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.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I once cursed his name, but Evernham deserves respect for dominant stint at Hendrick

With his office reportedly all cleared out, Ray Evernham is on his way out of the team ownership business and will move on to new ventures such as owning a dirt track.

Newer fans probably know him as a TV commentator and co-owner of the Gillett Evernham team, which has seen some success with Kasey Kahne in recent years, but overall has struggled since debuting in 2001.
But when the history books are written decades from now, this decade of team ownership will be but a mere blip in Ray Evernham’s biography, and the rest will be devoted to his time as crew chief for Jeff Gordon.

Just thinking about that era brings me flashbacks of the intense hatred I had for this man in the late 1990s, as he was guiding the damn near unbeatable Jeff Gordon to race win after race win, and championship after championship.

At the time I began watching NASCAR, I instantly loathed everything relating to Hendrick Motorsports. Owner Rick Hendrick had just pleaded guilty to mail fraud related to shady business dealings at his Honda dealerships, and would have gone to prison for a year had he not been sick with leukemia. Instead, he spent a year on house arrest and wasn’t allowed to have any involvement with his auto dealerships or race team.
I wasn’t about to root for a criminal like Hendrick or anyone who raced for him in a criminally funded organization. As a side note, I still think it‘s ridiculous that Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2000 … I‘m guessing Hendrick used the fact he was sick to guilt Billy into giving him the pardon.

But that’s a whole different tangent. Getting back to Evernham, during the second half of the 1990s, Jeff Gordon was an unstoppable force in a Hendrick car and the mastermind behind his success was Ray Evernham. Even Chad Knaus and his masterful efforts as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in recent years can’t match what Evernham and Gordon did a decade earlier.

Every time I would go to a race during this time span, there was about a 60 percent chance I’d be seeing a Gordon victory due to Evernham’s brilliant setups and decision-making, Gordon’s talent and strong Hendrick equipment -- the combination of which had taken the sport by storm.

My eyes would get blood-red with anger as I saw that rainbow car cross the finish line first (or pretty close behind) week after week. I cursed the names of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham so often that a week in a confessional booth wouldn’t be sufficient to describe it.

But despite all this, as I look back, I harbor no ill will toward Evernham, or Jeff Gordon for that matter. Just as I can appreciate the ability of Chad Knaus today, looking back years later I recognize that Evernham made excellent decisions for his driver each week and could set up and adjust a car better than most crew chiefs who have ever sat atop a pit box. Likewise, despite all my displeasure at his past success, I recognize Jeff Gordon is a talented driver and probably would have won a lot of races even if he didn’t race for a criminal.

While my dislike of the man in charge still persists, I can say I’ve moved past disliking each and every one of his employees by extension. And despite the many names I’ve called him in the past, I’ll be the first to say that Ray Evernham should be remembered as one of the greatest crew chiefs in the sport’s history.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Finally! Allmendinger’s talent is recognized as GEM gives him ride; Sadler gets the boot

Way to go, Dinger.

After a rough start to his Cup career at the Red Bull team, including being replaced for a full month in 2008 by Mike Skinner after a particularly rough patch where he couldn‘t qualify, A.J. Allmendinger started to show the Cup world that he has the goods to compete in this series toward the end of the year, with strong runs first in the #84 Red Bull car and later in the #10 Gillett Evernham car.

This late-season resurgence apparently impressed his bosses at GEM enough to give him a ride. That’s not shocking, as anyone with common sense could see that he has the potential to do great things in Cup.

The shocking news is that he will drive the #19 car, and Elliot Sadler is being given the boot. One on hand, I’m not surprised. I recognize that Sadler was far from impressive during his time at GEM. He hasn’t won a race in the Cup series since 2004, and honestly I often forget he is even in the race. But at the same time, he was a pretty likable and marketable guy (apparently some sponsors aren’t very happy with this move) and has won races in the past, so it was pretty bold to dismiss him.

The reason this move was made comes down to two thing: An awesome finish to the year by Dinger and, even more importantly, the economy. Something not being said, but which can be implied by the fact that Sadler is not being moved to another car within the organization, is the #10 car will likely not run next year and Kahne and Dinger will be the cars from the GEM stable. If they had sponsors for three cars, Dinger would have taken over the #10 car full-time in 2009 and Sadler would have kept his ride. It’s pretty clear the team had to choose, and they went with the guy who’s young and on a hot streak over the guy who’s older and appears to getting farther and farther from Victory Lane each year.

