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Momentum? Can NASCAR catch it again? And what about Saturday night's Southern 500?

    Will Darlington's Southern 500 light some fires? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

      By Mike Mulhern

     Well, NASCAR has delivered what fans said they wanted, more exciting action.
     Now will fans respond by delivering what NASCAR wants: more butts in these seats and more eyeballs on the tube?
     Also looking ahead, just how is the 2011 NASCAR tour schedule progressing? Where will that second Kansas Speedway Cup weekend fit in? Will some current tour event get cut, and its date moved?
     And is it true that NASCAR executives are planning to move the early-season California 500 (Fontana, Feb. 21 this season, a week after the Daytona 500) to later in the spring?  That event hasn't exactly been a marketing winner in that time slot lately. Maybe it's time to let someone else have a shot at it.
    If so, who wants that first post-Daytona weekend – just how prime is it to a track? There are only a handful of tracks that host a race that early, principally Phoenix, Las Vegas and Homestead.
     On the NASCAR side of that question – and the Fox TV side – it's important to keep the sport's momentum rolling out of Daytona.

     BTW, the U.S. economy is on the rebound, slowly to be sure, but heading back up.
     So what about NASCAR's crowds this season?
     Well, it doesn't look like stock car tracks have yet turned the corner.    

     The numbers, from NASCAR's official race results the past three years:

                                              2008                                                 2009                     2010

     Daytona                           190,000 (sellout)                             180,000                175,000
     California                         70,000*                                            78,000                   72,000
     Las Vegas                         153,000 (sellout)                            140,000                   150,000
     Atlanta                             100,000                                            94,400                    85,000
     Bristol                              160,000                                          160,000                 138,000
     Martinsville                       63,000                                              63,000                  58,000**
     Phoenix                            100,000                                             80,000                  70,000
     Texas                                190,000                                          176,300                   92,000***
     Talladega                          156,000                                          142,000                 123,500
     Richmond                         112,000+ (sellout)                          100,000                   93,000
     Darlington                          75,000 (sellout)                              72,000                    TBD

     *(Sunday/rain; 25,000 Monday race)
     **(Sunday/rain; 40,000 Monday race)
     ***(Monday race)

    So what does this tell us?
    And if we add the TV ratings for those events?
                                              2008                                               2009                      2010

     Daytona                           10.2                                                  9.2                         7.7
     California                           6.2                                                   6.0                         5.6
     Las Vegas                         7.1                                                   6.5                         4.4
     Atlanta                              6.4                                                   5.5                          5.3
     Bristol                               5.0                                                   4.1                          4.2
     Martinsville                        5.3                                                   4.6                          2.1*
     Phoenix                            4.4                                                   3.6                          3.7
     Texas                               5.4                                                   4.7                          2.1*
     Talladega                          5.7                                                   5.0                          5.2
     Richmond                         4.5                                                   4.0                          NA

    *Monday race

     Four problems so far – the pothole at Daytona, the Martinsville rainout till Monday, the Texas rainout till Monday, and the Winter Olympics.
     Momentum seems tough to get right now.
    But if any track can provide some sparks it's Darlington Raceway.
    One issue to consider – will fresh tires trump track position in Saturday night's Southern 500? With double file restarts this season, fresh tires have been a major advantage for drivers over rivals with worn tires.
   However these tires here don't fall off much at all; in fact they tend to get faster the more a driver runs on them. So Jimmie Johnson is thinking last spring's tactics here – emphasizing track position – will pay off again this time. "Mark Martin and I found out that no one could catch us last year," Johnson said.
   What does Jeff Burton think about track position versus fresh tires?
    "It depends on the track, it depends on the tire,"  Burton says.
    "Honestly, it is really hard (to make that late race call, pit or no-pit), if you go back and think about it. There have been several races people won who didn't have the best cars, because they put two tires on and got track position. (Like Ryan Newman at Phoenix.)
   "And there are races recently where four tires have been the best. (Like Johnson at Bristol and Kyle Busch at Richmond.)
    "So you can't just say two tires are always going to be the best, or four tires are always going to be the best.
    "The double-file restarts is one of the factors...but the factor is 'what is the tire, what is the fall-off on the tire, and where are you running?'
    "The thing that is going to be interesting here is double-file restarts going into turn one -- where are you going?
    "It is going to get bottled up a little bit, and it is going to be hard to make up a lot of track position.
    "But if four tires are that much better than two tires, and you are three-wide in the middle of three and four, you are making something happen."
     But for better or worse?

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  Jeff Burton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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