- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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NEW YORK -- NASCAR drivers and officials gathered at a New York City landmark for Thursday's award luncheon and talked about how excited they were about the future of the Nextel Cup Series.
"The fans change and what appeals to the fans changes. Maybe five years ago, maybe it was the more [races], the merrier. Now that we're getting a larger and a more varied fan base across the country, we should look at going in the other direction."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Fortune 500 companies and other sponsors gave out more than $1 million in prizes and trophies made of silver and gold.
The spotlight shined brightly.
But beneath the glitz and praise there are issues to deal with, none bigger than the perception that the nation's second-most viewed sport behind the NFL has peaked. Televisions ratings were down for 32 of the 36 races, and less than half the events sold out.
"I hope it hasn't peaked," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was named the most popular driver for the fourth straight year. "We obviously never want to be in a position where we feel like we've peaked.
"This sport is going to go on for hundreds and hundreds of more years. If this is a peak, then we're in big trouble. A plateau might be a good assessment."
NASCAR chairman Brian France refers to it as a "lull." He doesn't express concern over the dip in ratings, blaming them on a lack of promotion by outgoing television partner NBC the second half of the season, even though ratings on Fox and TNT early in the year also were down.
He predicts a spike next season when ESPN returns with full coverage of the Busch Series and Cup coverage beginning with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late July.
"Listen, it's harder to grow when you reach the level we're at," France said before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "We think there's no question it's an under-covered sport today.
"That will change over time as the acceptance of this sport all over the country gets better. ESPN is going to help us go after the casual sports fan in the area that we're weakest. I love where we're at. And we're excited about where we're going."
NASCAR president Mike Helton said there are more positives than negatives, noting the excitement the Chase for the Championship has created over the past three years at a time when many lost interest in the sport.
"I don't think there is any desire at all to give up on NASCAR," he said. "It's a cycle. We should be very knowledgeable of why [the cycle is happening], if we can be and be aggressive. But that's what we've always done to grow the sport to what it is today."
Helton said he believes the arrival of Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya from Formula One will open an untapped fan base. He reminds that the sport is exploring options beyond the borders of the United States by holding Busch Series races in Mexico City and Montreal.
There also is interest in markets such as China.
"We look at a lot of things," Helton said. "That doesn't mean we're ready to box up Cup cars and go to China. In today's world, as small as the world is, we should be smart about looking at opportunities.
"Whatever opportunities exist in Europe or China or the Far East, we should look at those things. There's not a specific agenda right now. There's not anything of detail, but it would be prudent of us to look at those opportunities."
Helton also is optimistic the controversial Car of Tomorrow, which will be introduced into 16 Cup races in 2007, will be a big step toward creating more exciting racing. That many drivers are complaining about the new boxy vehicle with a rear wing and front-end splitter doesn't concern him.
"That's what we want because we want the sport to be exposed," he said. "At the end of the day the proof is the car on the track, and that's what the NASCAR fans come to expect."
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon isn't a fan of the COT, but he shares Helton's enthusiasm for the state of the sport.
"Things are strong and healthy," he said. "I was telling Jimmie Johnson it's a great time to be a part of a championship. People make a little too much over the decline in ratings."
Tony Stewart, the 2005 Cup champion, isn't as worried about ratings as he is trying to make his 3,400-pound car go faster so he can return to the Chase next season.
His only recommendation to make the sport better was to put the 10 drivers in the Chase on a different point system than everybody else.
But if fans are complaining, he said NASCAR should listen.
"If the fans have concerns, then they are legitimate concerns," said Stewart, talking more as the owner of a dirt track than as a driver.
While he knows it won't happen because of the money involved, Earnhardt said shortening the season and the length of races would increase interest.
"It's sort of like baseball and basketball," he said. "The fans are sort of in and out of that sport. You have your hardcore fan, but the casual fan like me might just watch 'SportsCenter' to see what my favorite team's record is, and that's probably all I'll really do because the season is too long.
"But if I could, I'd watch every single game of my favorite NFL team because their season is just 16 games, and every game is so critical."
Earnhardt reminded that more isn't always better.
"The fans change and what appeals to the fans changes," he said. "Maybe five years ago, maybe it was the more, the merrier. Now that we're getting a larger and a more varied fan base across the country, we should look at going in the other direction."
Earnhardt said the drop in ratings might actually be a good thing because that will remind officials they must continue to create ideas that grew the sport to where it is.
"It's great where it is," Earnhardt said. "The sport is huge. It's exciting. Maybe it isn't a bad time for us to stay on this shelf for a while and get an understanding of where we're at."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Bright lights are shining in the biggest city and NASCAR Nation is soaking it up. But has the sport peaked? Drivers and officials are confident the answer is no, writes David Newton.