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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Carl Edwards Underpaid? NASCAR Youth is Undervalued & Mears Gets a Wakeup Call

Did You Notice? That Carl Edwards’s reported salary – $6 million per year – is the highest paid salary of any NASCAR driver to be publicly revealed to date. And frankly, I’m a little surprised; considering Edwards’s stature, my first thought was he might be a little underpaid.

Winning three of 10 races this season, Edwards is clearly one of the top-10 drivers in the Cup series today. Personally, I think he’s in the top five, but let’s rank him according to his current rank in the points: 10th place. With that number as a benchmark, let’s look at the 10th-best salaries of players in the four major sports in 2007:

NFL – Larry Johnson, $13.3 million (figure includes bonuses)
NBA – Stephon Marbury, $17.2 million
MLB – Richie Sexson, $15.5 million
NHL – Ryan Smyth, $7.5 million

Source: USA Today

As you can see, Edwards’s salary falls below all four categories; not only that, but it’s locked in place for the next three years. Of course, there’s far more here to take into consideration; Edwards will likely get a percentage of his souvenir sales – adding a few more million into his pocket – and also gets a percentage of the purse money he wins throughout each the season. But all in all, it looks like the salary may be a bit behind the curve – especially by the time 2011 rolls around.

Oh, and one other thing: Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and others let out a collective groan when Chris Myers spoke that salary figure. As one Cup driver told me this week, it gives him something to shoot for in the next round of negotiations…

Did You Notice? That Bob Osborne’s return gives Robbie Reiser a chance to focus on some other sinking ships? While the No. 99 was held very much afloat during Osborne’s six weeks away (one win, three top-10 finishes) the same couldn’t be said for the rest of Roush Fenway’s programs. In the last four races of Osborne’s suspension, the other four Roush programs combined for one top five and four top-10 finishes; in particular, Matt Kenseth has looked out to lunch with new crew chief Chip Bolin after a strong start. Was Reiser providing more of a steady hand to that No. 17 than we thought once he began his GM role at Roush? We’ll find out in the next few weeks, as that program is desperately in need of a boost.

Did You Notice? Sources say Rick Hendrick made a play for Edwards’s services, putting out feelers before the superstar chose to re-sign with Roush Fenway Racing. If that isn’t a wake-up call to Casey Mears, I don’t know what will be. Publicly, he hasn’t acknowledged his job is on the line; in press conferences at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, I’m told Mears went out of his way to assure Mr. Hendrick said he’s safe in the No. 5 car through the 2009 season (Amy Henderson and Mike Neff are covering testing for Frontstretch while I’m in the comfort of home sweet home).

Personally, I still think Mears has a chance to redeem himself; but to do so, he’s going to have to come up with the type of strong May and June (one win, three top-five finishes) he had last year, enough of a boost that could propel him back into darkhorse Chase contention and give “Mr. Hendrick” a reason to keep him on board. Hendrick’s top challenger, Roush Fenway Racing, has already accomplished having all five of its drivers in the Chase for the Championship; RCR has had all three of its cars make it and Joe Gibbs Racing appears a lock to do the same this year. That’s one record Hendrick can’t yet claim, and there’s no doubt he wants to eventually be part of that exclusive club. With free agents like Martin Truex Jr. potentially on the market, don’t expect him to stay put if Mears continues to struggle.

Did You Notice? That one year after a sponsorship controversy that rocked the sport at Atlanta, Verizon Wireless has reappeared as a NASCAR sponsor, adorning the sides of Chase Miller’s Dodge in the Nationwide Series race at Darlington Friday night. You might remember that the company was poised to sponsor Robby Gordon’s No. 7 car in the race in Atlanta last March, only to have their decals stripped prior to race day due to NASCAR’s sponsorship rules with Sprint Nextel. The reasoning in that case was simple; since Verizon hadn’t sponsored a Cup team prior to the end of the 2003 season, the company claimed they were ineligible to sponsor Gordon’s car as a direct competitor. It took days of negotiations and back-and-forth by NASCAR in order to straighten the whole thing out; in the end, the battle became a precursor to the court case between Sprint Nextel and AT&T, a controversy which lasted half the year before AT&T agreed on a compromise to leave the Cup Series following the 2008 season.

So, why no brouhaha over Verizon’s return this time? It’s simple; they’re supporting a car in the Nationwide Series, so that’s not a direct conflict with any of the naming rights for the Sprint Cup series.

Did You Notice? The two full-time rides needing substitutes in the Sprint Cup Series have made decisions which signal a possible end to the “young gun” craze. Haas CNC Racing has tapped 52-year-old Ken Schrader to run for the team at Darlington, hoping the veteran can safely qualify the car in the field; the same goes for Chip Ganassi Racing, who selected 50-year-old Sterling Marlin to keep the seat warm for Dario Franchitti. As we discussed last week in this space, Marlin drove the Ganassi car from 1998-2005 before becoming a victim of the “young gun” movement himself; Coors Light bumped him out in favor of the youthful, inexperienced David Stremme.

Of course, now Stremme is gone – along with Coors Light – and Ganassi is joining other owners in realizing the youth movement has begun to stall out a bit. The highest ranking driver running the Nationwide Series full-time is 43-year-old Mike Bliss; over in the Truck Series, 49-year-old Ron Hornaday is beating 49-year-old Rick Crawford in the battle for the series title. For a myriad of reasons, you’re just not seeing young talent work its way up through the ranks of NASCAR’s top three series like they should anymore; and because of that, there may be an opening for guys like Schrader and Marlin to stick around for another year or two – and in the right place at the right time, perhaps for someone like Bliss or even Todd Bodine to get one final shot at the Cup Series.

Did You Notice? As I spoke about in detail on Monday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not won a points-paying race at five of the next six tracks we visit. How ironic that the son of the Intimidator was, in turn, intimidated out of a win at Richmond by a more aggressive driver; funny how the gene pool works, doesn’t it? Like father, not always like son…

And with that, I’m off to Darlington. Catch you down at the Lady In Black…

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