NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? NASCAR Lawsuits Galore, Hamlin’s Media Firestorm & Childress’s Bad Move

Did You Notice? Big-time teams swimming in a mountain of money problems? I know most people come back to that sobering reality from Vegas, but these appear to be worse than that few hundred lost on a bad hand at poker. We’ll start with Rusty Wallace Inc., whose team revealed Tuesday they’re owed $535,439.18 by former primary sponsor U.S. Fidelis. Considering a competitive Nationwide Series sponsorship can run you at least $5 million these days, that’s a significant chunk of change that went unpaid (seven races’ worth, in fact).

No wonder rumors persisted the team would scale back to just one car for 2010, with Brendan Gaughan left hanging right up ‘til the end of January. The tipping point was probably a little bit extra money from daddy (the link to sponsor South Point Casino), which makes the light bulb go off as to why RWR kept him in favor of still-unemployed David Stremme. Most figured he’d be snagged in an instant after getting released by Roger Penske, especially when you look at the stats:

Stremme with RWI in 2008: 5 top fives, 16 top 10s, 11th in points despite missing three of 35 races
Gaughan with RWI in 2009: 3 top fives, 8 top 10s, ninth in points while making all 35 races

So regardless of how this court case goes, this team looks like it isn’t quite playing with a full deck. Good thing owner Rusty has that television salary, because I feel like this sponsor won’t be the only one to stiff them by the time 2011 comes around. I really worry about that whole 5-Hour Energy partnership on Steve Wallace’s car; after all, anyone remember the rise and fall of Stacker 2?

And speaking of falling from grace, anytime the words “Dale Earnhardt Inc.” get uttered these days, it’s only in the form of false promises. Now, just a few months after a plan to get Jeffrey Earnhardt on-track in Nationwide never materialized, the Seaport Group LLC is suing them for $3.25 million.

A lot of fans are confused as to how and why this lawsuit came to pass. Let me break it down for you: Once GM declared bankruptcy last year, there was a long list of creditors owed money they would likely never get back. For example, Richard Childress Racing reportedly lost $10 million in payments they never received once the Chapter 11 protection was filed. In DEI’s case, their claim was worth exactly $3.25 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but in reality that’s far down the totem pole considering the long list of employees, vendors and other companies they had to pay off.

Even though the company emerged from bankruptcy protection last July, that doesn’t automatically mean everyone with a claim gets paid. So last fall, when it looked like DEI wouldn’t get their money, they looked to sell it to a hedge fund company willing to take the risk that one day the new GM would be strong enough to pay off their debt.

We don’t know much more than that, including the backdoor negotiations in which Seaport claims DEI made a deal to sell this claim for $783K, then reneged at the last minute (presumably because DEI was told they’d end up getting the money – or another hedge fund company offered more). But what this does tell me as an outside observer is that while Teresa remains a shrewd businesswoman, she just doesn’t want to apply her financial wherewithal towards running her own race team anymore.

Just think about it. If DEI turned down this deal, that means they made at least $783K from this claim, if not the full $3.25 million in some sort of negotiation with GM. Considering Teresa’s still in good financial shape from her other business and licensing deals, what’s to stop her from using that as seed money for a new race team for Jeffrey? You’d go buy some Truck or Nationwide equipment, run the first five races to attract sponsorship, and see what happens. If Teresa wanted to be back in the game, she’d be back in it… instead, she lets her name stay on the “Earnhardt” Ganassi cars and is content to stay out of the sport. What a shame for her grandson, who seems to have potential talent but just doesn’t have the grassroots support to put him in a competitive car within NASCAR’s top-three series.

Did You Notice? Richard Childress’s sudden, unnecessary distraction? I know you’re thinking about the underage drinking charge leveled against John Wes Townley, but I’m actually not all that concerned: with Daddy paying and no actual driving involved, this is the type of charge 20-year-olds get all the time (something that’ll end with a slap on the wrist, an apology and an “everyone needs to just move forward” narrative).

No, to me the real issue for RCR right now is the sudden partnership with the once-defunct Hall of Fame Racing, led by San Diego baseball execs Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel. The duo plans to get marketing assistance in finding sponsorship while hoping to return a car to the track under their name.

