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Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Real Silly Season Story: Not Carl, Contraction

*Did You Notice?*… The reason the Carl Edwards saga won’t go away? Sure, the sport’s most popular free agent has been begging for privacy, impossible to receive in this age of public transparency where every celebrity’s move is documented in full. Too many drivers, team members, and heck, even sponsors are affected by this decision for them to sit in silence, working off Carl’s schedule as the clock slowly ticks towards Homestead.

But the sad part about this whole scenario is these people are on edge because, just like the current economy, NASCAR is very much an _employer’s_ market. Drivers like Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Trevor Bayne, even Brian Vickers know their _only_ opportunities could come if Edwards opens the door – and a ride – at Roush Fenway Racing. That’s it; there’s no plan B, temp agency or million-dollar reality game show ready to save them. Should the door stay closed, with Edwards re-signing at the only Cup home he’s ever known chances are little, if any movement will take place in a Silly Season where no money has scared it perfectly straight. It’s the story of the season to come, a deepening crisis as despite ratings and attendance evening out financing continues to dry up faster than the Sahara desert.

Let’s look at the landscape; right now, there’s 35 – yes, just 35 – teams who are running the entire schedule without start-and-parking. Add in the Wood Brothers, and you’ll have 36 for 2012 with the promise of a new, part-time Stewart-Haas team (driven by Danica Patrick) extending that number to 37. That’s it; there’s no new owners entering the sport, no magical investors looking to stock cars over the long-term. Instead, money issues that once eroded the middle class have worked their way up to the top of the ladder; that “35” number is likely to decline once again as even the rich, country club elite are no longer safe:

*Roush Fenway Racing:* Besides the Edwards saga, they have only one primary sponsor (3M) signed for their four-car fleet next season. *Trevor Bayne,* a Roush protégé who’s also the biggest Daytona 500 surprise in history can’t even use that win to get sponsorship. Unless the price tag goes down, former champion Matt Kenseth, along with David Ragan (or some other young driver) will go to Daytona with blank quarterpanels on the sides of their cars.

*Richard Childress Racing:* *Kevin Harvick’s* sponsorship is secure, along with *Jeff Burton’s* and Indy winner *Paul Menard.* But the team has struggled to find a backer for *Clint Bowyer,* who reportedly still has races _this season_ without a primary sponsor and will not be fully funded by General Mills in 2012. Considering Bowyer’s postseason consistency – he’s made the Chase three of the last four years – a company would be foolish not to back him. But we’ve seen this song and dance before; remember Casey Mears and Jack Daniel’s? RCR had plenty of notice that sponsorship was ending, yet after an exhausting search chose to slim down their operation rather than take a risk by spreading the wealth across four cars to start the following season. And while Bowyer has a better track record than Mears, his image is, well, about as politically correct; he doesn’t stand out in a crowd, and that hurts him in the boardroom. This one could come down to the wire…

*Stewart-Haas Racing:* Yes, Danica Patrick brings much-needed money and the promise of a third car. But what about *Ryan Newman* and the second team, whose Army sponsorship has been put on the chopping block multiple times up on Capitol Hill? Rumors persist more money is needed for 2012, otherwise Stewart will be forced to scale back to – gulp – a one-car, full-time operation.

*Red Bull Racing:* With RBR ownership jumping ship, GM Jay Frye is desperate to find investors that will simply keep the two-car team from folding. There’s no guarantee the sponsor will stick around, and with Mark Martin unwilling to take on an ownership role their future grows murkier by the day.

*Michael Waltrip Racing / JTG:* Rumors are beginning to crop up fellow Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing could steal NAPA as a sponsor; that puts the future of Martin Truex, Jr. and the No. 56 in jeopardy. Armed with an investor, Rob Kauffman you would think the team is safe but as for his partners at the No. 47? Not so much; Bobby Labonte’s single-car operation is living on a bunch of one-year deals.

*Joe Gibbs Racing:* If Carl Edwards doesn’t come on over, it’s no guarantee *Joey Logano* keeps his ride as Home Depot has to be convinced to stay on board. The Nationwide program is already hurting, with the team’s second car, the No. 20, withdrawn from multiple races despite leading the owner point standings before their first skip. Could we see an ugly Cup contraction back down from three cars to two?

