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Daytona 500 Kicks Off NASCAR Sprint Cup Season

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is a huge weekend for racing fans. NASCAR's premier series, the Sprint Cup, kicks off with the Daytona 500. Our colleague David Greene got a preview.

(SOUNDBITE OF NASCAR RACE)

DARRELL WALTRIP: Boogity, boogity, boogity, let's go race some cars.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: That sound will fill living rooms across the country on Sunday when the engines fire up at Daytona, but not as many living rooms as NASCAR would like. The wildly popular sport has been slumping a bit in TV ratings, putting some pressure on NASCAR to make the sport more entertaining and to expand the audience. The big news this year is that one of the biggest names in racing history, Jeff Gordon, has said this will be his final Daytona 500.

NATE RYAN: He transformed the sport in so many ways. He took NASCAR to Madison Avenue. He was the first driver to host "Saturday Night Live." So he was a mainstream driver in a way that a lot of other stars weren't. He also opened doors for a huge number of drivers to come from outside the South. Jeff Gordon was a California native. A lot of drivers wouldn't be in NASCAR if not for Jeff Gordon paving the way.

GREENE: That's Nate Ryan, the lead NASCAR writer for nbcsports.com. He's covering Daytona, where, in quite a bit of symbolism, Jeff Gordon will be in pole position leading the pack on Sunday. He earned that spot amid quite a bit of controversy. To generate more excitement, NASCAR changed the way a driver earns position. Instead of having one car at a time speeding around a track to qualify, the new system has multiple cars out there at a time, making things more exciting, but according to drivers, more dangerous. Nate Ryan says NASCAR's trying to find a balance.

RYAN: I always say that this sport works on an inversely proportional theory, where when drivers are unhappy, fans usually are happy. Usually when you put them in really untenable situations, it makes the drama and the entertainment value go up. And of course, they're going to complain, but we saw a spike in the ratings for Daytona 500 qualifying this year. And I don't think that was a coincidence. It's an inherently dangerous sport, but I think that's also what draws in the audience.

GREENE: Well, you said Jeff Gordon was really a big part of drawing in the audience. This is going to be his last Daytona 500, as we mentioned. Take the measure of the sport right now. How tough are things for NASCAR in terms of sort of widening the appeal?

RYAN: I think it probably bottomed out somewhere around two or three years ago. And now the sponsorship interest and the attendance has been about even for the last few years. NASCAR is coming off a very, very good season in 2014. They revamped their Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff format. And it resulted in an extremely tight championship race, where it came down to the final race. And there was a lot of drama, a lot of intensity, so they are entering 2015 with some momentum.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you this - a few weeks ago, NASCAR inducted the late Wendell Scott into the Hall of Fame. And he was the first African-American to ever receive that honor. I mean, does that send a signal that there's a need for NASCAR to diversify?

RYAN: I think if you talk to NASCAR executives, David, they would tell you that is one of the three or four most important areas that they are trying to shore up. There's been a tremendous push on the part of NASCAR to increase the participation and audience for minorities over the past decade. There will be an African-American driver competing in the Xfinity Series, which is the second-tier right below Sprint Cup, this season. His name is Darrell Wallace Jr. He actually became the first black driver to win a NASCAR national series race since Wendell Scott - almost a 50-year stretch. So there are glimmers of hope for - as many in NASCAR have said - having that Tiger Woods-type personality that would draw a new segment of the fan base. But they still do have a lot of work to do.

GREENE: All right, we've been talking NASCAR heading into Daytona 500 weekend. Nate Ryan is the lead NASCAR writer for nbcsports.com. Nate, thanks very much.

RYAN: It's always a pleasure, David. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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