O Opinions & Commentary

NASCAR 2009: Doom and Gloom?

Since the stock market tanked last fall, it seems as if everything has gone into a tail spin. Having seen the CEOs of the Detroit Three in Washington begging for handouts lest their once-mighty automotive companies collapse within weeks, you can’t help wondering what 2009 holds for auto racing.

In America, NASCAR Sprint Cup is the series that relies most heavily on sponsorship support – be that from the car manufacturers or from other businesses who use NASCAR as a part of their marketing plan. As the sponsors and the race fans cut back their spending in the shadow of the economic hard times, you have to expect that this will hurt racing – but especially those race series that rely on big injections of money from sponsors.

Already it is clear that NASCAR has been hard hit. Since the end of the 2008 season we have been hearing over and over again about teams shutting down, the so-called team mergers. It seems as if almost every team has been laying off people.

This did not just start last November. For example, in 2008, the ambitious Ginn team collapsed into Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. This year, Chip Ganassi shut down his No. 40 team mid-season, throwing Dario Franchitti out of a ride.

Recently we have seen the ‘merger’ of DEI with Ganassi’s team to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. To me this is like the so-called merger of Champ Car with the IRL – really more of DEI failing and Ganassi cherry picking over the remnants of the DEI operation. In the end, we now have one four-car team where we had two last year. But this collapse of DEI was widely predicted a year ago when Dale Earnhardt Junior – the living embodiment of the Earnhardt brand – walked away from the team.

More recently, the venerable Petty Enterprises has collapsed into the also-struggling Gillett-Evernham team to form one team where there were two multi-car teams before. And, on a minor note, the Hall of Fame team, which struggled last year, has become part of the Yates team (which is, in turn affiliated with Jack Roush’s team) with former Petty driver Bobby Labonte in the car.

Bill Davis Racing was also struggling and has now sold out to the duo of Marty Gaunt and Mike Held who have formed a new Triad team after laying off all the former BDR employees. Gaunt, who go this start here in Ontario, originally headed up the new Red Bull Toyota Cup team. This deal smells to me like it might be a front operation for Toyota as it tries to walk the fine line between NASCAR’s desire for the race teams to be independent operations and Toyota’s drive to be in control of its racing ventures.

In the midst of all this doom and gloom comes word of a new team. Tommy Baldwin, an experienced crew chief and Busch Series team owner, plans to run a one (or more?) Toyotas in the Cup series.

If all that makes it sound like NASCAR’s premier series is falling apart, consider the ‘good news’.

The top four teams will continue pretty much unchanged – Hendrick, Roush, Childress and Penske. With those fifteen cars at the front of the field, you are guaranteed solid racing in 2009 even if no one else shows up. In fact, the unofficial count by Jayski (jayski.com) lists 41 cars that are committed right now for the full 2009 season.

Looking at last year’s drivers’ points standings, every one of the top 30 drivers in 2008 will be back in a good full-season ride for 2009. The team mergers have messed up the carry-over of owners’ points into 2009 a bit, but every one of the all-important top 35 points holders will be back this year – except for two of the DEI entries which were dropped in the merger with Ganassi.

Yes, some of these front-of-field cars may lack sponsorship on occasion, but Jack Roush has demonstrated that it is possible for a solid race team to run a car or two without sponsorship and still be okay.

Even if these 35 ‘guaranteed starters’ were the whole field, they would produce just as good racing as the now-familiar 43-car fields. After all, those also-rans have little to do with who wins the race or who is in contention for the championship other than as mobile obstacles, sometimes crash-causers and occasionally driver-audition vehicles. Don’t forget, the idea of 43 starters at every race is pretty new – not long ago fields of 30 or so were commonplace on the short tracks.

But I do expect full fields for the most part. Jayski’s count of 41 cars committed to the whole season supports that. I also believe that, while it may be incredibly expensive to build and campaign a championship calibre Cup car, the basic cars are relatively inexpensive to buy and to run. Modest teams, one step above the Morgan Shepherd start-and-park style, will fill up the fields. With all the team mergers there should be a lot of the ‘new’ (the so-called ‘car of tomorrow’) cars available at fire-sale prices. The top teams rebuild their drive trains and replace all the critical parts after just one or two races. These ‘good used’ parts trickle down to the bottom-feeder teams lower in the pecking order.

While I expect that the Cup fields will look pretty much the same as in recent years, the other two series may well be struggling in 2009. There’s talk that there may be fewer than 20 trucks in the newly-renamed Camping World Truck Series.

The Speedweeks at Daytona always attract big fields after the winter off-season. The races that follow – at Fontana, Las Vegas, Atlanta – will tell the tale.

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