DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Kurt Busch's car could have been parked at an auto show. Models in skimpy attire lingered around his Monster Energy car, posing for a steady stream of fans wanting snapshots and selfies.
Even among the cluster of candy, beer and fast food companies adorned on cars lined on the grid at Daytona International Speedway, the oversized green "M'' claw on Busch's Ford caught the eye.
Monster had sponsored Busch, the 2004 NASCAR champion, in the Cup series the last two seasons. But the Clash at Daytona was the debut for the energy drink giant as the title sponsor for the elite Cup series. Spirits were high around the No. 41.
The initial buzz wore off when Busch slammed the car nose first into the wall early in NASCAR's kickoff race, crunching the hood and leaving the squiggly "M'' claw flapping as the car skidded across the track and into the infield grass.
Mitch Covington, Monster's vice president of sports marketing, watched the race and shrugged off the early exit.
"I had to call Kurt up and tell him good job," Covington said. "He didn't appreciate it because he wanted to win the race. Hey, you know, if you're not going to win, crash 'em hard, man. Look good."
Monster, after all, has crafted a party-brand image on looking good.
"It's built on girls, parties and motorsports," Covington said.
The big question for the top auto series in North America is whether the mix of busty babes, fan zone smoke shows, motorcycle "ball of death" and the corporate logo plastered on all 40 Cup cars be enough to give NASCAR the jolt the sport desperately needs. NASCAR is ready to try anything to get out of its funk of sliding fan interest, both at the track and on TV screens.
Monster Energy has a two-year sponsorship deal with a two-year option worth a reported $20 million annually — far smaller than the $750 million, 10-year deal Sprint paid NASCAR to have its name emblazoned in the title series. NASCAR's top circuit has been called the Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and Sprint Cup. Monster is now on board, trying to make NASCAR hip again, and entice a younger generation to give the sport a shot.
"No matter what they're doing, they're always trying to find something creative ," Busch said.
NASCAR was the cool sport on the block roughly two decades ago. Jeff Gordon dazzled Madison Avenue with a polished charm that opened opportunities never seen before in NASCAR. The sport stretched beyond its Southern roots, and drivers were in demand for national magazine cover shoots, late night talk show spots and movie cameos.
TV ratings exploded. Tracks couldn't build new grandstands fast enough. Companies pumped in needed sponsor cash because they all wanted a piece of the next big thing.
NASCAR's growth slowed around 2005, and the recession hurt. Fan interest cooled, ratings dwindled and tracks started tearing down those stands.
Monster, which supports a variety of extreme sports like motocross and UFC, seems to have a winning touch at reaching the 18-to-34 demographic. NASCAR is counting on a brand strategy that targets millennials to hook them on the sport.
"We have to make sure we go where they are," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR's chief marketing officer. "We can't expect them to come to us, watch the broadcast, come to the race. We have to give them a reason to do that. They already have that affinity to the Monster brand, and we need to kind of translate that affinity from the Monster brand to Monster's involvement with us."
NASCAR learned during a search that lasted nearly two years that some potential sponsors still viewed the fan base as too Southern and too male, and they were confounded by some of the technology.
Monster is set to blow up the misconceptions and make a day at the track seem like "Animal House" meets "Days of Thunder." NASCAR's role? Covington said energy drinks have only about an 18 percent household penetration in the U.S. and hopes a wider audience can boost those sales.
"That means selling more Monster and getting Monster in front of more of an audience they might not be in front of," Gregory said.
Still, after all the hype, Monster had a fairly low profile at Daytona ahead of the season-opening 500-mile race that is one of the showcase events for NASCAR.
For more than 40 years, Winston and the telecommunications giants would spend, spend, spend to plaster their brand on every nook of the track. Monster, by comparison, was virtually absent.
"I think what they feel is important isn't what we've seen as the importance that Sprint had as their footprint in years past," Busch said.
Monster Energy brought 20 of its models to Daytona, the only true sign of PG-13 promotion by the company in the 10 days headed into Sunday's race. Monster wasn't selling drinks at concession stands or tossing cans out of its vans to fans. There were few — if any — advertisements showcased outside the track walls . A billboard in the fan zone that promoted NBC's television coverage still had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series logo plastered in the middle.
The Monster logo was, at least, stamped on the flag stand.
"I think you'll see a little more Monster at the Daytona 500," Covington said. "But at the same time, the sponsorship's not about painting it all green. It's really about doing some really cool things with sponsorship."
NASCAR is eager to see if its latest reinvention will be the one that resuscitates the series.
More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org