- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

NASCAR’s best drivers will line up at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday against a backdrop of 200,000 fans and an economic downturn that has rippled through the sport.

The nation’s largest racing body faces the start of its season with the race itself almost a side story after an offseason that included the loss of several corporate sponsors, the merging of many teams and the loss of plenty of drivers.

“It’s a very interesting time in our sport, an interesting time for our country,” three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon said. “We’re all affected by it and NASCAR is no exception, and I just hope we put some quality racing out there and I think we are. [I hope] fans can get some cuts on ticket prices and just come out and enjoy a great American pastime that I know they love so much.”

To casual fans, Sunday’s race may appear no different than in past years. Defending champion Ryan Newman is there. Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are there. And Jimmie Johnson comes in as the defending Sprint Cup champion. Indeed, the four big teams - Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush Fenway and Richard Childress - appear as stout as ever. But there is now a horde of smaller teams with a single car that are operating on shoestring budgets, replacing several midlevel teams that either folded or merged because of the economic crisis.

“This is grass-roots for us,” said Scott Riggs, who will drive the No. 36 car as the only driver for Tommy Baldwin Racing. “You go through the shop, and there are a lot of guys that are just volunteers just passionate about racing. They’re addicted to the racing bug we’re all addicted to. To be able to scrap something together from a month ago or month and a half ago from nothing and put something together and get ourselves in the race, it speaks volumes.”

Seven other drivers will enter as members of single-car teams that have scraped by in the past month, often with crewmen working for free after being laid off by other teams.

“There are several startup teams, like Joe Nemechek’s and Jeremy Mayfield’s, that didn’t exist 30 days ago,” said Mike Joy, who will call the race for Fox. “In Mayfield’s case, he didn’t arrive with an established team for the Daytona 500, so he put a team together. Every person working on his car now was laid off last fall by a team. Every problem creates an opportunity somewhere else.”

The ability of single-car teams to qualify for Daytona could validate the recent efforts of NASCAR officials to reduce the costs of operating a competitive team. The sport’s new car, used for the entire season for the first time last year, is designed to be less expensive. And NASCAR at the end of last year prohibited testing at all of its tracks, potentially cutting tens of thousands of dollars out of team budgets.

“It’s cool that we didn’t do all the testing,” Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards said. “You get a little bit more excited to come down here and race. It’s been a while, and I think that’s good for me personally, and I think it might be good for the sport.”

Sunday’s race will be sold out. Officials at Daytona lowered ticket prices in response to the recession, and many other tracks are expected to follow suit. NASCAR officials said both track owners and drivers have made a conscious attempt to be more sensitive to fans’ needs.

“Everyone is objective about what’s going on,” NASCAR chief executive officer Brian France said. “You’ve heard the drivers talking about spending more time with the fans, being more accessible, thanking them more and doing every little thing they can do. Track operators are lowering some prices and making it easier to attend the events.

“I like the way our industry is rallying around and trying to take care of the most important customer, which is our race fans.”

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