The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Shrinking Field, Stealing Money, And Logistical Nightmares by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday August 11, 2010

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Did You Notice? … The underreported aftermath of the Kasey Kahne signing is it could keep another fully-funded car from popping up? Some of the other Kahne scenarios presented the last few months – staying at RPM, James Finch, Stewart-Haas Racing, JR Motorsports, etc. – all required a team to either grow or step up from being a start-and-parker to a fully-funded effort.

Not so with the organization Kahne ended up with, another sign of how money talks (remember, sponsorship was already in place at Red Bull, making it easy to dump Kahne there without signing additional financial backers). And even though Red Bull general manager Frye maintains there’s a chance Red Bull Racing might expand, recent budget cuts within the organization suggest three cars for them in 2011 is nothing more than a pipe dream.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the next year’s fully-funded driver lineup for the Cup Series. It’s not looking pretty:

Roush Fenway (4 cars): Ragan, Kenseth, Biffle, Edwards
Hendrick (4 cars): Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt, Jr., Martin
Childress (4 cars): Bowyer, Burton, Harvick, Menard
Gibbs (3 cars): Ky. Busch, Hamlin, Logano
Michael Waltrip / JTG (3 cars): B. Labonte, Reutimann, Truex
Penske (2/3 cars): Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Hornish?
Stewart-Haas (2 cars): Newman, Stewart
Earnhardt Ganassi (2 cars): McMurray, Montoya
Red Bull (2 cars): Kahne, Speed/Vickers
Richard Petty Motorsports (1/2 cars): Allmendinger, Ambrose?
Furniture Row (1 car): R. Smith

In a worst-case scenario, then, that leaves us with just 28 fully-funded machines (Gordon and Harvick don’t have sponsorship announced, but it’s a mere formality for two of the sport’s stars it’ll get done). At issue is the future of Front Row Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, the third Penske car, Robby Gordon’s team (currently pursuing legal action against former partner BAM) and so much more. A few weeks ago, we witnessed a total of eight start-and-park operations at Pocono, with that number likely to continue showing up or even slightly increase over the final 14 races of the season. So far, we’ve had a total of zero new sponsors enter the fold for 2011, with the only deals announced existing companies willing to re-tinker their programs with another driver or team.

So call it the economy, call it shrinking ratings and attendance, call it whatever you want … but the bigger issue moving beyond this biggest move of Silly Season is the lack of new owners and teams to fill in those gaps. Will NASCAR shrink the size of the Cup field from 43 to 36 cars? There’s no indication of that happening. But is it detrimental to the sport to have over a third of the field not going the distance? Absolutely … and that’s what we could be faced with unless someone’s able to step up for 2011 and beyond.

By the way, for my take on the Kahne signing, winners and losers, and where we go from here be sure to check out my column over at SI.com.

David Stremme’s admirable performance in the No. 26 car is coming to a close, as the former Penske Racing driver is reportedly owed pay from owner Bill Jenkins.

Did You Notice? … Along those same lines of teams struggling to make it to the track, Tuesday’s news through Sirius Speedway reported that David Stremme has quit the Latitude 43 ride over lack of funding. With the knowledge I’ve gathered over the last few months, I’m certainly not surprised; in fact, I’m shocked it didn’t happen sooner.

From the moment Bill Jenkins took control of the No. 26 in January, sources within and around the organization have crowed about a running theme: A guy who borrows, borrows, talks a good game … and that’s pretty much it. I’ve even been told the initial purchase was never fully paid for, angering the investor that helped structure the deal and nearly causing Jack Roush to nullify the sale. In the end, no litigation was ever pursued because Roush had no choice but to ditch the number through NASCAR’s four-team limit. When you’re a week before the Daytona 500 and faced with a deal gone sour, well, there’s bigger fish to fry.

Sources claim Stremme isn’t the only one not getting paid, insisting former driver Boris Said and crew chief Frank Stoddard are among a long list of those dealing with less money than promised or simply continuing on a hope and a prayer altogether. Where all the money is going is anyone’s guess, as the team has made a hefty $1.66 million so far in 2010. The sad part is despite limited resources, this underdog team has really made a serious go at it, putting together the occasional top-25 run and putting out cars that can run 20th to 30th under the right circumstances. But no amount of uptick in performance can beat the consequences suffered by a phantom checkbook filled with monopoly money. There’s no question this team won’t make it to the Daytona 500 next season … if not fade out sooner without someone else stepping in.

