NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? NASCAR’s Shrinking Field, Stealing Money & Logistical Nightmares

Did You Notice? The underreported aftermath of the Kasey Kahne signing is it could keep another fully-funded car from popping up? Some of the other Kahne scenarios presented the last few months – staying at RPM, James Finch, Stewart-Haas Racing, JR Motorsports, etc. – all required a NASCAR team to either grow or step up from being a start-and-parker to a fully-funded effort.

Not so with the organization Kahne ended up with, another sign of how money talks (remember, sponsorship was already in place at Red Bull, making it easy to dump Kahne there without signing additional financial backers). And even though Red Bull general manager Frye maintains there’s a chance Red Bull Racing might expand, recent budget cuts within the organization suggest three cars for them in 2011 is nothing more than a pipe dream.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the next year’s fully-funded driver lineup for the Cup Series. It’s not looking pretty:

Roush Fenway (4 cars): Ragan, Kenseth, Biffle, Edwards
Hendrick (4 cars): Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Martin
Childress (4 cars): Bowyer, Burton, Harvick, Menard
Gibbs (3 cars): Ky. Busch, Hamlin, Logano
Michael Waltrip/JTG (3 cars): B. Labonte, Reutimann, Truex Jr.
Penske (2/3 cars): Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Hornish Jr.?
Stewart-Haas (2 cars): Newman, Stewart
Earnhardt Ganassi (2 cars): McMurray, Montoya
Red Bull (2 cars): Kahne, Speed/Vickers
Richard Petty Motorsports (1/2 cars): Allmendinger, Ambrose?
Furniture Row (1 car): Smith

In a worst-case scenario, then, that leaves us with just 28 fully-funded machines (Gordon and Harvick don’t have sponsorship announced, but it’s a mere formality for two of the sport’s stars it’ll get done). At issue is the future of Front Row Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, the third Penske car, Robby Gordon’s team (currently pursuing legal action against former partner BAM) and so much more. A few weeks ago, we witnessed a total of eight start-and-park operations at Pocono, with that number likely to continue showing up or even slightly increase over the final 14 races of the season. So far, we’ve had a total of zero new sponsors enter the fold for 2011, with the only deals announced existing companies willing to re-tinker their programs with another driver or team.

So call it the economy, call it shrinking ratings and attendance, call it whatever you want… but the bigger issue moving beyond this biggest move of Silly Season is the lack of new owners and teams to fill in those gaps. Will NASCAR shrink the size of the Cup field from 43 to 36 cars? There’s no indication of that happening. But is it detrimental to the sport to have over a third of the field not going the distance? Absolutely… and that’s what we could be faced with unless someone’s able to step up for 2011 and beyond.

By the way, for my take on the Kahne signing, winners and losers, and where we go from here be sure to check out my column over at SI.com.

Did You Notice? Along those same lines of teams struggling to make it to the track, Tuesday’s news through Sirius Speedway reported that David Stremme has quit the Latitude 43 ride over lack of funding. With the knowledge I’ve gathered over the last few months, I’m certainly not surprised; in fact, I’m shocked it didn’t happen sooner.

From the moment Bill Jenkins took control of the No. 26 in January, sources within and around the organization have crowed about a running theme: A guy who borrows, borrows, talks a good game… and that’s pretty much it. I’ve even been told the initial purchase was never fully paid for, angering the investor that helped structure the deal and nearly causing Jack Roush to nullify the sale. In the end, no litigation was ever pursued because Roush had no choice but to ditch the number through NASCAR’s four-team limit. When you’re a week before the Daytona 500 and faced with a deal gone sour, well, there’s bigger fish to fry.