Word is the merger with the Petty team is still on, but Reed Sorenson will get the #43 ride. No plans have been announced for the #10 car, and that's usually not a good sign. In this game of musical chairs, Sadler's mediocrity has left him without a seat when the music stopped.

Another note: It’s been reported that Ray Evernham has cleared out everything he had at the GEM offices, meaning that it’s more accurate to call it Gillett Motorsports from this point on. No surprise there, as Evernham indicated this was going to happen, but now it appears to be official.

In short, you can add the Gillett team to the list of Cup teams that are undergoing drastic overhauls for 2009 due to the inability to attract sponsors (DEI, Ganassi, Pettys, Wood Bros., etc..).

Sadler still has some ability and should land a ride somewhere, but I don’t see him ever being a major competitor again unless he can find his way to a top-level team in the future … which isn’t likely.

And last but certainly not least, I’d like to offer a big congratulations to Dinger. He got this ride the old-fashioned way: He earned it by showing he’s a tremendous talent. Now he must hope that the team can give him the equipment to compete at least occasionally with the Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs and RCR juggernauts that have been running the sport for the past several years. If he can pull out a win for the team in 2009, or even contend for one (something Sadler rarely did), this move will be validated.

If Dinger is as good as he has indicated he might be, Red Bull is going to regret letting go of him this past season in favor of Scott Speed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jamie McMurray will be the David Ragan of 2009

Sometime, a switch just flips for a driver.

One year, they are struggling and getting in everyone’s way on the track, or wrecking everyone. Then the next year, they start to compete with the big boys on a regular basis for wins and maybe even a Chase spot.

Last year, that was David Ragan. A below-average driver for Roush Racing in 2007 who caused more than his share of wrecks, many were calling for his release at the end of that year. Jack Roush stuck by his choice, and his patience was paid off in 2008 when Ragan went on a tear toward the end of the season and almost made the Chase. I predict he will carry that momentum into 2009 and make the top 12 this season.

The question now is: Who will be this year’s David Ragan? Will a driver who has been average or below average in his career up until now suddenly blossom into a contender?

When I look at the list of drivers competing in 2009, there are very few contenders for this possibility. I’ve always thought Juan Pablo Montoya could be great in NASCAR, but the instability of the new Earnhardt Ganassi organization makes this unlikely. David Reutimann had a good run at the end of 2008, but I’m not sold on him becoming a guy who will be running out front each week -- mainly because he’s driving for Michael Waltrip.

For a minute, I thought Casey Mears had a shot at this honor, but then I realized that he’ll likely be the fourth best RCR car, just as he was the fourth best Hendrick car. Mears has a famous name, but I don’t think he quite measures up to his famous family in terms of his ability to be a winner.

After careful consideration, I believe that this year’s breakout star will be someone who burst onto the scene strong and flamed out quickly, and has been extremely mediocre ever since: Jamie McMurray.

Yes, the turnaround story of 2009 will once again come out of the Roush camp. McMurray won his second-ever Cup race while filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin in 2002. But after that, he struggled at Ganassi, and since arriving at Roush he has been the fifth wheel.

One reason McMurray should flourish in 2009 is that this is final year Roush can have five teams. At the end of the year, one team has to be chopped. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan have all been more consistent than McMurray and thus are not worried about being the one to be axed. McMurray needs to have a great season, or it will be a foregone conclusion that he will have to move on to another team. In that scenario, his best prospect right now is moving to the Yates team, where he would be affiliated with Roush, but have less reliable equipment.

That’s a lot of motivation for McMurray, as he is basically auditioning this year. He has to try to show Roush he doesn’t deserve to be cut, and someone else (perhaps Kenseth or Biffle) is less worthy of a ride. It’s a pretty impossible battle to win considering his competition is pretty stiff, but I see him putting up a good fight. And if he does well and Roush still decides to cut him, perhaps another big team will have a strong ride open up and he’ll be given a chance to flourish elsewhere.

McMurray also has some momentum after coming on very strong at the end of the 2008 season. Whatever was ailing this team appears to have been at least partly cured, and I see a solid 2009 season for McMurray. The Chase is probably still out of his grasp (It’s hard to make the top 12 when his Roush teammates and the big dogs at Hendrick, Gibbs and RCR take up almost all of the spots each year), but don’t be surprised if that late-season form he showed becomes a regular occurrence and he finishes in the top 15.

