The time is now for NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Sunday's 50th Daytona 500 could not only set the tone for how the 2008 season goes, but also how NASCAR goes as well.

With TV ratings and at-track attendance slumping the last two years, it's imperative that the sport not only gets off on the right foot, but keeps moving forward with whatever momentum is generated from the season opener.

The signs indicate that it's going to indeed be a great start: the Great American Race is sold out, Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his official debut in Sprint Cup competition for Hendrick Motorsports, Toyota is in serious contention for its first Cup win, and Fox promises a kick-ass telecast.

Once we leave Daytona, the pomp and circumstance of such a significant milestone as a 50th anniversary fades and we return to 35 weeks of racing – from California to New Hampshire.

But instead of racing as usual, we need meaningful and memorable, something that carries over from week to week, where only seconds after the checkered flag falls in one race, fans eagerly start looking ahead to the next one.

I've received thousands of emails over the last few years from disenchanted NASCAR fans that have either lost significant interest in – if not totally given up on – the sport. At first, I thought it was just a few disgruntled readers. But with each passing month, more and more unhappy fans wrote in. Now, it's gotten to the point where on some days the majority of email I receive is from folks who are disenchanted with the sport they once loved.

Frankly, it's gotten depressing reading how much some fans have come to hate the sport, and how they truly believe NASCAR sole motivation – led by Brian France – isn't competition but the almighty dollar.

There's another faction that hasn't given up on the sport, yet, but are begging – begging! – NASCAR to go back to how things used to be, when "racin' was racin'."

They long for the days of the late Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, David Pearson or even Darrell Waltrip, when racers were racers, not the corporate shills of today who are stymied from being their true selves, lest they be penalized by NASCAR for showing true emotion or personality.

Many of these same fans yearn to see Cup races again at places like The Rock, North Wilkesboro, or a return of the annual Labor Day race to Darlington, rather than the cookie-cutter 1.5-mile tracks that dominate today's circuit.

Others simply want to be appreciated by NASCAR, to attend races where ticket prices are affordable, where lukewarm hot dogs don't cost $6 and hotels don't triple nightly room rates on race weekends.

So many fans, so jaded and so unhappy.

But after years of disenchantment and the belief that Brian France, Mike Helton and Co., didn't listen to or even care about their fans, NASCAR has hopefully turned over a new leaf.

When France announced last month that the sport was "getting back to the basics" this season, that change would be minimized and fan enjoyment would hopefully once again be maximized, that edict was met with a mix of both optimism and skepticism.

Now is the time that will prove France's words meaningful or meaningless.

"Our fans and all of us have been through a great deal of change over the last 10 years, but the change was necessary," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of corporate communications. "We thought the change was good for the sport.

"Now, getting back to basics means to let these changes settle in and take hold. What it means now is that this is a Daytona 500 that NASCAR and our fans are focused on what's happening on the track, and that is the essence of the sport that our fans fell in love with and the reason our drivers got into this sport."

True fan scrutiny begins in earnest this weekend. Let's hope NASCAR lives up to its word.

At the same time France offered his "back to basics" initiative, he also acknowledged that the sport needs a shot in the arm to put it back on the right road.

That's why so much rides on Sunday's telecast. Fans will tune in to see what Junior will do, whether Toyota will become the first foreign manufacturer in modern day to reach a Cup victory lane, or whether Hendrick Motorsports can continue its domination of the sport.

Mostly, it will be about Junior, and while he doesn't have to get to victory lane, him winning would be a boon to the sport going forward – both in attendance and television ratings.

But Poston insists ratings aren't necessarily the end all and be all.

"We're not making decisions just to get ratings up. We're making decisions to present the best side-by-side racing in the world.

"We think that our fans love racing, and NASCAR racing especially, because of the side-by-side racing and the bending of fenders. We've done our job if we can continue to do that."

There is no doubt that when it comes to side-by-side racing, NASCAR puts on the best show in motorsports. But perception is still more important than reality, and NASCAR desperately needs to change how its core fans think about the sport.

Starting with the Daytona 500, it's put up or shut up time.

"We've mixed the ingredients; they're there," Poston said. "Now it's time to go ahead and bake it."

But will it be good enough to keep people coming back for more?