Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

No excuses in 2009: Time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to show he’s a legitimate title contender

In the past, there were excuses that could be made as to why Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never made a legitimate title run in the Cup series. While he was at DEI, the team just couldn’t match up against the giants at Hendrick and Roush.

Last year, his first at Hendrick, he had to get adjusted to his new team, and get adjusted to the new “car of tomorrow”.

Well, that’s all done now. Jr. has settled in to his ride at a solid team in Hendrick, spent a year in the new car, and has all the tools he needs to compete with the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards for the Cup crown.

While none of his fans really expect him to live up to his dad’s legendary success, most are hopeful he can win at least one championship in his career. Now that he’s been in the sport’s top level for a decade, there’s no time to waste, and he needs to show the world he’s more than just a fan favorite.

He has the equipment needed to compete for a championship. One question remains: Does he have the talent?

His detractors would say no, that he’s just a media and fan darling who is more overhyped than Danica Patrick. But his loyal fans still cling to hopes that he will emerge as a true threat to win the Cup.

This year, 2009, should be the year we find out which side is right. I’m not saying Jr. has to win the title to prove he’s legitimate -- that would be an unfair requirement for any driver. But if he can’t step up his game in 2009 and at least pose a threat to the usual suspects at the top of the points standings, the detractors will have even more ammunition against Jr. and there will be very little he can say to defend himself.

I recognize that winning the Cup is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. You’re facing off against the greatest stock car drivers in the world, and if you don’t have a near-perfect season, the title likely will not be yours. A combination of great driving by Jr. and working more effectively with his crew chief will be required if this success is going to come to the #88 team.

His Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson has won the title three straight times, coming to life in the Chase when it matters most, and that is what Jr. needs to do if he wants to be a contender. A key factor will be getting a few victories during the pre-Chase season in order to gain some momentum heading into the Chase. In 2008, all Jr. could manage was a fuel mileage win at Michigan. With a regular season like that, it’s no surprise his Chase was disastrous.

Whatever problems Jr. may have had in 2008 (crew chief squabbling included), I hope he’s cleared them up. Because fair or not, a repeat of his disappointing 2008 season will increase the number of fans who think he’s all name and no talent.

The (very) old and the (very) young
Joey Logano is 18 years old, and will race in the Daytona 500 in a couple weeks. If the stars align, one of his competitors could be James Hylton, who was born in 1934 and will be 74 on raceday. Joining Hylton in attempting the race will be fellow oldster Geoff Bodine (age 59), who has not attempted a Cup race since 2004. That’s one of the great things about NASCAR: Your age doesn’t matter as much as how fast you run. To put things in further perspective, James Hylton was Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1966, 24 years before Logano was even born.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Big question in 2009: Can Scott Speed give Joey Logano a battle for Rookie of the Year?

With all the hype surrounding young Joey Logano as the year begins, many fans are assuming he’ll run away with the Rookie of the Year title in the Cup series.

But doing so would be premature, as he will have one serious competitor for the honor -- Red Bull Racing’s Scott Speed. The quirky Speed is known, at this point, more for his off-the-track wackiness, such as painting his toenails and displaying his unique fashion sense. But make no mistake, he has talent behind the wheel of a car.

Speed competed briefly in Formula 1, becoming that sport’s first American driver in a long time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out too well, and many people dismissed Speed as a failure. But the people at Red Bull did not agree with that assessment, and decided they wanted to keep him around in a stock car. Since his departure from the world’s biggest series, Speed has quietly been building an impressive stock car resume, pulling off impressive runs in ARCA and Trucks, including four ARCA wins and a Truck Series win at Dover. They made the choice to gamble on Speed instead of keeping a solid A.J. Allmendinger in the car.

I’ve written extensively about Logano’s record of winning since he was young, in every series he has entered. He took the Nationwide Series by storm immediately after his 18th birthday in 2008 and was quickly promoted to the Cup level for 2009 by Joe Gibbs.

There are those who say the move was premature, that 18 is too young for a driver to be put under the stress of a full Cup season battling the best stock car drivers in the world. But if anyone can handle it, it’s Logano. He has so far shown he is able to maintain his cool regardless of the situation, and talent like his is a rare find. There’s no need to waste it in the Nationwide Series.

The thing about being a Cup rookie, though, is that mistakes will be made. Both Logano and Speed have talent, and there are people who will argue Logano is overrated and overhyped. But one thing is clear: Both Logano and Speed will have their share of screwups in 2009. The key to who wins the ROTY title will be how often those screwups happen, and how well they finish when they can keep the car in one piece.

I’m still going to pick Logano to be the top rookie. Beyond his talent, he is driving Joe Gibbs equipment. Red Bull is on the rise after a great surge in 2008, but Gibbs is an elite organization. I don’t envision any likely scenarios that end in Speed taking the rookie title.

But then again, this is NASCAR and anything can happen. Regan Smith took last year’s title despite not having a sponsor for most of the season. The field was extremely weak, but he still beat out a fully sponsored Sam Hornish Jr. for the honor. Maybe Speed can shock the world and take down Logano for the title.

If Red Bull continues the upward trajectory it begin in 2008, and Logano fails to break out in Cup as quickly as he has done in other series, we may see Logano and Speed go down to the wire for the rookie title.

But that’s a very big “if”.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Don’t expect instant success from Tony Stewart’s new team

Two schools of thought are emerging about Tony Stewart’s chances at success this season, as he takes over his new role as driver/owner at Stewart-Haas Racing.

The naysayers point to brand new teams of the past that have taken years to achieve consistency and get to Victory Lane. All the great teams of today struggled at the start, and there’s no reason Stewart will break that trend, they say. While some of these people may be overly pessimistic, I find it hard to argue with their overall premise -- because history doesn’t lie.

On the other side, there are the faithful Stewart fans who say Tony has done everything right so far with this team, lining up good drivers (himself and Ryan Newman), securing proper sponsorship and luring talented crew chiefs (Darien Grubb, Tony Gibson). Combine all those elements with Stewart‘s obvious hunger for victory, and the recipe is there for success right off the bat, these people say.

Everything these people are saying around Stewart’s offseason preparation is true, but there is a key factor they are ignoring. With the season kicking off just weeks from now, one thing is missing from this team that will severely inhibit it from having immediate success -- Chemistry.

