By Paul Newberry
The Associated Press
HAMPTON, Ga. -- The drivers keep saying how much the racing has improved in the opening month of the NASCAR season, yet there's all sorts of evidence that defies their optimism.
Television ratings? Down. Empty seats? Plenty. Potholes and errant caution lights? Those, too.
And look who's won two of the first three races: Jimmie Johnson, the guy who's captured an unprecedented four straight Sprint Cup championships. His fast start heading into Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway has further dampened enthusiasm for a sport that once appeared on the verge of carving out its place among the Big Three of American sports: the NFL, the NBA and major league baseball.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has noticed the warning signs.
"Yeah, you recognize it," he said Friday before qualifying for the Kobalt Tools 500. "When you go through driver introductions and wave to all those people, it's hard not to recognize where we're at."
While the struggling economy had certainly affected all sports at the ticket office, NASCAR's once-booming TV ratings might be the most troubling trend.
The rating for the season-opening Daytona 500, the sport's biggest event, dipped more than 16 percent from 2009, hurt by two hours of delays caused by a pothole problem. California's numbers were similarly off, and the actual attendance was even worse. Last week's race at Las Vegas, where the caution lights came on twice for no reason, suffered a 37 percent plunge.
Of course, it must be recognized that all three races went up against the Winter Olympics, with Las Vegas facing the stiffest competition from a stirring U.S-Canada gold medal hockey game on the final day of the Vancouver Games. But some major sports actually have had an increase in television ratings, including a record audience for this year's Super Bowl.
"There's a lot more to watch on television," Gordon said. "But then you look at the NFL, they have the best ratings they've ever had. Obviously, there's something we can do. We've got to try to tap into that."
Maybe it would help if someone could beat Johnson.
He's already got two victories, leaving him one away from a 50th career win, and is doing his best to snuff out any hope for the rest of the garage before the weather heats up.
"We got into this position by not letting up," said Johnson, who's poised to reach the landmark win faster than all but three other drivers -- Gordon, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip. "We're keeping our heads down. We don't pay attention to the outside stuff."
But his rivals are taking note, and they're not happy that one driver seems to have such an edge on everyone else.
"When someone wins that much, it (ticks) everybody else off," Gordon said. "We all have to work harder. We all have to get fired up to go out there and try to knock that guy off. You can't blame those guys (on Johnson's team) for wanting to dominate and keep doing the things they're doing."
Gordon said the sport needs some riveting rivalries, but it's hard for anyone to get too mad at Johnson. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy who goes about his business in a workmanlike fashion, failing to stir either over-the-top support or raging animosity.
"I just think it depends on the rivalries and the stories," Gordon said. "If you're dominating but you're battling a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or a Tony Stewart, maybe a Kevin Harvick, then you can build that rivalry. The good-guy-bad-guy kind of thing, the Ford-Chevy thing, all that stuff.
"I think the stories are still there, the interest is still there," he added. "But when you're out there dominating and no one is really your enemy, then it pulls away from it a little bit. What we need is Kyle Busch and Stewart to be butting heads, banging one another and talking trash. That would be good television."
With eight Cup championships between them, a Johnson-Gordon rivalry would appear to have some potential. After all, shouldn't Gordon be jealous about bringing Johnson into the sport as a teammate, then watching him race right on by to become NASCAR's most dominant driver?
"The problem with me and Jimmie is that, yes, we are rivals, but we are friends as well," Gordon said. "We never cross that line. That's good -- and bad."
Over the years, NASCAR attempted to spruce up its image by cracking down on salty language, nasty behavior and rough racing, but it may have turned off its traditional fan base in the process. The governing body seemed to signal that it went too far by encouraging its drivers to go back to bumping and banging -- "Boys, have at it," vice president Robin Pemberton famously commanded at the start of the season -- and hopes for even closer racing by going back to spoilers in place of wings within the next couple of weeks.
Those steps are helping, by all accounts.
"The quality of racing has been really good," Jeff Burton said. "No one is complaining about that."
Now that the Olympics are over, the TV ratings are sure to rise. Those vacant seats might take a little longer to fill.
"We've had a little recession," Burton said. "We're going to have some empty seats. People are going to have some decisions to make, and they're going to be harder decisions than when we weren't in a recession."
He isn't complaining about Johnson's dominance, either. He just wants to end it.
"I don't race Jimmie with animosity. I don't race him with jealousy," Burton said. "I'm envious of him, no question. Who wouldn't be?"