NASCAR at the Break: Part 2

D.Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has climbed to the top of the Sprint Cup Series point standings and appears poised to make a serious run for the championship. (Photo: Getty Images)


Easter Weekend gives NASCAR time to take a break and reflect on the first five races of the 2013 season:

Junior Back on Top
After missing two races last season with a concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has gotten off to arguably the best start of his Sprint Cup Series career. Junior has climbed to the top of the point standings and appears poised to make a serious run for the title.

“We’ve got cars that are competing well, running well and showing great speed,” Earnhardt said. “If we can step it up another notch, we’d be right there. It isn’t going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams.”

Earnhardt’s popularity will definitely help NASCAR gain more attention if he stays in contention for more wins and a championship. Unless there are major challenges ahead, there’s no reason to doubt why the Hendrick Motorsports driver won’t continue his successful season.

Early-Season Surprises
There are more than a few drivers who have gotten off to surprisingly good starts.

Paul Menard has climbed to eighth in the standings on the strength of three straight top-10 finishes. The Richard Childress Racing driver, who slumped last season after a solid 2011, continues to perform well with veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe calling the shots.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has risen above all the Danica Patrick relationship talk that dominated the first week of the season to perform well in his rookie Sprint Cup Series campaign. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has steadily improved since Daytona and moved near the top 10 in the point standings.

And after getting a jump-start with Furniture Row Racing last year, Kurt Busch has turned in several stellar efforts to give the single-car team optimism about a possible Chase position. Busch believes the organization’s relationship with Richard Childress Racing has been beneficial.

"Having their notes to look at and their drivers to debrief with is great," Busch said, "hanging out with (Kevin) Harvick, (Paul) Menard and (Jeff) Burton. We’re chiseling away at little things that would hold us up and now, we’re getting a little bit better each week."

Downward Spiral for Danica
She made history by becoming the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole and was in contention for the win, in turn bringing a huge amount of attention to NASCAR.

But since “The Great American Race,” Danica Patrick’s first full Sprint Cup Series season has been anything but great. Patrick hasn’t simply struggled, she’s floundered in the four subsequent weekends after Daytona with poor qualifying efforts and finishes closer to the bottom than the top of the results sheet.

However, she remains upbeat about her learning curve and remains convinced there will be better days ahead.

“We had a great start at Daytona,” said Patrick, “a great car, a good race and were steady the whole way through. Since then, I've been a little bit surprised how we unload. We've been closer unloading than I would have expected. But instead of progressing or staying there, we've fallen off throughout the weekend. We need to strike a good balance when it comes to qualifying and the race.”

Perhaps Patrick can take some solace in the fact the rest of her Stewart-Haas Racing team hasn’t exactly set the world on fire so far in 2013.

Ratings and Attendance Rise
The off-season anticipation for NASCAR racing in 2013 has carried over to the start of the season. For the most part, grandstands have been full and television viewers are flocking to their sets.

With the exception of Bristol - which again drew a less-than-stellar crowd for its spring race even after track management’s decision to reconfigure the track in hopes of luring back those fans who were less than enamored with the racing style, ticket sales have been brisk. For last week’s race in Fontana, Calif., attendance was up nearly ten percent according to track officials; with Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas also drawing well.

However, NASCAR’s decision to not provide attendance estimates this year does put a cloud over just how many fans are showing up. But all indications are so far, so good on the ticket front in 2013.

Television ratings for FOX have been extraordinarily high, led by a 30 percent increase for the Daytona 500. Throw in last week’s 32 percent uptick at Fontana over last year’s rain shortened race and Sprint Cup Series telecasts have risen 16 percent from 2012. In four of the first five weekends of racing, the Cup race has been the No. 1 televised sports event - going up against the likes of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, the NBA and a PGA event that saw Tiger Woods victorious.

The news couldn’t come at a better time for NASCAR as it works to lock down network partners to join FOX for the next television contract that kicks in after the 2014 season.

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