NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Owners Gain Power, Sponsors Turn Sour, NASCAR Goes F1 & Logano’s Bad Run

Did You Notice? Or wonder why one of Formula 1’s top race managers is headed over NASCAR’s way? Steve Hallam, the head of race operations for McLaren, is moving overseas to take what AutoSport termed a “similar position within NASCAR.” No official word from Daytona Beach as to what, exactly, that position might be, though with the France family purchasing the Grand Am Series you have to wonder if he’ll wind up there. But there’s a good chance Hallam will end up on the stock car side of the fence; and if he does, it’ll raise questions as to whether he’ll help usher in a transition to F1’s “franchise” rules, as well as refocus engineering within the NASCAR community.

In some ways, the move could come at a good time for the sport. Hallam’s amazingly talented, having been in charge of engineering for F1 greats such as Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Mika Hakkinen. With a technical resume that’s second to none, perhaps there’s no one better to attack the inefficiencies currently offered by our sport’s Car of Tomorrow.

But at the same time, I question whether Hallam will be able to dirty the aerodynamics and bring things under control – or fine tune these things halfway in the other direction, to the point we yearned for the days of the current aerodynamic dependency. It’s one thing for the drivers to come to NASCAR and accept the challenge of the sport – but does an F1 boss have the type of background they’re looking for to bring them back to their roots? Remember, stock cars aren’t supposed to come with problems like “aero push” or “busted splitter.” Fans are looking for racing machines that get them more in touch with the “stock” in “stock cars” – but has Hallam ever seen a dirt track in his life? Been on the ground floor on the short tracks of South Boston, Hickory and half-milers all across the country? How is he going to help NASCAR develop racecars that connect their top series back towards these developmental aspects of the business, when all he knows is a world in which high-tech engineering makes all the difference?

Here’s the problem with NASCAR developing a F1 mentality: People in America don’t follow F1 to the point there’s not even a Grand Prix in this country. Trying to move in that direction – letting technology and money triumph over the “stock” in stock cars – is not going to get fans back in the stands to watch their product. I very well could be wrong… but the attendance numbers this year suggest otherwise.

Did You Notice? Jay Frye’s decision to stay at Team Red Bull was another one we should have seen coming? After all, this is a man who spent a decade in the same job at MB2 Motorsports. How could he leave a team he’s been building from the bottom up after only a year? The crews love him, the drivers love him, and even Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz has a deep respect for how he’s turned around this program.

Frye’s decision could also mean the difference in AJ Allmendinger’s career. The manager’s been adamant since day one that the Californian is a future driving talent, and has been an advocate of his throughout the second-year driver’s ups and downs transitioning to NASCAR’s top series – even when he forced Allmendinger out and put Mike Skinner in for six weeks. If Frye had left for Stewart-Haas Racing – combined with the owner’s reluctance to field three cars and his loyalty to former F1 driver Scott Speed – you’d have to think Allmendinger could be on thin ice. But instead, Frye’s loyalty and trust may very well win out in the end, leading to a 2 ½- to 3-car team next year where each driver is given the opportunity they deserve to be successful.

Did You Notice? That Greg Biffle has more wins under the Chase format (five) than any other driver except Jimmie Johnson? We probably should have given the guy a little more credit to be this year’s Chase Cinderella.

Did You Notice? There’s a backup candidate in case Biffle turns into a one-race wonder? Neatly hidden within the New Hampshire running order was a fourth-place finish by Jeff Burton – his best run since Martinsville the end of March. At 40, Burton’s the oldest competitor in this 12-man field, but he’s also experienced enough to know that consistency is what’s needed to contend for a championship. I picked Burton 12th in my Chase prediction list – but at the same time, he’s crafty enough to snooker us all with a third or fourth place finish if he regains momentum established earlier this year.

BOWLES: NO SURPRISE CHASE CINDERELLA IS GREG BIFFLE

Did You Notice? That at this point in Silly Season, there’s no primary sponsors announced who are completely new to the sport? Sure, there have been some big time switches, where companies like UPS, Office Depot and Caterpillar have changed their team affiliation – but all those companies have been involved with NASCAR for several years now.

Instead, just a handful of part-time Cup sponsors (AFLAC, Aaron’s) have increased their involvement to at least 18 races apiece, with Old Spice coming over from the Nationwide Series to jump on board with Tony Stewart’s Cup car. But that’s hardly enough to balance out companies like AAA, Dodge, and Texaco permanently ending their full-time involvement for good.

