- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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Chicken Little is running and screaming around NASCAR tracks these days.
"[W]e don't ignore what we've seen this season. We always pay attention to what the fans are telling us."
-- Dick Glover
Don't believe the message. Despite reports to the contrary, the sky isn't falling.
Attendance is down at most Nextel Cup events this year. Television ratings are down at all but a few races. Those facts have led some people to conclude that NASCAR is headed in the wrong direction.
Let's not throw a red flag just yet, folks.
NASCAR has enjoyed an amazing roll over the last 10 years. No sport has come so far so fast. It moved into the mainstream with an explosion of popularity while other forms of American racing dramatically declined.
However, the statistics from 2006 might indicate NASCAR's climb has peaked. Or is it just a bump on the track that will eventually smooth itself out?
That depends on whom you ask.
"We've been on such a steep climb that it couldn't continue forever at that rate," said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. "I think what we'll see now is a leveling off of the graph and a more gradual upswing. But I don't think we've peaked by any means."
Some of the downturn seems easily explainable (high gas prices this summer, the end of the current TV contract), but a few people are claiming NASCAR has alienated its fan base in the South.
Most of the doom-and-gloom predictions come from the so-called "NASCAR traditionalists." They include longtime fans in the Southeast who don't like the changes NASCAR has made in recent years.
Here's a typical list of complaints:
NASCAR shouldn't have moved the Southern 500 out of Darlington, S.C., to ship the Labor Day weekend event to Southern California.
NASCAR shouldn't have sacrificed North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham to give Texas a second date.
The Chase is wrong and NASCAR should return to a championship based on a full season of points.
Toyota doesn't belong in Cup because it's a foreign manufacturer.
Do the people with these grievances account for the decline this season?
It's true that some old-school fans are disillusioned and feel abandoned. Lots of folks felt the same way when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in the 1950s. But what the team gained far outweighed what it lost.
The same is true for NASCAR. The sport has gained far more fans than it has lost in recent years.
In the early 1990s, NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. made a decision to do everything possible to grow NASCAR into a national sport. He even talked to his archrival, Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, about helping him.
To do so, both men knew it would require moving races from rural markets in the Southeast to major markets in other parts of the country.
NASCAR made big-market moves to tracks near Kansas City, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Those moves proved enormously successful for sponsors, who wanted a presence in big cities. It also added television viewers in those markets and increased NASCAR's exposure in urban areas.
So why are TV ratings down between 5 and 10 percent this season for Cup races? Ratings usually drop slightly in the final year of a contract because that network doesn't do much promotion.
This is the last year for NBC. ESPN/ABC takes over the second half of the Cup schedule next year.
Dick Glover, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting, doesn't buy the lame-duck network argument.
"There are so many ways to look at TV ratings," Glover said. "You can't base it on one year. It's like the stock market. Even a bull market has corrections along the way.
"Two years ago, the ratings were way down for college football. Everyone was predicting bad things. This season the ratings are way up. That's how these things go. The real issue is the trend over several years."
Glover said the trend in NASCAR clearly is up, and the Chase is working. Ratings for the three seasons decided by the Chase are higher than the pre-Chase era. But other factors could play into the dropoff this season.
For many years, NASCAR started most Cup events around noon on Sunday. Now most races start midafternoon and end in the early evening. Are some fans finding other things to do, or watch, instead of waiting around for the race to start?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. weighed in with his thoughts at Phoenix.
"The tradition of us racing at lunch was pretty big," Earnhardt said. "I think getting away from that has hurt the sport a little bit.
"And I think the new fans find the races too long. They would be more interested in seeing 300-mile races than 500-mile races. We need to clean up the lengths on some of the races, [like] Pocono. Those two races are way too long, man. Seriously, everybody knows that."
Hey, when Junior talks, people listen. Fans and NASCAR honchos.
Until this season, it appeared NASCAR could do no wrong from a marketing perspective. Now it's time for a closer look.
"There's always going to be people who show resistance to change, no matter what the change is," Glover said. "We've had two major changes in recent years: Schedule realignment and the Chase.
"Believe me, we've done the research on this. It shows that our core fans are happier today with NASCAR than they've ever been. At the same time, we don't ignore what we've seen this season. We always pay attention to what the fans are telling us."
With 2006 coming to a close, NASCAR officials will continue to huddle in the offseason and try to find answers as to why the good times have suddenly slowed.
But the sky isn't falling. It's just a passing cloud.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.