NASCAR's France confident amid recession

CONCORD, N.C. - The crowds have been thinner, television ratings are down and top manufacturers and sponsors face serious financial problems.

The celebratory mood surrounding NASCAR's All-Star race Saturday was tempered compared to years past. But NASCAR chairman Brian France remains optimistic - even as uncertainty looms with troubled automakers General Motors and Chrysler.

While GM considers bankruptcy, Chrysler is already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and could face restrictions on the money spent on in marketing.

Of the 53 cars entered in Saturday's All-Star race and preliminary Sprint Showdown, 29 carried either GM's Chevrolet or Chrysler's Dodge brand.

'They are current with all of their obligations with our sport,' France said. 'They're still going to be a company that needs to sell cars and trucks. We're still the best place in the country to do that from a sponsorship standpoint and the related benefits that you receive. And obviously those companies are going to have to make some tough choices.'

GM announced Friday its dropping 20 percent of its dealers in a process to become a much smaller company.

NASCAR also is tied to the auto companies through additional sponsorship deals ranging from large television advertising buys to race naming rights deals.

'Our hope and expectation is that we will fare at the top of the list as to things you would not want to cut. I believe that to be true,' France said. 'We're obviously in close contact with our teams.'

Traffic was noticeably lighter around Lowe's Motor Speedway Saturday afternoon than in previous years before the All-Star race. What is troubling is that as fans stay away due to the recession, television ratings also have tailed off.

'We don't like to be down in our ratings, but it's important to understand in totality,' France said. 'NASCAR online, our video downloads are all at a record. Our shoulder programming, Truck Series, Nationwide, are up.

'We also didn't get off to the best start for us with a rain-shortened Daytona 500. We're in a momentum business.'

Fan favorite

Kasey Kahne didn't need the fans this time.

Kahne received the final spot in the field for last year's All-Star race thanks to being the winner of a fan vote. Kahne then went on to win the race.

Kahne chuckled when told how his loyal fans voted to make that All-Star victory the greatest moment in Lowe's Motor Speedway history.

Better than Dale Earnhardt's 'pass in the grass' in 1987 or two years later when Rusty Wallace spun Darrell Waltrip to win? What about the Davey Allison-Kyle Petty duel in 1992?

'I remember at least three off the top of my head that we're just three (great) races to the finish,' Kahne said. 'So to me, I think the fans voted on the greatest race and they voted on the guy they voted into the race. So they won again.'

Kahne had an automatic spot into this year's field, giving another driver a chance to make it in through fan popularity.

Kahne's vote: Bill Elliott. Kahne thinks that would be proper payback for when he took over Elliott's car in 2004, giving him an automatic spot in the field.

'I didn't even have to win a race to get in my first All-Star race because Bill had won races, so I was in,' Kahne said. 'So he gave me one. So I voted for Bill. Once. I don't think once is enough.'

Kentucky stalemate

NASCAR isn't considering any requests to change or move race dates in 2010, another bad sign for Kentucky Motor Speedway to finally get a Sprint Cup race.

Bruton Smith, owner of seven other tracks including Lowe's Motor Speedway, purchased the Sparta, Ky., facility last year and is doing a $70 million facelift. But NASCAR won't consider any proposals for a Cup date until the former owners of the track drop an antitrust lawsuit.

'There are no formal requests under consideration,' France said. 'We're closing in on getting the 2010 schedule behind us in terms of where things are going to be. That's not completed yet. But we're certainly way down the road at trying to figure out if there's going to be any changes.'

Burnout king

There were plenty of laughs before the race when several drivers competed in a burnout competition on the frontstretch

Given 30 seconds in cars supplied by Jeff Gordon's racing school, drivers did doughnuts and created smoke clouds as a fan rode in the passenger seat.

Kevin Harvick was voted the winner by a panel of celebrity judges that included actor Kevin Costner, New England Patriots receiver Randy Moss and wrestler Ric Flair.

'I'm confused because I thought this was going to be a bathing suit thing,' Costner said.

Not everybody followed the rules. Kyle Busch hit the wall, then knocked over some columns. Former driver and TV analyst Darrell Waltrip did doughnuts in the wrong area and nearly went on the forbidden infield grass.

'Typical DW. He broke just about every rule in the deal,' Gordon said.

Harvick created the most smoke, waving his arm out the window as the fans roared.

Lug nuts

Car owner Richard Childress and driver Jeff Burton announced they'll serve on an advisory council for Winston-Salem State's two-year-old motorsports management program, which offers a bachelor's degree. ... Recording artists Kenny Lattimore (God Bless America) and Jessie James (national anthem) sang before the race.