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NASCAR looks to bounce back, starting with Daytona 500, its ‘Super Bowl’

Martin Truex Jr., right, talks with a crew member during a rain delay in the NASCAR Clash auto race
Martin Truex Jr., right, shown talking to a crew member this week at Daytona International Speedway, will be taking over the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.
(Terry Renna / Associated Press)

There is no doubt that NASCAR is still bleeding fans, at the track and watching on television, but the decline is slowing. Perhaps it’s a case of unrealistic expectations from a decade ago, when every year brought record numbers. Or maybe NASCAR is caught up in the same market forces that are affecting all sports.

Last year, about two-thirds of the 33 races had record-low viewership, including the Daytona 500. Average viewership dropped from 4.1 million in 2017 to 3.3 million last year. Eyeballing the races, it’s clear NASCAR also had significant attendance declines (NASCAR doesn’t announce attendance figures).

NASCAR does seem to be tapping into the digital market. On race days, content consumption is up 29%, page views up 13% and video views rose 49%. So, things are not all bad.

Excitement and anticipation in any sport is never greater than before the start of the season, and NASCAR opens Sunday with its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.

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Here are five questions, and answers, as the first flag gets ready to drop:

Who switched teams in the offseason?

As usual, there are a few new driver-number-team combinations to learn. Martin Truex Jr., who finished second in the points race last year, will be taking over the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Daniel Suarez. Truex essentially became a free agent after Furniture Row Racing decided to get out of the game.

Kurt Busch, who was seventh, will be driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi. He takes over for Jaimie McMurray, who is all over the place with new jobs. He has a ride in the Daytona 500 for a team in partnership with Ganassi. He’ll also have an administrative role with Ganassi and will be an analyst for Fox television.

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Other changes include Ryan Newman driving the No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing; Suarez taking Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas; Matt DiBenedetto going to the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing; and Corey LaJoie getting the No. 32 Ford for GoFAS Racing from DiBenedetto. Daniel Hemric (No. 8 Childress Chevrolet), Matt Tifft (No. 36 Front Row Ford) and Ryan Preece (No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet) move up from the Xfinity Series.

Any big rules changes this year?

Dependably one of the most exciting finishes in sports — the last 10 laps of a restrictor plate race — is going away after Sunday’s race. NASCAR is looking to lower the horsepower from around 750 to 550 for 21 races (tracks 1.2 miles or greater) in order to bunch up the field, create side-by-side racing and more passing. The purpose of a restrictor plate, as the name indicates, is to slow cars down. They were only used at Daytona and Talladega. This move essentially does the same thing through the use of a thicker spacer and holes that will cut down air flow.

“If you’re watching TV and see a stock car race and see only one or two cars, it’s not compelling,” said Mike Joy, lead race announcer for Fox. “But if you see a pack of cars, closer than people park, running at high speeds, you’re going to stick around. That’s what they are trying to get done.”

Who will be NASCAR’s next breakout stars?

It’s a tough question because some of the breakouts have already broken out, such as Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. However, there are a few possibilities who are still searching for their first win. Alex Bowman, 25, finished 16th in the points standings and has 14 top-10 finishes in four years of racing on the top circuit. He’s got a magical numbered car in 88, the one held by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Darrell (Bubba) Wallace Jr., 25, is in his second year and has three top-10 finishes in 40 races. NASCAR is hoping he can bring more African American fans to a sport that has never been called diverse. Last year, he became the highest finishing African American in the Daytona 500 when he was second. Wallace drives the legendary No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.

And, the pole sitter, William Byron, 21, is looking for his first win as he starts his second season.

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Alex Bowman, left, congratulates Daytona 500 auto race pole winner William Byron, right, after their
Alex Bowman, left, congratulates Daytona 500 pole winner William Byron after their qualifying runs Feb. 10 at Daytona International Speedway.
(Terry Renna / Associated Press)

Will Jimmie Johnson ever win a race again?

Last year, the seven-time points champion went winless for the first time in his 17 seasons. But he’s off to a good start, winning the Clash on Sunday, although it wasn’t seamless as he triggered a 17-car crash in the 20-car field. He also just missed qualifying on the front row for Sunday’s race, with the third-best qualifying time. What’s new? He has a new crew chief as Kevin Meendering has replaced Chad Knaus, and a new sponsor in Ally Bank, replacing longtime sponsor Lowe’s, which left the sport.

“I think that fresh start [with a new crew chief] inside the team has been a weight lifted off of us,” Johnson said. “We just had a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed and the fact we weren’t succeeding added more pressure. This year is going to be much different.”

Who’s running NASCAR, and will we ever see Brian France again?

There is no doubt that NASCAR is being shaped and run by Jim France, brother of the late Bill Jr. and uncle of Brian. After Brian France was arrested on suspicion of DUI and misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance (oxycodone) in August, Jim France was named interim chief executive and chairman of NASCAR. But the interim tag was quickly dropped and he has been acting like someone who is firmly in charge and has the support of the drivers.

“I’m really confident in our leader, Jim France, and what he’s doing,” said Austin Dillon, defending Daytona 500 champion. “He’s really been involved and doing a lot and working with our owners and making the best decisions for our sport.”

Still, at 74, Jim France has to start think about a succession plan and who will shape the sport’s future. It’s seems unlikely that Brian France, 56, will resume the CEO role. His recent baggage, coupled with a prickly interpersonal style, does not make his return seem like what the sport needs.

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