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NASCAR pleads with sports world: Don't for get about Daytona!

Photo by Reinhold Matay

Photo by Reinhold Matay

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As NASCAR's biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500 isn't used to being the attention-starved kid turning back flips in the corner and yelling, "Look at me!"

This year, they might want to have Carl Edwards on call.

With mainstream sports fans still talking about the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl win and the Winter Olympics kicking off on Friday, there's a chance Sunday's race could be overlooked by the casual fans NASCAR typically hopes to draw to its big event.

But Fox Sports chairman David Hill isn't concerned, predicting that changes NASCAR has made to spice up the show this year will bring in a big rating for Sunday's race.

"I think it's fantastic, what they've done," Hill said. "Again, it gets back to them listening to the fans. And the fans said this is what we want to see."

NASCAR officials are confident that their big event can break through the clutter.

"I think we'll be in good shape," NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps said. "It's the Daytona 500. It's one of the most iconic sporting events of the year. I think we'll do pretty well. The Super Bowl's kind of its own thing, and the Olympics are a big deal as well. I think people will tune into the Daytona 500 and get us started on the right foot."

NASCAR already was concerned with a recent decline in at-track attendance and sagging television ratings, and took steps to add excitement this season.

They've authorized a bigger restrictor plate to add horsepower at Daytona and done away with regulations on aggressive, bumper-banging "bump drafting."

And when it comes to governing drivers' behavior, NASCAR officials claim they have a new attitude: Have at it, boys.

"I think we got to the point where we got too conservative and too corporate-minded," driver Tony Stewart said. "And even corporate America has kind of said ... 'It's all right to go ahead and loosen the reins a little bit.' I think NASCAR is really smart and conscious of that."

Oh, and don't forget about Danicamania.

The arrival of Danica Patrick, the IndyCar star whose combination of racing success and good looks has allowed her to transcend her sport and become a household name, is trying her hand at NASCAR on a part-time basis this season.

After a well-received sixth-place finish in a relatively low-profile ARCA race at Daytona last Saturday, Patrick decided to give it a shot in this Saturday's Nationwide series race -- an appetizer for the Daytona 500 that will feature several of the Cup series' top drivers.

When it comes to attracting mainstream attention, another week of Danica hype certainly can't hurt NASCAR.

"I would say in general, her coming here is going to be beneficial, because she'll bring folks who have never seen our style of racing," Phelps said. "And they'll watch her race here, and we know they'll fall in love with the racing because it's the best racing in the world. That will be helpful for us, and we're excited about it."

Beyond that, NASCAR is enthusiastic about the big-picture steps officials have taken to make the sport more exciting this year. And they've done it with direct fan input.

Stung by criticism that they've ignored the concerns of their hard-core fans in an attempt to cater more to casual fans, NASCAR has created an online fan council consisting of 12,000 of its most avid fans to use as a sounding board.

One resounding message they've heard from surveys: NASCAR should take a more hands-off approach to driver behavior.

"We regulate the sport for safety and make sure the rules are followed," Phelps said. "But listen -- have at it boys, God bless you. Go out and race. And we'll do that within reason. You're not going to be able to run over a guy. But it's exciting, and you can feel that enthusiasm from the fans. And you saw it, candidly, in ticket sales (at Daytona). It's great. They'll have a full house here."

While NASCAR certainly faces stiff competition for attention this week, former driver Kyle Petty says having Daytona wedged between the Super Bowl and the Olympics could be a positive.

"I think you need to promote yourself as, these are the three big events," Petty said. "The three biggest events in sports in the United States in 2010 were the Super Bowl, Daytona 500 and the Olympics. You have to put yourself up on the plateau with them."