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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

10 Points to Ponder… After The Off Week

1. Belt Tightening – It is a safe bet that not all the economic dominoes have fallen for the NASCAR community quite yet, as financially slumping General Motors attempts to identify cost-cutting measures while seeking to generate $15 billion in savings through 2009. This past week, the automaker has informed both Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire International Speedway that they will not renew promotional agreements with them for 2009 and beyond, and rumors persist further cuts will be forthcoming within their motorsports program.

Oh, well… before you get all upset, remember it isn’t just NASCAR “fat cats” feeling the GM pinch. The American icon also announced that they would be discontinuing healthcare benefits for some of their fixed-income retirees 65 years old or more. In comparison, that kind of makes NASCAR’s GM problems seem trivial… doesn’t it?

2. Thanks For The Help – NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston, commenting on the impending cutbacks by GM, appears to be taking a nothing-to-worry-about approach to the worsening news. When asked about the situation, he claimed, “NASCAR has served [GM] well, and they are getting a good return on their investment. And they know NASCAR has a huge audience and loyal fanbase eager to buy their products.”

Ummm… Ramsey, they’re going broke! How good is NASCAR serving them?

3. Belly Up To The Bar – Despite earlier speculation that Anheuser-Busch Inc. would either cut back or leave NASCAR as a big-time corporate sponsor following its purchase by the Belgian brewer InBev, it appears their support in motorsports will continue after all. Anheuser-Busch has made it known they have inked a multi-year agreement to continue on as the sponsor of the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, the traditional kickoff to the NASCAR Cup racing season in February – and additionally, they are reported to be increasing support of Kasey Kahne’s World of Outlaws Sprint Car program.

Good… at least the beer and hard liquor industry is sticking with NASCAR. With this downturn in the economy, their products will be needed.

4. One Trick Pony? – Despite last year’s dismal showing in its maiden season competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Japanese car builder Toyota has driver Kyle Busch leading the series, with his two teammates – Tony Stewart (10th) and Denny Hamlin (12th) – presently in the running for the Chase to the Sprint Cup championship.

Is this evidence of drastic improvement at Toyota Research and Development… or a testament to the Joe Gibbs Racing organization?

5. Smooth Move! – Remember back in June of 2006, when Brian Vickers announced that he was leaving the formidable Hendrick Motorsports No. 25 Chevy to drive for the startup Red Bull Racing Toyota team? He was quickly replaced by Casey Mears, Jimmie Johnson‘s best friend who was supposed to complete a dominant foursome at HMS for 2007 and beyond.

Well… outside of the super-competitive Toyotas of JGR, Vickers is the other real bright spot for the manufacturer. After failing to qualify for 13 races in ’07 and finishing 38th in points, this season Vickers finds himself 14th and only 95 markers out of 12th place – making him a strong contender for the Chase to the Sprint Cup championship.

Mears? The 30-year-old driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet is 24th in points with no hope of making the playoffs, and has been given his release from HMS effective the end of this season.

Who would have thunk it?

6. Tell Us Already! – Reigning Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman – who has announced that he is leaving his No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge for parts still unknown – had a section of Lincoln Way West (named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln) in his hometown of South Bend, Ind. rededicated in his name this past week. Newman – who insisted at the ceremony that he has not signed with any team owner and does know where he will land next season – said shortly afterward that he respects Stewart both on and off the track and that he believes Stewart would be a “good boss.” When asked his thoughts on being reunited with his former crew chief from Penske Racing, Matt Borland – now competition director at Haas CNC – Newman responded, “Matt’s always been a good friend. Obviously, we had a parting of the ways from a competitive level a couple years ago. He’s a great friend. Does it impact it [my decision?] Yeah. There’s a friend over there, that’s something to consider.”

So… when is the announcement, Ryan?

7. Forgiveness? – Though Newman will be out of the No. 12 Alltel Dodge next season, the list of possible candidates to replace him at Penske is becoming more impressive. Former Ganassi driver David Stremme, DEI driver Martin Truex Jr. and HMS lame-duck Mears are all names being bandied about the rumor mill these days. But now, there’s a wild card; none other than Jeremy Mayfield, who had a falling out with the organization and left before the end of the 2001 season. Mayfield has let it be known that he would like a “do over” at Penske, and strongly indicated he’d like to try again in an interview with ESPN this past week.

SMITH: WHAT IS RYAN (OR ROGER) THINKING?

“If I had a dream team, I’d go back to my No. 12 car days at Penske. I wish I had that opportunity now,” he said. “There were a lot of things that happened, things between [Michael] Kranefuss and Roger [Penske] and me not getting along with Rusty [Wallace]. As a driver, I could have done a lot of things differently. I wish I had that opportunity over again, and I definitely wouldn’t be leaving there, I can tell you that.”

Well, let’s see… Mayfield has competed in the Chase twice since leaving Penske, and has five wins as well as 96 top-10 finishes in the Cup Series. The rest of the candidates I mentioned have a total of one, two and 69.

How big is that heart, Roger?

8. No Place Like Home – 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth traveled home to Wisconsin during the off week, competing in and winning the prestigious Miller Lite Slinger Nationals at Slinger, Wis. The win was Kenseth’s fourth in the prestigious late model race, tying him with Dick Trickle, Joe Shear and Lowell Bennett for wins in the annual event.

Note to younger race fans: Trickle is more than just a name… he is said to have won as many as 1,200 races in his career. But although winning twice in the now-Nationwide series, he never scored a victory in NASCAR’s Cup division.

9. Kyle, Kyle Kyle… – Current Sprint Cup points leader Kyle Busch did not have a lot of success racing this past week, as he struggled with an ill-handling late model at Slinger, Wis. and finished sixth in the Craftsman Truck race at Kentucky, driving the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming Toyota for owner Billy Ballew. But when asked why the Cup driver chose to spend his off week racing in the CTS, Busch pulled no punches – as usual.

“I want to keep Billy up front and no one else can do it,” Busch said. “I think it’s cool that as long as he’s been in the sport, he’s finally got a chance to win a championship, and I want to help him keep that alive. He’s been around so long and he’s never had a full-time driver capable of winning him a championship – I’d like to be the one to do it for him.”

Really, Kyle… no one else?

10. Long Road Ahead – Just remember, race fans, there’s no more weekend breaks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule until the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami on November 16th… just in time for Thanksgiving!

Hope you got your “honey do” list caught up this past weekend!

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