DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR has a new sponsor and 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.
The on-track product for the stock car series officially reported for work Friday at Daytona International Speedway, which hosts the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500. It will kick off a season of hold-your-breath, we-really-hope-this-works efforts by NASCAR, the networks, tracks, teams and drivers to turn things around.
Monster Energy roars 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? This year it's about "enhanced competition" in segments broken up over three periods. Basically, the quick first two segments are now the appetizer to the longer main event.
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 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, 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.
Speedweeks begins tonight with the Clash at Daytona exhibition race (8, FS1).
SPONSOR FIGHT: Danica Patrick defended her support of former sponsor Nature's Bakery and insisted she never promoted any rival products as her racing team and the food company veer toward a court fight. Stewart-Haas Racing has filed a $31 million lawsuit against Nature's Bakery, saying the food company concocted false claims to dump the remaining two years on its deal to sponsor Patrick.
CONCUSSIONS: NASCAR has beefed up its concussion protocol with a consistent screening rule at all venues. Drivers involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage will be required to report to the infield care center for an evaluation.
BIFFLE OUT: Greg Biffle, 47, won't race in the Cup series this season and has accepted a position as an analyst on NBC.