*Safe:* Hendrick Motorsports (four cars fully funded), Penske Racing (two), Earnhardt Ganassi (two), Richard Petty Motorsports (two – we assume, as long as the investors don’t pull out for the umpteenth straight year), Furniture Row Racing (one)

*Unknown Statuses / Partial Sponsorships:* Front Row Motorsports (Nos. 34/38), FAS Lane Racing (No. 32), TRG Motorsports (No. 71), Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 32), Phoenix Racing (No. 51)

Notice that nowhere in this description of Silly Season did I mention the words _open ride._ Instead, what we have are a bunch of blank race cars, partnered with a bunch of experienced, capable, and – shall I say it? – increasingly _desperate_ drivers just looking to find a home. With half-a-dozen sponsorships up in the air, it seems impossible every car in question will be able to return next season, leaving us with nine, maybe ten start-and-parkers in some of the smaller events. What happens when men like Bowyer are forced to bump Mears out of a ride at Germain, choosing a 20-race schedule and parking in the other events simply to bring home a paycheck at the end of the day? What in the world does that say about the health of their sport?

So of course everyone is focused on what Carl Edwards does. Should he open the door just that little bit, bolting RFR for greener pastures elsewhere you can bet the unemployed will be grabbing at that door like a bunch of vultures. It’s the world of NASCAR today, where opportunity at the sport’s highest level has been reduced to present and future top-level drivers picking through a bunch of scraps.

*Did You Notice?…* Though, in this world where sponsorship grows scarce there’s a reason: the advertising no longer is worth a certain price. Check out the top 10 numbers from Joyce Julius & Associates, which tracks the driver’s sponsorship exposure each week based on television time, interviews, and other factors:

*1. Kyle Busch* – $38.3 Million in exposure (Projected 2011 Exposure: $78.6M)
*2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* $26.58 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $53.16M)
*3. Jimmie Johnson.* $24.39 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $48.78M)
*4. Jeff Gordon.* $21.59 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $43.18M)
*5. Kevin Harvick.* $21.07 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $42.14M)
*6. Carl Edwards.* $20.73 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $41.46M)
*7. Kurt Busch.* $19.17 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $39.34M)
*8. Tony Stewart.* $17.91 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $35.82M)
*9. Denny Hamlin.* $17.08 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $34.00M)
*10. Matt Kenseth. $13.91 Million (Projected 2011 Exposure: $27.82M)

Sure, at face value those are exceptionally large numbers at the top; there’s no question Kyle Busch is giving M&M’s the bang for their buck. But take a look at how much there’s a dropoff down to just 10th-place Matt Kenseth. Remember how Carl Edwards’ sponsor, AFLAC, was paying $26 million per season? Compare that to the $27.82 Million Kenseth would give in exposure; if AFLAC was on the side of his Ford, they’d just barely be breaking even with their investment. Could you imagine how much the decline is for 20th on down, especially with television’s penchant to focus on a select few drivers during the race?

That’s the dangerous disconnect within the sport right now; the business world, in the form of Fortune 500 sponsors who’ve been there, done that no longer see the bang for their buck. A world of 43 racers has been reduced to oh, about a dozen that are worth it and the price tag is kept so high it’s increasingly impossible for anyone else to get on the playing field. NASCAR has to recognize the depth of the problem, and quickly while figuring out a way to drive down prices in a world without franchising – far from an easy task, along with driving “parity” into the broadcasters’ heads when it comes to coverage. Because if they don’t… we’re looking at 20 fully-funded cars by 2014, maybe sooner.

*Did You Notice?* … A few quick hits to wrap up this financial edition:

– I’m not surprised *Morgan Shepherd* is on the verge of selling his Nationwide team. It’s been a valiant effort, but the speed has been lacking, as well as the sponsorship while with Blake Koch’s DayStar program the organization isn’t even the only religious game in town anymore. Turning 70 in October, Shepherd has had one of the more unique careers of any NASCAR driver in history, but perhaps it’s finally his time to hang it up.

– One guy to keep an eye on for the future: Dave Blaney’s son Ryan. Watching that ARCA race at Lucas Oil Raceway last week, boy did that kid impress me, nearly toppling *Ty Dillon* in the closing stages and challenging for victory. Just 17, don’t be surprised to see him bidding to get in a Truck or Nationwide Series car by next season.

– Just 29 trucks on the initial entry list for Pocono? Yikes! What is this, 1995? After an influx of fresh money to the series this year, the funding has run out and the series finds itself with a rocky financial future over the long-term. At this point, with both the Nationwide and Truck Series barely surviving separately is it time to combine them into one minor league division?

– Besides Denny Hamlin, the only drivers with any realistic shot of sliding into the top 10 in points are *Clint Bowyer,* *Greg Biffle,* and *Kasey Kahne.* But none of them finished in the top 10 at Pocono this Spring; that can’t happen again this Sunday, otherwise they’ll need wins, not consistency to sneak in through the “wild card” system. Dale Jr. can only fall so far…

*Connect with Tom!*
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