NASCAR Racing for a Big Comeback

NASCAR is a fast sport. But in recent years, growth in viewership has not kept up with the speed of the cars.

Television ratings hit a five-year low in 2012, and in the key 18-34 demographic, there was a 25-percent drop.

"We've been through some very difficult situations with the economy," said NASCAR CEO Brian France.

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It's also been true at the racing venues, which can attract 100,000 fans to any one Sprint Cup race.

The problem? If people don't have jobs, or if gas prices are high, then the NASCAR fan can't make that trip to Loudon, New Hampshire or Talladega, Alabama.

"Our fan base travels further, stays longer, often makes our events a vacation," France said. "They're taking less of them today than they did a few years ago."

But there are signs that 2012 was a bottom.

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Ratings for Daytona 500 qualifying were up year-over-year. It was only 2-percent, but at least it was a gain.

Then, there's Danica Patrick. There had been a lot of talk that her marketability was fading. She wasn't winning, and to be honest, she wasn't even competing.

That changed when her car earned the pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500. She's the first woman to do so, and it was headline news.

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If it were Brad Kesolowski -- or even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- it would not have created the same buzz.

Then, there's the car. General Motors, Ford and Toyota were not happy, pouring millions into NASCAR racing but not necessarily seeing the results they wanted.

Out of that came the Gen6 car.

"Basically, it's a wild step backwards into race cars that look more like what you see on the street and have a little more of what you would call sex appeal," said Keselowski, the reigning Sprint Cup champion.

In the recent past, all the cars looked the same. With the Gen6, each automaker has a race car that resembles something a consumer could buy in the showroom.

Since NASCAR fans are so loyal, the hope is that fans will start buying the car used by their favorite driver.

And it's not as if NASCAR was on the verge of collapse. Far from it. The circuit just signed a deal with FOX -- $2.4 billion to broadcast the first part of the racing season. The second half remains open for bidding.

Also, despite the dip in ratings, nearly 70 million people watched NASCAR in 2012. More than, three million people "like" it on Facebook, and NASCAR is the No. 2 trending sport on Twitter.

"We've got a lot of challenges in the sport," said Keselowski. "It's no different than our country right now.

"(But) If we all work together, we can make the sport where I think it can be, and that's number 1, quite frankly."

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If the 29-year old can be a breakthrough star, the sport would benefit. Jimmie Johnson was a great repeat champion, but he did not transcend the sport.

Other "superstars" like Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt just don't win enough anymore.

Keselowski has the talent and the personality -- and maybe, has the right formula: He likes to talk yet doesn't seem stardom.

"I want to be the best race car driver possible, and you know what? Nine times out of 10 people love you for that," He said. "Now, being a star and all those things, yeah it's great, but it's more important to me to be true to myself."

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—By CNBC's Brian Shactman; Follow him on Twitter: @bshactman