Make no mistake: This is a brand new team. The Haas-CNC team from 2008 is gone, and little or nothing remains of that terrible team which battled unsuccessfully to stay in the top-35 in points all season.

I am not predicting a rough season based on last year’s pitiful performance by the #66 and #70 cars. I am predicting a rough season because no matter how great all the pieces are, there’s no guarantee they’re going to fit perfectly. Stewart had a great relationship with Greg Zipadelli for a decade, but how will he and Grubb mesh? Will Grubb be afraid to argue with Stewart about pit decisions because he is the team boss?

How many times in sports have we seen a team bring together a bunch of superstars, only to have them fail to reach glory? -- The 2004 Lakers dream team that lost to the Pistons in the NBA Finals comes to mind.

And beyond that, I’ve never been sold on Ryan Newman being a tremendous driving talent. He’s pretty great on qualifying day, but come Sunday he’s often turned in less-than-spectacular performances. After the Daytona 1-2 finish last year, both Newman and his teammate Kurt Busch pretty much fell off the radar and settled for mediocrity all year. Sure, the Dodges struggled in 2008, but you can’t completely take blame away from the driver.

Stewart is a great driver, and he will finish the year better than Newman, but I question whether he can make the Chase or win in his first year as a team owner. He will have a lot more to worry about than driving this year, as he’ll be keeping tabs on every aspect in the organization. There is a reason there hasn’t been a driver-owner who has won the Cup since Alan Kulwicki -- it’s really hard to compete with the big boys when you’re both the boss and the pilot. That’s even more true now than in Kulwicki’s day, as the mega teams have only gotten stronger since then.

SHR’s best chance for early success is at Daytona and Talladega, where the restrictor plates let anyone compete for a win. But everywhere else they go early in 2009, look for the SHR cars to be playing catch-up. It’s only natural: New teams need time to adjust. Even someone as talented as Stewart can’t change that fact. Late in the year, I wouldn’t count out a surge, but even that might be optimistic.

I’m not saying it’s completely out of the realm of possibility that Stewart will buck history and reach the stars right out of the gate, but I wouldn’t bet your lunch money on it.

A.J. officially signed
Richard Petty Motorsports has officially signed A.J. Allmendinger for 2009 and 2010, but there’s a catch -- there’s no guarantee the needed sponsorship will come through for the full season. All that’s guaranteed right now is A.J. will drive the #44 for 9 races, plus the Bud Shootout. Beyond that, it’s up in the air.

Though he was expected to drive the car already, it was the right move to make it official. Now I hope A.J. can put on a great performance in early 2009 like he did at the end of 2008 and draw some sponsors. It would be a shame if he were on the sidelines while less-talented drivers like Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler were driving at his own team.

Yates should dump Gilliland
Everyone thought David Gilliland was on the outs at Yates Racing, but apparently that isn’t so. He is under contract, but there’s no ride for him. If it were me, I’d just rip up that contract. Gilliland showed his true colors during his ridiculous on-track assault of Juan Pablo Montoya last season, and has never been a solid driver in Cup. Letting him go is really the only logical choice. Even if the funds came through for another car, Travis Kvapil still needs full-season sponsorship and he could use it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

2009 critical year for Dodges: Will they re-emerge as contenders or continue struggles?

A lot has changed since 2008, a season that saw the embarrassment of not one Dodge making the Chase for the Cup.

Heading into 2009, the stable of Dodge cars has been trimmed to just two teams and seven drivers. Penske Racing will field cars for Kurt Busch, David Stremme and Sam Hornish, Jr. The newly formed Richard Petty Motorsports will feature Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson and A.J. Allmendinger.

When going up against heavyweights like the Chevys from the Hendrick and RCR camps, Jack Roush’s Fords or Joe Gibbs‘ Toyotas, it’s not going to be an easy battle to get back to Victory Lane and the Chase. Other than Kahne, who had a strong run in the middle of 2008, the Dodge camp struggled mightily last year and many improvements need to be made if success is going to come.

Dodge executives are putting on a hopeful front for 2009, saying they are confident a turnaround is on the way.

“You want to have a portfolio of drivers that can at any given time deliver a top-five or a victory,” said Mike Accavitti, director of the Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep brands. “We feel with the lineup that we have remaining that we can do that. The seven cars that we have -- or eight cars or six cars or whatever it ends up to be -- will be sufficient.”

Forgive me if I don’t share Accavitti’s confidence at this moment … I’ll have to see some success from the Dodges before I actually believe it will happen. This is a make-or-break year for the Dodge teams, and it’s being played out amid a much bigger battle for the very survival of Chrysler.

The tough economy and struggles of Detroit’s Big 3 automakers have made a dent in how much money is spent in the series. But the Dodge camp has taken the right approach by not cutting research for Cup engineering, and instead trimming promotions and pulling their support of the Truck Series teams. Even with lower budgets, the benefit of having fewer teams is there’s less spreading of the wealth to do, so that’s one thing that could help the Dodges this year.

The key to success will be to treat the seven cars like one big team and share information. If secrets are kept and this sharing doesn’t happen, I don’t see how the Dodge stable can emerge as competitors in 2009. Once you get past Kahne, Busch and Allmendinger, the rest of the lineup is pretty shaky. Stremme, Hornish, Sadler and Sorenson have been middle-of-the-pack guys or worse for most or all of their careers. If the cars they are driving aren’t of high quality, you can’t expect them to work miracles and end up in Victory Lane or the Chase.

Another year missing the Chase completely would be a disaster for the Dodge squadron, and would increase the brand’s growing reputation as the least competitive car make in the Cup series. That would bring up a whole new bunch of questions, such as whether Chrysler would just pull out of the sport completely (although that may happen anyway if Chrysler seeks to exist in its current form at some point in the future).

Assuming the Dodges continue in the sport, several years of futility could cause most of its drivers (including Kahne) to want to jump ship once their current contracts expire. At that point, they would have slow cars and weak drivers, making their entry almost pointless.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that and things turn around in 2009.

Kyle Busch: 2009 Nationwide champ
It appears Kyle Busch will be completing a full schedule in the Nationwide Series this year. Considering how he pretty much dominated more than half the races he entered last year, you might as well put his name on the trophy already. I'll even go so far as to say that for the next decade or more, this disturbing trend of the Cup guys swooping down and stealing a championship trophy in the minor leagues will continue ... and through it all, the series will have less and less fans.

