Mon­ster Mash

NASCAR hopes for boost af­ter big swings at spic­ing it up

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

DAY­TONA BEACH, FLA. >> NASCAR has a new spon­sor, a new for­mat and wel­comes back its most pop­u­lar driver, all pro­vid­ing op­ti­mism for a se­ries ea­ger to halt a steady de­cline in at­ten­dance, rat­ings and spon­sor­ship.

Money is down across the board and ev­ery­one is do­ing more with less to try to save a buck.

The on-track prod­uct for the stock car se­ries of­fi­cially re­ports for work Fri­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, which hosts the Feb. 26 sea­son-open­ing “Great Amer­i­can Race.” It will kick off a sea­son of hold-your-breath, we­re­ally-hope-this-works ef­forts by NASCAR, the net­works, tracks, teams and driv­ers to turn things around.

This sea­son be­gins with Mon­ster En­ergy roar­ing into its de­but year as ti­tle spon­sor amid promised mar­ket­ing to mil­len­ni­als and the op­por­tu­nity to lure new eye­balls to a sport with an ag­ing au­di­ence. Part of the new raz­zle-daz­zle ap­proach is a whole­sale re­design of the def­i­ni­tion of a NASCAR race.

Re­mem­ber how NASCAR just ran in cir­cles for 500 miles nearly ev­ery Sun­day for hours on end? Well, this year it’s about “en­hanced com­pe­ti­tion” in seg­ments

bro­ken up over three pe­ri­ods. Think of it like in­nings in base­ball or quar­ters in foot­ball or bas­ket­ball. More ac­cu­rately, the quick first two seg­ments are now the ap­pe­tizer to the longer main event. In the mean­time, you get to go grab a beer as the tele­vi­sion net­works prom­ise to use the breaks be­tween seg­ments to dump all the com­mer­cials.

Even bet­ter, you won’t have to wait for Na­tion­wide’s beloved “Wa­ter Cooler Dale” com­mer­cial to see NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver. Dale Earn­hardt Jr. is cleared for com­pe­ti­tion af­ter miss­ing the sec­ond half of last sea­son with a con­cus­sion. Earn­hardt’s sidelin­ing ab­so­lutely cut into the au­di­ence, and had to send shiv­ers down NASCAR’s spine over its dwin­dling cast of su­per­stars.

Jeff Gor­don is in the TV booth now, Tony Ste­wart is re­tired. They had seven cham­pi­onships be­tween them and NASCAR is count­ing on Earn­hardt to bring his fan base back to the track with him. How im­por­tant is Earn­hardt? Chicagoland Speed­way, site of the Sept. 17 open­ing play­off race, has promised a full re­fund to any­one who buys a sin­gle-day ticket to that event be­tween now and the Day­tona 500 if Earn­hardt wins for a third time.

But be pre­pared, Dale is dif­fer­ent! He’s mar­ried, head-over-heels in love and you can dou­ble-click his In­sta­gram ac­count if you like pho­tos of a man who has fi­nally, in his 18th sea­son, set­tled into his skin and found a peace that he is shar­ing with the en­tire world.

“Get­ting mar­ried has been in­cred­i­ble. I wish I would have fig­ured this all out sooner,” he said. “I’m frus­trated with my­self that I took so long to grow up be­cause I have an amaz­ing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s re­ally helped me as a per­son to be­come bet­ter on all fronts — per­son­ally, and all my friend­ships with peo­ple and how I re­act to peo­ple and treat peo­ple. And, ob­vi­ously, in my pro­fes­sional life, she’s helped me as a driver.”

He wants a fam­ily, wants to be him­self and wants to be in that race car.

“I got real close to not be­ing able to com­pete and it be­ing some­one else’s de­ci­sion whether I com­peted or not,” Earn­hardt said of the long med­i­cal process to re­store his health. “I don’t know when I’m go­ing to stop rac­ing, but I want to able to make that choice and not have it made for me.”

NASCAR, though, must pre­pare for life af­ter Ju­nior, be­cause Jim­mie John­son — who just won his record­ty­ing sev­enth cham­pi­onship then had Snoop Dogg play at his party — and cham­pi­ons Matt Kenseth, Kevin Har­vick and Kurt Busch aren’t get­ting any younger.

NASCAR hopes it’s off to a good start with Daniel Suarez, the only non-Amer­i­can in the Mon­ster En­ergy Cup Se­ries who has be­come a sen­sa­tion in his na­tive Mex­ico. Only he didn’t get a pro­mo­tion for be­com­ing the first for­eign-born se­ries cham­pion with an Xfin­ity Se­ries ti­tle last Novem­ber. No, the 25-year-old Suarez was pro­moted when Carl Edwards abruptly walked away.

That’s right, the guy who came 10 laps away from win­ning his first cham­pi­onship last Novem­ber gave up his seat at Joe Gibbs Rac­ing. The 37-year-old Edwards gave no clear ex­pla­na­tion on what he plans to do now, but his re­fusal to use the word “re­tire” seem­ingly left open a re­turn in some form.

But none of this mat­ters un­less the rac­ing is good, the char­ac­ters come out and some­body pro­vides drama. There was some Thurs­day, the day the garage opened to Cup teams, as the nasty fight be­tween Dan­ica Pa­trick’s old spon­sor and her race team. Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing has sued Na­ture’s Bak­ery for $31 mil­lion for dump­ing the fi­nal two years of its three-year con­tract. Na­ture’s Bak­ery said Thurs­day it will fight and won’t al­low the team to “bully us.”

NASCAR, mean­while, in­tro­duced a new penalty struc­ture and the rules for the up­com­ing sea­son — on Thurs­day. That’s right, the de­tails sur­round­ing the 36 cham­pi­onship races were locked down the day be­fore the buildup of­fi­cially be­gins to NASCAR’s ver­sion of the “Su­per Bowl.”

So we wait to see what this sea­son brings, while NASCAR holds its breath.

WILFREDO LEE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, Dale Earn­hardt Jr. ges­tures as he speaks dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, in Day­tona Beach, Fla. Be­low, Kurt Busch drives the Mon­ster En­ergy No. 41 car last sea­son at Dover. NASCAR has a new spon­sor, a new for­mat and a fa­mil­iar face this year in its bid to re­bound from de­clin­ing rat­ings and at­ten­dance. The next 11 months will show if Dale Earn­hardt Jr., Mon­ster En­ergy and dif­fer­ent rules can pro­vide the needed jolt.

TERRY RENNA - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Chase El­liott (24) leads the field at the start of last year’s Day­tona 500. NASCAR has set the stage lengths for races this sea­son, part of a rad­i­cal re­vamp de­signed in hopes of mak­ing ev­ery lap mat­ter. The new for­mat opens with the Day­tona 500 on Feb. 26.

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