“Over the past three years, Richard has become a trusted friend,” Moorad said in a statement. “We believe in NASCAR, and this opportunity allows us to be a contributing part of a winning organization, led by someone who we respect and trust.”

Sounds great in theory, Jeff… but for Childress, the question I have is, “Why now?” After a disastrous year in which all four teams missed the Chase, ending in heavy financial losses that caused one car to be eliminated for 2010, he knows a little something about drowning in a sea of chaos. So why rock the boat after hitting on all cylinders again? Other than Hendrick, no team is hotter in the Cup Series right now: No RCR car has finished worse than 11th this season, with Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton 1-2-7 in the points.

So while odd man out Casey Mears might go ga-ga over this move (especially since he’s 0-for-3 qualifying with an underfunded team right now), finding sponsorship for him, Jeff, and the Garfunkel sound-alike should be last on the list. Sadly, what this move tells me is Childress finds himself already looking down the road, worried about a possible Harvick/Shell bombshell departure for 2011. And if that’s the case, it’s not going to be much longer before the dynamite explodes in the form of a Silly Season move that threatens to blow up this early season success.

Did You Notice? Denny Hamlin taking a swipe at NASCAR media? Here’s the backstory, in case you missed it: Hamlin and Carl Edwards finished second and third in the rain-delayed Nationwide race on Saturday. They were brought up to the media center for a post-race press conference, standard procedure for anyone that finishes inside the top three. Once there, each driver gave their usual statement before NASCAR PR director Ramsey Poston opened it up to questions from the floor. But that’s when things got a little quirky: there were none. Even when given a minute of extra time, nobody raised a hand – and just like that, the post-race “presser” was over before it started.

Carl seemed to laugh off the incident, but Denny was none too pleased, posting this Tweet on Saturday night to Kyle Busch:

We talked about his answer at length in the Mirror Driving roundtable this week, but I wanted to add my own personal response – since I was there. To me, here were the storylines from the Nationwide race Saturday night, in order:

  • Harvick coming back from two bad pit stops to win.
  • 19-year-old Trevor Bayne driving the race of his life, running sixth to finish best in class out of the Nationwide-only regulars.
  • Justin Allgaier fighting for the win a second time in three weeks (on old tires, no less) before fading to seventh.
  • Danica Patrick wrecking with Michael McDowell, ending her three-race stint in Nationwide with a 34th-place average finish.

Notice Hamlin’s drive to second just doesn’t register. Why? Joe Gibbs Racing cars have won 34 of the last 108 races, a clip of just over 31%. So if a JGR Toyota comes in second… is that a story? And let’s not forget we’re talking about a Cup guy driving in Nationwide here. Asking Denny how it feels to beat up on the little guys is like asking Roger Clemens what it’s like to strike out 28 batters in AAA. Do you think your answer to that is going to grow the sport, Denny? Really?

I’ll tell you what’s going to grow the sport: putting Nationwide drivers in position to develop and win races. So the reason Denny and Carl didn’t get asked questions is they weren’t the major story to come out of that race – because the stories they’re supposed to make happen on Sunday.

With that said, I do agree there’s a certain obligation for the media to report on what’s in front of them. Even if we do believe Cup drivers shouldn’t be in Nationwide, someone should have asked Carl about the championship (he’s 3-for-3 in top-five finishes this season). Someone else could have asked Denny about making the transition from Nationwide to Cup the following day. Instead, we wasted their time… so I think there’s a little bit of blame to go around for everyone.

I’ll close with something no one’s talked about, though. In order for media to grow the sport, there needs to be actual people there asking questions. Well, even on race day Sunday, Vegas’s gorgeous media center was never more than 1/3 full, and many of those there were from small startup blogs and websites. Part of that problem isn’t NASCAR’s – the print industry is dying a slow death – but it’s notable there isn’t a long line of 20-somethings looking to cover the sport these days besides Frontstretch.

You know, I still remember the first time I covered the sport for SI. I was 25 and overwhelmed, barely able to get my own space in Charlotte’s Media Center as everyone jammed in to cover the fastest-growing sport in America. Four years later, I’m still the youngest beat writer there as some of the aging, retiring powerhouses who used to cover the sport have yet to be replaced. With SceneDaily closing its weekly mag this January, where is the next generation of beat reporters going to come from? It just goes to show you how contraction isn’t just limited to inside the Cup garage.

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