The days when young, up-and-coming drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth could battle each other for a championship on their way up to the big leagues appears to be over, and that's pretty lame.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Michigan Speedway doing its part to help Big 3 automakers, fight unemployment in Michigan

With such uncertain times for Detroit’s Big 3 automakers, I was pleased to run across the news that Michigan International Speedway will be the home of a new vehicle technology research and test center.

One of the complaints Big 3 detractors have had over the years is that the U.S. automakers are lagging behind their foreign competitors in new technologies that are key to future success in the automotive industry.

It’s clear they have got the message, and over the past few years have been putting more of their focus on these technologies that will become the norm in future years. NASCAR’s future success will be much more secure if the Big 3 are secure, and with Detroit being the home base for these automakers, MIS is the perfect place for such a facility.

According to the media reports, the MIS location will give automakers, electronic systems manufacturers and others the chance to test and develop so-called “connected vehicle technologies” in a closed, neutral facility. This technology allows vehicles to communicate with each other and outside devices such as traffic signals or electronic signs to prevent collisions and improve traffic flow and fuel efficiency.

Now, instead of just holding races to entertain us, MIS will be performing a critical service for the industry that provides so many jobs and sustains so many people’s lives in the state of Michigan.

In addition, there is hope this new test center will help create jobs in the state, which is critical with the state’s unemployment rate close at more than 10 percent.

Even if it’s only a few jobs, any little bit helps. And the technology developed will likely help sell cars in the future, saving more jobs down the line. With so much negative news in this industry lately, it’s nice to hear something positive for once. It’s a positive thing for the village of Brooklyn, the state of Michigan, the country and the auto industry in general.

New teams popping up every day lately
When I wrote recently that the shorter fields would likely encourage new teams to form, I had no idea so many people would actually do it. Tommy Baldwin, Joe Nemechek, Jeremy Mayfield and several others have announced their intention to attempt the Daytona 500 and, hopefully, the full season.

The latest entry is former driver Phil Parsons, who is co-owner of the new Prism Motorsports team, which has secured a sponsor for its Toyota at Daytona and has formed a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing.

The driver for Daytona? Terry Labonte. He has the second shot at the past champions provisional, after Tony Stewart, so he would make the race if Stewart makes it on time, which is likely. After Daytona, Dave Blaney is scheduled to drive the car.

At the rate new teams are popping up, we’ll have 60 cars trying out for Daytona. The big question is how many will show up the following week at California.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The big question: Who should get into the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class?

Whenever a Hall of Fame inducts members, for a sport or anything else, the debate is pretty intense about who should make it. For example, many people were appalled when Madonna made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a similar number of people in Detroit are furious Jack Morris has never made the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Come 2010, that same debate will be held among NASCAR fans, who will actually hold a small role in determining which five people will be inducted into the first official NASCAR Hall of Fame, which will be opening in Charlotte.

Former drivers, crew chiefs, owners, manufacturer representatives, NASCAR bigwigs, and even some media members will make up 47 of the 48 ballots. No. 48 will be a collective vote by the fans. It’s less than 2 percent, but it’s better than nothing.

So let the debate begin. There are five admissions per year, and it’s pretty obvious Big Bill France Sr. has to be inducted because he’s the reason the sport is here in the first place. That leave four spots, and I’m going to go under the assumption that all four will be filled by drivers.

Let’s get the easy ones out of the way.
Richard Petty is The King, with 200 wins in the sport, and there’s no way he doesn’t make it in on the first ballot. Seven titles will take you far. Same goes for Dale Earnhardt Sr., who is even more popular than The King.

That leaves two open spots. If there is any justice in the world, one will go to David Pearson, with 105 wins and, in my opinion, more talent than either Earnhardt or Petty. If he doesn’t make it on the first ballot, I will be severely disappointed. But once you get past Pearson, the final spot is completely up for grabs in my mind.

There is no clear fifth option, and I am very curious to see how the voting turns out. There are a few that will certainly be looked at.

Junior Johnson -- His driving career, at only 14 years, was short compared to many of the others being considered. But the former moonshiner and speed demon on the race track is one of the most recognizable faces in NASCAR’s history and has 50 wins to his name, not to mention his 139 wins and six Winston Cups as a car owner. He is widely viewed as the best dirt track racer ever, and is credited with discovering the concept of “drafting” at Daytona”.

Lee Petty
-- Not a likely first-ballot pick, as it’s doubtful two Pettys will be inducted in one year, but he’ll surely be in very soon if not right away. The first three-time champ, he raced in a time without all the technology of today, and did a lot to develop NASCAR into a more modern and safe sport. He is the lasting legacy of the days of leather helmets.

Bobby Allison -- A true talent who could have had many more victories than the 85 he got, but was hampered by his inability to get along with any one car owner. He hated Richard Petty with a vengeance, and a steady ride would have changed the career results of both Allison and Petty severely, in Allison‘s favor. He has the true respect of all in the garage, even Petty nowadays, and he has gone through more personal tragedy than most people in the sport, so mabye that will sway some voters to him.

Cale Yarborough -- His domination of the series led to three straight Winston Cup titles in the 1970s, the highlight of a great overall career with 83 wins and 255 top-5s. He will get some first-ballot votes.

Darrell Waltrip -- He’s fresh in everyone’s mind, due to his constant presence on television, but I hope it’s the second year before DW is inducted. I don’t discredit his talent when he was racing or his 84 wins, but he last thing he needs is something else to talk about. I get a headache before he even opens his mouth most weeks.

I’m a big fan of the sport’s history, so my pick for the fifth inductee would be Junior Johnson, but all the names mentioned above would be deserving of a first-year admission to the Hall of Fame. The other wild card that could be thrown for this fifth pick is a legendary crew chief like Harry Hyde of Dale Inman, but I doubt that will be used in Year 1.

However it turns out, I’m glad to see the fans are getting a small part of the vote, because after all, we’re the reason the sport is the success it has become today and deserve a say on who the true Hall of Famers are.

My biggest hope for this Hall is that somewhere down the road, maybe in a few years, the late Tim Richmond will be inducted. The way he was treated by the NASCAR bigwigs as he was dying of AIDS is unforgivable, and a spot in the Hall of Fame would go a long way toward letting people know just how talented he really was on the track. As it is, they hardly even recognize his existence when discussing the history of the sport.

