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Hey, Danica isn't the only rookie in NASCAR this spring...but she's certainly making a TV hit

  NASCAR coast-to-coast, and Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray is having a blast (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   Okay, before we get all wound up, again, about NASCAR rookie Danica Patrick, let's remember there are other newcomers in this sport this season.
    And Patrick right now appears to have everything going for her....while the other rookies are not only battling the dozen or so Cup regulars making the big Nationwide events but also fighting a vicious economy.
    The good news: Patrick's NASCAR debut set the stage for a record-breaking TV audience last weekend. And now she gets centerstage again here in Los Angeles, the second-biggest market in the U.S. and thus a key market for NASCAR, and for years an amazingly hard sell -- as is just about everything here, just ask the NFL.
     ESPN reports that more than 4.2 million on average watched Patrick-in-NASCAR, setting a new TV mark for the series, on ESPN2 – with a 3.2 rating.
     ESPN says 4,271,365 viewers in 3,170,109 households watched the 300, won by Tony Stewart over Carl Edwards. Patrick crashed out midway, but 2's coverage peaked with a 3.5 household rating the last 20 minutes. That, ESPN's Julie Sobieski says, shows that "while Danica certainly helped bring people to the telecast, she wasn't the only factor.
   That 3.2 was up sharply from ESPN's 2009 number, 2.4, and its 2008 number, 2.5. (Point of reference: ESPN's 'overnight' rating was 2.6, in the major markets.)
   Okay, that said, what about the rest of the guys. The ones who don't have another career, or two, to fall back on, who don't yet have a 'brand identity'?
   One of them is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a 22-year-old from Mississippi: "I've joked around with my guys that I was going to race around Danica so I'll be on camera."
   Hey, not a bad idea.
   Stenhouse is one of Jack Roush's two newcomers, along with Colin Braun.
   Remember the Gong Show?
    Roush, more than anyone in the sport, has made it a point to give promising drivers a shot. He's had 11 rookies-of-the-year – Greg Biffle, in Trucks in 1998 and in now-Nationwide in 2001, Carl Edwards in Nationwide in 2005, Kurt Busch in Truck in 2000, Edwards in Truck in 2003, and Matt Kenseth in Cup (2000). So when Roush makes a pick, smart money keeps eyes on it.
   Point:  Kenseth's rookie win was head to head against favored Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He had actually beaten me for the Nationwide championship titles the two years prior, so we really focused on earning the rookie of the year title in 2000," Kenseth says.
    Sure, sometimes rookies pan out big; sometimes they just pan. For one, David Ragan (2007) the verdict is still out.
    And rookies don't come cheap. That's why Junior Johnson used to say he didn't care to run a training school for promising young drivers.
    But times change, and while rookies are just as expensive as usual, maybe even more so, well, new talent has to come from somewhere.
    Who's the next Kevin Harvick? Remember when Richard Childress plucked him out of virtual obscurity to take over after Dale Earnhardt's death?
    Who's the next Carl Edwards? Remember his mid-season leap into Cup racing, and how quickly he was successful?

    Now this spring a guy to keep an eye on is Colin Braun. (Ovala, Texas, is where?)
    He's up from the Truck series....but his background and his talent appear to put him on the fast track to Cup. Though that big early crash at Daytona took him out last weekend, Braun did win last summer's Truck race at Michigan, a sister track to this one.
    Edwards himself, fulltime Nationwide as well as fulltime Cup, and the 300 winner here last spring, isn't letting this opportunity go to waste: " A lot of people think that having rookie teammates is only for us to help them...but actually it's a two-way street.
    "When you have someone with the experience on road courses like Colin Braun, that's definitely something we lean on when we testing
road course tracks.
    "Colin might be a rookie in the Nationwide series, but he's been to most of these tracks in the Truck series."
    Braun makes this step up carrying a rep as a hard-charger...perhaps too hard at times.
    "I guess I did have that reputation, of going after it, in the sports car stuff," Braun says. "I came into the Truck deal and tried to do that same sort of thing...and it didn't really work very good.  Those old veteran guys pretty much put the kibosh on that pretty fast.
   "So I had to rework my style a little bit. But I think I've got it a little bit better figured out.
   "I think it worked okay the last half of last season.
     "I'm still working on trying to figure out how to race these guys, and what they race like...and now moving to the Nationwide series it changes everything again. 
    "So I'm going to have to see how the Nationwide drivers and how the Cup drivers race and go from there.
   "The biggest challenge is definitely going to be the Cup drivers...having 10 or 15 Cup drivers week-in, week-out, that's going to be the biggest challenge.
     "I'm going to learn a lot, and that's going to really help me learn a lot fast."
      Point of fact: nine of the top 10 finishers in the Daytona 300 were Cup drivers.


