DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The president of NASCAR believes Winston Cup racing remains in good shape despite the death of Dale Earnhardt, increased skepticism about driver safety, and scrutiny over how the circuit handled the tragedy.
"I think there's a human factor you attach to sports that prevents you from being completely adequate," Mike Helton said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Still, I don't think we would have handled anything differently."
Next week, NASCAR returns to Daytona Beach for the first time since Earnhardt died Feb. 18 on the final lap of the Daytona 500. It's sure to be an emotional return, as drivers come back to the scene of the loss of the sport's best-known figure.
Of course, Daytona is also the site of NASCAR headquarters, and ground zero for the legal battle over Earnhardt's autopsy photos that has dragged on for months.
At a hearing where the autopsy photos were sealed, media lawyers accused NASCAR of conspiring with Earnhardt's widow to push for the legal action that kept the photos from being released to the public.
That case was viewed as part of an attempt by NASCAR to withhold information surrounding Earnhardt's death and avoid coming to grips with the safety issues exacerbated by the tragedy. NASCAR, for its part, believes the Earnhardt family's privacy should be respected.
Helton acknowledged that NASCAR's public-relations effort may have left some room for criticism. The sport once known for catering to the media and its fans was left open to accusations of a whitewash in the Earnhardt case.
"We ask to be considered a professional sport, and we have a strategy inside the company to grow the sport," Helton said. "As successful as we've been with that strategy, we have to understand and be conscious of the fact that the bigger we get, the bigger the challenges get. We have to be prepared to handle them correctly."
The second-guessing began immediately after Earnhardt's crash. Although he died on impact, it took about two hours for NASCAR to confirm the tragedy. Fox Sports had long switched away from its coverage, and many racing fans did not learn of his death until their late local news -- up to four hours after the race had ended.
"There were a lot of emotions that compounded the challenges we faced," Helton said. "It seems that human error was not tolerated in these cases, but then again, it probably shouldn't be in this case."
Five days later, NASCAR announced that the seatbelt in Earnhardt's car had separated before impact. That fueled speculation that his death wouldn't have been prevented by a Head and Neck Support device.
Helton said the announcement was made to give as much information as possible to fans and, more importantly, drivers and their teams. He denied that the announcement was meant to shift the attention away from one of its most pressing safety issues -- the HANS device. Still, the aftershocks of the seatbelt announcement have lingered.
The HANS, which restrains the head and neck in the case of a violent, head-on accident, isn't mandatory in NASCAR.
An independent expert appointed by the court in the autopsy-photo case said Earnhardt likely died from the kind of skull fracture the HANS is designed to prevent.
"As such, the restraint failure does not appear to have played a role in Mr. Earnhardt's fatal injury," Dr. Barry Myers wrote in a report released to the Orlando Sentinel, the newspaper that spearheaded the autopsy photo debate.
The doctor stopped short of saying the HANS device would have saved Earnhardt.
More drivers have voluntarily begun wearing the HANS device, although NASCAR still hasn't changed its safety standards. Nor has NASCAR released results from its internal investigation into Earnhardt's death; that is still scheduled for August.
"We're not going to react just for the sake of reacting," Helton said, repeating what he said the day after Earnhardt's death.
Despite these problems, fans are watching the races in unprecedented numbers. TV ratings rose 29 percent in the first half of the season, thanks in part to the new TV contract with Fox. NBC and TNT take over the coverage beginning at Daytona.
The second half of the season will offer even more challenges. Two weeks after the return to Daytona, the drivers go back to Loudon, N.H., the track where Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died last year.
The football season starts about the same time NASCAR begins making its second trip of the year to many tracks.
In some cities, ticket sales are a concern, although it's hard to pinpoint a cause: If the second-half gate is down, NASCAR easily could blame it on a slowing economy.
Helton believes the sport is still getting stronger.
"Dale meant a lot to a lot of people, and we acknowledge that," Helton said. "Like any other close friend or family member that you lose, you certainly miss that person a lot. But NASCAR is in great shape, and I think the future is very bright."