NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Sponsor Search, Martin’s “Retirement?” And Shocking Admissions

*Did You Notice?…* How many of the top teams still have races available for primary sponsors? We’ve only been through two days of the NASCAR Media tour, with several of the top programs still to go and the list that’s been accumulated is staggering. Take a look at the number of unsold races for the following teams:

*Stewart-Haas Racing*
*Tony Stewart (No. 14):* 9 of 36 races unsold (25%)
*Ryan Newman (No. 39):* 8 of 36 (22%)
*Danica Patrick (No. 10):* 3 of 36 (8%)
*TOTAL FOR TEAM:* 20 races unsold

*Richard Childress Racing*
*Jeff Burton (No. 31):* 9 of 36 races undetermined (supposedly fully secure, sponsorship pending)

*Michael Waltrip Racing*
*No. 55 car/Brian Vickers:* 9 of 36 races unannounced (Aaron’s only sponsoring car for Waltrip & Martin’s portion – 27 events)
*Clint Bowyer (No. 15):* 13 of 36 races unannounced (some sponsorship pending, but Bowyer indicated “a number of races” are available)
*TOTAL FOR TEAM:* 22 races unsold/unannounced

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Tony Stewart is part of a long list of top-tier car owners still seeking primary sponsorship in 2013.

If you add that up, we’re at 51! races, over a full season’s worth between these top-tier organizations where funding still needs to be found. Keep in mind we haven’t even visited Roush Fenway Racing yet, Earnhardt Ganassi, or Richard Petty Motorsports, each of whom are short funding for at least one car. Then, there’s the biggest “cash cow” of all, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. whose Hendrick Motorsports portion of the tour better come with a sponsorship pledge to replace AMP Energy on the side of his Chevrolet (the company scaled back significantly for 2013).

What gives? The problem is not so much the number of companies available; it’s the exorbitant amount of money teams are asking for per season. Of course, NASCAR racing doesn’t come cheap and the latest transitions into the Gen6 chassis come with a price tag that would make LeBron James hesitate. But as the competition peers across the aisle, gauging their rivals and looking to put a final price tag on things there are two main problems standing in the way of playing the cost-cutting game. #1: These organizations, whether it’s through loyalty to employees or their concerns about competing against others absolutely refuse to cut jobs. As long as one car goes to the wind tunnel, for example every top-tier team will do it and they’re all after the highest quality engineers to supervise. Money is no object, which leads to point No. 2: there’s not one iota of panic amongst these programs despite this plethora of blank hoods. That’s because the pockets behind the richest owners are so deep, filled with plenty of their own business connections they have no problem slapping a personal project on the hood (Hendrick Automotive, Haas Automation, etc.) if a primary backer doesn’t come through.

So despite a business model that’s screaming “no longer working” the rich guys are finding ways to cover that mounting red ink. It’s a worst-case scenario, keeping the price to play so high it’s squeezing out several new owners from even giving the sport the time of day. Some have become concerned that in the modern era of NASCAR, it’s gotten to the point you have a bunch of rich kids playing with their Daddy’s money to get in the driver’s seat. Well, how about a bunch of rich owners looking to spend their limitless cash?

This Media Tour has done absolutely nothing to dispute these theories, a flimsy Jenga tower of badly built business decisions. What about if Chevy were to pull back on manufacturing support, cash that clearly helps upper middle-class teams like Stewart-Haas stay on the right side of the profit margin? What if one of the older owners, in control passes away with no clear succession plan? Or their investors to help with those deep pockets pull out? The tightrope NASCAR walks on is increasingly dangerous for its long-term health.

*Did You Notice?…* Mark Martin is looking to bolt the No. 55 Toyota after the 2013 season? It’s not set in stone yet but Martin, who turned 54 this month has laid the groundwork for potentially swapping rides, claiming he’d like to see the car “run for a championship” in 2014 and staying in the seat “is not his intent.”

