How NASCAR should ride Daytona success

NASCAR's success is due in part to the colorful personalities, and there's interest in Danica Patrick. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

My Sunday NASCAR ritual the past 10 years or so can best be described as this: Channel surf until the last 20 laps. Watch.

Sure, it was the Daytona 500, but Sunday was the first time in a long time that I watched a full NASCAR race.

I wasn't alone.

Overnight ratings were up 30 percent, with some serious gains in the larger markets.

Striking closer to home was the fact that my Twitter feed was filled with people who were surprising themselves and those around them by sticking with the race.

Danica Patrick surely helped. She was in the top three for more laps than any other driver on race day.

But will the fans who sampled NASCAR for the first time in years, or at least gave it more attention than they usually do, mark their calendars and watch the race this Sunday?

Early indications are that some certainly will.

NASCAR needs the help. Attendance at the Sprint Cup level has greatly suffered, but that's to be expected with the downturn in the economy, some of the small markets where the races are held and the overall size of the venues.

The most troubling trend that even the most staunch NASCAR fans have a hard time defending is the television ratings.

Since 2006, the sport has lost more than a quarter of its most important audience (the 18-35 demographic) on television, with only one year-over-year increase since then. That makes it hard to believe the organization's claim that it's still the second-most-popular sports league behind the NFL. This at a time when auto racing should be one of the bigger beneficiaries of HDTV and the trend of more and more people getting surround sound.

When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona in 2001, new fans in the larger markets sampled the sport, fascinated by the risk taking and the mystique of this Elvis Presley-type character. They stayed with the sport for a couple of years. Corporate America, in categories that had not traditionally invested in the sport, latched on. Then NASCAR plateaued. Sponsors dropped out; others stopped activating.

I believe a lot of that audience was ready to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerge. He didn't. Although hard-core racing fans named him their favorite driver year after year, he wasn't a factor on Victory Lane after 2004, winning just four races in the past eight years.

NASCAR, like golf and tennis, will have its ups and downs. If Tiger Woods isn't in the hunt, some fans don't watch. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer aren't playing? Viewers stay away.

It's going to be less about the sport itself than the characters involved.

While Jimmie Johnson was winning five straight titles, the non-NASCAR fan didn't get tempted in the least to watch his greatness. Why? He doesn't have the breakout character.

He's not Carl Edwards flipping backward off his car, and he isn't Dale Jr. with the name.

The question for NASCAR is: How many characters do they have at the Sprint Cup level -- and who is the ideal driver to win?

Brad Keselowski won it all in 2012, a modern-day driver with an active Twitter following. Is he enough?

Or is it Danica or bust?

She might have been in the race for much of the day Sunday, but that's a lot to bank on, especially since a big superspeedway such as Daytona is a lot easier to navigate than other venues.

In 184 races at the Indy, Nationwide and Sprint Cup level, she has won only once.

NASCAR does have a chance to get back to where it once was, but the organization won't have a future if that future relies solely on the right people winning.

Now is time to fix its awful-looking website, to double its efforts on new fan education, and to encourage brands, which have invested in the sport, to reach deeper into their pockets to get the novice fan to pay attention.