Before I go, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope everyone has a joyful day with family and friends and can forget about all their troubles for a little while.

Monday, December 22, 2008

With the economy in such sad shape, will anyone show up at the races in 2009?

So far, we’ve seen the economic downturn affect NASCAR in many ways.

Teams are laying off workers, there is the possibility of short fields in 2009, sponsors are pulling away from tracks and teams and Detroit’s Big 3 is struggling to just stay alive and cutting back on NASCAR spending in the process.

But there’s yet another symptom of the bad economy that is likely to have a growing impact on NASCAR this season -- NASCAR fans will likely decide in increasing numbers not to go to the races.

When things get tough, as they have for so many American families in the past few years, the first thing to go is discretionary spending. When your boss tells you he has to cut your pay, give you less hours or fire you, your thoughts turn to whether you will be able to feed your family and keep a roof over your head … not whether you will be able to attend the Talladega race.

And the recession that began in Michigan and the Midwest and crept out slowly over the nation has now put many, many American middle-class workers -- the backbone of the NASCAR fan base that attends races -- in these tough situations.

Anyone paying attention over the past couple years no doubt has noticed that there has been a healthy increase in empty seats at most of the tracks on the NASCAR circuit. And that’s on Sunday … I would guess the numbers are down even more for the races in the Nationwide and Truck series.

Part of the problem is that attending a race is very expensive when you consider the price of race tickets and everything else it entails. To get a bad seat, it’ll cost you at least $50 bucks at most tracks. And if you want a good seat on Sunday, you’re going to spend close to $100, or possibly a lot more than that. Multiply that by two or more, add in the cost of food and drink (with ridiculously high on-track prices if you don‘t bring your own), travel costs, maybe some camping fees, etc. … and what you have is a big pile of money that you will have to hand over.

In the past, when the economy was stronger, people could afford to do this. A man could take his wife and kids to the track for the weekend or longer and enjoy a summer vacation. Sure it cost him some change, but he was doing all right for himself.

Now, with things so tight for everyone -- including those still employed -- more and more people will not take the time to go to the race. They’ll pull up in their armchair, kick up their feet, crack a beer and enjoy it in high definition TV.

If NASCAR is smart, it should make an attempt to slow the almost inevitable plunge in attendance this year by slashing prices on tickets, camping, food, etc., at all of its ISC tracks. This would be a good business decision, because if fans see that the sport recognizes their economic woes and are trying to help out, they are much more likely to attend races this year.

Then, in future years, when those fans have more money again, they will remember the places that are affordable and be more likely to attend races at those tracks.

If NASCAR takes the lead by doing this at their own tracks, it would have a ripple effect and Bruton Smith would have to do the same at his tracks to remain competitive.

This sport would not be possible without all the great people who support it, and in this tough time it is crucial that the powers that be do all they can to make it affordable for those people to attend the show.

Otherwise, there’s going to be a record amount of seats without butts in them at almost every track in 2009.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Mauricia Grant harassment suit has been settled … so what did NASCAR learn?

NASCAR’s short, potential nightmare is over.

The sport grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons earlier this year when former Nationwide Series inspector Mauricia Grant filed a $225 million lawsuit that claimed she was the victim of racist comments and sexual harassment by some of her colleagues.

At the time, everyone wondered what happened. Was she really the victim of a hostile workplace that was proof the racist good-old-boy network of old-time NASCAR had never gone away?

Or was NASCAR’s story true, as they said she never complained to her superiors about any mistreatment, was often reprimanded often for being late to work and was fired for issues unrelated to her race or gender. If you read between the lines, they basically implied she was a gold digger, trying to squeeze money out of NASCAR based on false premises.

As I predicted at the time, NASCAR backed off and has settled the suit with Grant, though the terms were not released. Considering that some of Grant’s co-workers have been fired since the charges were made, it’s clear there was at least some harassment of Grant, and NASCAR did not want any more of their dirty laundry released in a court case than has already been unearthed by this lawsuit.

They had to settle this case, because the alternative of a lengthy court battle with all the dirty details coming out little by little was a far worse alternative. They couldn‘t afford the bad publicity that would have brought, as it could have cost them many, many fans -- and more importantly those fans‘ money.

