The Frontstretch: Petty and Earnhardt (Possibly) to Toyota? The Times They Are-a-Changin' by Doug Turnbull -- Wednesday June 24, 2009

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Rumors are just rumors and this time of year sees the mill turn the most. Two weeks ago, Richard Petty Motorsports announced a partnership with Braun Racing to field entries in five Nationwide Series races with drivers Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne. The Braun team runs Toyotas, so, despite the press release not mentioning the manufacturer of the cars, the general belief is that RPM is simply funneling the sponsors and drivers over to the Braun team’s No. 10 Toyota (which is unsponsored and will carry the No. 9 for the Petty races).

With financial struggles riddling Chrysler to the point of rumored non-payment in sponsorship dollars to RPM and other money problems increasingly present at Richard Petty Motorsports, a team that started with Ray Evernham getting huge backing from Dodge, a possible move to Toyota by the whole organization in the near future does not seem out of the question. There are even rumors, though they have been denied by both Toyota officials and RPM officials, that preparations are already underway to have Kahne in a Toyota by August, with the other three RPM teams soon to follow.

Another hybrid Sprint Cup organization with an iconic name that has been faced with money problems for a while now is also in the manufacturer-switch rumor mill. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is facing the prospect of losing a marquee sponsor and driver combo in Bass Pro Shops and Martin Truex, Jr. after this season. If this happens, the former four-team operation will be left with one team – the No. 42 Target Chevy and Juan Pablo Montoya. According to published reports, GM’s contract with EGR has a clause that states the funding for the team would decrease if three full-time teams were not fielded. Despite the shutdown of Aric Almirola’s No. 8 team, EGR technically maintains the three-team minimum via a partnership with Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 Chevy and driver John Andretti.

A far-fetched rumor began circulating recently that if indeed EGR is left only with Montoya’s team, the organization could switch to Toyota and possibly become Joe Gibbs Racing’s fourth team or a satellite operation to Toyota’s flagbearer. JGR president J.D. Gibbs denied that rumor completely, but the speculation remains.

If these rumors come to fruition, the NASCAR world officially will have become turned upside down. I am no xenophobe by any stretch (taking trips in my lifetime to Thailand, Brazil, China, and Moldova and marrying into an Iranian family should nix that notion), but seeing two of the most iconic names in NASCAR emblazoned upon a Japanese automaker’s product is a bit stomach-churning.

I have little problem with Toyota being in NASCAR and welcome any entity who is willing to support the sport (expect for NAMBLA and the KKK – they can go to Hell). Toyotas, arguably, are more American than Fords, Chevys, and Dodges, since more of their components are built in this country than the domestic brands. The fact remains, though, that Toyota is a Japanese car company not known for their sports cars and not often associated with being American.

Imagine this picture…with a Camry in it. That very well may be a reality as early as August.

Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises went through most of their existence in Chrysler products. Petty’s Plymouths were renowned and Petty’s image is forever synonymous with Chrysler brands. When Chrysler left the sport after the 1978 season, Petty Enterprises switched to General Motors products and Petty raced in GM equipment until his retirement in 1992. Either way, Richard Petty is a symbol of a 100% Made in the U.S.A. American from the North Carolina countryside, achieving the American dream by building championship-winning racecars on the race shop on his property and chalking up 200 wins and seven championships with American equipment in an All-American sport.

Here is an S.A.T. question: Petty is to Chrysler as Dale Earnhardt is to what? The answer, of course, is Chevrolet. Except for a brief stint in Bud Moore-owned Fords and several races in Dodges and Fords in his fledgling Cup years, Earnhardt raced exclusively in GM vehicles throughout his illustrious career, compiling all but one of his 76 career wins and each of his seven championships in General Motors products, starting his own race team with sponsorship help from GM, and racing with GM Goodwrench as his primary sponsor through most of his glory years. This all makes even the shred of a possibility of the Dale Earnhardt name appearing on a Toyota akin to the Boston Red Sox adding blue pinstripes to their uniforms.

