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NASCAR shares blame for its stock dropping

Last Thursday, there was big NASCAR news as Carl Edwards, the Sprint Cup points leader, announced he would be staying with Roush Fenway Racing for 2012 and beyond.

On that same day there was some other big news, perhaps even more important to NASCAR, but it wasn't on the sports page: The stock market took its biggest one-day nose dive since December 2008.

No sport is more dependent on the economy than auto racing. The better business is for companies, the better business is for NASCAR.

Many get annoyed by drivers rattling off more than a mouthful of sponsors after winning a race, but those sponsors fuel the sport, and it's the same at every level right down to the weekly local action at Holland or Lancaster.

When the economy is bad, major league sports might lose season ticket holders or luxury box rentals -- but it's rarely going to affect the actual product on the field.

It's different in auto racing, where race teams are right now in limbo because of companies leaving NASCAR. Red Bull and Crown Royal (main sponsor of Matt Kenseth) have announced they will leave NASCAR at the end of this season. There are other sponsorships that are up in the air, so the offseason talk of which driver will race for what team will also come with the question of who will be paying for it.

This past week it was announced that Nashville Speedway would close after hosting Nationwide events for a decade. One of the reasons cited by Denis McGlynn of parent company Dover Motorsports for the closing is that the corporate support just wasn't what it was.

Those pullbacks are a sign that NASCAR's figurative stock may have hit an all-time high during the early 2000s, and NASCAR needs to realize that it might not get back there again.

The foundering economy is certainly to blame, but that can't fully explain the television ratings dive in recent years. No other sport saw a rise as NASCAR did when it broke through to casual sports fans outside its regional bases and attracted the attention of Madison Avenue -- but it seems as though its popularity surge might had something to do with being the fresh, new thing.

As the Sprint Cup drives to the southern tip of Seneca Lake for its annual stop at Watkins Glen International this weekend, here's hope that NASCAR will reinvest in itself and stay away from moves that leave exhaust fumes that reek of desperation.

Perhaps the biggest -- and most troubling -- such move was NASCAR shifting its Nationwide Series event in Indianapolis from fan (and driver) favorite Lucas Oil Raceway to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 2012.

The addition of the Nationwide race and a sports car event to the 2012 Indy race weekend have ostensibly been made to increase attendance at the track. But NASCAR is losing simply by moving the race from LOR, by moving away from what it does best. The Nationwide race at LOR was vintage Saturday Night short-track stock car racing, a race where you could practically feel the fumes and hot night air coming through your TV.

Then there is how the postseason chase is determined. To recount the various playoff formats, you need a HANS device to keep your head from spinning.

It began in 2004 with the top 10 in points advancing to a 10-race postseason. In 2007, the field was expanded to 12 and a 10-point per-win bonus was added. This year, the top 10 make it in on points, then two wild-card spots go to drivers with the most wins.

The casual sports fans who helped NASCAR's ride to the top want a consistent road to the playoffs.

Those fans could also use some fresh faces. The issue of five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson winning the title every year can be argued in opposite directions. On one hand, he, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team have made history and set a standard for excellence in their sport that can only be admired (like the Red Sox, Yankees, Patriots or UConn women's basketball). On the other side, five championship reruns from a driver who has been criticized as not having the most electric personality have also been said to provoke year-after-year yawns.

But what about the rest of the top 12? If the season ended today, all but Brad Keselowski (who would be well out of the points chase if not for the wild-card rule) would be making at least his fourth appearance in the eight-year-old Chase. The current top 12 drivers account for 65 of the 78 berths in previous chases (and three of the other 13 were taken by now-retired drivers).

Despite "young guns" promotions and the like, the sport's supposed rising stars have taken longer to develop, and NASCAR needs to take some of that blame as well.

This year, in an overdue move, NASCAR required drivers to declare in which of its series they would primarily compete (Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Craftsman Trucks). Compete in another series, and you don't earn any points.

For years, the supposed second-tier Nationwide Series had turned into another showcase for Sprint Car stars. With sponsors backing those races (and those Nationwide teams), you almost couldn't blame anyone. However, having a Sprint Cup A and B hindered the long-term development of younger drivers.

Here's the good part for NASCAR. Last weekend's race at Pocono saw Johnson and Kurt Busch adding another incident to their rivalry and some more insults to their ongoing war of words. It saw the 27-year-old Keselowski score a crucial wild-card win in storybook fashion as he drove with a broken ankle. And in a live interview after the win, he summarized his attitude by using the exact words of his car sponsor's current ad campaign: "Man up."

Grit, action, personalities, sponsors -- it made for a great example of why the sport is so compelling. It's the kind of stuff that sells itself.

But, like anything else, NASCAR, it can't be oversold.

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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