The $225 million figure was just a headline-grabber from the start, and I’m guessing Grant ended up with at least a few million bucks, enough that she never has to work another day in her life. While I don’t think she deserved nothing, I fail to see why she would deserve more than a few years of salary. But that’s not the point. Gold digger or not, she has her money and will move on with her life.

The important question is what does NASCAR learn from this? It’s clear some people were in the wrong, and they were dismissed. To avoid this in the future, NASCAR needs to make it clear to employees that this type of racism, sexism, etc., will not be tolerated, and seriously institute sensitivity training or whatever you want to call it. Otherwise, these suits will continue to haunt them.

Even if Grant overstated her case to get paid (which I think is very possible), she did do one good thing -- alerted NASCAR that there are still some idiots working for the company who think it’s OK to insult someone based on their race or gender. Most NASCAR workers have progressed beyond this outdated mindset, now hopefully this lawsuit has served notice to the remaining idiots that they will be unemployed if they don’t adjust their mindset past the 1950s. Or, at the very least, let’s hope they realize they should keep their outdated opinions to themselves or within the walls of their homes.

Despite having lost a few bucks, NASCAR comes out of this as well as they could have. Now, they do not have to deal with the mountain of bad press that a trial accusing them of racism would have brought. The downside could have been much, much worse … because if they were labeled as racist by the press, fulfilling the false stereotypes so many non-NASCAR fans already have about the sport, they could have lost many more millions from potential fans who would decide not to support a racist organization.

This settlement was really the only option, and both sides knew it from the start. If the suit had been completely baseless, NASCAR would probably have fought it. But when it became clear some employees had been in the wrong and they were disciplined, logic dictated that some money had to be given out.

Just how extreme the insults and actions against Grant were is known only by her and her co-workers. But it’s clear they existed in some form. It was a reminder of a time in America when racial insults were a regular occurrence, and this is a sport with a dark history regarding race (such as not giving Wendell Scott his trophy when he won a race because of the potential crowd reaction, and the fact that the white trophy girls usually kissed the winner), but I hope this is a turning point.

I hope that from this point on, we don’t hear of any more incidents like this in NASCAR.

I recognize that there are racist people in every place of business in America, but I hope we hear no more about idiots like that within the NASCAR organization. This sport has come far in its views of the world, and I hope the people who would send us back in time now realize how much their ignorant views and actions are a detriment to the sport, and will keep their mouths shut.

Detroit Grand Prix postponed due to economic woes
The latest victim of the economic malaise overtaking Michigan is the 2009 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, which has been postponed. Also, earlier this week, the Craftsman Truck Series race in Mansfield, Ohio, was cancelled, and I have a feeling other races in various series may fall off the map this year. Businesses in areas like the Midwest that are particularly hard-hit by the recession are struggling just to survive, so sponsoring motorsports events is the last thing on their mind. Without the proper number of sponsors, there is no race. It’s simple economics.

“The economic environment that our region, state and country faces, both today and in 2009, is difficult,” said Roger Penske, Chairman of the Downtown Detroit Partnership. “It is unfortunate that we must postpone the 2009 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix as sponsorship opportunities and support has proven to be very challenging for the event in the near term.”

The biggest shame is that in these tough economic times, big events like the Grand Prix weekend bring people out in Detroit and money is spent that helps support the struggling local businesses. And a lot of that money came from people outside Michigan, who made up about half the crowd watching the races in 2007 and 2008, bringing much-needed money to the area. Every large, crowd-drawing event that is cancelled is yet another blow to the economy of Michigan.

Sadly, I am not at all surprised by this news, and won’t be surprised if a variety of racing series have to shorten their schedules before they even begin in 2009 due to sponsorship issues like this.

Let’s hope things turn around and we can get the Grand Prix back for 2010.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Edwards beats Schumacher while in world spotlight

Carl Edwards has another accolade he can add to his resume -- he just beat 7-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher head-to-head during the Race of Champions at England’s Wembley Stadium. For those who don’t know, this race pits the best drivers from countries around the world and a wide variety of racing disciplines against each other. While it’s true Schumacher just drives for kicks now and is retired from full-time racing, I bet the grin after he won was among the widest ever on Carl’s face. It’s one thing to beat a great NASCAR driver like Jimmie Johnson in a race, but it’s a new level of success to beat the man who is in the discussion with greats like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Ayrton Senna, and Juan Manuel Fangio as to who is the greatest racecar driver ever.

