- Associated Press - Monday, July 26, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Concerns about a half-empty race track dogged NASCAR long before Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the sanctioning body’s top officials didn’t want to discuss attendance or any other ailments plaguing the nation’s No. 1 racing series.

The conversation was instead steered to all the things NASCAR is doing right, a theme that became evident before the season started, when competitors spread a message of hope and unity.

Turns out that the racing series was serious about keeping everybody on point.

The Associated Press has learned that NASCAR warned teams during the offseason that public criticism of the sport would no longer be tolerated, and at least two star drivers have been fined _ one as much as $50,000 _ for comments that were deemed destructive to the industry.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston on Monday night confirmed some action had been taken, but would not discuss details.

“It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the industry and our fans to protect the sport’s brand,” Poston said. “Any action taken by NASCAR has nothing to do with the drivers expressing an opinion _ it’s focused on actions or comments that materially damage the sport.

“We have specifically discussed this in meetings with teams, drivers and stakeholders.”

Drivers all declined to publicly discuss the policy, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise _ considering NASCAR’s heightened effort this year to re-ignite interest in a sport that’s been fighting sagging attendance, declining television ratings and overall fan apathy for several seasons.

NASCAR has taken several aggressive steps toward improving the on-track product, but its top brass decided that outstanding events aren’t enough to overcome the negative perception created every time a driver publicly blasts the series.

“It doesn’t make sense to criticize the food in a restaurant if you expect people to come back,” has been chairman Brian France’s season-long mantra, and it became clear very quickly that he’d personally delivered that message in a series of offseason meetings with every Sprint Cup Series team.

What came from those sessions was a concerted effort to pull everyone in the industry in line when it came to NASCAR’s attempts to stop the bleeding. In stop after stop during the January preseason media tour, drivers, team owners and top executives went out of their way to heap unsolicited praise on NASCAR and the direction the sport is heading.

Such an organized effort raised eyebrows, but didn’t feel fake or forced because _ for the first time in recent memory _ everyone seemed to recognize what was at stake. Of all professional sports, NASCAR was hit hardest by the recession.

Corporate sponsorship, the lifeblood of auto racing, dried up and several longtime team owners were put out of business. Others needed mergers or significant reductions to stay afloat, and industrywide layoffs put more than 1,000 team members out of work following the 2008 season finale.

Adding to NASCAR’s woes was the crippling effect the economy had on its fan base, a predominantly blue-collar bunch that found itself unable to make mortgage payments let alone afford tickets to three-day race weekends. Then came a growing discontent with the actual racing, fueled in part by NASCAR’s heavy-handed rulings and mandated use of a redesigned race car that fans and drivers never embraced.

NASCAR now thinks that negative comments from drivers didn’t help matters.

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