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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?… Earnhardt’s Financial Flaw, NASCAR Tire Testing For Two And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?…* Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is coming back with no real incentive to do so? Yes, you can tell me all you want about how Earnhardt loves to race, there’s still four chances to win and an outside shot to sneak back inside the top 10 in points, an improvement that would give the driver a little extra TV time at the Las Vegas Championship banquet. At heart, these men are racers, the passion for their craft pushing them to get back in the driver’s seat as quickly as possible. But outside of Martinsville, the No. 88 hasn’t exactly had the history as of late to suggest wins will come at Texas, Phoenix, or Homestead. Momentum for 2013 is a moot point, both in setup notes and at-track finishes as a new car will wipe the slate clean come Daytona. And while Earnhardt could assist teammate Jimmie Johnson with setup information, their relationship being better than Johnson and Regan Smith’s, it’s arguable that Smith was producing better results, driving quickly into the top 10 at Charlotte before blowing the engine and slotting in seventh at Kansas, the team’s best all-around performance since Michigan in August.

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Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is in a position he hasn’t seen much during his 14-year Sprint Cup career: courting a new primary sponsor to fill a number of open races on his No. 88 Chevrolet.

So why is Earnhardt back behind the wheel — and why didn’t someone at HMS say “stop” with a capable sub in Smith already hired? The answer may be in the form of this week’s big story, from the Sports Business Journal. PepsiCo is reducing their primary sponsorship on the No. 88 Chevy in 2013 to just a handful of races. While suspected for months, no replacement deal is formally signed to fill the void and the current lineup leaves 13 races open for “Hendrickcars.com” or a blank hood for the sport’s Most Popular Driver in 2013. It’s a situation Earnhardt has never been in throughout his career: trying to sign on the dotted line with a financial backer after September. Heck, whoever fills the void will be just the fourth full-time, primary sponsor in Earnhardt’s career at the Cup level.

If you’re thinking I’m insinuating the guy won’t get the funding… you’re wrong. HMS has been anticipating PepsiCo’s change for months and has a number of businesses lined up as replacements. But any good company, with this economy, is smart about the way they spend their money and will use any potential situation to gain an advantage. Let’s say Earnhardt didn’t come back, sat the rest of the season and said he’ll return in February, 2013. Company A will go, “What’s my guarantee Earnhardt will come back good as new? He didn’t prove it to me. I’m about to give $10 million for x races for a great unknown… sorry, I’m knocking $2 million off the final price. Take it or leave it. Or, you put out clause A in this deal I get to bail if Earnhardt doesn’t finish above xx position four times in the first five races…”

You get the point. Considering Earnhardt is the biggest moneymaker for this organization – at one point, primary sponsorship for the No. 88 was rumored to total $40 million over a 36-race schedule – those potential “discounts” could add up to a lot. I’m not saying it’s fair, but reality in a world where safety is preached yet the only clear sense of comfort, for all parties in sports is when there’s a few extra zeroes in that bank account. Hendrick needs to prove Earnhardt is healthy, period which is likely why he made that overzealous statement Sunday at Kansas only to take it back hours later in a bizarre mea culpa. People have caught on to the fact Earnhardt isn’t the gate attraction he once was – ratings declined just 1.5 percent during his absence – and the man has only won two races since the start of the 2007 season. At some point, that track record is going to catch up with him if major companies sniff he’s an injury risk on top of it. And so, the media onslaught will begin this week, like we saw on ESPN _SportsCenter_ where you half expected the HMS janitor to come out with a quote celebrating the moment Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was spotted walking down the hall at HMS headquarters. The full court press is on, good business sense for all parties involved.

After all, the only place you don’t play it safe in the corporate world is when it comes to collecting cold, hard cash. Right?

*Did You Notice?…* Who’s on the roster for Goodyear’s Phoenix tire test this week? None other than our current point leader, Brad Keselowski along with third-place point man Denny Hamlin. Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Kasey Kahne are shut out of this two-day “practice” in the desert as the tire company’s exclusive invites didn’t arrive at their doorstep.

Yes, Hendrick-allied Tony Stewart is down at the test, feedback that you know will filter straight back into the hands of the No. 48. Johnson’s average finish at the track, a healthy series-best 5.3, suggests extra practice for J.J. would be like trying to have Michael Jordan practice shooting free throws in crunch time. Why go down and prep for a facility you’ve already mastered?