Did You Notice? … In the midst of multiple schedule changes, the one that irks me the most isn’t Kansas getting a second date, or Chicagoland in the Chase, or even one fewer off week during the season. It’s the simple matter of ridiculous logistics that continue after the Daytona 500.

February consists of a beautiful two-week beach vacation down in Florida, where there’s nothing better for teams, media, and drivers than starting with racing’s Super Bowl. But consider the importance of that event for everyone, the equivalent of twice the energy spent compared to your normal race. To a person, we all leave there exhausted after giving our heart and soul to start the season off right. There’s no precedent to go on here, as every other major sport transitions from their major event right into the offseason … but you’d think a week at, say, Bristol or Martinsville would help to build momentum with a solid second race while serving the double purpose of bringing everyone close to home.

The lights of Las Vegas are beloved by the Sprint Cup faithful – just not two weeks after NASCAR’s Super Bowl.

NASCAR’s schedule used to have that, a first three set of Daytona-Rockingham-Richmond to ensure we all recharged for the long year ahead. But in 2005, the schedule switched to a wild West Coast swing, one where teams were asked to go 3,000 miles from Daytona to Fontana, then Las Vegas as part of a three-race sprint designed to tire everyone out in the first mile of a nine-month marathon. The racing wasn’t good, the travel schedule was insane, and everyone privately whispered about how the logistics made no sense.

With schedule realignment looming, the one thing I expected NASCAR to fix was this issue, putting a second race at Homestead or even a place like Kentucky or Atlanta so teams could rest and recover. Instead… we lose Fontana, gain Phoenix, and still have the insane three-week swing. Huh? I know Phoenix is warm and all … but it’s still 3,000 miles and three time zones away from NASCAR’s home. Add in some ho-hum competition there the past few seasons, and it’s not the type of heart-pounding change that has fans on the edge of their seats. Why not do the West Coast swing in March? Or April? You could build it around a week off and then do a Fontana-Vegas-Phoenix swing, with a funky marketing name for it, while teams would have enough time to prepare for what’s coming.

Instead, we’re stuck with a situation where those who have no choice will be traveling, trying to keep it together along the way while those media that have one will simply stay home for one of those three weeks. I was at the Las Vegas race this year, and the media center was more empty than any of the races I’ve covered in 2010… not exactly the way to build publicity, right? It’s a simple philosophy of putting your best foot forward at the start and end of your season, because the beginning hooks you and the end’s supposed to leave you drooling for more. I hope NASCAR realizes that basic marketing concept before it’s too late.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits on our way out the door:

- Notice both the new Kentucky and Kansas races are 400-mile events, part of a developing trend on NASCAR’s part to shorten races. I don’t know about you, but length of time doesn’t matter to me if the product itself doesn’t deliver, right?

- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has now gone nine races without leading a lap. So far, he’s led only 68 this season, on pace for his lowest total since running a limited schedule when first moving up to Cup in 1999. In his defense, it’s not just him; Mark Martin across the garage has led just 59. Compare that to their other two teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have led 1,690 over that same stretch. Can you say “imbalance?”

- Speaking of laps led, here’s a stat for you: Juan Pablo Montoya has led 385 this season, sixth-best on the Cup circuit behind only Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch. In comparison, Chasers Martin, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth have combined to lead just 103 … oh, Juan, the season of what might have been.

- Along the same lines of fewer teams in 2011, have you noticed there’s no talk of rookies moving up to Cup, either? Trevor Bayne isn’t ready, and even if Aric Almirola takes the plunge he’s run too many races to be considered for the Raybestos program. Two straight years with virtually no rookies in the Sprint Cup field? It’s no wonder fixing Nationwide driver development is on the agenda.

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
A Chase Worth Catching: The Top 10 Tracks That Should Decide The Championship
Mirror Driving: Multi-Car=Bad?, Do Fans Care About Kahne?, And RCR A.D.
Beyond The Cockpit: Nelson Piquet, Jr. On A Fast F-1 To Stock Car Transition
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Watkins Glen
Top 10 Ways Marcos Ambrose Can Screw Himself Out Of Ever Getting A Cup Win
The Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Cutting Room Floor Edition

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Kevin from PA
08/11/2010 08:23 AM
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Waaahhh!!! I have to fly out to Phoenix after Daytona!! Waaahh!!! No offense, Thomas, but crying about how you are being inconvenience because you have to fly across the country to attend another race seems rather… whiny. Love your articles but please remember that some of us have to travel a lot more and don’t get to visit a race on the way.

