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 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."
MAYFIELD's ABSENCE: With owner and driver Jeremy Mayfield suspended indefinitely for a positive drug test, his No. 41
Toyota raced on without him — without much success.
J.J. Yeley was behind the wheel and Mayfield's wife, Shana, was listed as the car owner. She left the pit area after the national anthem, then joined her husband, who watched from a remote location in the infield.
Jeremy Mayfield later told reporters that he did not take an illegal drug and is considering legal action to rescind his suspension.
Yeley finished 22nd in the preliminary Sprint Showdown, failing to earn a spot in the All-Star field.
Yeley, who has 95 career Sprint Cup starts, has no other obligations and his future with the No. 41 will be determined week to
week. Because the car is outside the top 35 in the owner's standings, the team must qualify for each race on speed.
"He's our guy for right now for sure," Shana Mayfield said of Yeley. "He wants to race just like Jeremy when he built this team he wanted a second chance to race."
FAN FAVORITE: Joey Logano, who won't turn 19 until next week, already has plenty of fans. Enough to get him a spot in the All-Star race.
Logano was the winner of the fan vote for the 21st and final spot in the field. He joined Sam Hornish Jr. and Jamie McMurray, the top two finishers in the preliminary Sprint Showdown.
"I tell you, it's awesome and I can't thank the fans enough," Logano said shortly after finishing fifth in the preliminary race.
Kasey Kahne won the fan vote to get into the All-Star race — then won.
Logano has two top-10 finishes, with an average finish of 27th in his rookie season as the youngest Sprint Cup driver.
"There are a lot of big names in that race," Logano said. "A lot more fans voted for me so that's neat."
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 has authorized 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."
BURNOUT KING: There were plenty of laughs before the race when several drivers competed in a burnout competition on the frontstretch
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.