NASCAR

ESPN happy with ratings through 1st month of Chase

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CONCORD, N.C. (AP)

An exciting start to NASCAR's championship series has boosted ESPN's ratings over the last month, a positive turnaround after a lengthy decline in television viewers.

The first four races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship are up 11 percent compared to the first four races of last season. The numbers don't include the Chase opener at Chicago, which was rained out and held a day later. But an 18 percent boost at Dover and a 13 percent increase at Kansas have the overall numbers up.

Julie Sobieski, vice president of programming and acquisitions, said the on-track competition will be critical in keeping the ratings up through the Nov. 20 finale.

''The story lines are what drives it, and there has been great story lines all year,'' she said. ''There's been great momentum, great competition and these tremendous story lines.''

Tony Stewart, who had said he wasn't running well enough to contend for the championship, won the opening two Chase races while five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson struggled. Kurt Busch, his rival, then beat Johnson in a race to the finish at Dover, and Johnson got back into the title hunt with a win last weekend at Kansas.

Sobieski also said the ratings have been helped by the Chase races starting at 2 p.m., an hour later than last year. The earlier starts put the end of the races up against the end of the early NFL games, and the network believed that head-to-head competition hurt the ratings.

''The 2 o'clock starts have made a nice difference,'' she said. ''That was a smart decision that we all discussed in the offseason and that was definitely the right way to go.''

Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the fifth in the Chase, was aired on ABC. It's the only one of the 10 Chase races not broadcast on ESPN, and it gave ABC a strong opportunity to promote Sunday's airing of the IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has said repeatedly that he will resign if the finale does not draw a .8 rating. Sobieski laughed about Bernard's promise, and said she hopes there's no chance to find out if he was serious.

''You've got to love somebody who believes that passionately about what they do and is willing to put themselves out on a limb like that,'' she said. ''But we think he's done a great job and there's a ton of story lines that give plenty of reason to watch that race.''

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LADIES BEHIND THE WHEEL: Jacquelyn Butler, the girlfriend of Cup driver David Ragan, won the charity race held before Saturday night's main event.

The Better Half Dash pitted 14 wives and girlfriends against each other in a 25-lap race that benefited Motor Racing Outreach and Speedway Children's Charities.

Butler, familiar with the Bandolero cars that Ragan has raced for years, passed Ashley Allgaier with eight laps to go to take the victory in the inaugural event.

''All of the girls did really good,'' she said. ''It was fun out there. I want to go back and do it again next week.''

Tricia Mears, wife of Cup driver Casey Mears, finished second and seemed to have been bit by the racing bug.

''It's no fun getting second,'' she said. ''I'm actually mad right now. I'd rather get 14th. I can't handle it right now.''

Allgaier, wife of Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier, led a race-high 17 laps before finishing third. She later talked some good-natured trash with Butler after the race by blaming her loss on her tires fading over the end.

The reality, though, was none of the women had much experience and relied on their significant others for coaching and preparation.

''I've never raced before in my life and I didn't want to race in this, but my husband, Justin, entered me,'' she said. ''I had a blast and I'm really proud of myself because I did not think I could do this.''

The lack of skill was evident early as the drivers couldn't complete a full lap without bringing out a caution. And there was great interest in the event since Katie Kenseth, wife of Cup driver Matt Kenseth, broke her shoulder in an accident two weeks ago during the first practice session for the race.

Katie Kenseth's accident made the women take the race a lot more serious, and all the cars had significant safety upgrades after the wreck.

''It did make me a little nervous,'' said Mears, mother of two young children. ''Like Katie, I have young children, too, and when you put yourself in the car you are not only thinking about yourself, but thinking about your family, too. These guys did everything to make the cars unbelievable safe.''

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LOGANO'S PRESSURE: Joey Logano has been surrounded all season by uncertainty. Everything from his sponsor, his crew chief and his long-term future at Joe Gibbs Racing has been scrutinized.

The announcement this week that Dollar General will sponsor him for 12 Sprint Cup Series races next season gives Logano a little breathing room. Dollar General replaces Home Depot for those events.

Home Depot has been the primary sponsor of the No. 20 since its 1999 inception but has cut back dramatically this season its marketing of Logano.

But the pairing with Dollar General could be good for Logano, who hasn't been the best fit with Home Depot because of his young age (he's 21) and because he's been consistently outperformed on the track by Lowe's-sponsored Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending NASCAR champion.

Logano, a popular pick to make the Chase this season, entered Saturday night's race a disappointing 23rd in the standings.

''We've already been working as hard as we can. We want to do better than we are right now,'' Logano said. ''We're going to keep working hard and improving.''

JGR is vague about how long Logano is signed for, as well as how long Home Depot is committed to the organization. Gibbs says only that Home Depot is signed beyond 2012.

Logano, meanwhile, is in his fourth year with JGR but was rumored to be in jeopardy of losing his Sprint Cup ride during the team's failed courtship of Carl Edwards.

''We got (Logano) when he was young in the East Series and walked him through all that out and I think he's got a great future at Joe Gibbs Racing,'' Gibbs said. ''We have to perform better from a Cup program. This (Dollar General announcement) is a great encouragement for him.''

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AJ THE TEAM OWNER: AJ Allmendinger is the latest driver to enter car ownership, albeit not in NASCAR.

Allmendinger has partnered with sports-car owner Michael Shank to form an IndyCar Series team that will hit the track next season. The team is called MSR Indy, and Allmendinger, a former open-wheel driver, has no plans to drive it himself right now.

''Obviously I have a close connection to open-wheel racing, but add that to the chance to work with Mike and his organization and it's something that really appealed to me,'' Allmendinger said. ''Mike is one of the hardest working guys in motorsports and he's a racer. I've always liked that about him, so I know he'll fight hard for MSR Indy's performance.

''We also hope to open some business relationships for our NASCAR Cup partners with this effort, too.''

The team has not announced a driver for 2012.

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Joey Logano, Justin Allgaier

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