Showdown performance shows Logano has the winning edge heading into 2009

NASCAR’s young talent and a bevy of future stars were on display Saturday night at the Toyota All-Star Showdown, which brought together the best drivers from the two Camping World series, plus a few other touring series champs for a 250-lap battle at Irwindale Speedway in California.

As the running order came on, one name stood out -- defending race winner and teenage superstar Joey Logano, who will take over the driving duties in Joe Gibbs’ #20 Home Depot Toyota this year in the Cup series. My first thought: “He should dominate this race”.

Though he ended up getting up front toward the end of the race and almost winning after a Carl Edwards-like kamikaze move, it was hardly an easy run for Logano. He ran in the top 10 early, but did nothing spectacular. There was a lot of talent in the field -- including Matt Kobyluck, Brian Ickler, Marc Davis, Auggie Vidovich, Trevor Bayne, Jason Bowles and Peyton Sellers. Also, Ron Hornaday decided to show up, but more on him later. For these mostly unknown drivers, this race is a great chance to get noticed by the big teams, and maybe the first step toward landing a Nationwide or Truck Series ride.

Overall, the racing Saturday night was what should be expected when 40 cars compete on a half-mile track and no points are at stake -- four-wide and lots of wrecks. Though at times the wrecks got out of hand, it was a very exciting race overall, capped off by a nail-biting finish.

On the final restart with less than 10 laps to go, Logano, Sellers and a couple other drivers were as close as it’s possible to be to each other on the track, and Logano ended up pushed into the wall and fell back to third in the fracas. But as I expected, he battled back to second and with just one lap left, it didn’t look like Logano was going to be able to catch Sellers. But Joey did what any true racer would do in a race like this … he went deep to the inside and tried to get the lead kamikaze style, the only way he could possibly win. As often happens, he didn’t quite clear Sellers, and a big wreck ensued. Sellers didn’t make the finish line, and Logano crossed the line first. What ensued was a classic, yell through the window, post-race confrontation, and I was pretty sure Sellers wanted to rip Joey in half (which wouldn’t be too hard to do, as the tall, twig-like Logano looks to weigh about 100 pounds).

Even though Logano finished first, NASCAR didn’t approve of his last-lap move and took the win away, giving it to Kobyluck. Regardless, this type of dedication to winning, even though this was a one-off race in a series he will no longer compete in, shows that the young man known to some as “sliced bread” truly wants to win at all costs. Combine that with his pure, raw talent, and you have a dangerous driver in the Cup series. I’m not saying he’ll light the series on fire this year, but you’ll definitely see some sparks out of that #20 car.

As a side note, I have to mention Ron Hornaday and his antics Saturday night. I know he has history in this series going back to his father, but he was truly an “idiot driver,” as one of his victim’s crew chiefs called him. While Logano was going for the win when he caused a wreck, which I really can’t argue against, Hornaday was driving like a madman all night. He took out Ickler, who had dominated the beginning of the race, with a completely unnecessary move early on. Then later , he knocked out another driver who was minding his own business with a similar questionable move. One of the victims said they lost a lot of respect for Hornaday Saturday night, and I don’t blame them. There’s a time to race that way, and it’s surely not halfway through the race.

Austin Dillon driving a black #3 car (for his grandfather Richard Childress) was a nice reminder of a glorious past for that number/color combination, though I wouldn’t want to see anyone other than Dale Jr. run that number in the Cup series if it ever is used again.

Former Cup winner Steve Park was in the race, and it’s good to see him still behind the wheel of a racecar. A couple of really bad wrecks left him with some lingering brain injury right when his career was taking off in Cup, and it would have been easy for him to just fade away. But it’s clear he wants to race, and will do so wherever he can, even if it’s not in the top 3 divisions of NASCAR. And some others, like Jerry Nadeau, have never been able to get back behind the wheel of a racecar due to their brain injuries. If Park can still do that, that’s the best news of all for him.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Blacking out race broadcasts to boost ticket sales is possibly the worst idea ever

Bruton Smith is usually a pretty smart guy. If he wasn’t smart, he wouldn’t be a billionaire and chairman of the massive Speedway Motorsports Inc., the only company that blocks the France family from completely running every aspect of NASCAR.

But he stuck his foot in his mouth with his recent statements that struggling NASCAR tracks could increase their ticket sales if races that weren’t sold out were blacked out on TV for local audiences -- just like the NFL did several times in 2008 to the fantastically terrible Detroit Lions.

The good news is that the networks and NASCAR and nowhere near dumb enough to actually do this, so don’t worry. But just for fun, let’s examine the multitude of reasons why Smith was miles off in his assessment of how this would help tracks.

First off, the economy is terrible right now, and may get worse before it gets better. You can’t force people to buy race tickets if they can’t afford them. If you take the step of blacking out the race locally, and people can’t even watch at home, then you are pretty much telling NASCAR fans to go to hell, and the sport would lose thousands of fans as a result. The next week, when the race came on, those viewers might go out and do some yard work just to spite the jerks who didn’t let them watch the race a week earlier.

Second, how far out would the blackout extend? Would the MIS race be blacked out only in the Village of Brooklyn, the entire Jackson area, all of southern Michigan? Who would make that call? And would these blackouts also extend to the lower-level series? I have never been in attendance at a Nationwide or Truck race where the crowd filled the entire grandstands, not even at little Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Third, this is not the NFL. I’m not opposed to blackouts in that sport, because games that aren’t sellouts are usually brought on by pathetic teams like the Lions. I was not upset about missing the blacked-out Lions games this year, and don’t know many people who got upset. But NASCAR tracks aren’t usually full of empty seats because of a bad product … Instead, it’s a combination of the venue being much larger than a NFL stadium and the struggling economy. I know for a fact there are plenty of people who would have loved to go to races last year at MIS and elsewhere, but simply couldn’t afford it. Meanwhile, people were practically throwing their Lions tickets in the garbage this season to avoid attending their games. It’s not even comparable.

The key point is that nobody would win if NASCAR races were blacked out. The bigshots in Daytona would get a ton of hate mail and lose fans of their sport. The fans would lose because they couldn’t see their drivers in action. And even in a best-case scenario, the track wouldn’t see a big enough boost in ticket sales to offset all the negative effects of a blackout.

