NASCAR makes important step to lure back fans with new schedule

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brian-france.jpg's Mark Beech takes a spin around the racing world for the most intriguing stories in and out of the garage.

Back in 2007, my first season on the NASCAR beat for SI, an insider on one of Cup racing's top teams made the following observation: "The reason TV ratings are down this year is because the networks keep pushing back the start times of races. We've made a pitch for the West Coast audience, but the West Coast still isn't tuning in, while the East Coast fan who was a loyal viewer can't watch because he's got stuff to do with his family."

My source went on to say that in the old days, NASCAR fans used to tune in on Sundays when they got home from church. The new schedule, with its scattershot starting times, he said, messed that up -- in other words, people who used to flip on the TV after church were already busy doing other things by the time NASCAR was dropping the green flag.

I thought of this conversation yesterday while I was reading the welcome news of NASCAR's announcement that it will be returning to a schedule of uniform start times beginning in 2010. By my count, 21 races will start at 1 p.m. (ET).

All I can say is, Hallelujah! In my two-plus years on the beat, races have started at all sorts of odd hours, and I have heard a lot of complaints around the Cup garage that nobody at home had any idea when NASCAR was going to be on TV -- a problem exacerbated by the way the series is passed around from network to network. David Hill, the head of FOX Sports, took some responsibility for the scheduling disarray yesterday, saying it hadn't benefited NASCAR for his network to fiddle with race times.

So, good for NASCAR CEO Brian France and the rest of the gang in Charlotte and Daytona. For a sport with sagging television ratings, this decision was really a no-brainer. College and professional football, two sports that don't lack for ratings, pretty much always start their games at the same time, which makes it very easy for people tuning in on television. If NASCAR is truly as big-time as it often claims to be, then the organization should be able to prevent future meddling from network honchos.

5.9: Average running position at California for Jimmie Johnson, the best in the Cup series

119.4: Driver rating for Johnson at California, also the best in the Cup series

300: Fastest laps run at California for Johnson, also a series best

171.96: Average green-flag speed at California for Johnson, another series best

94.5: Percentage of laps run in the top 15 at California for Johnson, also a series best

From the fine folks at All Left Turns comes this short clip of school-bus wheelies.

The obvious question in this case is, Why? And the obvious answer is, Because they can.