Missing big names won’t hurt NASCAR

When NASCAR dreamed up its innovative Nextel Cup playoff format last season, it seemed unlikely that both Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be outside the 10 drivers eligible to make a run for the title.

In the past decade, Gordon was the circuit's No. 1 driver for four seasons and never finished worse than ninth in the final standings. Earnhardt had 52 top-10 finishes from 2001 through 2003, and was clearly one of the most skilled, and definitely most popular, young drivers on the track.

But with two races to go before the final cut is made, NASCAR officials and sponsors might hold a playoff chase without two of the sport's biggest names. Little E is 14th despite two top-10 finishes in the last two weeks. Gordon sits in the No. 10 spot after a sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday.

But does NASCAR suffer when two of its most popular drivers have a difficult time making it into Victory Lane? Not on the surface. It's hard to find anyone hurting — from NASCAR to the tracks to even the drivers themselves.

The facilities are packed on race day. Television ratings for network and cable combined have averaged 9.3 million viewers per race — up 8 percent from last year. In fact, the GFS Marketplace 400 two weeks ago was the second-highest-rated Nextel Cup Series event in TNT broadcast history. More at ESPN.com

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