As I said before, Mr. Smith is usually a pretty smart guy. But this time, he has come up with the worst possible option for boosting ticket sales.

I have a better one, Bruton: Lower ticket prices.

More Cup races for Keselowski
It appears Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski will be busier than previously planned in the Cup series this year. Keselowski, already slated to run seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, has added ten more races to his schedule --- driving the #09 Phoenix Racing Chevy with Hendrick engines. He is a true talent, and things are happening very quickly for Keselowski. His talent will almost certainly put him in a full-time Cup ride at Hendrick in 2010 if Mark Martin is willing to finally hang it up or drive elsewhere part-time.

More teams trying to get in show
As I predicted a few weeks ago, this is the time for entrepreneurial types who want to get into NASCAR to try to make races. Cars have disappeared, leaving spots, and many people are heeding the call. In addition to Tommy Baldwin’s new team, Joe Nemechek and Jeremy Mayfield are among the people who have decided to bring their own teams to Daytona and hopefully beyond. Nemechek is being especially bold, planning full runs in both Cup and Nationwide as an owner-driver. Most of these new teams will probably fail quickly, but who knows? Maybe someone can strike gold and get into the top 35.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No Daytona testing? No problem ... Keep ban permanent

For as long as I can remember, it was always the big start to the new year in NASCAR. Over several weeks in January, teams would bring their unpainted cars out to the track at Daytona and get some practice in as Daytona Speedweeks loomed in the distance.

Endless hours of cars circling the sport’s most famous track would be provided, but one question always loomed. Did it mean anything?

Let me just go on record as saying there has never been a point to the extensive Daytona testing, and the elimination of it this year is one of the best things to come from the new testing ban. Daytona is not won individually, it’s won in the draft. So there is absolutely no point to having a bunch of cars drive around the track alone. The speeds will not improve significantly. And beyond that, there was always the issue of “sandbagging,” where some teams were accused of not showing their true speed in an effort to fool the competition and then show up much faster at race time. It was a bunch of pointless head games.

Now, all that is out of the window. Most of the teams will get some practice on the track in the Bud Shootout, where the field seems to grow with every rule change. And the rest will have plenty of practice sessions to take part in during the week leading up to the 500.

As Carl Edwards said earlier this year, there is plenty of practice time at the track each week, and anyone who needs more practice probably shouldn’t be driving a racecar in the top series of NASCAR.

I suppose there may be a scenario where I could be wrong … and that this lack of testing could somehow hurt some teams, perhaps newer teams without as much time on the track in previous years. But I’m pretty confident that everyone will be just fine at Daytona this year without the endless January testing.

The testing ban was put in place as a cost-cutting measure, and I think eventually some testing should be reinstated. But forget about Daytona, as the testing there serves no purpose.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Richard Petty serves notice that he's not going anywhere

Earlier this offseason, I wrote that the new era of NASCAR did not appear to have a place for the legendary Petty name .. that The King just didn’t fit anymore.

I suggested that the planned merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports would leave the King as a largely symbolic owner who didn’t really have much pull as far as team decisions.

Richard Petty is out to prove me wrong, and I wish him luck, as such a key part of NASCAR’s history should never fade away. On Monday, it was announced that the newly merged team will be called Richard Petty Motorsports. It will consist of Kasey Kahne in the #9, Elliot Sadler in the #19, Reed Sorenson in the #43 and (so-far part-time) A.J. Allmendinger in the fourth car, which will change from #10 to #44, a number that is a big part of the history of the Petty organization.

In addition to using Petty’s name and the number change on the fourth car , Petty is also showing his clout by sticking to a promise he made to his mother long ago never to have alcohol sponsorship on his cars … as the #43 and #44 cars will not carry any Budweiser logos.

I figured Gillett would call the shots in this merger because his team is stronger, but it appears the King is using the muscle that comes with his name to put his stamp on the team. And I’m glad I was wrong about what his role would be. Since Day 1, the Pettys have been important in the world of NASCAR and have helped create some of the sport's most exciting moments over the past six decades.

The past decade has been difficult for the Petty team, and what the future holds for this new organization is very much up in the air. GEM had an unimpressive 2008 for the most part, and the Petty team was pretty much bad all around. But now, if they can rely on solid leadership and the benefits of having four cars to share information, it’s possible a team with a Petty name could once again be competitive on a regular basis and even taste victory.

Kasey Kahne is clearly talented enough to win, and has done so many times in the past. He’s likely the person who will be driving the first RPM car to make it to Victory Lane. And when he does that, all NASCAR fans should be happy to see the Petty name victorious for the first time since John Andretti won in the #43 car in 1999. Don’t count on anything spectacular from Sadler or Sorenson, but Allmendinger has shown he is a talent and could put on some great performances for the team. If they get some more sponsorship for him, he could surprise a lot of people in 2009.

This news has made one thing clear to me: Richard Petty is not ready to fade off into the sunset, and wants to be part of this sport as long as he’s around. I’m glad to hear that.

Don’t expect miracles, but even a respectable performance by a team named Richard Petty Motorports would go a long way toward restoring the greatness that was once associated with the Petty name before its recent struggles.

I’m rooting for you Richard, and I’m glad you’re still around.

Other news
Drivers without a ride just want to race, and Scott Riggs will drive for the brand new team owned by longtime crew chief Tommy Baldwin. Riggs, once a Busch Series standout, once looked like he had a promising future in Cup, but has struggled mightily in recent years. Unfortunately for him, I don’t see him attaining that long-awaited success with a new team that has no sponsor yet.

In other news, the #22 car formerly owned by Bill Davis may not run at all this year. If that happens, look for Sam Hornish Jr. to jump into that top-35 in points and a guaranteed starting spot for the first five races.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Waltrip hints he’ll quit driving if he isn’t competitive in 2009

When it comes to racing, the Waltrip name is among the most famous. No one can deny Darrell’s greatness that helped him earn three titles in the early 1980s. And Michael had a great run for a few years at DEI, winning four races and being on the dominant restrictor plate team, after struggling for the early part of his career.

But at the same time, the Waltrip family reminds me of houseguests in a way.
At first, you’re fine with them staying with you. After a little while, it gets annoying. Finally, you can’t wait for the day they leave.

I have rooted for both of the brothers in the past. I was thrilled to see Mikey get his first win in the tragic 2001 Daytona 500, and seeing DW do decent in the #1 DEI car for a short stretch filling in for an injured Steve Park was a pleasant reminder of his past success.

