EW spotlights TV's NASCAR craze -- TV execs and NASCAR drivers talk about why shows the fast and furious culture help fill the void of ''Melrose Place''

By Mandi Bierly
February 28, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Jamie McMurray’s head is spinning. But not with thoughts of the Daytona 500, which revved up a new NASCAR Nextel Cup season on Feb. 20. During a chat on the eve of the big event, his mind is preoccupied with other things, like how happy he was to be ranked 11th when the top 10 Nextel Cup drivers appeared in a fashion show last fall on Live With Regis and Kelly. ”It was like watching someone sing on TV who couldn’t,” he says. ”You just felt sorry for ’em.”

Friendly ribbing aside, modeling suspenders and beanie caps is a small price to pay for TV stardom. NASCAR Nextel Cup is already the second-most-watched sport on TV, behind the NFL, averaging 8 million viewers last year collectively on four networks, with — surprise — the chic urbanites of New York and L.A. composing two of its top five markets. (Fox and FX air the first half of the 10-month season; NBC and TNT, the second.) And lately, its stars seem like they’re everywhere. McMurray made a cameo on the Jan. 19 West Wing and shows off his bachelor pad on an upcoming episode of MTV’s Cribs, while fellow rising star Casey Mears also filmed a Cribs installment and made an appearance last June on Days of Our Lives. In addition, FX’s reality show NASCAR Drivers: 360 returns for a season 2 in May, the same month an E! True Hollywood Story runs on the sport. Live exec producer Michael Geiman, who’s used Daytona 500 champ Jeff Gordon as a guest host, is even planning another TiVo-worthy NASCAR segment. ”It could be a dunking booth . . . ” he jokes.

Why are NASCAR stars suddenly must-see TV? ”They’re intelligent, good-lookin’, young, and makin’ a lot of money,” says former champ-turned-Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip. Adds Pamela Britton, author of Hariequin’s first-ever NASCAR-set romance novel(!), Dangerous Curves: ”It’s the whole ‘gunslinger’ thing. Something about taming the man who stares death in the face.” No wonder women between 18 and 34 are the fastest-growing audience.

As fans old and new already know, NASCAR is more than cars running in circles. High drama unfolds as drivers strategize through pit stops, restarts, and a new points system that’s turned the season’s final 10 races (known as the Chase) into a go-for-broke shoot-out. ”You’re not out there [saying], ‘You lead awhile, I’ll lead awhile,”’ Waltrip says of the grudges that gloriously arise. ”There’s always conflict.” Adds self-proclaimed ”Track Queen” Betty Jack DeVine, who recaps races for gay NASCAR fans on Gaytona.com (yes, you read that right): ”It’s a soap opera that’s okay for men to watch. It’s about guys and cars. It’s fast and potentially violent. It fills that slot for continuing drama . . . like Melrose Place.” Or WWE wrestling — only unscripted.

The unresolved cliff-hanger from last season: How does a traditionally rebellious sport — which Waitrip likens to a reality show with pit-road confessionals from drivers who’ve just been tagged at 200 mph — stay true to its maverick roots post-Nipplegate? After Dale Earnhardt Jr. let a jubilant ”s—” slip in Victory Lane last October, NASCAR not only fined him $10,000 but also docked him championship points. Although NBC received fewer than 20 complaints, the network has begun using a five-second delay for NASCAR broadcasts. Fox, however, will take its risks. ”Live sports is a news event,” says Fox Sports chairman David Hill. ”We don’t think news should be delayed. No debate.”

NASCAR vows to support the networks’ decisions. ”We’re out to maintain a family-friendly sport, but they’re the ones who have to deal with their affiliates and the FCC,” says head of broadcasting Dick Glover. Even if family values are a driving force, Earnhardt isn’t too worried the sport will lose its edge. ”We got enough different characters to keep it interesting,” he says. ”We don’t have fighting in Turn 3 at Daytona like in the ’70s, but we’ve come pretty close.” Now, that’s a Regis segment we’d pay to see.