NASCAR could not have dreamed a better opening two weeks to the season — the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history followed by the end of elder statesman Jeff Gordon’s 66-race losing streak.
The competition has been stellar, with the first two races boasting record lead changes. The 28 on Sunday at Phoenix were the most in a race there in almost 11 years.
The crowds were good — Phoenix, which seats 55,000, was officially listed as a sellout — and overnight ratings from Sunday show Fox has drawn more viewers both weeks.
More important, though, is the buzz since 20-year-old Trevor Bayne’s upset Feb. 20 to win the showcase race. It did wonders in attracting onlookers, including hot young Hollywood actress Emmy Rossum, who sang the national anthem at Phoenix.
“NASCAR is epic,” the 24-year-old posted on her Twitter page after the race, adding that her lap around the track with Bayne and her time in Carl Edwards’ pit was one “of the coolest experiences of my life.”
Now NASCAR has Gordon, a 20-year veteran and four-time champion, back in Victory Lane after a drought that stretched almost two years, an outcome that sits well with the sport’s aging fan base. The fresh-faced Bayne, meanwhile, attracted the coveted 18-to-34-year-old audience.
Either way, it’s got the series headed in the right direction after several sagging seasons.
“It’s the kind of excitement that causes you to wonder what will happen next week in Las Vegas,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said Monday.
Indeed, things could really get interesting this weekend when the Busch Brothers return to their home track ranked first and second in the Sprint Cup Series standings. Kyle Busch rolls into Sin City as the points leader, with a three-point cushion over older brother, Kurt.
They are the only two drivers to nab top-10 finishes in both of the season-opening races. Kyle finished second Sunday to Gordon, preventing him from sweeping the weekend at Phoenix after wins in the Nationwide and Trucks Series. Kurt won the first two exhibition races at Daytona and was in position late to win the 500 before settling for fifth.
Both view Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the Holy Grail on the NASCAR circuit — Kyle won there in 2009, Kurt’s best finish was third in 2005 — and nobody doubts they’d run each other over to get to Victory Lane.
The only thing that could possibly push NASCAR’s rebound further along is a win by Dale Earnhardt Jr., but his fans have to be pleased with his season so far. Granted, it’s only two races in and far too early to determine if his pairing with new crew chief Steve Letarte will be a success, but NASCAR’s most popular driver has shown signs of life even as his winless streak hit 95 races on Sunday.
He led nine laps at Daytona and was in position to make a late push for the victory until a flat tire sabotaged his strategy. But his 10th-place finish Sunday was his best at Phoenix since 2008, and gives him momentum heading into Las Vegas, where he qualified fourth last year and finished 16th.
“It’s the best I’ve run around here in a long time,” he said, referring to Sunday’s race. “I do want to run better. Definitely not jumping up and down over what we did, but this is a step in the right direction. This is a leap in the right direction for me over the last several trips at Phoenix.”
It’s up to the fans to decide if the first two weeks are enough to keep them interested for 34 more races. And while there are still issues to be ironed out — the middle sections of races can lull some viewers to sleep, and Fox’s abbreviated post-race shows leave most unsatisfied — NASCAR finally appears to be doing something right.