But Darrell held on way too long, tarnishing his legacy in such unfortunate rides as the “Tabasco Fiasco”. He became the modern-day Richard Petty, using endless past champion provisionals just to make races, and even had to “buy” his way into a race once after failing to qualify. I recognize his great achievements of the past, but many fans who just caught the end of his career might think less of him for riding around in the back for so many years before retiring.

Many would say his younger brother Michael is on the same route, and is headed for an neverending career of mediocrity. But there is light at the end of the tunnel for NASCAR fans, who may actually see someone still capable of competing in that #55 car in 2010.

Waltrip said the following this week:
“My goal is to go win some races this year, run up front so that I don’t have to say this is my last year. But if I don’t do those things, if I can’t compete at that level that Reutimann does or NAPA expects, then I probably won’t get to do this again in 2010.”

That’s the type of honesty not often heard in sports, and I’ll believe he’s out of the seat when I see it, but it’s nice to know Mikey doesn’t expect a free pass for life just because he owns the team. He sounds like someone who legitimately is considering hanging it up if it would help his team be more successful. (FYI: Something Kyle Petty should have done years ago).

Waltrip said, “I’m glad that I own my car, because if this is my last year then I’m fine, because that means I got somebody faster or better than me to drive my car in 2010, and that’s how it was supposed to be.”

I wouldn’t pencil in the Waltrip retirement date yet, but if he’s true to his word it’s pretty likely. I don’t see Waltrip winning this year, or even running up front. If that likely outcome comes to pass, perhaps he’ll move on to concentrating on running his team and making his 10,000 commercials.

I have nothing personal against Mikey. He’s probably a great guy. But it’s really time for him to hang up the steering wheel, and now it looks like it might actually happen

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New rule change makes Bud Shootout an even more convoluted mess

In a few weeks, we’ll be seeing the Bud Shootout -- the first race of the year for NASCAR’s stock cars.

A week ahead of Daytona, we get a sneak peek at the cars and drivers we’ll be rooting for all season. And there’s no points on the line, so in theory it should be a solid race where the drivers let it all hang out and take some chances.

But with all the rules changes this year, exactly what the hell does the race even mean anymore? In previous years, When Bud also sponsored the pole award each week, the race featured all the pole winners from the previous year. Now, in a strictly sponsor-driven move in response to Coors taking over the pole sponsorship, Budweiser decided in 2008 that this year’s race would be more like a manufacturer’s battle and feature the top six drivers for Chevy, Ford, Toyota and Dodge.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Tony Stewart got left out of the mix, as he’s moving to a Chevy team that finished well down in the standings. So what’s the next move? Well, they changed the rules so a “wild card” can enter for each manufacturer, allowing Stewart into the race with his new team.

To make matters more confusing, Robby Gordon, who is switching to Toyota this year from Dodge, will be allowed to compete in the shootout in a Dodge, then make the switch. If this is the case, it’s possible others drivers switching makes, such as Juan Pablo Montoya, could do the same so they have the right to compete.

I don’t know about you, but my head hurts just thinking about the rules of this race. Anyone who doubts this rule change is about anything but Stewart is fooling himself. I’m a longtime supporter of Stewart and think he’s a great driver, but that doesn’t mean the rules should be changed just to accommodate him. Between this and the bad call giving him the win over Regan Smith at Talladega, I’m beginning to wonder whether he has some compromising pictures of NASCAR bigwigs.

I’m not saying the race will be terrible. I’ll watch it with the usual excitement I have for the races, and it may be amazing.

But all of these rules changes, made simply due to a sponsorship war, have taken away some of the meaning of this race. Instead of a race between pole winners for the year, it’s a race between pretty much everybody. With almost 30 cars in the race, why not run the entire field? Is there really much of a difference?

I mean, seriously, Michael Waltrip is in the race … what’s wrong with this picture?

EGR to two cars?
As I recently hinted could happen, the drivers at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing have hinted in recent interviews that there might not be three full-time cars at the team this year, as it’s looking more and more likely the #41 won’t run at all and the #8 has no guarantee to run after Daytona.

So let’s look at this situation … This big merger comes through, making headlines about a new four-car team that hopes to compete. Now, they may only have two full-time cars, a situation that makes it even harder to take on the big teams. The big loser is Almirola, who had shown glimpses of talent and would be wise to go to a team that will actually let him race

Overall, it’s clear this team is struggling even before it gets off the ground, and barring a major turnaround in their luck this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both of its main owners (Teresa Earnhardt and Chip Ganassi) decides to get out of NASCAR completely.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Labonte’s move to #96 means there’s big trouble at Earnhardt-Ganassi

What a long, strange offseason it’s been.

Between the multiple mergers and the GEM-Sadler debacle, it’s been a pretty busy winter in NASCAR. But now comes perhaps the most surprising news of all: Bobby Labonte is finalizing a contract to drive the #96 Hall of Fame Racing car, which will join forces with the Yates Racing team in 2009.

Up until this news broke, it was widely accepted that Labonte would be going to the fourth Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing car (either #41 or #8, depending on who you asked). With the announcement that Labonte has gone in this new, surprising direction, it’s clear that all is not going as planned at the EGR team.

The fourth car has been awaiting a driver forever, and so far no one has been named. That leads me to believe that sponsorship isn’t coming any time soon, and there may be only three full-time cars (Truex in the #1, Montoya in the #42, Almirola in the #8) next year. I’m not even sure Almirola will make the full run if the sponsorship is not there.

Labonte has been talking to the EGR team, and it looks like things fell apart. The amount of time it was taking was a sign that things weren’t working out, but I’m still shocked he didn’t end up there. The Hall of Fame team is pretty weak, and even though a former Nationwide and Cup champion like Labonte gives them a better shot at success, don’t expect this new Yates/HOF team to be racing anywhere near the front this year.

I have to applaud the once-powerful Yates team for its efforts to get back to competitiveness. For the last couple years, they have struggled just to survive due to sponsorship woes, but have done pretty well considering the circumstances. Now, they’re trying to take the next step. Travis Kvapil showed flashes of greatness in 2008, but needs more consistency. Paul Menard came over, bringing critical sponsorship from his father, but he’s an average driver and probably won’t win them any races or titles any time soon. Labonte is a former champ, but I don’t know if this is the car that will help him get back to Victory Lane. If he can be competitive in this car, it will be impressive, considering how weak the #96 team has been in the past.

