls "the next-generation race fan."
    "Traditional means of advertising may not be adequate to reach this demographic," Saunders says.
    Part of the problem, of course, may be that the sport needs new headliners, like Bayne.
    Saunders says the new marketing may be paying off: "Television ratings for the Daytona 500 were up considerably, but the biggest increase came in the teen male, 20 to 17-year-old viewership, which grew 91 percent over 2010.
    "And the male 18 to 30-year-old group has spiked upwards as well."
    For the sport, there is the attendance issue, and the TV ratings issue...and the corporate sponsorship issue.
    And Saunders says the France family company likes the corporate potential of the Kansas Speedway/Hollywood Casino project, which has led ISC to add a second Cup weekend (June 5) to the Kansas City track.  "This is the first venture to 'monetize' our vast real estate holdings," Saunders says.
    "Our share of the expected cash flow from the 50-50 joint venture would be nearly equivalent to ISC opening another Kansas Speedway-type motorsports facility with a fresh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series date included."
    Hanging over the head of the ISC, though, continues to be that ill-fated Staten Island property, about $100 million worth.
    And, heading into this Talladega race, ISC admissions revenue for the first quarter decreased to $36.1 million, with a pointed nod toward moving the Phoenix and California race dates.
    (In a somewhat curious note, ISC says its effective tax rate for the first quarter was 39 percent.)
    No question, Saunders points out, that increasing gas prices are worrisome: "We're very concerned....
   "The interesting thing is we're not seeing it in any significant feedback from fans yet.
    "We had this situation in '08, where we were pushing over $4 a gallon, and we were seeing some impact. Our fans travel in excess of 200 miles one way to attend events."
   Talladega, which draws from one of the sport's biggest 'circles,' should give some indication. As many as 50,000 fans camp out on ISC land for the Talladega race.
   Before the 2008 U.S. economic downturn, NASCAR's hardcore fans would attend around five Cup events a year, ISC says. Now, though, that's down to two or three events.
   Which makes NASCAR's push to attract young fans and first-timers perhaps critical.
   But first-timers coming to Talladega, well, wow! The place is huge, intimidating perhaps...and how user-friendly may be debatable. So key could be getting long-time fans to be catalyst for new-comers.



  The most powerful woman in NASCAR, Lesa France Kennedy, with NASCAR pres Mike Helton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

                        The starting lineup for Sunday's Talladega 500/Aaron's 499



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