Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Risk vs. Stability, And What The NFL Can Learn From NASCAR

*Did You Notice?…* Kurt Busch’s pick of Furniture Row was based on finances more than future success? Yes, he had offers from plenty of other programs, and Richard Petty Motorsports in particular would have loved to add him. But after a year with Phoenix, in which sponsorship has been near impossible to come by, Busch knows the obstacles at stake in NASCAR today. There are no new companies waltzing in for a 36-race schedule, and the ones remaining know all about the 2004 Cup Series champ and his personal _Days Of Our Lives_ history with the fans, media, NASCAR officials … you name it. You don’t erase that “bad boy” image up at corporate in less than ten months, no matter how many touchy-feely statements people make before you enter the boardroom. Let’s not forget, this “recovery period” included a one-race suspension for swearing and personal misconduct, applied after a postrace interview at the same track we’re headed to this weekend: Dover.

For Kurt Busch, after a tumultuous 2012 with little to show for on-track results stability – and the funding that comes with it – framed his mindset for 2013 and beyond.

That meant for Busch, any of the options with NASCAR’s top-tier or even “middle class” teams would come with the words “if we get sponsorship.” Well, Matt Kenseth as the _point leader_ was still looking for backing at points this season. Joey Logano waited, unsuccessfully to find funding to remain with Joe Gibbs Racing in a fourth car. Tony Stewart, last year’s champion, is losing Office Depot as a primary sponsor… you get the picture. Finding a Fortune 500 partner, even in good NASCAR times, was going to be a diamond in the rough for Busch as it is; now, it’s impossible for a bunch of owners who like the _idea_ of him in the car but, in reality, can only offer some false promises and a brief one-week window of media attention before the ride never materializes.

Even in an unsponsored car, Busch now knows the difficulty of working with limited funding. In this age of engineering over wheelmen, it’s impossible for him to take a 30th-place car, even with “B” level Hendrick chassis, and gain the tenth or two needed to jump up and compete with the “A” group of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the Gang Of Unlimited Resources. Another season like that, and Busch would collect just a handful of top-10 finishes, be two years removed from the Chase and wind up teetered on the cliff of Permanent Racing Irrelevancy.

That’s why Furniture Row Racing, with its rock solid funding through family-owned sponsorship, becomes such an attractive proposition for Busch. He has to worry about pleasing just one person – owner Barney Visser – and the money to compete will always be there. Yes, Visser is the religious type, not exactly a guy who’s going to play defense when his driver just issued a bunch of expletives on the radio. But that’s where the partnership with Richard Childress Racing comes in; behind the chassis and engine package is a guy who knows how tempers can sometimes get the best of you. Childress is a big supporter of Busch, had briefly courted sponsorship for him and would like nothing more than to a successful partnership with his equipment. When mistakes happen – and with Busch, you know they will – that’s a powerful enough person in his corner to keep the peace.

Will this equipment be good enough for Busch to be successful? Right now, current driver Regan Smith sits just 23rd in points, without a top-5 finish and just two laps led on the year. But before you say it’ll be “same old, same old” with a different driver in 2013, keep in mind the struggles that have plagued both ECR engines and Childress chassis all season long. No one racing them has one win on the Cup level, only Kevin Harvick has made the Chase out of that group, and they all look a step behind the Hendrick-Roush-Gibbs-Penske juggernaut.

So if RCR can catch up in the offseason, putting a few extra hours in the wind tunnel? Expect Kurt Busch to come through on his promise for this year – putting together the best effort for a single-car team in well over a decade.

*Did You Notice?…* With Busch’s signing, combined with Brian Vickers’ likely trek to the Nationwide Series, the Sprint Cup level appears to be in crisis mode when it comes to a 43-car, 2013 grid? At the moment, roughly eight spots each week are filled by the dreaded start-and-parks (for those who have been living under a rock – they’re cars who comes to the track with no intention of even running the distance.) One or two of them? That’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things. But right now, we’re looking at nearly 19 percent of the starting field and a number that threatens to grow in 2013.