Is this a step up for Labonte? A step down? Or is he in the same kind of mediocre-to-bad equipment he was driving at the Petty team for the past few years? Only time will tell, and I’ll be rooting for Labonte. But I wouldn’t bet a nickel that he’ll actually do well in this car, and will be very impressed with him if I see it happen. It would put to rest the doubters who have viewed him as washed-up lately due to his struggles in the Petty car.

Meanwhile, over at EGR, this is a critical first year. Truex only has a one-year deal, so if the team struggles it’s clear he’ll be a highly touted free agent who will bolt as soon as possible. Montoya is another great driver who won’t put up with driving for a bad team, and even though he’s loyal to Ganassi would likely want to leave if the team can’t compete. If they do terribly and the stars leave, what quality driver would want to go there and ruin their career?

With all these mergers and driver changes, I’m looking forward to the 2009 season more and more each day. It will be very interesting to see who can perform better than their equipment and who will flounder.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Decision to keep underachieving Sadler shows sponsors rule in NASCAR, not talent

This week, at the same time the merger with Petty Enterprises officially came through, another bit of disturbing news came out of the Gillett Evernham camp … Elliott Sadler isn’t being released after all.

That leaves A.J. Allmendinger still looking for a job, as the fourth car in the newly merged GEM/Petty team will at this point only run a part-time schedule, at best.

The very weak explanation for the backtracking was given by GEM's CEO Tom Reddin, who said: "We had some differences; we're a family. We love Elliott. We got everything resolved."

This move was cowardly by the organization, and is the ultimately proof that the only thing that really matters when it comes to who will get a ride is what the sponsor wants. A couple weeks ago, the news allegedly got out among team members that Sadler was to be replaced by Allmendinger in the #19, and that Sadler was going to be released. He apparently didn’t know it was coming, and threatened to sue if he was released. Even more worrisome for the organization is that some of the team’s sponsors were not happy with the change.

At the time, I applauded the GEM team for their courage to put a clearly better driver, Allmendinger, in the car over a likely washed-up Sadler who had long past the days of competing for wins in the Cup series. For once, I was happy to see that talent landed a driver a ride instead of the fact that he had a sponsor he could bring along. In the final five races of 2008, Sadler averaged a finish of 31.8. Allmendinger: 16.4. You do the math.

But sure enough, just days later, my applause has turned into boos after hearing this latest news. I can’t remember the last time I remember seeing Sadler being competitive in a race, and that leaves only one possibility: The team bowed to sponsor demands and kept Sadler, leaving Allmendinger once again in the lurch and without a ride. He has no contract with GEM, and could end up elsewhere if another opportunity arrives.

It’s pretty simple here: Sadler has become a middle-of-the-pack driver who will blend into the pack and rarely distinguish himself. But he’s good with the media, and just like Michael Waltrip and Kenny Wallace (with similarly unexceptional, yet long, driving careers) will be preferred by sponsors. Never mind the fact that Allmendinger would probably improve the finishing position of the #19 car by 10 spots each week … he can’t sell as many flat-screens at Best Buy.

A.J. is a good driver and will eventually land a good ride. With nothing left right now, his best hope is that the #10 team will find enough sponsorship to run the full season. Otherwise, he may just be a part-timer for 2009, or take another ride over when someone gets fired. Considering how this team has just disrespected him, I hope he is picked up either this year or next by a top-level team that will actually appreciate his talent and not shove him aside to keep a driver who has been far from competitive for years.

I’m not naïve, and I know money runs this and every sport, but keeping Sadler is just plain stupid and shows how sponsors, not team owners, make most of the decisions in NASCAR. They should have paid Sadler off in the lawsuit and moved on to greater heights with A.J. Instead, they’ve accepted mediocrity just to please some sponsors.

Merger good for Petty legacy
While the Petty name will likely be preserved in the newly merged team’s name, it’s a sobering fact that the family that has been around since Day 1 in NASCAR no longer can afford to operate a team without help. It’s the end of an era for the team that won big with Lee Petty in the first years of the sport, won much bigger with The King for decades, and has provided so many highlights that will never be forgotten.

As sad as this is for fans of the sport’s history, this merger is actually a good thing. The team’s legacy has grown increasingly tainted in recent years by the unimpressive cars it has been putting on the track. Rather than carry on forever with a car that is just making laps, maybe the #43 car will actually do well on occasion now that the merger is done. Considering the above-mentioned poor judgment of the GEM team, and the fact Reed Sorenson will be driving the #43, I highly doubt it. But a three-car or four-car team will have a better shot at success than a standalone Petty entry.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

If you can afford it, this could be a smart time to start new Cup team

As the 2009 season opener nears, there is some concern that many Cup races this year may struggle to reach full fields, with the disappearance of several cars and others going part-time. The latest team that appears likely to scale back is Hall of Fame Racing, as the team only has partial sponsorship for the year and no longer has the support of an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.

So I was not surprised to read that longtime Cup series crew chief Tommy Baldwin is planning to field a new team this year at Daytona, and maybe the whole season if the finances work.

Some might question this move, saying it’s already so hard to find sponsors for even the big teams. How is a new team going to compete?

But that view ignores the fact that a new team, assuming it has smart people running it and a decent driver, might be an attractive alternative for a team that can’t afford the costs of sponsoring a big team.
Baldwin addressed this as he announced the new team.

“With tough economic times upon us, the timing for starting this team is right. Our overhead is low and we have a great group of talented mechanics and specialists to choose from.” Baldwin said. “We can offer sponsors the chance to get into Sprint Cup racing at a fraction of the costs, without compromising on-track performance.”

A good analogy would be someone brave enough to open a new restaurant in our current, tough economy. One on hand, it’s crazy and very likely to go under. But if you can create a better menu that gets people in the door, run a smart advertising campaign, and offer lower prices than the competing restaurants in your neighborhood, you may have a shot at success.

Baldwin faces a similar situation. It’s very likely this team won’t get off the ground, as often happens with new start-ups. But with the fields so small this year, it’s much more likely his team will be able to qualify. If he can lure sponsors with discounts and keep the car fast enough to make it into the top 35 in points, then it’s locked in after five races and he can breathe a huge sigh of relief and look to improving things more as the year progresses.

