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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: Why Silly Season is Ready to Explode

The more things unfold off the racetrack, the more it seems NASCAR is in one of the biggest transitions the sport has seen in years with driver-team-sponsor partnerships. Teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Penske Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull all have deals with drivers and/or sponsors up at the end of the year.

In fact, there’s just one major team who has the luxury of going through the 2010 season without worrying about negotiating contracts with anyone. Only Roush Fenway Racing has deals in place with its Cup drivers and primary sponsors that are secure until the end of 2011; but come next year they, too, will be in the same boat.

Kasey Kahne got the ball rolling early this year when he announced a deal to drive for Hendrick Motorsports starting next season. With Mark Martin not quite ready to give up his seat in the No. 5 car, team owner Rick Hendrick has found himself searching for a spot to put his newest driver for 2011. This situation has shaken things up in the NASCAR garage, leaving an open seat at Richard Petty Motorsports. It also makes Budweiser now available as a sponsor, while putting Kahne or Martin in position to find a ride for 2011 before Kahne takes over the No. 5 full-time in 2012. That has Hendrick courting additional sponsorship to support his new driver, leaving teams scrambling to lock up deals before it’s too late.

But even Martin’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon is in the process of courting new sponsors for his No. 24 Chevrolet. At Talladega, Gordon revealed he was in the running for the Shell/Pennzoil deal that went to Kurt Busch and Penske Racing. With DuPont’s contract up at the end of the year, it appears the longtime sponsor of the No. 24 car is ready to scale back its support, leaving the four-time champion in need of more funding.

“It’s not just, ‘Hey, this is Hendrick Motorsports, this is Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 Chevrolet’ and sponsors just come running,” Gordon said recently, opening eyes throughout the NASCAR garage.

Could the No. 24 be sporting some different logos full-time in 2011?

“We’re openly pursuing things,” he confirmed in Richmond last week. “DuPont is still going to play a major role in our organization and with the [No.] 24 team. The overall cost of the sport and the way the trends are progressing, it’s tough to have one sponsor that can cover everything. We had a lot of conversations with Shell/Pennzoil, and we have a lot going on right now as well.”

Meanwhile, Shell/Pennzoil’s departure leaves Richard Childress forced to search for new sponsorship dollars for the No. 29 and convince Harvick to remain with the organization. But that’s not all, as his other two drivers – Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton – have deals that are up at the end of 2011.

This weekend in Richmond, Burton explained he has no role in trying to find sponsors for the No. 29 team, but he can do his part by running well and making RCR look attractive as a whole. With his contract up at the end of next season, Burton understands that times are tough and no one is safe from the dangers of losing sponsors.

“I enjoy where I work, and I want to continue working there. I really enjoy working with Richard [Childress] and I like not having to worry about that right now,” he said.

“On the same token, it’s a weird time right now, because the sponsorship dollars aren’t there like they used to be and the participation isn’t there like it used to be. That puts everybody on edge a little bit and changes the way everybody works. Even though I’m in a fairly secure position, have been doing it a long time and have a sponsor that is committed, it still affects our company and how we run our race team. No one is immune to what’s going on right now.”

Among the group of those unprotected is the Daytona 500-winning team at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Driver Jamie McMurray, crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion and sponsor Bass Pro Shops all have contracts with EGR that expire at the end of the 2010 season. When pressed on the subject, team owner Chip Ganassi joked all three would be leaving at the end of the year, then brushed it off and said it was of no concern to him and not worth worrying about.

Ganassi may have a decent poker face, but sources inside Stewart-Haas Racing indicated at the beginning of the season the understanding was a deal with Bass Pro Shops was 99% done. Company owner Johnny Morris is close with both team owner Tony Stewart and driver Ryan Newman, and Newman is one of the biggest outdoorsmen in the garage. Last season, Stewart told his team they would expand to a third car if a winning driver and a solid sponsor were available; with the way things are looking this year, that time might just be now.

A number of drivers have been rumored to be linked to SHR, including Kahne or Martin – thanks to the Hendrick alliance – as well as Harvick. Despite leading the points and having his best season in years, Harvick learned last month Shell/Pennzoil was leaving for Penske Racing at the end of the season. In a year in which his contract is up, that announcement – along with running well – has complicated things for Harvick and RCR.

Things have also become muddled over at Richard Petty Motorsports as well. With the departure of Kahne, the team has lost its top wheelman and potentially its biggest sponsor in Budweiser. The team’s other three drivers on the roster – AJ Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler and Paul Menard – have contracts that are up at the end of the season.

While the back offices of RPM are forced to deal with this issue, Allmendinger explained he can’t waste his time worrying about it. His job is to get behind the wheel and for the 28-year-old, that is the only concern.

“It doesn’t affect me at all,” he said last week. “It’s pretty simple, I have a job at hand and that’s to go out there and put our race team – the [No.] 43 team – the highest in points as possible to keep sponsors like Best Buy and Valvoline happy. The way I look at it, if I don’t go out there and do my job at hand, the contract negotiations aren’t going to matter because no one is going to want to talk to me.”

“It’s not my job to worry about that,” he continued when asked about the team’s future direction. “That’s something for Richard Petty and Foster Gillett to worry about what they want to do. I’m really happy here. I like being at this race team. We’ve had people call us about other opportunities – and there’s potential out there. As we speak right now, I’m not leaning towards one direction or another. My manager, Tara Ragan, she does a really good job worrying about that during the week, and my job on the weekend is to come here and try and run up front. There’s a lot of questions that surround the team, and they will have to be answered, but fortunately for me, I’m not the guy that has to answer them. They pay me to show up at the race track, run up front, and keep the sponsors happy.”

Keeping sponsors happy really is the name of the game, and team owner Jack Roush understands that better than anyone. Over the last few years, Roush has seen sponsors such as DeWalt, USG, Irwin Tools, Carhartt, R&L Carriers and Northern Tool + Equipment leave his organization due to the economy. In the Nationwide Series, he has struggled to find the funding needed to put colors on his No. 6 and No. 16 cars for the entire season. So with all of his drivers locked up until the end of 2011, Roush is hoping to learn from what happens off the race track in 2010 and to use that to his advantage.

“It’s always a vulnerable time when you’re having to negotiate new deals with sponsors and drivers,” Roush said. “Luckily, we don’t have to do that this year, but we’ll have our challenge with it next year. The understanding of what’s in play is always changing. We have to keep our eye on the ball to see what’s going on.”

Right now in NASCAR, keeping your eye on the ball in the Silly Season game is almost a full-time job. Nearly every team in the garage will be forced to deal with contractual issues at some point over the next two seasons. The way things are going, it appears once all the pieces fall into place the driver-team-sponsor combinations will be dramatically different from what they are today. Racing is a sport first and foremost, yet NASCAR would not function without all the wheeling and dealing that takes place behind the scenes and in the boardrooms.

Today, more than ever before, that’s as competitive as the action on the track.

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