NASCAR is a sport that has transcended time—particularly in the popularity department.
Epic battles between Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers were rocking NASCAR faithful in the 1960s and 70s. Dale Earnhardt's unexpected passing brought a new wave of fans to the sport and the latest battles (both on and off the track) have kept most fans happy.
Most, but not all.
That might be part of the reason that Danica Patrick—and her 2013 Daytona 500 pole win—are being driven into the ground by media pundits everywhere (this writer included).
While Patrick's popularity as one of the most recognizable women in sports continues to grow, the brand of the company for which she competes does too. All hope is not lost, there's still interest in long-time drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Johnson and Tony Stewart and similar intrigue with less tenured drivers like Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer.
While looking to both expand and improve off recent television struggles, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway are making a great collective decision with their most recent choice to put the Daytona 500 qualifying races—otherwise known as the Budweiser Duels—under the bright lights.
If you haven't already heard the news, here's USA Today columnist Nate Ryan's report on Twitter that confirms the decision:
Nate Ryan @nateryan
Daytona International Speedway will move Budweiser Duel qualifying races to evening start under the lights in 2014. #nascar2013-2-21 17:24:11
The Associated Press also reported that the move was final and had this quote (via Yahoo! Sports) from Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III:
Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III says moving the races will ''add another dimension'' to Speedweeks. He adds that ''to earn a coveted starting spot in the Daytona 500, the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will have to perform under the lights and in front of a prime-time audience.''
Chitwood is right in one regard—the audience will be bigger.
That's a huge plus for a sport that struggled to pull encouraging ratings in 2012.
According to John Ourand and Tripp Mickel of the SportsBusiness Journal (courtesy of Sporting News), the 18-to-34 demographic was the lowest it's been in five years— per the 2012 Nielsen ratings.
Executives like to compare the television ratings to the sport to a roller coaster, and last year's downward ride was partially blamed on a delay of the Daytona 500 and London Olympics—an event that cut into NASCAR's viewership in a big way during the summer of 2012.
Still, ratings are what they are—indicative of who is watching, and who is not.
By giving fans another opportunity to watch on a channel that doesn't have to be included in a premium cable package, Daytona and NASCAR are giving diehard fans a break from missing qualifying rounds while still at work, casual fans a reason to skip out on re-runs and the viewer that's never seen an event before the chance to dig in and start asking questions.
From personal experience, it's hard to keep up with NASCAR. The time frames cut into weekends and are often during other activities that might take precedent, but there aren't as many folks out and about on Thursday nights as there are on Saturdays and Sundays.
Today, for example, fans missed two thrilling 150-mile races that featured Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch grabbing the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the starting grid for Sunday's event (per NASCAR.com). That's information that people want and need to know heading into the big race, as they wonder why the qualifying lap is usurped by these events.
NASCAR will continue to attract fans—that much is certain. Love for the sport will always be there. However, by moving events to attract more viewership and the potential for new fans, the sport is making sure there will be fans 20 years from now, too.
A great thought for legends like Petty, Yarborough and Earnhardt.