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NASCAR keeps driving up its fan base

The Super Bowl over, football season is now complete. Seattle fans have finally quit whining over the officiating, and Pittsburgh has finished cleaning up.

To fill the void on Sundays comes NASCAR, left-turning its way into your living room. Vroom. Vroom. Unlike football, which builds up to its signature event, NASCAR begins each season with its most important race —the Daytona 500.

“The Daytona 500 is like the Super Bowl of NASCAR, but they have it at the beginning of the year instead of the end of the year. These guys that run Daytona will tell you it’s one season in itself — just for this race,” said Dave Parrie, who raced cars for 19 years and owns Mr. Lucky’s bar in Garden City.

“This is their whole season right there because there’s a lot of money if they win that race. Everybody puts their heart and soul into that.”

Sunday marks the 48th running of the Great American Race, an event which seems to grow in stature every year. This year, NBC will interrupt its non-stop Olympic coverage to televise the race.

The appeal is that great.

The sport born to Southeastern bootleggers, who souped up their cars to outrun the police and deliver their moonshine, has now gone national. Its reach has expanded far beyond its traditional regional borders, with races taking place in Kansas City, California and Las Vegas. The American fascination with fast cars keeps growing.

More than 18.7 million viewers tuned in for last year’s 500, won by Jeff Gordon. During the last five years, the race has averaged more viewers than an NBA Finals game, the final round of the Masters and the Kentucky Derby.

Boise’s Jason Jones is among those tuning in.

“It’s a wholesome sport to watch. There’s not near the complaints about money that all the rest of the sports have,” Jones said Thursday while watching the Daytona 500 qualifying races at Mr. Lucky’s. “It gives you something to do on Sundays when football season is over.”

Jones, 28, has been a NASCAR fan for as long as he can remember, drawn in as a child by the speed. Following his lead, his immediate family has been lured into the sport, each throwing their support behind a different driver.

Jones, however, hasn’t been able to convince his girlfriend of the virtues of the sport. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like Sunday afternoons.

“It gives my girlfriend a chance to get a break from me,” he said.Jones and Parrie, like most NASCAR fans, wear their allegiances on their sleeves — and head and chest and anywhere else the sport’s ubiquitous marketing machine reaches.

For Thursday’s qualifying races, Parrie sported an Elliot Sadler M&M jacket. Jones donned a Mark Martin No. 6 cap.

“Just the way he drives. He’s calm and relaxed and never does anything out of the ordinary. He’s never pulling off any boneheaded moves,” Jones said of the 47-year-old Martin, who put off retirement for another chance at the title that has eluded him for 19 seasons as a full-time driver.

Martin finished fourth in last season’s Chase for the Nextel Cup, NASCAR’s 10-race playoff system now in its third season.

“I don’t think age should play into it too much. If anything he’s right there where age and experience are going to be a good thing for him. I’m happy to see him have one more chance at it. Last year, he did excellent. This year, he should be right up there again,” Jones said.

With 41 drivers in each race, there’s someone for every taste. If superstars Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are too establishment, then you can latch onto younger, less- proven racers like Kasey Kahne or Ryan Newman.

Looking for an up-and-comer? Try Carl Edwards or rookie Martin Truex. Want a more veteran flavor? There’s Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip or Bill Elliot.

Are you a Dodge guy? A Ford fan? Or a Chevy cheerleader? All three have a stable of cars on the circuit.

“You might like Jimmie Johnson and I like Jeff Gordon, and we’ll be ribbing each other the whole race,” Parrie said. “It makes it a real fun atmosphere for everybody.”

Plus there’s always the possibility of a crash, the “Big One” at a superspeedway like Daytona where cars run three- and four-wide and one mistake or mishandle can lead to an accident involving a dozen or more cars.

“It’s what the fans want to see. I don’t necessarily want to see the ‘Big One,’ ” Jones said. “But the fans want to see three-wide into the corner at 190 mph.”

The element of danger. The appointment television aspect of having one race a week. The incredible marketing prowess. NASCAR has borrowed liberally from the NFL — and done so successfully.

And this time of year, as NBC knows all too well, it sure beats figure skating.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact sports columnist Brian Murphy at bmurphy@idahostatesman.com or 377-6444.

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