Also, Edwards was given an award that labeled him “statistically” the best racer in the world. The performances of more than 150 drivers from NASCAR, Formula 1, World Rally and more were analyzed, and Carl came out ahead of F1 champ Lewis Hamilton and Rally champ Sebastien Loeb (who, by the way, ended up as this year’s Race Of Champions winner). While this kind of award means very little overall due to the difficulty of comparing drivers in different series, it’s kind of cool to see a NASCAR driver get that much respect on an international stage … it’s a nice alternative to the old “taxicabs driving in circles” anti-NASCAR attitude many have overseas. Maybe after seeing the tough transition so many open-wheelers have had when moving to NASCAR, they’re starting to realize it’s actually pretty hard to be a NASCAR driver.

Labonte almost official in #41 car
He has yet to comment, but it appears Bobby Labonte will soon be officially named the driver of the #41 Target Chevy for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. It’s logical, as this is pretty much the only ride left that’s even half-decent and Labonte is a talented driver with a championship-filled resume. Though he’s struggled for the past few years, one can hope he will do better than the underachieving Reed Sorenson did in this car in 2008.

In other team news, the identity of DEI continues to shrink, as all four of the team’s cars will be based out of the Ganassi shop, and the decision to run Chevys (which has been presumed) has been made official. I’m calling it now … within a couple years, if this team even still exists, the name Earnhardt will be gone and it will be strictly Ganassi. It’s clear Teresa isn’t a big fan of the NASCAR business anymore, and many in the business aren’t too fond of her. Though she likely doesn’t deal with most day-to-day operations anyway, if the team starts to struggle these first couple years, she might just want to get out of the sport completely.

So much for that test ban
It appears the first team to openly admit they’ll work around NASCAR’s testing ban is Kevin Harvick’s #29 RCR team. Virginia International Raceway, Heartland Park Topeka, Rockingham Speedway and Sandusky Speedway are just some of the tracks that Harvick may use for testing. Now that the cat is out of the bag, look for everyone else to begin to announce they too will test at tracks not covered by the ban. So basically, this rule -- which was supposed to help teams save money in the tough economy and maybe help the smaller teams out a little -- is essentially rendered meaningless. I’ll give kudos to NASCAR for their effort, but it looks like the ban didn’t go far enough.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Can Bobby Labonte re-emerge as a competitor in 2009?

Paging the formerly top-notch driver who goes by the name Bobby Labonte. I know you banished yourself to the dungeon of subpar Petty Enterprises cars for the past few years, but you’re finally free from that -- now let’s see that old championship form return.

Fans who are new to the sport likely don’t realize that Bobby Labonte was once considered among the best drivers on the track each week. At some tracks, especially Atlanta, he was the dominant driver for several years. He took on the biggest names in the sport with much success, won 21 races overall (including a nine-year stretch with at least one win), had 113 top-5 finishes, and was able to claim the 2000 Winston Cup Championship and finish runner-up the previous year. There is no doubt he is a racing talent.

But that was years ago. Since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s barely been treading water at the Petty organization, regressing to the point where he only scored two top-10 finishes in all of 2008, and no top-5s. This lack of success has largely erased his image as a strong competitor, largely because his time at the Petty organization turned him into lapped traffic most weeks.

With all the talk of a merger between the Petty and Gillett Evernham teams, it surprised no one when Bobby Labonte and the Pettys agreed to part ways this week.

Labonte’s decision to stay loyalty to the Pettys, which I still do not understand to this day considering the terrible equipment he was receiving, prevented him from taking the most premium ride available last year … the fourth Richard Childress car that ended up going to Casey Mears.

Now he is pretty much a lock to take over the #41 Target-sponsored car for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, as he’s the most qualified driver out there looking for a ride and there’s nowhere else he could go that would put him in any better situation.

Given the doubt lingering over this newly merged term, I am in no way predicting that he will be able to work miracles. But for those of us who enjoyed watching him in his prime, racing hard against and often beating the likes of Jeff Gordon (in his prime), Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, among others, it would be nice if Labonte could show at least a glimpse of that ability that carried him to a Cup title.