Now I give you the schedule makes no sense. Shout out to the other Kevin on these boards but I have always felt the reason Fontana’s spring race never sold out was that people in the area were holding out for 1 more week to attend the Vegas race. I mean if I am going to visit a race and I live in CA, why not go to the one that isn’t all that much further away and I can gamble before and after the race.

NASCAR has needed to completely revamp the schedule for many many years. However that would take leadership and foresight from NASCAR’s management and – well I think you know where that is going.

Finally in regards to the smaller fields, it is sad to think that not even 10 years ago there would weekends where 55+ cars would show up. In fact I think in 2001 there was actually about 48 full time teams as three Petty cars kept missing races. Sad to see how the mighty have fallen.

DoninAjax
08/11/2010 09:20 AM
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So now it’s Hendrick-Red Bull as well as Hendrick-Stewart. Why do you have Hendrick with four cars?

GW
08/11/2010 11:35 AM
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Brian France and company have never impressed many with their intelligence. The schedule doesn’t bother them because they don’t have to move a team from Daytona to California. Last thought, I’ve been surprised with the number of teams still showing up for races. Collapse of sponsorship is taking longer than I thought. I figured the current government would have destroyed the economy and cup racing down to thirty teams or less by now.

Mark
08/11/2010 12:07 PM
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Well done Tom , easily one of the funniest columns you’ve ever written .
With the title of this column referring to stealing money , we all assumed it was going to be an admission that your writing doesn’t warrant a pay check . Instead we’re treated to a wild story concerning your “ insider info “ about a team owner that most people never heard of and couldn’t care less about . Rather than take your word for it , i think i’ll wait for the facts to come out .

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the pit crews take up a collection to get you into a spa somewhere to ease the enormous stress and physical punishment you bloggers have to endure at the begining of each season . And here they thought they had it bad . Their life is a walk in the park compared to your trials and tribulations . Finally someone had the nerve to write about the true suffering that goes on in the press room . Dare i say Pulitzer right around the corner ?

midasmicah
08/11/2010 12:18 PM
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Hey Tom. You’re not thinking that Brain Fart France is going to use common sense all the sudden. It’s his toy and he’ll run it into the ground if he wants to. And then he’ll say, “na na na na na” all the way back to his baffoon barracks in Daytona or Charlotte or wherever the “logistics” dictate.

Bill B
08/11/2010 12:20 PM
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Wow. Tough crowd.

midasmicah
08/11/2010 12:20 PM
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Oh, by the way. I’ve heard that 36 is the new 43. I’m out.

Steve
08/11/2010 12:34 PM
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I think the point he was trying to make was that teams/crew/personnel are going to be warn out by the 4th race of the season. Not the best remedy to start the season.

From what I have read, that new Fontana date will not be well received considering the weather is rainy during that time of the year.

I never thought people with that much money and power (i.e France and co.) could be that clueless about everything. They had a golden opportunity to give the schedule a much needed overhaul and they screwed that up too.

DoninAjax
08/11/2010 12:48 PM
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I’ve thought for a long time that there should be a week off after The 500. Then they should go to Phoenix and Vegas. Then come back for Richmond and The Rock. The weather should be warm enough not to worry about the race getting snowed out and fans sitting in 40 degrees or colder. That might be a deterent to ticket sales.

To make it easier to get sponsors get rid of the top 35 rule. To say to a potential sponsor “we out-qualified 15 cars but couldn’t race because a bunch of cars sandbagged and by the way we’d like to get 5 million from you” isn’t going to get you the result you want.

Carl D.
08/11/2010 12:57 PM
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Mark…

You would come across as a whole lot more intellegent if you could at least point out where and why you disagree with Tom instead of just resorting to juvenile attacks that make absolutely no point.

Kevin in SoCal
08/11/2010 01:18 PM
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Thanks Kevin in PA, I’ve felt the same way about having California and Las Vegas right after Daytona, and one week apart. There’s nothing in Fontana but dirt, while Las Vegas has much more to do if the racing isnt great. I’m hoping that with one date next year, and its away from Las Vegas, we’ll see an improvement in the attendance at Fontana.
But because the weather in February and March pretty much sucks all over, NASCAR has to go to places where its still warm, so race tracks in the Southwest are the norm. I’ve heard many stories on here about how cold it would get at Rockingham, Richmond, and even Atlanta.