Now, before preparing the emails and comment posts to send to me, saying that RPM and EGR are shells of what their icons wanted them to become, let me say this: I know. Petty’s only shot at saving his sponsorless Petty Enterprises was merging it with the fellow struggling Dodge outfit at Gillett Evernham Motorsports. In doing so, the legend got to keep his name on the team, but had to make concessions by conforming to the future business plan of that organization. Putting up with Budweiser sponsorship and a possible move to Toyota are part of those concessions.

Earnhardt died right as his company was reaching new heights. As you know, he perished as the two racecars he owned went to finish one-two in the 2001 Daytona 500. His absence from the team likely led it to fall behind in competition and alienate its biggest star and his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to the point of leaving it for prosperous Hendrick Motorsports. Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s widow, has mismanaged the company in most opinions, and may even be looking to sell. Like Petty, she and DEI’s management team had to make merger decisions to gain sponsorship and save the company by buying Ginn Racing in 2007 and then merging with Chip Ganassi Racing in late 2008. Now, EGR is not operating out of the once-famed Garage Mahal race shop and is on a path much different than the one its icon and visionary had dreamed of.

As every race team and fan toils through these economic times, decisions and events transpire that no one would expect. Who would have thought that reigning Truck Series champ Johnny Benson would lose his ride to Timothy Peters because of sponsorship? Who would have guessed one year ago how many teams would fold, how many start-and-parkers would enter the Cup Series, and how many people would be laid off by now? Times are nuts.

And adding lunacy to this funny farm we call NASCAR Silly Season is another rumor in light of the possible All-American Petty and Earnhardt names switching to Toyota: Team Red Bull, owned by the Austrian energy drink-maker and the epitome of the trendy, polished European aura, has not ruled out a move from Toyota to Chevy next season. If all of this transpires, 2010 could see the Earnhardt and Petty names on Toyotas and Team Red Bull emblazoned upon Chevys. The times they are-a-changin’.

Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with host Captain Herb Emory on Saturdays, from 2-4 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.

Contact Doug Turnbull

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Carl D.
06/24/2009 11:23 AM
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We Nascar fans are nothing if not loyal… loyal to a fault. We stick with GM, Ford, and Chrysler even as those companies crumble due to mismanagement and greed. We cheer as Richard Petty returns to victory lane even though he’s no more than Gillett’s pitchman. We pity the dire straits of what used to be DEI, even though what it once was has been mismanaged almost to extinction.

You can say what you want about the super-teams of Hendricks, Roush, & Gibbs, but they are strong organizations that got that way through making wise business decisions. They are dealing with the same poor economy as all of the other teams, and yet they are flourishing while EGR sinks and RPM tries to stay afloat. It’s all about management. Or the lack thereof.

This brings me to Brian France. I question if he is making the right decisions and taking the right steps to help Nascar survive and continue to be successful, or if he’s just there because, well, he’s a France. Time will tell, but I know which way I’m leaning.

Mike In NH
06/24/2009 11:24 AM
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I think it’s more likely that EGR will create another “partnership” with a small team to maintain the three team minimum – the 42 Montoya Car, the 34 Andretti-Front Row car, and TBD. Goodness knows there are enough small teams out there that could use the help (TBR and TRG come to mind immediately).

However, with the rumored loss of the Red Bull teams from the Toyota camp, there is a window of opportunity for a new team to join Toyota – or for the current teams to add a couple of cars. So anything is possible…

Kevin in SoCal
06/24/2009 04:10 PM
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Doug said: “Toyotas, arguably, are more American than Fords, Chevys, and Dodges, since more of their components are built in this country than the domestic brands.”

They’re assembled in North America using foreign parts.

Dennis
06/24/2009 08:28 PM
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7th Sign of the Apocalypse. The King in a Blue Toyota.