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At-Track News and Notes – 2009 Lifelock 400 at Michigan

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Dust In The Wind – Camping World and Nationwide Teams Lose General Motors Funding

When the Sprint Cup Series comes to Michigan International Speedway, it is always as Ron Burgundy would say, “…kind of a…’Big Deal’…”

Situated in the backyard of the Big Three automakers, MIS has traditionally been one of the marquee events on the NASCAR schedule. This year however, it has taken on a decidedly different tone. Amid the recent bankruptcy filings of Chrysler and General Motors (both of which were against their will), more questions were raised during the course of the day with the performance of the manufacturers in court and corporately, rather than out on the track.

The drip dropping of bad news that might be preceding an even larger impending storm of bad tidings began with the announcement that Chevrolet was pulling corporate funding of its teams in both the Camping World and the Nationwide Series. Among the 12 teams affected that currently occupy the top 25 in Nationwide points is a name that is virtually synonymous with Chevrolet and the red Bowtie, JR Motorsports. Kelly Earnhardt – General Manger of JRM and Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s big sister – issued the following statement:

“Obviously the automotive industry is dealing with unprecedented business challenges, and we understand the need for restructuring to accommodate the need to reduce costs and maximize return. We have been proud supporters of the Chevrolet brand our entire lives and don’t anticipate that ever changing. We are fully capable of adjusting our business model to accommodate this change, and with the backing of Hendrick Motorsports, we will continue to lend our full support to Chevrolet. The manufacturer support GM provides at the NASCAR Sprint Cup level is more critical in nature than in the Nationwide Series, and I hope Chevy is able to continue supporting that level, as the promotion of NASCAR works well for its demographics.”

I found it to be more than a tragic coincidence that at the same time these press releases were issued at Michigan International Speedway, Jeff Gordon’s engine petitioned for a bailout from between the fenders of the No. 24 National Guard Chevrolet during morning practice. I had attempted a photo of the scene as the Hendrick Motorsports brain trust descend upon Gordon’s wounded Impala and was told plainly by a crewman, “No pictures!” Fair enough – I don’t think I’d want anybody taking a digital photo of my intake manifold either.

The questions mounted and were directed towards drivers of every make of car.

Tony Stewart, who is leading the points as an owner driver – the first time that has been accomplished since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 – was approached by Chevrolet as soon as it was known that perhaps he could be lured out of the Joe Gibbs Racing Home Depot machines that had become Toyotas. General Motors has bore the brunt of bad press the last few months when the notion that most powerful company in the galaxy might go belly–up. With so many headlining teams that compete under the Chevrolet banner – including the four Hendrick Motorsports entries and two satellite cars of Stewart and Ryan Newman, might he be concerned of future fortunes and their diminishing returns?

“The thing about racers is that they’ve always been resourceful and they always figure out how to make due with what they have. We’ll continue to support the manufacturers, especially General Motors and Chevrolet. We’re all sitting here with our fingers crossed, hoping the economy comes around, and people get their jobs back first; then we’ll worry about the racing part of it.”

Stewart seemed to have a grasp on the real problem at hand, one that has been felt the most in this region of the state, the people directly affected by the automaker’s struggles – the workers themselves.

Greg Biffle, who happens to pilot a Roush Fenway Ford, had a similar take on things, but from a different angle. Ford is the most financially stable of the Big Three – though that is akin to being the leper with the most fingers – and while their funding has been reduced in recent years, he felt the effect on the track would be negligible.

“I view it as a bigger budget doesn’t always mean they’re going to be more competitive, so I don’t view it as a huge advantage because what they’re doing now, they’re going to continue to do. Maybe in a little bit reduced capacity, but they already know where they’re making speed at, and what they’re doing and advancing their technology. So with them or without them, they’re going to continue to be able to do it at some level. So I don’t really feel like we’re going to be missing out on anything.”

“Maybe with the old car – we’d take the old car to the wind tunnel three times. We’d take it to the wind tunnel, cut the body off of it, and take it back to the wind tunnel, without even having been on the track with it.”

“That doesn’t happen anymore; nobody is doing that with this car. Times have changed.”

Does that mean there is no coause for hand-wringing or worry in Detroit, Michigan or Mooresville, North Carolina?

“Certainly we’re concerned about the auto manufactures – even though Ford thankfully has positioned themselves in the right spot in the car market – it certainly affects Ford along the way as well, from supplier issues. They need those other car companies to survive.”