What’s the reasoning behind the poor sponsorship climate today? I think you’ve got a lot of companies who just don’t have the advertising budgets to spend $25 million and be a full-time sponsor. $6 million used to work, $10 million used to work… but not $25 million. That causes situations like the No. 19 car of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, who has multi-million dollar corporations Best Buy, Garmin, McDonald’s and Stanley Tools sharing a limited number of races apiece as the primary sponsor. But could you imagine if all those companies’ budgets were spread out to fund individual teams over the course of a full season – or if they were convinced to spend all year long on a Nationwide Series car? We wouldn’t have nearly the financial crunch we have today – that’s for darned sure.

The problem is, these businesses realize they don’t have to spend nearly half that money to get the connection they’re looking for. Why, just one race on the side of a car like Carl Edwards’s, and they get the sponsor appearances, a commercial, little diecasts with their company name on it and the ability to pledge themselves as a dedicated sponsor of one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers. It’s a way to save money in this economic climate… and it’s working amidst the escalating costs that force top teams to take on even more of these Fortune 500 corporations just to survive.

Did You Notice? That all the talk amongst car owners for Silly Season has turned towards consolidation – not expansion? Let’s assume each of the two latest rumors is true, that Michael Waltrip Racing and Chip Ganassi merge – to go along with a purchase of Bill Davis Racing by GEM.

Here’s how that would leave the Sprint Cup landscape set up for 2009:

Hendrick Motorsports – 4 teams
B Squad – Stewart-Haas Racing – 2 teams

Roush Racing – 5 teams
B Squad – Yates Racing – 2 teams (pending sponsorship)

Joe Gibbs Racing – 3 teams
B Squad – Hall of Fame Racing – 1 team

Richard Childress Racing – 4 teams
B Squad – Dale Earnhardt Inc. – 4 teams (pending sponsorship)

Gillett Evernham Motorsports – 4 teams

Ganassi/Waltrip Racing – 4 teams

Side note: I really like terming teams like “Yates Racing” the “B” squad. Can you imagine Jack Roush to Jamie McMurray next year: “I’ve had just about enough of you. To the “B” Squad!”

Alright, so I digress. That’s six people (Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, Childress, Gillett and Waltrip) with relative control over 33 teams on the circuit. Now, let’s check out who’s left outside this group for 2009:

Penske Racing – 3 teams
Team Red Bull – 2/3 teams
Petty Enterprises – 2 teams, no sponsors
Wood Brothers – 1 team, no sponsor
Furniture Row – 1 team
Robby Gordon Motorsports – 1 team
NEW! JTG Racing – 1 team (Ambrose)

Just like that, the number of owners attempting Cup races would slip significantly from 19 to just 13 – and that’s assuming the Woods make their way back for 2009. Of course, the fewer owners there are, the more power gets consolidated – and the less room for movement there is for new drivers, owners, and crewmen.

Did You Notice? How Joey Logano’s Sprint Cup debut never lived up to the hype? Sure, other rookies have had disappointing first starts behind the wheel… Jeff Gordon and Johnson come to mind. But here’s a guy that’s been driving circles around the Nationwide Series for weeks, and then he gets in a crappy Cup car and can’t drive worth a damn. If that’s not a sign of the current disparity in equipment between teams, then I just don’t know what is.

On a side note, let’s compare the finishes of Logano in the No. 96 to when he pulls his one or two starts in a fourth No. 02 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Sure, Hall of Fame gets technical support from Gibbs… but when you’re relying on someone else who runs their own race teams, the stuff you’re getting is never going to be at quite the same level as the teams they run themselves.

Did You Notice? That an article on Nationwide Series start-and-parkers was mysteriously removed from The Hot Lap? In it, team owners justified how and why they’re pulling in after just a few laps. Johnny Davis Motorsports claimed they needed to run their second “S&P” car – the No. 0 – just to break even each week, while Kenny Hendrick explained Stanton Barrett enters him in the No. 31 as an R&D effort to help his primary car.

But either way, both men were among a handful that revealed what we already know – their goal each week with these cars is not to win, but simply to collect a check. That philosophy alone takes the competition out of NASCAR and replaces it with the financial bottom line. If people want to watch business in action, they’d much rather tune to CNBC. Don’t you think?

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