    No, car owner Roger Penske doesn't have Kurt Busch out scraping up more sponsorship dollars...but when it comes to creating buzz, NASCAR's marketers are busy as bees this spring (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Of course there is a lot more to this rookie game than just dealing with veterans and dealing with that mob around Danica.
    Roger Penske's Nationwide rookie Parker Kligerman says, with a wry laugher, that his biggest challenge this season is "the recession.
   "We need sponsorship to go the whole way."
    And that's a two-edged sword. Sponsors tend to go with established names, rather take a flyer on a promise.
   So keep an eye on the quarterpanels this season.
   And read the Wall Street Journal.
    And times are tough all over. Next week's stop is Las Vegas, and track president Chris Powell has invited President Obama to the speedway and to town to see things first hand for himself. How tough are things up the road in Vegas? Well, even Mr. Las Vegas appears to be struggling: http://bit.ly/b2OXOY

     One of Penske's sponsor deals this season is particularly interesting: Verizon, on Justin Allgaier's Nationwide car. Allgaier is a Cup rookie, up from Nationwide, and the cell phone company wanted to back him in Cup....but Sprint's sponsorship contract with the Cup series is more than a little impediment. So – this in classic Marlboro Tobacco marketing style – Penske has Allgaier's Cup car painted in Verizon 'style,' only without the decals. On the Nationwide side, though, Allgaier gets to run all the decals. (And maybe we should rewind the Daytona 500 tapes and see just how many Sprint ads Fox carried and how many Verizon ads.....)
   Can Patrick help NASCAR teams pick up new sponsors too?
    "Obviously she's the focal point, at this point," Kligerman says. "That's a good thing, though -- it brings a lot of attention to this series...a series that can get overshadowed by the Cup series and the Cup drivers.
     "If there's anyone who can bring in more eyes to see it, that's only a good thing."         
    And keep an eye on General Motors to see if/when it decides to bring its Camaro into this part of the marketing game. How/why GM would pass up a head-to-head against muscle-car Mustangs and Chargers is baffling.
   Even a marketing gem like Danica Patrick is supposed to be isn't magic. (And it's still more than a bit curious how a dot.com like hers can afford to pay the price to play this game....)
    Hey, Danica Patrick in a NASCAR Nationwide Camaro.....
    Sounds like a plan to me. Think she'll be ready late this year to take on Carl Edwards in a Nationwide Mustang?
    Is that new Chevy boss Jim Campbell paying attention?


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   NASCAR rookie Colin Braun: got a rep as a hard-hitting, hard-charging racer. Jack Roush is banking on this Texan to be the next big surprise. And, gosh, if this kid doesn't look like a young Richard Petty (Photo: Autostock)


The Danica Myth continues.

The Danica Myth continues. "Can Patrick help NASCAR teams pick up new sponsors, too?" This is one of the myths used to defend her in IRL - that she would bring attention to the series and attract sponsors to it. It never happened - sponsorships and popularity declined all the years she's been in the series. "If there's anyone who can bring in more eyes to see it...." never happened in IRL, so don't be fooled by that ratings spike for the Daytona 300.

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