Thomas Bowles · Monday June 20, 2005
Editor’s Note: If you missed the popular Bowles-Eye View Driver’s Report Card series from last week, please click here to re-read where your favorite driver stands, from Part Four all the way back to Part One.
While this week’s Nextel Cup race at Michigan had its share of excitement, arguably the biggest news coming from the track was made the morning before the race began. It was in the media center at Michigan International Speedway where most of the articles were being written on Sunday, as those covering the sport gathered to catch a glimpse of the official start of the 2005 Silly Season. Pens in hand, tape players at the ready, all eyes became focused on one pair of owners, Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, ready to deliver the words that would trigger the sport’s major changes between 2005 and 2006.
Why everyone was gathered here was no big secret. Ganassi Racing’s three-team operation has fallen far short of expectations this season, now without a win on NASCAR’s top circuit since Jamie McMurray’s triumph at Charlotte in October of 2002. And it’s no secret that such a run of tough luck seems to have put all of Ganassi’s drivers in some sort of jeopardy, with veteran fortysomething Sterling Marlin easily the first on the chopping block. Sunday made it official what many had known for weeks, that Marlin would no longer be a part of the 40 team in 2006. But it was the reasons given for the move, and the decision Sterling Marlin has to make, that has everyone caught a little off-guard.
Now, of the three drivers currently in the Ganassi fold, Marlin would be the one where the owners shouldn’t need to give a reason behind his impending dismissal. Once Dodge’s top driver and a brief title contender, Marlin has yet to win after an accident at Kansas three years ago crippled his chances for a 2002 title. Not only that, but he’s failed to finish in the Top 10 in points since 2001, and is currently involved in a crippling slump that has seen him drop 18 spots in the points since Texas, all the way down to 24th. Performance-wise, one could argue Marlin could have been let go long before this moment.
But Felix Sabates, the minority owner who first hired Marlin before Ganassi was even involved with the team back in 1998, felt it necessary to speak on the impending driver change. And while Sterling could have easily been let go due to performance reasons, Sabates said the problems had nothing to do with Marlin’s dismissal. And neither did the supposed requirement that Marlin’s replacement David Stremme had in his contract he be moved to Cup in 2006 (Ganassi could have started a 4th team with Stremme at the helm). Instead, in an interview with NASCAR.com’s Marty Smith (click here to read that story), he clearly pinned the driver change on marketing, a scary reality that has more than one 40-something driver on edge as we head towards NASCAR’s future.
It’s true that Sterling’s always had a type of Southern charm, a special charisma that has surrounded his more than 20 years driving full-time on the Nextel Cup circuit. But while the charm is lovable, the accent and Southern drawl that accompany his media interviews isn’t a sponsor’s dream. Sterling is known as a man of few words, sometimes putting together fractured sentences like “Coors Light Dodge done good today. Got a good team underneath me.” You don’t usually see him for extended interviews, and beyond that, Sterling’s not going to be confused for a 20-year-old anytime soon. That’s not meant to be offensive; it’s just Sterling looks his age, and doesn’t attract that type of youth and sex appeal sponsors are looking for in this new wave of teenage drivers.
Unfortunately, Sterling’s sponsor is a beer company, the perfect example of a sponsor in this sport who will pretty much refuse any driver over 35 because they won’t appeal to their target audience, the coveted 21-to-49 advertising bracket. With more and more money being spent on these sponsorships, putting a company’s name on the race car now represents the majority share of someone’s advertising budget, and they want to get the bang for their buck. It’s not $2 million in throwaway money teams are getting, it’s $20 million, and that makes sponsors actually want more than just a driver when they sign the bottom line. Sterling couldn’t star in beer commercials; Stremme can. Sterling can’t realistically have a 22-year-old girl around each arm; Stremme can. Sterling can’t be filmed at a fraternity party on a Saturday night drinking Coors Light; Stremme could and have it be believable.
So the reality of those statements puts Sterling in a tough spot. Ganassi left him a three-year deal on the table to basically run in the Busch Series, driving one of the FitzBradshaw cars Stremme left behind full-time before he hangs it up for good. Or Marlin could leave entirely and take his chances in Cup. Some say Marlin’s in position to take over the 6 car when Mark Martin retires, and that Jack Roush has taken an interest in him. But when Roush associate Geoff Smith comes out and says the 6 is all about “matching the right driver with the right sponsor,” you tend to think he doesn’t have a chance there; between Jon Wood, Todd Kleuver, and others, Roush is chomping at the bit with 20-something drivers that make the sponsor bigwigs smile when people just mention their names. And the 2 car of Penske Racing is another beer sponsor; doesn’t look like Marlin will have much luck there.
It doesn’t help that Marlin, ala Ward Burton, won’t accept anything less than a quality ride in Cup. Let’s put it this way: Ward thought his driving resume alone would get him a Cup ride in 2005, and we’re about to hit the halfway point in the season with him still sitting on the sidelines. Money talks too much now; poles and wins on paper don’t mean anything if you can’t play the on-camera part of the business.
So it looks like Marlin’s backed into a corner, another casualty of the corporate empire that will see his career end in another series, out of the spotlight, three to five years before it would have just twenty years ago. Because of all the magical things these drivers can do behind the wheel, the one thing they can never accomplish is to get any younger. And if you’d ask Sterling on a cold Sunday morning at MIS, he’d tell you the age window is shrinking by the day.
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