Wide swaths of empty seats at Talladega. Acre upon acre of the same at Charlotte, NASCAR’s spiritual home and the backyard of virtually all of the sport’s teams. True, attendance has been off for much of the year and the second Charlotte race rarely sells out, but so many empty seats? Things are bleak. That bit of rocket science aside, that times are as tough as they are is especially troublesome to image-conscious NASCAR, which must absolutely crap its proverbial pants when it sees stories like this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or even this one.

For almost a decade, an unquestioning public has given NASCAR the freedom to bill itself as “America’s fastest growing sport” — never mind the obvious logical flaw that, according to NASCAR’s own literature, the sport’s fan base has remained relatively constant at 75 million for that same time period (and let’s not even get into the contortions used to arrive at that undoubtedly impressive number). But, a financial meltdown of epic proportions that’s crippling everybody — Wall Street and Joe Six-Pack and, apparently, even Joe the Plumber — just might be enough to bring some of NASCAR’s own overheated rhetoric to its knees and force the sport to reconsider how it does business.

Consider this gem from Yahoo.com’s Bob Margolis:

Another sign of the times is the rumor I heard in the Cup garage that NASCAR has floated the possibility of a change in the field size for the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series to 28 vehicles and the Cup field down to 36 sometime in the future.

Shrinking the size of the field is something like the third rail of NASCAR politics, not quite as volatile as, say, admitting you’ll raise taxes, but certain to inspire a vigorous response from all quarters. Nevertheless, if it’s true that fully half the Sprint Cup field remains unfunded for 2009 (as ESPN.com’s Marty Smith wrote in this column), any real “decision” about the size of the field won’t be NASCAR’s to make — there simply might not be 43 race teams out there that can afford the multi-million-dollar freight week-in and week-out.

At the end of the day, the size of the field is a fairly minor concern — there have been times when races had as few as 30 cars and others when some had more than 60. But, if the economy continues to tank and attendance drops and sponsors are no longer convinced that pouring money into NASCAR is a good investment, it could set in motion a series of events that forces NASCAR to take a long, hard look at a business model that no longer works in the marketplace. The real question will be: Is NASCAR nimble enough to respond?

a guest post by Stephen Thomas, NASCAR writer