Some would criticize this as a move to create a “start and park” that just collects paychecks and doesn’t even prepare a car or engine that can make it the whole race. Those kind of teams, also called field-fillers, have been around in both Nationwide and Cup in past years and were often very blatant -- simply pulling in to the garage for no reason after a handful of laps. I even recall one of the field-filler teams in Nationwide one year has a two-car operation -- yes, a two-car “start and park“.

If that’s what this turns out to be, that’s too bad, because I don’t see Baldwin settling for something so uninspiring as that. He seems like a guy who actually wants to compete.

I tip my hat to Baldwin, as you have to have some cojones to make a move this bold at such a terrible time in our economic cycle. But based on what I’ve seen him do as a crew chief in the past for Ward Burton, Kasey Kahne and others, he may be able to make at least a respectable team come into existence.

I wish him luck, because he’s going to need it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

GEM made mistake by signing Sadler long-term, will likely have to pay

The news continues to flow from the Gillett-Evernham team this offseason, as Elliot Sadler has not taken kindly to being replaced in the #19 car and plans to sue the team for breach of contract. If an agreement can not be reached between Sadler and the team in the next couple weeks, he has until Jan. 20 to officially file the complaint, which he most certainly will do.

The problem is that last May, Sadler and GEM agreed to a 3-year deal, but after A.J. Allmendinger showed some great potential at the end of the season, the team decided to go in a different direction. While I agree with the decision to switch drivers, GEM really screwed this one up by hurrying to sign Sadler so early in the season, even though he hadn’t shown them much reason to do so. I was scratching my head when I first heard the news, and whoever made that decision at GEM really needs their logic sensors checked.

While I’m no lawyer and haven’t seen the contract, I’m fairly confident that if you tell someone you’ve hired them for three years, then fire them 6 months later, it’s pretty clear that you are in breach of contract. The only possible out they might have is if there was a performance clause, but I doubt Sadler would have agreed to something like that. So unless they were 100 percent sure Sadler was the guy they wanted, why sign the contract?

It’s very likely the team will have to hand over a pretty large check to Sadler, who will probably find a ride elsewhere … if not now, then once the season starts and drivers start to get fired … or maybe go into the broadcasting business. The mistake is all GEM‘s, and they wouldn’t have any problem right now if they had just been patient enough to wait until the end of the year to decide whether to sign Sadler to an extended contract.

The lesson of all this is simple: Don’t go all in with a pair of eights when the next card dealt might give you a flush. Timing is everything, and GEM missed this one by a mile.

NASCAR’s Mafia connection?
News came out this week that couple of ex-employees of ISC (NASCAR’s “sister” company that is completely separate … wink, wink) were sentenced to probation for their role in the failed efforts to bring a speedway to Staten Island, New York. It appears the Gambino crime family was throwing extra money in the direction of these ISC officials in relation to the trucking of dirt for the speedway. Also, the indictment indicates that several Gambino family members were working to make the speedway a reality, which indicates they had something to gain from its creation.

I fully recognize that NASCAR was founded by moonshiners, and I have no issue with that, but dealing with real-life gangsters is a whole new deal that I hope was isolated to this incident. When I buy my $4 hot dog at Daytona, I don’t want to be supporting the next whacking by the Gambinos.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Going smaller, containing costs is the cure for NASCAR’s economic hangover

As 2009 kicks off, many people are no doubt still recovering from their annual night of excess on the 31st. Drinking two dozen beers and several glasses of champagne, and doing God-knows-what afterward, was a blast that night. But Thursday morning, when your head felt like it was being hit by a bag of hammers, you may have sworn under your breath that you'd “never drink again.”

In the case of NASCAR, its hangover is of the economic variety. For most of the past couple decades, with a few minor rough spots, things have been exploding in the sport as far as the economy goes. Everything has been growing by leaps and bounds over the years, from driver and employee salaries to the cost of sponsorship packages and even the cost of leasing engines (the former Ginn Racing team was apparently paying more than $12 million per season in 2007 and 2008 to lease engines from Hendrick Motorsports).

Now, in this latest and particularly extreme economic downturn, even NASCAR is having to cut back. Testing at most tracks has been officially banned, and several high-profile teams are either shut down or have been forced to merge. Many teams are having to cobble together several smaller sponsorship deals, as the old concept of one big sponsor for the whole year is becoming impossible. Layoffs have been rampant this offseason, and more are likely to come if the economy doesn’t get better in a hurry.

The key here is that, unlike us drinkers who usually still go ahead and repeat our excess imbibing the following year (or sooner), NASCAR must stick to its resolution and realize the sport has gotten too big for its britches lately. The dam has burst, and all those years of expansion have led to a setup that is unsustainable in this struggling economy.

It’s widely accepted that for a team to be a true contender, it will need as much as $20 million in sponsorship for the full season. That number is far too high, and is part of the reason so many teams remain without a full year’s worth of sponsorship as 2009’s racing season is oh-so-close to beginning.

Changes need to be made by both NASCAR and the teams to make this sport more affordable for the teams. The biggest thing NASCAR could do is to simply shorten the schedule. I love watching racing as much as the next person, but there are at least a half-dozen tracks that have two race dates and only deserve one or none due to the poor quality of the racing they provide. This has a downside, as cutting back the schedule could create some unemployment in the towns where the tracks are located, but it might become a necessary evil at some point. Also, anything else the France family can do to make that $20 million figure significantly lower will help the teams tremendously.

Within the teams, there is going to have to be some tightening of the belts, as every other company has had to do in America during these hard times. People may have to take pay cuts, and even more may lose their jobs. The sport has become less and less about racers competing on a track and more and more about big money in every aspect. The zeros have been climbing so fast that the real world has finally caught up with the sport. The engine leasing example I previously mentioned is a perfect example of how bloated the sport has become: It’s completely insane that a team has to pay so many millions just to lease decent engines for 3 Cup teams and a Nationwide team.

So as the American public takes a few Extra Strength Tylenol to nurse our lingering holiday hangovers, NASCAR has a bitter pill that it must swallow now and in the future: The sponsorship money just isn’t out there right now, and may not be for a while. So if they want to continue to thrive, the cost to operate a team in this business is going to have to come down.

That may go against the whole concept of the decades-long expansion of the sport, but it’s a reality that can’t be ignored.