Sources claim Stremme isn’t the only one not getting paid, insisting former driver Boris Said and crew chief Frank Stoddard are among a long list of those dealing with less money than promised or simply continuing on a hope and a prayer altogether. Where all the money is going is anyone’s guess, as the team has made a hefty $1.66 million so far in 2010. The sad part is despite limited resources, this underdog team has really made a serious go at it, putting together the occasional top-25 run and putting out cars that can run 20th to 30th under the right circumstances. But no amount of uptick in performance can beat the consequences suffered by a phantom checkbook filled with monopoly money. There’s no question this team won’t make it to the Daytona 500 next season… if not fade out sooner without someone else stepping in.

Did You Notice? In the midst of multiple schedule changes, the one that irks me the most isn’t Kansas getting a second date or Chicagoland in the Chase or even one fewer off week during the season. It’s the simple matter of ridiculous logistics that continue after the Daytona 500.

February consists of a beautiful two-week beach vacation down in Florida, where there’s nothing better for teams, media and drivers than starting with racing’s Super Bowl. But consider the importance of that event for everyone, the equivalent of twice the energy spent compared to your normal race. To a person, we all leave there exhausted after giving our heart and soul to start the season off right. There’s no precedent to go on here, as every other major sport transitions from their major event right into the offseason… but you’d think a week at, say, Bristol or Martinsville would help to build momentum with a solid second race while serving the double purpose of bringing everyone close to home.

NASCAR’s schedule used to have that, a first three set of Daytona-Rockingham-Richmond to ensure we all recharged for the long year ahead. But in 2005, the schedule switched to a wild West Coast swing, one where teams were asked to go 3,000 miles from Daytona to Fontana, then Las Vegas as part of a three-race sprint designed to tire everyone out in the first mile of a nine-month marathon. The racing wasn’t good, the travel schedule was insane and everyone privately whispered about how the logistics made no sense.

With schedule realignment looming, the one thing I expected NASCAR to fix was this issue, putting a second race at Homestead or even a place like Kentucky or Atlanta so teams could rest and recover. Instead… we lose Fontana, gain Phoenix and still have the insane three-week swing. Huh? I know Phoenix is warm and all… but it’s still 3,000 miles and three time zones away from NASCAR’s home. Add in some ho-hum competition there the past few seasons, and it’s not the type of heart-pounding change that has fans on the edge of their seats. Why not do the West Coast swing in March? Or April? You could build it around a week off and then do a Fontana-Vegas-Phoenix swing, with a funky marketing name for it, while teams would have enough time to prepare for what’s coming.

Instead, we’re stuck with a situation where those who have no choice will be traveling, trying to keep it together along the way while those media that have one will simply stay home for one of those three weeks. I was at the Las Vegas race this year, and the media center was more empty than any of the races I’ve covered in 2010… not exactly the way to build publicity, right? It’s a simple philosophy of putting your best foot forward at the start and end of your season, because the beginning hooks you and the end’s supposed to leave you drooling for more. I hope NASCAR realizes that basic marketing concept before it’s too late.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits on our way out the door:

  • Notice both the new Kentucky and Kansas races are 400-mile events, part of a developing trend on NASCAR’s part to shorten races. I don’t know about you, but length of time doesn’t matter to me if the product itself doesn’t deliver, right?
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. has now gone nine races without leading a lap. So far, he’s led only 68 this season, on pace for his lowest total since running a limited schedule when first moving up to Cup in 1999. In his defense, it’s not just him; Mark Martin across the garage has led just 59. Compare that to their other two teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have led 1,690 over that same stretch. Can you say “imbalance?”
  • Speaking of laps led, here’s a stat for you: Juan Pablo Montoya has led 385 this season, sixth-best on the Cup circuit behind only Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. In comparison, Chasers Martin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have combined to lead just 103… oh, Juan, the season of what might have been.
  • Along the same lines of fewer teams in 2011, have you noticed there’s no talk of rookies moving up to Cup, either? Trevor Bayne isn’t ready, and even if Aric Almirola takes the plunge he’s run too many races to be considered for the Raybestos program. Two straight years with virtually no rookies in the Sprint Cup field? It’s no wonder fixing Nationwide driver development is on the agenda.

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