The Frontstretch: No News Is Bad News: Dark Days Still Loom On The Horizon For NASCAR by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday July 1, 2009

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After taking last week off after covering the LifeLock 400 at Michigan, there have been a few stories floating around that provided some ammo for this week’s column. Some are the same retreads we’ve all heard before, but regardless of what information has come to light, the answers remain the same. Even after spending a weekend as a garage area imbed (yes, that’s right – I didn’t leave out an “r”), there are some things in NASCAR that I don’t understand.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. “No kidding Vito, your columns every week are proof positive of that.” While that very well might be true (and funny), the weekly news items that pop up give me pause for reflection. Literally. I am actually sitting here right now like Rodin’s The Thinker, giving great throught as to these bewildering tidbits of information that cause my synapses to start snapping and blasting away like an H&K MP5 to a bag of Jiffy-Pop.

For instance, once again for about the fourth straight year the “Danica Patrick-To-NASCAR” story has came up again. While in the past it may have elicited a raising of the uni-brow or a slackening of jaws, it doesn’t seem to have the same impact it may have had just a few years earlier. At this point I am given to indifference and a shrug of the shoulders. The last time this was a big story was back in 2006 when Patrick was working to get a new ride and a new deal with the Indy Racing League – not quite unlike 2009. Jack Roush has extended to her an open-ended offer to come drive a car – albeit a Nationwide car – for Roush Fenway Racing, though Patrick’s move to NASCAR would likely be predicated on being a top-tier Sprint Cup offering. Things went so far as to suggest that she would be ousting Dale Earnhardt, Jr. from his ride at Hendrick Motorsports, before that idea was categorically denied and rejected by HMS.

While I am all for equality and believe that Danica Patrick is a legitimate competitor rather than a novelty act that some women in racing have been purported as in the past, I can’t help but wonder, is this really our sport’s biggest concern right now? Two thirds of America’s automotive industry (and over half of the field in any given Sprint Cup or Nationwide Series event) has just gone Goose from Top Gun, and punched out over the ocean, splattering themselves all over the canopy, while the US Government is Maverick, swimming towards their lifeless bodies to recover them.

Hey, at least I didn’t reference the volleyball scene.

And while that might seem a bit melodramatic, at least I’m not so blind as to just shrug it off and say, “Oh well, we got along fine without them before, it’ll be cool.” There is a big difference between having a positive mental attitude and deluding one’s self in the face of irrefutable fact. Things aren’t as rosy as many are making it out in the press for public consumption. Truth be known, there is a lot of hand-wringing going on inside the motorsports industry right now – in NASCAR and beyond. If you haven’t noticed, not much has been stimulated lately outside of Michael Jackson CD sales and political unrest in Iran. Unemployment continues to rise, and nobody is rushing out to buy Chargers or Impalas. Anyone who sincerely thinks that there is no cause for concern is effectively Patrick Swayze exercising a pack a day habit of Winstons next to a wagon full of 98-octane Sunoco cans.

Yes Virginia, it is that bad, and it is going to get worse.

With Government Motors already behind in their payments to Richard Childress Racing, questions regarding the future of sponsor Shell with the No. 29 team do not paint a sunny picture for the RCR camp.

On the heels of announcements from General Motors that they were pulling their support from the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series, they are now reducing their funding for the Sprint Cup side of things as well. No big surprise there, as Government Motors, under the control of an administration that is arbitrarily enacting radically increased CAFE standards, is not in a position to spend tax payer money to fund driving 900hp cars that get five miles per gallon driving around in a circle – even if it is their most effective form of advertisement and promotion. Long-time Bowtie stalwart Richard Childress is reportedly waitin’ on his check of $2.5 million from General Motors as payment to fund his four racecars that have not been particularly fast of late. Other rumors have him possibly cutting back on three teams, or at the very least losing the Shell sponsorship on his No. 29 car driven by Kevin Harvick, to fund Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 effort for Mark Martin in 2010.

It’s gotten so bad that even Toyota is believed to be withdrawing – or at least significantly diminishing its support from the Camping World Truck Series next year.

Maybe they could have at least kicked in a few bucks this year and saved defending series champion Johnny Benson some perforated organs and broken ribs.

With Toyota cutting back their support in NASCAR’s top division by nearly 20% this season, the reports of further dramatic cuts originally surfaced two weeks ago at Infineon. Toyota’s Lee White, head of TRD tried to put that idea to rest:

“Toyota and TRD have been in the process for over a year, of adapting our series support for the Truck/Nationwide programs to be appropriate to the value of each series. Our process in the future will not be determined by other manufacturer’s actions but by the value delivered by each series. At this point there is no plan to change our involvement for the remainder of this season. As always we will re evaluate each series over the winter and could make appropriate adjustments.”

