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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: Penske, Childress “Shelling” Out Silly Season Madness in April

If the first few weeks of the 2010 NASCAR season has proven one thing, it is that the majority of slicing and dicing is taking place behind closed doors as opposed to on the racetrack. This year, Silly Season has come fast and furious at a time when no new money is finding its way to NASCAR, leaving teams struggling to put deals together for the future with what’s left.

First, Kasey Kahne eliminates himself as the number one free agent in Cup by inking a multi-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports. Next, Shell/Pennzoil announces it will join Penske Racing and Kurt Busch in 2011, while Mobil 1 plans to leave the organization. As a result, Richard Childress is left to find a sponsor for the No. 29 currently driven by Kevin Harvick, while Sam Hornish Jr. is also forced to court new financial support for Penske.

Together since 2007, the partnership between Shell/Pennzoil and RCR started out with a bang as they won their first race together, the Daytona 500. Since then, though, the relationship has quickly fizzled out. The No. 29 team has failed to win a points-paying event since that dramatic first race (Harvick did win the 2007 Sprint All-Star Race and back-to-back Budweiser Shootouts in 2009 and 2010 with Shell). And after a frustrating 2009 (19th in points, just nine top-10 finishes) tensions mounted in the RCR camp.

Quietly, Harvick’s sponsor started looking for a way out. Finding more security with Penske Racing – through their IZOD IndyCar Series teams and other business ventures – Shell/Pennzoil determined the best case scenario for their organization was to make the switch away from RCR.

Early Wednesday morning, team owner Richard Childress addressed their departure, claiming:

“Shell and Pennzoil have been great partners with Richard Childress Racing since our first race together, when Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 team won the Daytona 500 in 2007. I’m disappointed that our partnership will conclude at the end of the year, but understand some of the reasons that went into their business decision. RCR will continue to provide Shell-Pennzoil the highest caliber program possible, keeping in sharp focus the ultimate goal of winning the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.”

“What this creates for RCR is the opportunity for a new partner to forge its own relationship and identity with Kevin Harvick and the championship-level team led by crew chief Gil Martin, our other race teams and drivers, and our other 35 partners. The No. 29 team has had only two primary sponsors since it began in 2001, but the number 3 has played a significant role at RCR for decades. We feel strongly that the third chapter of the No. 29 team’s partnership history will be a successful one.”

What complicates this issue is the fact Harvick is also a free agent on the market for the 2011 season, and since Kahne and Busch both inked contract extensions, he is now the number one driver available in the Cup Series. With his contract nearing an end with RCR, Harvick’s frustrations of the last two seasons may have him looking elsewhere along with Shell. Throw in their departure and the need to search for a sponsor, and it seems a new deal with Childress may not be so glamorous.

Even during Monday’s rain-delayed running of the NASCAR Nationwide race, a bit of conflict between teammates Harvick and Clint Bowyer could be seen. After making contact on the track, Bowyer chastised Harvick, saying he must have something to prove in that series. Last year, it was clear all was not well in the RCR camp, with special focus given to Harvick and his displeasure with the team’s performance. Sources close to Frontstretch are saying despite Childress’s optimistic tone in Texas, his chances at re-signing Harvick are essentially gone.

Tuesday evening, DeLana Harvick let her feelings be known by tweeting:

Many had thought Harvick could make a move to Stewart-Haas Racing if he did leave RCR, but with Kahne in need of a ride for next year it seems that seat has potentially been filled. Others have pointed to the fact Harvick and wife DeLana have a successful Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series organization, but to make the jump to the Cup level is not something that happens overnight.

As of now, the Childress cars are running well and Harvick sits fourth in the standings. With all of this mess going on behind closed doors, it will be on crew chief Gil Martin to keep the team together as it moves forward through the 2010 season.

As the relationship with RCR and Harvick fizzled out, it appears a confidence in the resurgence of Busch and the future of the Penske organization sparked a new interest for Shell. After leaving RCR at the end of 2010, the company will move to Penske as primary sponsor of Busch, who will drive the No. 22 Dodge starting in 2011.

That leaves Miller Lite; but the No. 2 won’t be vacant for long – Busch’s teammate Brad Keselowski will jump over to the famed “Blue Deuce.” The 26-year-old driver will take over the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge starting in 2011, bringing a fresh young face to the sponsor.

“Signing up to drive the No. 2 Blue Deuce, wow. I mean, that car is an icon. It’s a car that I grew up watching, even when it was black and gold with Rusty and everything that he did with it and winning races and won championships,” Keselowski said. “That was just a cool car, and it’s a legendary car that sends shivers down your spine, again, even about the opportunity to drive it.

What Penske loses out on in this deal is Mobil 1, who is currently the primary sponsor on Hornish Jr.’s No. 77 Dodge. With Shell taking over sponsorship of Busch’s car, Mobil 1 is essentially given the boot by one of its biggest competitors.

Dustin Long reports Penske as saying in a statement:

“We thank ExxonMobil for their partnership with Penske Racing, and we look forward to continuing to produce positive results for the rest of the 2010 season in the Mobil 1 Dodge. The team plans to continue with driver Sam Hornish Jr. in our Cup Series program in 2011 as Sam has shown continued improvement. The sponsorship of Sam’s car has not yet been determined for next season.”

Much like Harvick, Hornish is in the final year of his contract with Penske Racing, and the departure of Mobil 1 has many wondering if the team’s plans to continue with the former open-wheel driver will become a reality.

In four seasons on the Cup level, Hornish has only two top fives and seven top 10s, not exactly the kind of stats that jump off the page to potential sponsors. Hornish is a three-time IndyCar champion, but his transition to NASCAR has taken longer than many expected. That matched what he said in a teleconference with media members on Wednesday, where Keselowski confirmed AAA and Verizon were still under contract with Penske and added that he was “very confident” the team would find funding for Hornish for next year.

So where does that leave Mobil 1? Late last year, the company announced a partnership with Toyota Racing Development in which Red Bull Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing would be supplied Mobil 1 products. Over at MWR, Little Debbie’s agreement with the team is over at the end of the 2010 season. One half of the team’s sponsorship package, it appears Mobil 1 could move that partnership with TRD to a partial sponsorship of the No. 47 car if the chips fall the right way.

Another major player in this could be the sponsorship dollars of Budweiser. It does not appear the company will be following Kahne after he leaves Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of the season and their financial support is potentially up for grabs.

Some sources have Budweiser linked to MWR, as Vice President and General Manager Ty Norris hosted Budweiser representatives this past weekend in Texas. One of the most recognizable beer companies in America (although it is now foreign owned), Bud has the potential to mix things up even more.

What seems more striking about this entire juggling of sponsors is there is no new money finding its way into NASCAR. Over the last few seasons, NASCAR has seen the departure of longtime sponsors such as Havoline and DeWalt, along with high-dollar spenders such as Jack Daniel’s and Ask.com. Even Hendrick Motorsports is still working on a deal to find Mark Martin full funding for 2012.

Times are tough in NASCAR right now and the corporate well is starting to run dry. The top teams are being forced to fight over money that has been in the sport for years, while proving they have the ability to provide ways to woo companies other than providing a spot on the hood of one of their cars. And if the some of the best teams in the sport are struggling to manage this new age of wheeling and dealing with sponsors, the future looks bleak for the much smaller teams in the sport.