- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - NASCAR chairman Brian France passed on the chance to trumpet the fast start to the season, stressing the task is sustaining the positives over the entire year.

Television ratings are up for the first three races of the season, and the events at both Phoenix and Las Vegas sold out. France also credited the competition, which produced 20-year-old Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and saw Jeff Gordon snap his 66-race losing streak.

“No one around here is celebrating,” France said in a Wednesday conference call. “We’re obviously pleased we’re up dramatically in our ratings, but we know that is an ebb and flow thing. We’re focused on a lot of things that will give us growth down the road.

“We’re going to work on those, not get too excited or too down.”

NASCAR does not race this weekend because the series has historically had an early season break. Despite concerns the timing could hurt the momentum NASCAR is trying to build after several seasons of slumping ratings and attendance, France said the length of the 11-month season made it a minor issue.

But, the off weekend will move next season because NASCAR is pushing back the Daytona 500 one week in response to potential NFL scheduling changes.

“In my view, all things being equal, we’d probably like to be racing this weekend,” France said. “But I don’t believe that to be a significant challenge for us because we happen to have an open week. We have a long season; we’re going to have some open weeks. In the long run, with the 500 moving, it will by definition take care of that.”

Speaking for the first time since January, France used the 30-minute national conference call to discuss a successful first three races. Bayne’s surprise win in the Daytona 500 created a buzz for NASCAR that carried over into the last two weeks.

Gordon, the four-time series champion, then won at Phoenix and Carl Edwards won before a sellout crowd in Las Vegas. The weekend also was marked by Danica Patrick’s career-best fourth-place finish in the Nationwide Series _ the best finish by a woman in a national NASCAR race _ and a strong run by Dale Earnhardt Jr. that moved NASCAR’s most popular driver into the top 10 in points.

France hoped all could help NASCAR attract the coveted 18-to-34 fan base that’s declined the past several years.

“I think having a young winner, and Jeff Gordon runs up our young fan base, and then Junior, arguably he’s competitive more than he was a year ago,” France said, adding that Patrick dispelled the “discussion did she have the right stuff to compete in the Nationwide Series?

“I think she elevated herself quite nicely. That’s nice to see.”

The upswing has been noticed by both drivers and track operators, as well.

Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said corporate sponsorship was up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend and pointed out that Quaker State just signed on as title sponsor of Kentucky Speedway’s inaugural race.

“I think the sponsorship will come back more quickly than attendance,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of other announcements about people coming back, a lot of renewals with our sponsors, and a lot of new companies interested in our sport.”

Kasey Kahne said there’s been a noticeable increase in energy surrounding the events.

“The crowds have looked good. I know at Daytona, you go to get in your car, and you see that many people at the race track again, it’s impressive,” he said. “It’s nice to be part of that. Vegas and Phoenix were the same. It’s neat. We’ve got to get it back on top.”

Both France and Kahne credited the competition for bringing back fan interest.

The three winners in three races is the first time since 2007 there hasn’t been a repeat winner through the first three events, 32 different drivers have led at least one lap, and both Daytona and Phoenix set records for lead changes.

“Obviously, the competition has never been better,” France said. “There’s still some challenges for us and for many, many sports, many companies, with still an uncertain outlook for the economy. As we said all along, we’re not economists, we’re not building around doom and gloom (or) a robust economy.

“We’re doing what we think we need to do.”

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