Key phrase: Appropriate value of each series.

While I have never met Lee White and wish to take him at his word, if half of the truck field is parking by the halfway point in some events while Nationwide Series regulars have combined to win a whopping two races so far this season, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a vote of confidence for either series – or the scale of involvement that Toyota has invested to date.

And in possibly the most disturbing report in recent days to past-Pentastar fans everywhere, is that Richard Petty Motorsports may be switching from Dodge to -gulp – Toyota – possibly as early as Chicagoland next weekend.

Et tu, Mopar?

While many were shocked when The King switched from Dodge to Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles in 1978 (due to Chrysler’s first brush with mortality and the Dodge Magnum being mechanical cow flop emblazoned in STP regalia), Toyota is the most logical move for the teams at this moment. After all, with the homogenous nature of the COT, it’s little more than popping off a nose cap and some reengineering of some plumbing for the engine as far as the mechanical side of things.

On the dollars and sense side of the equation, Toyota can provide extensive engine and technical support through TRD, as they are the most financially solvent manufacturer on the scene at the moment. Money isn’t exactly flowing like wine out of Chrysler, Fiat, or the Government – unless it’s for some new bridges or congressional inquisitions for guys taking hormones to hit a ball really far. The sponsorship cup hasn’t exactly runneth over at RPM, with a mish-mash of sponsors rotating between the four different teams and only Budweiser on tap as their main money supply.

Valvoline can only sponsor so many cars during the year, as I can only stomach so many of their Max-Life commercials involving flying cars or a pizza delivery (which the box is clearly empty and opening) during an oil change in the future.

While there are black clouds on the horizon just as there were this past weekend, it was nice to have a week off and watch a race for a change without having to come up with story ideas for the coming week. Even with all of these ominous figures lurking in the bushes, it is somewhat comforting to know that little changed in my absence. A race was cut short by rain, the guy who won at New Hampshire was a mid-packer at best, and Kyle Busch has a new bunch of guys mad at him. Couple that with the Danica rumors and fretting over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. coping with a new crew chief, the main question on my mind is the same as everybody else:

What the heck did TNT’s Bill Weber do to get himself suspended anyway?

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Phyllis
07/01/2009 03:19 AM
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I don’t know what Bill Weber did to get suspended, but I wish he would do whatever it was every week. This NASCAR fan will not watch any broadcast Weber consistently ruins…and that means every one he does.
Let’s hope he is placed on “permanent hiatus.”

Douglas
07/01/2009 07:37 AM
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Nice column!

And taking the week off after the Michigan fiasco, did you do this to get counseling? After all, attending an
“event” at Michigan should lead to some type of “mental” assistance being required, as the mere thought of going to MIS would cause one to ask “WHY”?

And I will bet the three (3) other cars in the parking lots at MIS allowed for an easy and quick exit from the track!

MMMM, using the word “track”! Isn’t that generally a term used to describe where a “race” takes place?

Maybe in the case of MIS it is a classic misnomer!

Ed
07/01/2009 08:31 AM
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Good column. When is the government going to stop sponsoring teams? How many millions of tax dollars go into National Guard, Army, Navy, etc. sponsorships? What a waste!

marshall
07/01/2009 09:39 AM
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Danica Patrick has never for one second considered moving to stock car racing . Yes she certainly has the talent to compete , and there are numerous teams that would kill to have her in their lineup for the sponsorship dollars she could bring in . But she has never been remotely interested . The story comes up on a regular basis because auto racing writers have to come up with something everyday . And rumours are the easiest thing to invent and print . Nascar is desperate for new fans , new sponsors , new money . So the idea of Danica and the marketing bonanza she would bring with her are driving Brian crazy . But it just isn’t going to happen . Brian is going to have to do it the old fashioned way , hes going to have to earn it .
In fact Richard Petty has driven virtually every eligible make of stock car over the years with the exception of Mercury . Plymouth , Dodge , Oldsmobile , Ford , Chevrolet , Pontiac, and so the team switching to Toyota wouldn’t be a major surprise . Everyones trying to survive in any way they can .
But Richard is really no more than a mascot for the team , so old alliances of his don’t really have much influence on what make the team ends up in .

HankZ
07/01/2009 12:55 PM
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Good grief, I can’t enjoy my lunch and read the FS without getting doused with another PC “e” word (equality). I don’t care if a driver is pink and purple with tentacles…until said pink and purple with tentacles driver opens their useless blow-hole and state they are only out there to beat the men. Then I root for the human males (any of them) to kick the crap out of the pink and purple with tentacles driver and cheer loudly when the pink and purple with tentacles driver smacks the wall or breaks down.

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