Mark Martin has showed that just because a driver is older, that doesn’t mean he is unable to compete. In a limited schedule, he competed several times for a win, and is hoping to have a strong year is his “final” full-season run in 2009 for Hendrick Motorsports.

If Martin can do it, I think Labonte has at least a chance to make a splash in 2009.

No one is expecting him to be a world-beater and topple Jimmie Johnson, but after running in 30th or worse most weeks for the past several years, I’m hoping to see him up front at least some of the time in 2009.

It would be a nice blast from the past.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

If Truex leaves, it could mean the end of merger and demise of DEI

NASCAR is a lot like the weather in Michigan. If you don’t like what you see, stick around because it will probably change soon.

Talk has re-emerged that Martin Truex Jr., who had signed up to drive for DEI (Now Earnhardt Ganassi) for the 2009 season, may in fact be looking elsewhere for a ride. The issue involves the contracts he and his sponsor Bass Pro Shops have with DEI, which require him to have two full-time teammates for the deal to stand.

Currently, in addition to Truex’s fully sponsored team, the #41 car has a full Target sponsorship and the #42 has a partial sponsorship from Juicy Fruit. The #8 DEI car currently has no sponsor for 2009. Though all four would show up at the track to compete each week, Truex may legally be allowed to get out of his contract by claiming the Ganassi cars are only his teammates as a result of this merger. Or even if they count as teammates, there is only 1.5 seasons worth of sponsorship, less than the two specified in the contracts as a requirement.

The details can be argued, and perhaps Truex is just posturing and won’t leave at all, but this is further proof how important someone with a sponsor has become in the garage during this difficult time for the economy. Truex is a solid driver, no doubt, but if you compare him to the rest of the garage he’s far from spectacular. He’s had some good runs, but I wouldn’t exactly call him a superstar.

But compared to his teammates at Earnhardt Ganassi (an unproven Almirola, a struggling Montoya and perhaps a past-his-prime Bobby Labonte) Truex is a stud and the team will do everything it can to keep him. If he were to leave, they would be in an even worse spot than they are right now. Both DEI and Ganassi have struggled mightily over the past few years, and this would be a crushing blow to the newly merged team. Considering there is no driver running around with an attached sponsor, it’s likely the team would only have three drivers.

Even more shocking is the possibility that the merger could be made null and void by a Truex departure. Look at the state of DEI. They had four cars in 2008. The #01 disappeared due to lack of sponsorship. The #15 disappeared when Paul Menard jumped ship. If Truex takes his sponsorship away to another team, the #1 could potentially disappear because there would be no way to operate the team without sponsorship money. That leaves the #8, which has a young, unproven driver and no sponsor.

Why would Ganassi want to stay merged to that?

That would leave DEI as a standalone team with one car and no sponsor … which would mean it’s time to sell the shop and lock the doors. (or, as an alternative, Jr. could swoop in with a few bucks to buy the team at a discount, fulfilling his dad's hopes for the company).

In short, what happens with Truex will have much deeper implications than where he's driving next year. It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Farewell to the King … Pettys don't fit in NASCAR's new era

From the time the first “Strictly Stock” race was held in 1949, there has been one thing consistent in the sport -- the Pettys.

First, there was Lee … then it was King Richard … Kyle came next … then it was Adam’s turn, but fate took him from this Earth early.

Even in recent years -- with the Petty Enterprises team struggling and bringing in a financial partner to help them survive -- the team was still out there every week at the track, carrying on the decades-old tradition of a Petty team fielding a car in stock car racing.

But the rumblings this week are that a new era is about to begin, and that Petty Enterprises may merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports. While the word Petty may still appear in the official team if this merger happens, it will be largely symbolic. Gillett will likely be calling the shots, as he’s the big dog in this deal, and Richard would fade off into the sunset. Kyle, should he still want to race, would have to find part-time work elsewhere … all the seats are taken. (As a side note, if this deal happens you may see Bobby Labonte heading over to the #41 Earnhardt Ganassi car, and A.J. Allmendinger staying at GEM)

The Pettys remind me of the Detroit automakers in a way … they were once giants, but are now struggling to survive and need help. Just as Chrysler may get swallowed up and disappear if they have to merge with GM to survive, the Pettys would essentially disappear with this merger.