No, in the Johnson camp their anger should be directed more at the extra opportunity afforded Hamlin and Keselowski. The No. 11 car already won Phoenix in the spring; this extra test gives that camp another strong advantage heading into November’s penultimate Sprint Cup event. Keselowski, meanwhile, was fifth last time around, one spot behind Johnson, and now gets two full days to tweak a possible setup. With NASCAR’s current testing policy, banning unapproved practice at any Chase-sanctioned track, that in theory puts the No. 48 at an unfair disadvantage.

To be fair, Johnson has been on the other side of this whole testing debacle. Greg Biffle openly criticized him for participation in an extra tire test at Dover, one conducted shortly before the No. 48 came in and whooped the field a few years back. But in both cases, the rules that allow for Goodyear to tap a Chaser to help them is simply unfair. There’s plenty of teams with unlimited time on their hands this Fall: Furniture Row Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, and JTG-Daugherty Racing are just some of the cars with limited Chase connections and an ability to come down and help test. Why not give some of these underdogs more track time, giving them a leg up towards the end of 2012 while removing the accusations of bias and impropriety?

All it takes, sometimes is a little common sense.

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Richard Petty is a big supporter of Marcos Ambrose, who is expected to re-sign with the car owner for 2013. But Aric Almirola? That’s a little less clear.

*Did You Notice?…* in the Richard Petty Motorsports renewal with Ford on Friday: “The driver lineup for 2013’s Sprint Cup cars is still being finalized.” Five minutes later, Marcos Ambrose was in front of a camera stating he was working on a deal but notice Aric Almirola was nowhere to be found. That “in limbo” status, a combination of sponsorship concerns and poor performance likely contributed to the youngster’s sense of urgency Sunday, a race he nearly ran away with during a 69 laps led performance cut short by multiple flat tires. It was the best race of Almirola’s career, but ultimately one he didn’t finish, another case of unfulfilled potential in his file that has gotten big enough to put him “on the bubble” for his return to the
No. 43. Without a top-10 finish since Dover in June, he’s finished on the lead lap just once since Michigan in August and has dropped to a disappointing 21st in points. One thing working in Almirola’s favor, though: who is out there to pick up the slack? The top free agent remaining, Regan Smith seems set to sign over in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports while Trevor Bayne and Brian Vickers appear content with their part-time rides over this option. RPM’s owners are the type that are looking to make a splash; so unless some random open-wheel convert becomes available, ala Jacques Villeneuve you wonder if Almirola might not just earn a second chance by default. Longshot candidate that hasn’t talked to them, but who should be on the list: AJ Allmendinger. If this team was going gaga over Kurt Busch, why not take a second look at the man they should have never let go in the first place? It’s the one organization where they could probably collect enough sponsorship and private funding to overcome the stigma of a positive drug test.

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off:

– It’s hard to believe that it’s now almost 25 years since a blue Stroh’s Light car with Mark Martin at the wheel debuted in the Daytona 500 with a fresh-eyed, focused owner named Jack Roush. Now the owner of a multi-car, two-time Cup Series champion organization, Roush will make his 3,000th Cup start as an owner on Sunday at Martinsville after those humble beginnings in 1988. The list of drivers behind the wheel for him include two Future Hall Of Famers (Martin, Matt Kenseth), three wannabes (Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch) and two current drivers with that type of upward potential (Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) But check out this list of other “Where Are They Now?” journeymen that have spent some time in a Roush car: Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Ted Musgrave, Chad Little, Johnny Benson, Jr., Kevin Lepage, Dave Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Kenny Wallace, Todd Kluever, and David Ragan. Interesting tidbit: of all those drivers, Blaney is the only one to just make a single start for the organization, filling in for the No. 99 ride during the Fall of 2004 at Charlotte.

– Can you believe we’re one year removed from Brian Vickers, the giant wrecking ball? It was in the Martinsville race one year ago “Vickers chose to bowl over Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and seemingly half the Martinsville field at will in his Red Bull(dozer) Toyota.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuegYl4DhRg After a second incident, with Kenseth at Phoenix a few weeks later some wondered if he would ever have a full-time ride in Sprint Cup again. And here were are, heading into this Fall’s edition and Vickers will not only be an automatic qualifier; he’s a darkhorse to win the race. In his eighth and final drive behind the No. 55 Toyota this season, Vickers is a candidate for Comeback Driver of The Year but will be an interesting driver to watch as the race unfolds. More than anyone, he has nothing to lose and is trying to impress perspective future sponsors he’s worth a fourth Michael Waltrip Racing car. With the past history here, combined with the excitement and aggression he’s one guy I’d tiptoe around if a Chase contender.

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