Numbers Waning On Winston Cup Tour

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

The entry list for Sunday’s “Carolina Dodge Dealers 400” NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway includes only 42 cars, for a race that is advertised to start 43. Among the entrants is Joe Nemechek’s #26 Ford, which is widely rumored not to be making the trip due to lack of sponsorship. In addition, journeyman Carl Long has withdrawn from this weekend’s race due to not having enough cars ready.

Last year’s November event at New Hampshire International Speedway - rescheduled after the September 11 terrorist attacks - started one car short of a full field when the Eel River Racing operation folded between the time qualifying occurred in September and the race in November. Prior to that, the last time a Winston Cup race failed to fill the field was October of 1997 at Talladega.

Despite what Alan Greenspan says on the evening news, the economic downturn continues in the land of NASCAR. A handful of Winston Cup teams - the Brett Bodine team and Nemechek’s Hass-Carter operation, which has already laid off a dozen crewmen, to name just two - are teetering on the brink of financial ruin, and may be forced to close their doors if sponsorship cannot be found. One step further down the ladder, an even larger number of NASCAR Busch Series teams - including Vermont’s Kevin Lepage - are contemplating closing their doors due to lack of sponsorship.

The economy, however, is only part of the problem. In the end, the skyrocketing cost of sponsoring a NASCAR team has driven many potential sponsors out of the sport. Top-flight Winston Cup teams now command $12-15 million per season for major sponsorship, with associate sponsors shelling out $1-3 million. Simply put, there are a finite number of companies out there willing to shell-out that kind of cash, even with the burgeoning television ratings NASCAR racing now enjoys.

Has NASCAR priced itself out of the market? Or is the current situation a simple blip on the radar; a short-term situation that will remedy itself when the economy rebounds. A number of NASCAR teams hope the former is true.

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The howling continues over Matt Kenseth’s supposedly “tainted” Winston Cup win at Rockingham two weeks ago. Kenseth’s winning Ford Taurus was found to be Ľ inch low in post race inspection, prompting NASCAR to fine his crewchief a total of $30,000. Kenseth, however, was allowed to keep the win and its accompanying championship points, much to the chagrin of some observers.

In our view, the Kenseth debate is a tempest in a teapot; much ado about nothing. And apparently, we’re not alone. One of the most respected car owners in NASCAR racing commented on the flap recently, praising NASCAR’s handling of the situation.

“(Kenseth’s team) didn’t go low on purpose, we all know that,” said Eddie Wood, owner of Elliott Sadler’s Motorcraft Ford. “We do everything we can to get the car out of the air. To do that, you want the springs as soft as possible. The car settles, and it’s because you have soft stuff in it.

“It’s like buying a box of cereal,” said Wood. “On that box, they say, ‘Contents may settle.’ Well, you open it up and get p----d off and say ‘I got screwed, I don’t have all the Frosted Flakes I’m supposed to have.’ It’s the same deal here.

“(Winston Cup director John) Darby and his guys know what’s going on,” Wood said. “They know all about racecars. To take a win away from Matt would be an injustice. You could have checked all 40 cars, and 30 might have been low.”

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Promoter C.V. Elms, III, has announced that the 2002 Twin State Modified Series has been expanded to 15 events. Contested at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford and the Canaan (NH) Speedway, the Twin State Series will feature 40-lap main events for small block modified racers. Last season's series produced eight different feature winners in 11 events.

Elms has scheduled eight Saturday night series races at Bear Ridge, with the remaining seven on Friday nights at the Canaan quarter-mile. All will be run as part of four-division racing cards. Lebanon, NH, driver Randy Howe is the defending champion of the Twin State Modified Series, and was one of only two multiple race winners last summer. Other 2001 winners included Chris Donnelly, Vince Quenneville Jr, Jim Ryan, Dan Douville, Troy Gray, Paul Parker and Don Scarborough. The 2002 Twin State Modified Series will begin at Bear Ridge on Saturday, May 4.

The Sportsman Coupes will race every week on the quarter-mile Canaan oval, as well. Elms announced this week that the popular Coupe division will become a weekly fixture at Canaan this season, replacing the Late Model class, which suffered from low car counts last year.

The Coupes will contest a nine-race Sunoco Twin State Coupe Series of special 40-lap events sponsored by New England Racing Fuels. That Series will also run at Canaan (four events) and Bear Ridge. Elms has relaxed body rules for the division's inaugural season at Canaan, in an effort to attract more competitors to the class. Coupe Series events run at Bear Ridge will allow the Canaan body styles to participate, but the more stringent body rules will remain in force for the track's other 18 events. The Sunoco Twin State Coupe Series will at Bear Ridge on Saturday, May 25.