Financially, the merger makes sense for the Pettys, who are leagues behind the front-runners on the track each week. But they have to know it means the official end of the era where they mattered. Kyle will go on to do great things with his charity work, and Richard will always have the respect of the fans, but NASCAR has passed the Pettys by. No one can take away their history and contributions to the sport, but it’s a new era and they just don’t fit in.

As a side note, when looking back on the Strictly Stock standings from 1949, I saw that Buck Baker competed in one race and took home a grand total of $50 (about $400 adjusted for inflation). I’m not even sure you could buy a single race tire nowadays for that much money.

Wood Brothers scaling back
In the same week, another historically great team, the Wood Brothers, has announced it will run only 12 races next week, with Bill Elliott competing. They have lost sponsors and can’t afford the full year anymore, which is just as well because they’ve been a backmarker for several years now. They might as well do what they did so often in past decades -- concentrate on certain tracks and get better results when they race.

Shocker! Jr. is most popular driver
I’m surprised they even bother to allow voting on this one. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I’m willing to be the young man from Kannapolis had more votes than 2nd to 5th place combined. Jr. Nation will give him this award until he retires, and even them they’ll try to vote for him.

Now if only he would start winning more, maybe they will invite to the snoozefest banquet next year (FYI: I still haven’t watched this year‘s banquet, but from what I’ve heard I’ll probably be able to fast-forward through about 95 percent of it and watch it in 15 minutes when I get around to it.)

Thailand two-step
In an odd coincidence, both Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards had end-of-the-year trips scheduled to Thailand, where there has been political unrest this week. Maybe it says something about their personalities that Edwards still is going on his trip, where he will bike across the country with his girlfriend. But Johnson apparently has canceled his trip and will pick some other exotic destination to travel to with his wife. After seeing Edwards pull that kamikaze move earlier this year and purposely wreck his car, I’m not surprised that he’s less concerned about a few protesters at the airport.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

As NASCAR celebrates its year, Big 3 are begging for handout to survive

Two things are happening this week that affect the world of NASCAR.

One means very little: The top 10 teams will gather in New York and pat each other on the back for their successes they have achieved this year. All these drivers put in a great effort all season and will now reap the awards, both congratulatory and monetary, they they deserve.

The other is more important than some people realize: Down the coast in Washington D.C., a sad scene will be taking place. For a multitude of reasons people much smarter than I can explain to you, Detroit’s once mighty Big 3 automakers are going broke and will be in Washington begging for money from the federal government that they say is essentially for them to simply survive. These are the same companies that for years have thrown tons of financial support to their NASCAR teams and couldn’t imagine a day when they would have to worry about anything as drastic as survival.

As of today, Ford appears to be in the best position of the 3, but even their best scenario is just getting by without government help, and becoming profitable in a couple years. While they’re not crashing to the ground like GM and Chrysler, all they’re doing is grabbing on to a few windows on the way down to slow the fall.

While Congress was more than a little rude to the Big 3 CEOS last time around, frankly they deserved it for flying in unprepared on their private jets. This time, they will be letting the lawmakers know they will make sacrifices that are necessary so any billions they are given don’t go straight down the toilet.

In the long run, I truly believe that at least two of the three will make it out alive, though they will have to emerge as much smaller companies. Plans have been submitted that include the shedding of certain car lines, factories closing and more job cuts over the next several years that should, hopefully, allow the companies to return to profitability -- though it will unfortunately come at the expense of even more American workers.

Many will be hurt under these plans, but the alternative is frightening. When you add up the number of people who would be affected by the failure of GM, for example it’s astounding: GM factory workers, auto parts suppliers, haulers, truck drivers who deliver parts, restaurants and other stores in the area of factories that would have to shut down due to lack of business, teachers who would get laid off as families moved out of town when all the factories closed, etc.
Just thinking about it makes me shudder, as the entire state of Michigan would likely become a one-state Depression and the rest of the country wouldn’t be far behind.

NASCAR fans are notoriously loyal to their car brands, and everyone needs to realize that it is now a distinct possibility that those brands won’t even exist without some help. As the drivers look back this week on their seasons, I hope that somewhere in the back of their mind they’re rooting for the Big 3 to get the aid they need.

Because if things don’t turn around for these critical American companies, they might all be racing Toyotas soon. Not to mention the stands will be empty because no one who had any ties to the industry will be able to afford a race ticket.