DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Is NASCAR's skyrocketing success story becoming too attractive for its own good? Is there room for everyone who wants to jump on the bandwagon?
With a $2.4-billion, six-year TV contract in place for 2001, an average attendance of more than 190,000, a $10-million point fund that will pay $3 million to its champion, and network TV ratings second only to the NFL, it's no wonder that NASCAR's Winston Cup series is the hottest commodity in sports.
But how big can it get without popping?
There are 36 races this year, 34 for points and two special events. Fields are limited to 43 starters.
There is precious little room for expansion, yet new tracks are being planned or are under construction from New York to Sacramento, all built with hopes of landing a Winston Cup date. At the same time, successful tracks such as California Speedway in Fontana and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth are clamoring for second dates.
The same scenario holds true for drivers. They are showing up in droves to drive not only Winston Cup, but also Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck races, secondary series in NASCAR's program.
This week, after qualifying for Sunday's Daytona 500 was over, 13 drivers were sent packing. Fourteen more were dropped from the Busch entry and 16 from the truck field.
No sponsor likes to ante up money and invite business friends to watch his car, then find it didn't make the race. One of the unfortunate ones this week was Jeff Fuller, a rookie with financial support from Viagra. Another was the 58-year-old crowd favorite, Dave Marcis, who had driven in 32 consecutive Daytona 500s before coming up short Thursday. And both Bodine brothers, former 500 winner Geoffrey and Brett, backed by Ralphs Supermarkets, missed the show. Extending his run of bad luck, Geoffrey then was injured in the truck crash Friday morning, breaking a wrist and suffering burns and a concussion.
''This sport has become the big goose, and I don't know how many golden eggs it can lay,'' said Terry Labonte, two-time Winston Cup champion. ''It has done a pretty good job so far, but everybody keeps wanting more and more. They want more and more out of the drivers, they want more and more out of the sponsors and I don't know what our limits are.''
NASCAR officials, from the ailing Bill France Jr. down, recognize their plight but are so busy counting the cash that they continue to operate as they have for years -- 34 Winston Cup dates and 43-car starting fields.
France is undergoing treatment for cancer, but he visited the garage area at Daytona International Speedway earlier in the week.
One suggestion, splitting Winston Cup fields into two divisions, such as major league baseball with its National and American Leagues, is not a popular one in NASCAR's corporate offices, mainly because it was made by O. Bruton Smith, who owns or controls six tracks in the Winston Cup series -- Texas, Lowe's in Charlotte, Las Vegas, Sears Point, Atlanta and Bristol, Tenn.
''We have a firm belief in not wanting to dilute our product,'' said Jim Hunter, president of Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and an official in France's International Speedway Corp. ''When our fans go to a race, they expect to see Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and all the drivers they know. They wouldn't put up with half of them, say Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, for instance, not there.''
Although a split series is a new idea, there is a precedent in NASCAR for as many as 60 races, with two on the same date.
In the 1950s, pioneer car owner Karl Kiekaefer would enter drivers such as Tim Flock and Buck Baker in a race at Hillsborough, N.C., then fly them to Carrell Speedway in Los Angeles, for instance, for another race on the same day. In those days, NASCAR paid points at both events.
There is also precedent for larger starting fields.
In the 1951 Southern 500 at Darlington, 82 cars lined up. The largest Daytona 500 field was 68 in 1960.
''Experience has shown that 43 is the ideal number,'' Hunter said. ''There are no plans to expand that number. One of the basic precepts of stock car racing is that there are no guarantees.
''You come to race and if you do well, you do. If you don't, you don't. If teams and drivers are able to get sponsors, then it's up to them to produce. I don't think NASCAR should be concerned about developing a method to take care of sponsors.''
Jeff Green, a qualifier for Sunday's Busch Grand National 300, offered a driver's viewpoint.
''It's bad that teams have to go home, but it's great for our sport to turn people away, I guess,'' he said. ''We've got a bunch of great race teams, and there's a bunch of great race teams going home, but it puts on a better show for the fans. The more people that try to qualify, the tighter the fields are, so that's a better show for the fans. And any time we put on a better show for them, it's going to help us.''
For most of NASCAR's 50 years, drivers have moved up from short-track stock car racing to the Busch series and eventually Winston Cup.
Now, however, with the success of former U.S. Auto Club open-wheel drivers such as three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and 1999 rookie of the year Tony Stewart, the ranks are being swelled by ''outsiders.''
Cal Wells brought his own driver, Scott Pruett, from CART champ cars into Winston Cup. Another CART driver and off-road champion, Robby Gordon, made the same move with his team this season. Gordon had tried NASCAR in 1997 before switching to Indy cars.
A.J. Foyt, one of the most outspoken defenders of the Indy Racing League, didn't leave the IRL but appears to be putting more effort into his new NASCAR team with former truck racer Mike Bliss.
Raul Boesel, veteran Indy car driver from Brazil, was in the Daytona garages this week looking for a ride.
''Call me Paul,'' Boesel said with a smile, cognizant of the fact that all Winston Cup drivers are American born.
The difficulty of awarding Winston Cup dates to all the tracks wanting them may be a more serious problem.
''Winston Cup is about to the edge of the envelope,'' said Kevin Triplett, NASCAR director of operations. ''A couple of years ago, we felt 32 (races) was the maximum. Now we have 34 and will probably go to 36 in 2001.''
How long will the boom last?
''Frankly, what could affect NASCAR the most would be a change in the economy,'' Hunter said. ''That could dictate the future.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.