But if Ford suffers a fate similar to General Motors and Chrysler, or just has to reign in the discretionary spending so to speak, what effect might that have on the only viable Ford franchise in the field?

”What people have to get through their head is that we’re going to be racing racecars with or without them (the manufacturers). The amount of support they provide is important – but certainly we can continue to race without their support; it just means a cut back on the amount of technology, testing or whatever else. You go to the local track Friday or Saturday night – a guy has a Chevy, Dodge or a Ford; nobody is footing his bill. He chooses which manufacturer he wants to race in that series, and he does. Hendrick motorsports is going to be racing cars, whether they have any support, or what the level of it might be.”

One would presume Roush Fenway will be racing Fords as well.

Johnny B. Gone

Little attention was paid on Friday to the glaring absence of the defending Camping World Truck Series champion Johnny Benson. Relieved from driving the No. 1 Red Horse Racing Toyota, a new team emerged this week from the remnants of that team – the No. 17 Tundra driven by Timothy Peters carrying sponsorship from Strutmasters.com – something that had been missing from Benson’s box sides for the majority of the year. An ecstatic Peters posted a fourth-fastest speed in the second practice session this afternoon, though you’d be hard pressed to find many fans that would share the team’s enthusiasm.

When you are in Michigan, you are in Benson Country, plain and simple. Moving right to left across the state, Michigan has three things they can consistently hang their sporting hats on: Detroit Redwings hockey, Michigan State basketball and Johnny Benson Jr. While the Wings were gearing up for their second consecutive Stanley Cup Friday, Michigan State had made it to the NCAA championship game a couple of months earlier, and CWTS champion Benson Jr.? Well, let’s just hope he ends up faring slightly better than the Detroit Lions.

Quips and Quotes from Friday

The Moody Blues Oval

I had the chance to speak with a few drivers on Friday, on a variety of subjects. I asked Biffle if Jack Roush – who’s engineering business is based about 45 minutes away in Livonia, Michigan – was putting any extra emphasis on this weekend, in a state that has been hit harder than any other lately.

“It certainly would be big for us. All of the Big Three auto manufacturers are here. We’d like to win here for Ford and for Roush. We know Jack has a huge stake in Michigan, and a big engineering deal here. He works with all of the auto manufacturers across the board, and builds the Roush Mustangs and Roush Performance Vehicles up here, so there will be a ton of Roush folks at the race this weekend, so we would certainly love to win here. He’s certainly in a good mood today, so hopefully we can keep that up and qualify good here this afternoon. We’ve got a good draw to try and win good on Sunday.”

Biffle qualified 20th. Hopefully Jack is still in a good mood by tomorrow evening.

Marked Man

The last few weeks have been a struggle for Mark Martin. Coming off of wins at Phoenix and Darlington, he has endured a frustrating few weeks of taking top-five (or top-two) cars, but only banking finishes of 17th at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, ninth at Dover and 19th last week at Pocono. He went from finally being in the Chase to now sitting 13th and out of the Championship fight by one measly point. So what gives?

“Lowe’s was a weather situation – out of our control. We got caught there. At Pocono, that last set of tires, the car just wouldn’t run. Later on we found the right rear shock lost some fluid; you’d like to think that was the cause, but I don’t know – I’m not a big excuse guy. Dover, same thing… just a bad set of tires on the last run, and it wouldn’t turn. You’ll get that with this car sometimes.”

That’s What Friends Are For

How much can it help to have a fishin’ buddy on your team? Plenty if you ask the guy leading the Sprint Cup points standings. I asked Tony how the decision to add fellow Hoosier Newman to his Stewart-Haas organization has helped their collective cause this year, and if there was a budding friendly rivalry between the two who are currently first and fourth in the points standings.

“There’s no friendly rivalry – we’re just friends. We’ve already seen each other three times today, talking about how cars are and what we’ve done to try and make them better. That’s the relationship that Ryan and I have together both on the racetrack and off the racetrack. I think our relationship off the racetrack is what makes it that much better on the track. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been an owner for one year or for 20 years; finding the right combination for crew guys, for teammates, that’s a huge equation in making it work. Ryan is a very huge piece of that puzzle, and every week that goes by convinces me that we, 100%, made the right decision.

He has me convinced as well. After all, I did pick Newman to win this weekend.

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