Kevin in SoCal
08/11/2010 01:21 PM
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Oh, and I forgot to mention I wouldnt mind if the number of cars were reduced to 36, with the top 35 being changed to top 25. How many people really care about the guys in the back anyway? They either start-and-park, or dont have sponsorship, and are just taking up space.

Mark
08/11/2010 02:10 PM
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Carl D , i think it’s pretty easy to see where i disagree with Tom . Truth is , maybe i don’t come off as all that smart because i’m not. By the way , the correct spelling is intelligent .

Kevin from PA
08/11/2010 02:32 PM
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35 cars in the field?? Why not make the number 32 – the same as the NFL teams. Makes sense as Brian loooovvvveeeeesss to copy the NFL.

jerseygirl
08/11/2010 03:37 PM
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I’ve never thought that whole “west coast” swing right after Daytona made any sense or to take a break 2 weeks into the schedule. Start the season later and change the schedule to coincide with decent weather in the areas where the tracks are. Plus, only go to one track each time during the season, in the tough economic times that NASCAR keeps blaming for the reason why fans aren’t going (IMO a lot of it is because the product on the track is just not racy enough). One race at each track would increase the desire of fans to go to a track and would cut the schedule shorter. Ditch the darn chase and just let them race – see who the champion is at the end of the season and be done with it. No gimmicks required.

One last thing – on the polls – you need to add a “who cares” choice to it. I’m a proponent of having a None of the above category for elections, too. Just think of the possibilities.

Bad Wolf
08/11/2010 04:17 PM
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“Oh, and I forgot to mention I wouldnt mind if the number of cars were reduced to 36, with the top 35 being changed to top 25. How many people really care about the guys in the back anyway? They either start-and-park, or dont have sponsorship, and are just taking up space.”

Back in the day most people cared about the guys in the back of the pack, and ESPN would actually show the battles in the rear of the field. Now that the “Product” has been dumbed down the newbies only want to see the superstars, and don’t care about the rest.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
08/11/2010 04:25 PM
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Why don’t they just go to Homestead after Daytona? Florida swing. Beats the H out of driving to California and/or Nevada.

Troy Young
08/11/2010 04:53 PM
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Why not just start at Daytona, then work North? Hit Atlanta, then the Carolinas, then take a week off and head out West? Wouldn’t that make logistical sense? The crews would work from Daytona toward ‘home’, then they could spend some time with their families before making the West coast swing. Just seems to make sense to me.

Jonathan
08/11/2010 05:19 PM
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why why why… who cares god shut the heck up and watch the races. Crybabies have filled the room once again! Seems like thats the only “fans” on the internet. Makes me sick

Marybeth
08/11/2010 07:22 PM
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Vito, Atlanta should work as a 2nd race and then a week off. I also like the Homestead from Daytona to Atlanta. Wonder why they put the Indy and Ky races so close together in July….? The pocket of racing fans in that area is only so big & probably few can afford 2 races in a month.

Marybeth
08/11/2010 07:31 PM
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HMS imbalance…I found the official HMS recap of the Pocono race…not one word about Jr.‘s engine blowing…let alone why…? When is the last time the 24/48 blew an engine…? After Watkins Glen when Jr. got out of his car after qualifying, he said that he did not have hp/speed. He was tickled to finish 26th in the race. He was afraid it would be a real disaster…? If Jr. is happy, I am happy. :)

DoninAjax
08/11/2010 07:48 PM
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It’s amazing a driver would be thrilled finishing 26th when his TEAMMATES in EQUAL bumper cars are winning chump-er-championships. Back to the bar with my friends.

Marybeth
08/12/2010 08:15 PM
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Ajax, At Chicago the Speed/Fox announcers said that the 24 & 48 had the 2 new HMS 2nd generation cars. So I think that maybe they are not in equal equipment…? Have you ever heard of the 25/88 R&D car competing for a championship…?

Marybeth
08/12/2010 08:22 PM
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Ajax, If Jr. got upset and depressed about these poor outcomes of races at HMS it could seriously depress or break him, is that the goal of Rick…? Jr. is taking a positive, the cup is half full approach
& I think that is the best thing that he can do; just accepting life as it has been handed to him and the way it probably will be for the next 2 & 1/2 years. I greatly admire his ability to roll with life. I believe that he will yet come out on top of this trap that Rick has ensnared him in.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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If you want to know more about Tom Bowles or to view all of his articles here at the Frontstretch, check out his archive and bio page.

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