Surely, it’s premature to call this one a retirement announcement; with the way Martin’s 2012 wrapped up, he’s still as competitive as ever. But it’s important to note the disturbing pattern of what happens the second his “fake” retirement pledge and/or career jump enters a second season. If Martin were a stock, that CNBC guy would be shouting “Sell!” at the top of his lungs when studying the numbers below:

*2005 – Year 1 Of Roush’s Salute To You Tour*
1 Win, 12 Top 5s, 19 Top 10s, 4th in points.

*2006 – Year 2 Of Roush’s Salute To You Tour*
0 Wins, 7 Top 5s, 15 Top 10s, 9th in points.

*2007 – Year 1 Of Ginn Racing/DEI*
0 Wins, 5 Top 5s, 11 Top 10s in 24 starts. (Led points after four events before choosing to stick to shorter schedule)

*2008 – Year 2 Of Ginn Racing/DEI*
0 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 11 Top 10s in 24 starts.

*2009 – Year 1 Of Hendrick Motorsports*
5 Wins, 14 Top 5s, 21 Top 10s, 7 Poles, 2nd in points.

*2010 – Year 2 Of Hendrick Motorsports*
0 Wins, 7 Top 5s, 11 Top 10s, 1 Pole, 13th in points.

*2012 – Year 1 of Michael Waltrip Racing*
0 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 10 Top 10s, 4 Poles in 24 starts.

*2013 – ???*

Why the rollercoaster downward in year two? I think the biggest reason does concern Martin’s age. Yes, the man is in better shape than most 27-year-olds on the circuit but time can’t fool the mind – namely everyone else’s. Crewmen, who begin to think the year could be Martin’s last or wonder how much longer he’ll drive for the team seem to lose focus in year two. And in the big picture, after the Honeymoon Phase of Year 1 these major organizations feel they’ve squeezed the most out of Martin. He’s already come in and revamped the organization through his leadership, revitalizing an individual team through his presence. But then, sponsorship money comes into play, partnership that for a 50-something are simply limited; everyone is too afraid “this year” will be the one Martin’s age catches up to him. And that, more often than not ends with this driver getting the short end of the stick in both equipment and crew commitment.

Will 2013 be different? Part of me says yes, because Michael Waltrip in particular is so grateful for Martin swooping in and saving the program. But history, my friends, has a way of repeating itself far more often than we give it credit for.

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Bruton Smith wants the practice of “start-and-parking” to stop in NASCAR… but what he didn’t offer to the media this week was an actual solution to the problem.

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

– You’ve got to give credit where it’s due. Not enough applause is being given to Brian France’s plan for a new “jet drying” program, one that could have even Daytona ready to race in 30 minutes or less. Fans tired of having to attend Monday races should see this policy pay off at least once in 2013, extending a race to completion when it would otherwise be shortened or postponed.

– Bruton Smith says he wants to stop the start-and-park system, asking the media to “use their influence” to curb the practice. Well, Bruton, how about you pony up a policy at your racetracks that offers a bonus for finishing “x” number of laps in the event? A bigger paycheck, along with parity will make these teams decide to race; as one of the sport’s richest men, I’d suggest Smith get working on putting his money where his mouth is. The power of the pen can only do so much…

– For fans looking for a playoff change, within the next year or two don’t hold your breath. Brian France on the latest innovation of the Chase: “We like the emphasis on winning, winning your way in and so on. I think that’s exactly what we want.” The next opportunity for this system to be scrapped, in my opinion is through television negotiations for the second half of the schedule, a new deal that would start in 2015.

– Some other takeaways I had from the NASCAR press conference that have gone underreported: the organization is not considering heat races on the Sprint Cup level, at least within the next season or two. This revamped qualifying system, beginning in 2013 (which eliminates the top 35) will be all you’ll get. Finally, it was surprising to see admissions from even the top executive of how much the Car of Tomorrow might have damaged the sport. From France: “Obviously, we got away from some things that historically worked well for us.” That caused Mike Helton to respond, “We shouldn’t stick a dagger in the [CoT] program and say man, we’re glad you’re gone, because that era, that [CoT] created a lot of great moments for NASCAR.”

The only response I would have for Mr. Helton would be if it was the car itself creating those “historic” moments – or the drivers _fighting through_ the obstacles the car presented for competitive racing in order to do so.

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