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Did You Notice? NASCAR Sponsor Discounts?, Trucking Along, & the 1-Finger Dilemma

Did You Notice? The underlying message that both Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports sent NASCAR sponsors the last two weeks? In the past, I’ve been worried about one pit crew member being replaced during the Chase, non-playoff teams losing their best man all in the best interests of the “organization” as the top-performing car tries to win the title. Now, this year has seen top car owners go one step further, with RCR and HMS brass replacing entire crews from other Chase-contending teams in the interest of giving their top-tier car the best available personnel to win a championship.

It’s a sign of how NASCAR has changed; could you imagine what would have happened to the underdog, single-car Alan Kulwicki in 1992 if Junior Johnson handpicked the best men in his two-car operation, assigned them to Bill Elliott down the stretch and gathered up all the resources at his disposal to use against him? Johnson didn’t believe in that, the antithesis to the Hendrick model in which each team possessed so much competitive venom towards one other it was almost impossible for each to work together (remember Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett)? But that’s not the case in the new NASCAR, where three- and four-car programs are trained to dispose of individuality as a championship for one driver is considered a title for everyone involved.

It’s a tough sell to men that were on Kevin Harvick’s and Jimmie Johnson’s crew, the bottom line being their swap is considered a demotion within an organization that no longer finds them “the best” at doing their jobs. It leads to a permanent ranking system, where Jeff Gordon‘s and Clint Bowyer’s teams are considered “second string” with bad crews sent to purgatory and unable to collect on possible championships that they’re far more responsible for than the people who replaced them.

Looking at it that way, you’ve got to wonder what execs at DuPont, Cheerios and BB&T must be thinking – the latter two coming back to the RCR organization next year while Harvick’s backer, Pennzoil, is not. You can’t sell this move as a “change in chemistry” because it’s not just one guy that’s getting switched out. Instead, it’s an entire crew that was removed for one reason: their times aren’t good enough to be championship-caliber. So you’re telling me BB&T and Cheerios should pay full price when they’re publicly being told they’re “second tier?” If I were a marketing exec for either one of those programs, what I would do is call Richard Childress up and say, “OK, thanks for giving us what you label a second-rate crew since we’re no longer in championship contention. So how about we give you a second-rate check for the last five races of the year? After all, this move obviously shows you don’t care about us as much as one of your other cars contending to win the Chase.”

Could you have imagined, after years of worrying that missing the playoffs could cost teams millions in potential sponsorship money, we’re now talking about the risk of those involved in the postseason losing out on cash because of personnel moves? More than ever before, the dominance of multi-car teams is coming into play because this Chase has become not a three-man race but a three-organization battle between Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick and RCR. Sure, JGR hasn’t made any swaps as of yet, but what if Hamlin’s crew has a series of poor stops on Sunday? Precedent has now been set to use everyone within your organization’s disposal to win this title.

The more I think about it, I just don’t think that’s good for NASCAR any way you look at it. Chad Knaus and Childress will be lauded as geniuses if the moves pay off, but the long-term consequences here may be something haunting the sport for years to come – or until the Chase finally falls by the wayside.

Did You Notice? That despite most fans’ cheering Kyle Busch’s in-race penalty on Sunday, the dangerous precedent those consequences set for the future? Certainly, Kyle’s middle finger is the equivalent of a technical foul in basketball or perhaps a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct in the NFL. But two laps? Really? To me, that doesn’t fit the crime, permanently eliminating Busch’s chance to get back in contention and win the race while what should have happened was a slap on the wrist to serve as a wakeup call to get the team’s driver back under control. When it comes to officials, you have to maintain a basic respect level between them and the competitors; how thick of a skin do you expect them to have?

I think a one-lap penalty, at most, would have been justified for a gesture that clearly crosses the line in any type of sporting event no matter how much people try and defend it. Although to be honest, I’m fairly content with the $25,000 fine and probation until December 31st that NASCAR threw out as an additional set of consequences Tuesday afternoon. We see this type of misbehavior punished in other sports all the time, and why should this sanctioning body be any different? This move isn’t a rejection of the “Boys, Have At It” policy that’s sorely needed in this age of political correctness. I compare this punishment to when your 10-year-old son walks in the middle of the mall and throws out the middle finger at someone. What would you do? Would you just ignore it, let your kid get by with the gesture by sending a subconscious message that, “It’s OK to do it?”

Of course you wouldn’t. So don’t give me this free speech garbage and saying we’re killing NASCAR with political correctness. It’s one thing to show aggression towards another competitor, but there’s also a line you don’t cross – especially when it’s revolving around unbiased officials whose sole purpose is to keep the playing field fair for everyone. And unlike in previous incidences – like when Dale Earnhardt Jr. swore on camera at Talladega – NASCAR rightfully decided not to take any points away. The championship standings should be earned based on how you drive, not any sort of mental misbehavior that does nothing to affect the outcome of the race.

So at least the sport is making some progress. In a perfect world, Busch would have gotten a one-lap penalty, still been in contention to come from behind at two laps back (wave around plus Lucky Dog, we’ve seen it done in the age of Wacky Rules that virtually eliminate mistakes) and Busch would have learned his lesson in having to work much harder to compete. Instead, a middle finger pretty much ended his day, and that’s not what those penalties should be intended to do.

