After three weeks which saw record number of lead changes at Daytona and Phoenix, plus upticks in television ratings and attendance, the lack of a Cup event this weekend takes a bit of the steam out of NASCAR's apparent resurgence.
But that shouldn't be the case in 2012 and the foreseeable future, according to NASCAR chief executive officer and chairman Brian France. By pushing the Daytona 500 back one week next season, it should eliminate the early season off week.
France on ... Danica
"There was some discussion of, 'Does she have the right stuff to compete in the Nationwide Series?' I think she dispelled a lot of that. There are always circumstances at the start of a new career that sometimes are out of your control -- people crash in front of you, or a hundred other things. "I think she elevated herself quite nicely, and that's nice to see. She's a very competitive person, and she's always said she's here to compete -- not just happy to be here -- and that fits my criteria."
France on ... contact
"We've said, 'You've got to mix it up -- this is a contact sport.' And we feel really good about that, and it's made the racing better. And they've got to figure that out. They're doing that, largely. I would say, too, with the wild-card situation-- when the last two spots [in the Chase] are going to be decided by wins, if you don't happen to have the perfect top-10 performance in the first 26 events. "I think you saw the disappointment of Tony [Stewart] not winning when he thought he should have won. He may need that win. I'm actually happy to hear people complaining about that [aggressive driving] -- that means it's working."
"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. Our schedules are year to year, but you typically can see we have a lot of continuity."
Weather plays a major factor in the way NASCAR's schedule is laid out. Because the season begins in mid-February, there are a limited number of places that can host races in either the late winter or fall.
"There are seasonality issues," France said. "You can't run a race in Phoenix, Ariz., in July. You're not running Cincinnati in February. On and on it goes. There's a lot of things that have to go into making up the ideal schedule."
What adds to the complexity of the NASCAR schedule is trying to work around the logistics of running 38 weekends -- and the larger sports schedule -- in addition to creating a semblance of continuity and history.
"It comes from the fact that we want to have 36 events, plus the All-Star Race, all that stuff," France said. "It's just a logistical matter where you can place events ... in some parts of the country. There was an open weekend even though it might not be ideal.
"We have been a sport that's tried to build continuity. A lot of other motorsports, that's not necessarily so important. With us, it is. Then you look at the broader sports calendar, the notable big events that we're always looking at: The Masters, obviously the Super Bowl, other major events throughout the year that you want to make sure that you're putting your events in the right place as to get everybody the most room to be successful that you can."
France said he doesn't expect the 2012 schedule to have as many major changes.
"We did have a fair amount of changes last year and even some in the last couple years," France said. "So by definition I don't think you're going to see a lot of changes. We'll see how some of the new dates, their new time on the calendar, works out.
"But I don't think there will be as much as there was, say, in 2010. We don't want there to be. We prefer to have a good continuity. That's our preference."
France praised the competitiveness of the first three weeks, believing much of the positive indicators have been the result of a strong finish to the 2010 campaign. At the same point, he realizes there could still be some rocky moments.
"There's still some challenges for us and for many, many sports, many companies with still an uncertain outlook for the economy," France said. "As we said all along, we're not economists, we're not building around a doom-and-gloom, robust economy, we're doing what we think we need to do in general terms.
"Obviously fuel prices are never helpful to our fans or anybody who needs to drive to an event, or anywhere. So those things are always out there."
When it comes to TV ratings, France is of the opinion that perhaps too much can be read into short-term swings. So even though NASCAR's numbers have improved, his focus remains on long-term growth.
"I've always said ratings are a function of many things: the competition, how you're viewed at the time by the fan base in a given moment, how the actual race is playing out," France said. "There's all kinds of things that go into it.
"No one around here is celebrating. 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."
And where France sees an opportunity is with newer fans, particularly a younger demographic.
"I look at the interest level of the sport, and that's growing after having peaked and maybe dropped back a little bit for some reasons a couple years ago," France said. "The general interest level is going up and that's what we're going to be working on, is creating new fans.
"The young demo is something we're going to keep working at. It goes to candidly reaching new young fans. This is not a one-dimensional effort here just to get people to tune in on television. It's to get young fans really interested for the long run in every aspect of enjoying NASCAR the way we want them to enjoy NASCAR."