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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.


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