NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Bruton Smith Full of Hot Air & Why Hendrick Cares About Brad Keselowski

Editor’s Note: Tom Bowles was on vacation this week, so DYN is short and sweet due to some prior commitments. Expect the full version to return this coming Wednesday.

Did You Notice? That Bruton Smith doesn’t have as much power in NASCAR as we think he does sometimes? For the second straight year, Smith has been adamant that Kentucky will get a Cup Series date, his primary goal behind purchasing the track in the middle of 2008. Yet here we were Wednesday afternoon, listening to Smith admit he’d seen a copy of the 2010 Cup schedule… without his newest purchase on the list.

“I think it’s a dead issue,” he said, blaming the well-known lawsuit from the former owners of the speedway as the reason for the continued impasse. “NASCAR now has the schedule, and if it happened tomorrow I don’t see NASCAR changing the schedule to accommodate Kentucky.”

Smith was quick to say he was certain the track would have a date in 2011, but how can you believe that at this point? A man who’s been looked at as the second-most powerful man in stock car racing behind Brian France has yet to convince those former owners, spearheaded by former track president Jerry Carroll, from their quest to win millions of dollars in damages against NASCAR after shutting the track off the schedule for years. There’s no telling how long the case will stay in the appeals system, and France remains adamant there’s no chance of the Speedway getting a date as long as it’s active.

So here we are, with Smith losing another battle against ISC and France as they look to add Cup dates to the schedule. Going back to 1996, when Smith’s power began to increase with the purchase and subsequent dismantling of North Wilkesboro Speedway, he’s never been able to take a date off the schedule at the expense of ISC. Take a look at the schedule changes involving SMI which have been added since 1997:

1997 – Texas (replaced SMI track North Wilkesboro on the schedule)
1998 – Las Vegas (new date, no replacement)
2005 – Texas, second date (replaced newly-purchased SMI Track Rockingham Speedway)

So, while SMI tracks currently own a dozen dates on the 36-race NASCAR schedule, it’s still clearly second fiddle to ISC’s 19. And by holding just three of the 10 tracks in NASCAR’s playoffs, the revenue generated pales in comparison to the six dates ISC takes in.

At the moment, the only way Smith can increase his power is twofold: buy another track (although neither Dover nor Pocono are up for sale), or get busy starting his own stock car racing series. At this point, he’s positioned to do neither… so it’s hard to believe his claim that Kentucky “will absolutely be [on the schedule] in 2011.”

Bruton, you’ll be on the schedule when NASCAR damn well wants you to be… just like everyone else.

Did You Notice? Rick Hendrick’s cryptic comment he won’t let Brad Keselowski stray far? With the driver all but officially headed from JR Motorsports to Penske Racing for the 2010 season (expect an announcement in the next few weeks), Hendrick claimed his prospect would “always be close enough for me to bring him back.”

A lot of people interpreted that as this decade’s most successful car owner showing a little too much ego; after all, it’s not like Roger Penske’s got a chop liver organization across the way. But I think those comments, while a bit out of character, come with a dose of reality attached. If you look at the four-car HMS lineup right now, there’s three drivers who aren’t going anywhere anytime soon: Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (signed through 2012) and Mark Martin, who sources have told me would be willing to race for up to three more years.

That leaves Jeff Gordon, whose sponsor DuPont has their deal up for renewal after 2010. However, not only is the chemical company struggling economically, but their driver continues to struggle physically with back pain no one knows is going to improve over time. Looking like he’ll fall short again in his quest for a fifth Cup title, Gordon is now staring at turning 39 next season and in a possible position of needing to make some long-term commitments, both for his health (major surgery to correct his problems) and sponsorship should DuPont choose to opt out.

Under that scenario, should Gordon retire at the end of 2010 or even 2011 that puts Keselowski back on Hendrick’s radar screen. It doesn’t matter how well the driver does with Penske in his first season – how hard would it be to pass up the opportunity to be Gordon’s replacement in the No. 24? Filling a Hall of Famer’s shoes is always tempting, and the resources the driver would receive would be incomparable to being a No. 2 over at Penske.

Certainly, the pairing of Keselowski with the No. 12 team has the potential for immediate success; remember, that car was a Daytona 500 champ just 18 short months ago with Ryan Newman. Considering the Silly Season market right now, it’s the best decision he could make under the circumstances, one I’ve known was coming for months. But there’s also a reason why this kid turned down Penske the first time he came around at the end of 2008, and Hendrick could certainly capitalize on that self-doubt once more if he comes calling with the right ride at the right time.

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