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Buzz builds for ’09 season

Listen and you can hear the building rumble of high-horsepower engines.

Those comforting sounds could be coming from this weekend’s 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.

Or they could be wafting in from about 100 miles away at qualifying for the SCORE Laughlin Desert Challenge, which opens the off-road racing season.

In closer proximity, the dragstrip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway tonight features the year’s first Midnight Mayhem street-legal racing program, which will be followed by two days of testing for regional and local racers.

The 2009 racing season has arrived.

Some racing series are forcing teams to tighten their economic fan belts by limiting testing and rules changes that would cause costly modifications.

Fewer race cars will be competing this year, but there will be racing.

The Sprint Cup race March 1 in Las Vegas has a new name — the coolest name in racing — and the distance for the Shelby 427 is 27 miles longer than previous Cup races here.

Attendance for the biggest sports event this side of Texas might be off by 10 percent to 15 percent, so instead of hosting 160,000 at LVMS, as in the past two years, it might dip to 140,000. Still, it’s an amazing crowd and a tremendous booster shot for our economy.

Some in racing wonder what happened to the "buzz" about the Cup season. They worry that if TV viewers see empty seats at early races, it only will further muffle any buzz created by the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15, when the Cup season opens.

NASCAR’s decision to ban testing at nearly all tracks it sanctions killed its January "Preseason Thunder" series of multiday sessions at Daytona, Las Vegas and Fontana, Calif. Every driver attended, and it gave us something to write about and local TV stations great video to tempt potential ticket buyers.

But every fan, team and sponsor still has dreams. At least in their minds, all remain in contention for championships.

Jimmie Johnson has won the past three Cup championships, a feat accomplished only once before. He’s an excellent driver and professional on and off the track.

But NASCAR and Cup track owners would prefer the reigning champ to be fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. or one more controversial, such as Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch.

But this isn’t professional wrestling, where over-the-top personalities are rewarded, which is what Bruton Smith prefers.

Smith, the founder and chairman of Speedway Motorsports, which owns Las Vegas’ track and six others with Cup races, wants controversy. He always has.

During this week’s NASCAR media tour of team shops around Charlotte, N.C., Smith threw out some novel ideas to help sell tickets and broaden the audience:

"Another thing that might help is if Jimmie Johnson gets out of the race car one time and goes over and slaps somebody. He can slap me; I don’t care," Smith said. "But we need to get something going. We need a fight or two — something that makes for a good headline on the sports pages. You’ve gotta have that."

That drew laughter from the media attending, but another comment didn’t.

He suggested NASCAR follow the lead of the NFL by imposing local TV blackouts for races that don’t sell out in advance.

"It’s worked for the NFL … so why not go ahead and match it?" Smith said.

If NASCAR needed buzz, the irrepressible Smith has provided it.

It’s good that engines are beginning to fire, because something occasionally has to drown out some of Smith’s wild ideas.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com. Visit Wolf’s motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.

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