Did You Notice? That while the Cup and Nationwide circuits worry about the start-and-park count for 2011, ever-so-quietly it’s becoming less and less of an issue over in Trucks? A quick look at next season shows an infusion of new small-time owners, like Johanna Long’s program and Eddie Sharp Racing combined with the possible return of Roush Fenway, a second truck for RCR and an additional third Truck fielded by Turner Motorsports. KHI is likely to return two trucks, Germain is bringing Max Papis into the fold and you’ve got a handful of new people at least taking a look at the series.

That all begs the question: why not? Sure, the purses are far weaker than Cup or even Nationwide, but the ratings for seven of the last 11 events have posted an increase. At a cost of maybe $4 million to run a top-tier team as opposed to double that for Nationwide or six times that for Cup, it’s a bargain where you can dip your feet into ownership and see what happens. Look at all the start-and-park operations that have never gained any traction on the Cup side. How is that an attractive investment for car owners who presumably want to enter this sport to win, not just make some cash?

The Trucks are the one place where the multi-car giants aren’t dominating; a quick look at the standings shows a single-truck team with a part-time second truck on top of the standings (Todd Bodine, Germain) with another single-truck operation (Austin Dillon, RCR) in fifth place. Further back, Turner Motorsports has entered the series full-time this year and been competitive right off the bat, their drivers 11th and 12th in the standings (Ricky Carmichael and James Buescher, respectively) while contending for wins.

It just goes to show that despite the economy, all the attendance and ratings problems combined with ugly-looking cars, some rich people’s passion for success in this sport has never died. Hopefully, these smaller teams can eventually sustain an ownership model that can bring them up to the Cup Series at the right price in a couple of years, if the top-tier car owners are forced to reduce cost, their fleet and overall personnel to negate the inherent advantages they already have. But as we’ve talked about too many times, getting men like Jack Roush, Hendrick, Childress and Roger Penske to do that is far easier said than done.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we take off:

  • As I mentioned in my SI.com mailbag I think it’s ridiculous people are emailing me to call the Gordon – Jeff Burton incident a “sissy fight.” What more do you want? An old-fashioned brawl? It’s really bothering me that fans weren’t satisfied enough; I’d much rather we get a little pushing and shoving instead of someone landing a punch and getting a black eye and having to sit for a week. Let’s not get carried away with too much testosterone…
  • Man, is there some type of PR war going on when it comes to “RPM Deathwatch! Week 3.” On the one hand, you’ve got Bob Dillner on NASCAR RaceHub reporting their haulers can’t even start heading to Arizona until a check clears in the middle of this week. My sources have told me all employees have been told to bring personal items home, because if they come to work one day and the doors are locked it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve their stuff. Ford just made a powerful bid for Chip Ganassi’s operation, one it arguably didn’t need as badly if RPM was coming back at least partially intact. Even AJ Allmendinger has come out in public and said he’s nervous about keeping his job. Yet you’ve got everyone from Richard Petty to Robbie Loomis to Ray Evernham saying that not only is this team in position to finish 2010 but they’re going to be full steam ahead into 2011 as well. And through it all, George Gillett hasn’t even really commented or issued a statement, one of many signs to me that the bank has now taken control of this operation in the interim until someone steps up with the money to pay the bills. See that, to me, is where the key to the future of this story lies. Will the bank accept new investors that will try to revitalize the program? Or will they do what my sources had told me a month ago; come to the conclusion it’s impossible to make their money back, fold up this operation, retrieve what they can through an auction and just wash their hands of the whole thing? Keep in mind that behind the scenes, NASCAR knows the negative publicity losing the King’s name off a racing program would cause. But would an organization that’s still collecting its own sponsors at the expense of dying teams be willing to put up silent money to keep Petty alive and well in the sport? A lot more questions than answers here.
  • Sorry, Kevin; you’re a nice guy, but my 2010 Rookie of the Year Award in Sprint Cup goes to… Trevor Bayne, with only one actual start to his credit. That alone should tell you the type of season for freshmen we just endured.
  • OK, so Terry Labonte fields a team at Texas with brother Bobby, says he hopes to run 14 or 15 races minimum in 2011 but admits the team doesn’t have sponsorship to run them. Now, he’s coming out of “retirement” to start-and-park a second car for Whitney Motorsports this week. Boy, that deal looks healthy… isn’t it sad to see he and Elliott reduced to taking some of these low-end operations (Awesome Bill is in the No. 26 this week, so God knows if he’ll even get a check for services rendered) to scrounge up whatever extra cash they can find?
  • I wonder if Martin Truex Jr. ever looks at the No. 1 ride and says “what if,” especially after days like Sunday?
  • As many fans have pointed out to me through email in recent weeks, how must Earnhardt Jr. feel that Hendrick is willing to move mountains for either the No. 48 or the No. 24 but he can’t even get a new crew chief? At least, not yet …
  • This Chase has gotten so wacky, I’m wild enough to think Harvick might surprise everyone, win Phoenix and tighten things up even further. He used to have a great track record there… how much would you have bet just one week ago that Homestead would be a battle between Harvick and Hamlin for the title, with Johnson a distant third and fading?

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