 

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Just three races into the NASCAR season, the driver firing has already begun. The first head to roll belonged to second-generation Busch Series driver Andy Houston, who was released by the No. 92 Excedrin Chevrolet. Todd Bodine will reportedly replace Houston, after seeing his #66 Winston Cup team shut-down due to lack of sponsorship. Kelly Denton has also been released from the #54 GC Toys Busch Series Chevrolet last week, after a pair of lackluster performances at Daytona and Rockingham. He has been replaced by Kevin Grubb.

Crewchiefs are not immune to the carnage, either. Team owners Jim Smith and Ray Evernham fired Casey Atwood's crewchief, Kevin Cram this week, replacing him on an interim basis with veteran Buddy "Red Dog" Barnes.

…Buckshot Jones still has a job this week, but as the old saying goes, he’s not buying any green bananas. Kyle Petty, who owns Jones’ #44 Georgia Pacific-sponsored Dodge, failed to quell reports that Jones will be fired soon, saying only that Petty Enterprises has a five-year contract with the Georgia driver. He admitted, however, that he has told the entire race team that better finishes must come soon, or changes will be made.

"A lot of people are on the hot seat," said Petty. "Petty Enterprises is on the hot seat (with our sponsors). The way we’ve run for a year, the sponsors are screaming a little bit. They want us to run better. They’re not mad at us, but they want us to run better.”

Jones -- who had no top-10 finishes last year and failed to qualify for six races, en route to a 41st-place finish in Winston Cup point standings - responded to the rumors by notching a 12th place finish at Atlanta, the best showing of his Winston Cup career. Should that trend not continue, Joe Nemechek is rumored to be a prime candidate to replace the crash-prone Jones.

…Busch Series rookie Ricky Hendrick dislocated his right shoulder two weeks ago at Las Vegas, and will be sidelined for approximately six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair ligament damage. Hendrick, son of Winston Cup car owner Rick Hendrick, will be replaced by former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday, who drove a Hendrick-owned truck in the season opener at Daytona.

…Steve Park tested twice last week at Darlington, and should return soon to the Pennzoil Chevrolet, possibly even in this weekend’s “Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.” Kenny Wallace, who replaced Park during his lengthy recovery from injuries suffered in a bizarre Busch Series crash late last year, remains under contract with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., but said recently that he has another Winston Cup ride waiting, if he can secure his release from that contract.

Sources say Wallace’s new opportunity may be with the CLR-sponsored #57 team, which recently parted ways with driver Derrike Cope after experiencing little success in a limited schedule of races over the past two seasons.

…What a difference a year makes. Despite clinching the 2001 Winston Cup Championship, Jeff Gordon has not posted a top-five finish since winning at Kansas last season, a span of twelve races that equals his worst career drought. The good news? Gordon has finished each of the last 35 races, the longest streak of non-DNFs in the sport.

…NASCAR officials are considering a policy of "green-white-checker" finishes in the Winston Cup division. That policy is already used on the Craftsman Truck Series, and on several regional tours. The rule would call for every race to end with at least two laps of green-flag racing, mandating the use of a red flag for track cleanup following late-race crashes. Backers of the move say it gives fans the green-flag finish they paid to see, while detractors claim the policy will ultimately result in a driver losing a race he deserves to win, after running out of fuel during the “overtime” laps. The new policy also raises the unappetizing prospect of the second-place driver's teammate intentionally bringing out a late caution flag in order to give his teammate a chance to win.

…Wanna go to Daytona? The “World Center of Racing” is set to hold a two-day ticket blitz March 13 and 14, offering a special ticket package for the July 4-6 “Pepsi 400” weekend. The package includes prime seats in the Winston, Earnhardt or Petty Tower, a pre-race pit tour, and a preferred parking pass, for only $230. In addition to the special pricing, fans purchasing tickets on those days will be entered into a drawing for the chance to win a trip to the Pepsi 400 Victory Lane.

…Former Busch North Series favorite Andy Santerre is expected to return to the BNS this season, on at least a limited basis. Despite winning a race on the southern Busch Series two years ago, the Cherryfield, Maine, native has failed to secure backing for a full time southern effort in 2002, and instead will reportedly make a limited number of starts on the Busch North Tour in the same cars he fielded for Massachusetts driver Tom Carey a year ago.