Consider that only the following teams have full funding…
*Hendrick Motorsports – 4 cars*
*Richard Childress Racing – 3*
*Joe Gibbs Racing – 3*
*Roush Fenway Racing – 3*
*Michael Waltrip Racing – 3*
*Earnhardt Ganassi Racing – 2*
*Stewart-Haas Racing – 2 (Danica Patrick and ?Tony Stewart?)*
*Penske Racing – 2*
*TOTAL: 22*

Behind them, you’ve got the “middle class” of NASCAR, a dwindling breed…
*BK Racing – 2 cars*
*Front Row Motorsports – 2*
*Germain Racing – 1*
*Furniture Row – 1*
*TOTAL: 28*

That’s a startling number, barely more than two-thirds of the grid as sponsorship concerns grow like a life-threatening disease inside the Cup Series garage. Consider the following questions:

*Richard Petty Motorsports: – 2 cars* No deals, as of yet, have been announced for 2013, and with Dodge pulling out, they’re betting on Ford to keep them in the fold. The problem is, with Penske joining the Blue Oval program, there’s only so much money to go around, while Petty’s investment group has lost out on the big names they crave for a third straight year (Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch come to mind). With patchwork sponsorship, forcing more spending from ownership itself, will we see another case of Petty’s backers getting frustrated and pulling out?

*Stewart-Haas Racing – 1 car in question* Ryan Newman claimed his No. 39 car was all but completely funded for 2013. But then, like a bombshell in early September, owner Tony Stewart lost financial support for roughly two-thirds of the races on his No. 14 Chevrolet. Will the owner/driver need to pull from Newman in order to get proper funding? With Danica Patrick moving up, does that mean a third car can only run a part-time schedule?

*Tommy Baldwin Racing – 2 cars* An alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing, largely credited with keeping the team afloat, is up at the end of 2012. Where can Baldwin, with fortysomethings Dave Blaney and David Reutimann go from here? In the past, he’s survived by simply start-and-parking until the right deal clicks in place, which means you add two more to the “show up to sit down” grid for 2013.

*FAS Lane Racing – 1 car* Frankie Stoddard’s little team that could has torn up half-a-dozen race cars this year in vicious wrecks. With patchwork funding and jalopy-style hand-me-downs from Ford how much longer is he going to press on? Can a 2013 season come together?

*JTG Daugherty – 1 car* Bobby Labonte has been working with more of a “piece it together” funding deal than you think. How bad was it? This team wasn’t even going to run the All-Star Challenge in its own backyard, Charlotte, until a couple of companies stepped up at the last minute. With an ESPN analyst (Brad Daugherty) as co-owner, it’s hard to believe the No. 47 would close up shop. Someone, somewhere would step in and save it… right? It’s not so easy to say “yes” when your best finish in 28 races is 10th place – especially during a year where Michael Waltrip Racing, your former full-fledged partner, is putting all three of its cars in contention to win each week.

Last but not least, we have Phoenix Racing, whose owner, James Finch, has claimed an intention to close up shop effective Homestead at the end of November. That means, even with Danica Patrick’s team jumping to full-time status we’re stuck at roughly 35 cars, max that will come to the track each week intending to compete. In a worst-case scenario, that number could drop to as low as 30 – leaving the sport not that far ahead of the 27-28 IndyCars that will show up to run the full distance at oval races.

Tough talk for tough times; and we’re not even touching the Nationwide Series, sitting at 30-32 cars running the distance. Who cares that the “locked in” qualifying rule is going away? We don’t have enough cars to go the distance on speed anyways.

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

– Did the 2013 Sprint Cup schedule get released? It looks like an exact carbon copy of 2012 (joking aside, there’s literally one date change: Kansas swaps with Talladega on the schedule). Guess the best way to fix what’s broken is to keep running the status quo, right?

– Jimmie Johnson, as everyone’s been telling you, has won four out of the last seven Dover races. Should he win again, leading the most laps, the Chase lead for him three races deep is _at least_ six points. But let’s look at his main rival’s average finish at the same track:

*Denny Hamlin* – 20.5
*Brad Keselowski* – 17.0, no career top-10 finishes
*Tony Stewart* – 13.4

That’s what makes the Monster Mile so dangerous for this Chase. If the other contenders run according to their past histories, that leaves Johnson with roughly a 22-point edge over everyone – almost enough to have a mulligan and get away with it. With the experience of five Cup championships on his side, that’s going to make winning this Chase election for anyone else near impossible.

– As the NFL replacement ref issue heats up, owners digging in their heels and refusing to reach a deal it’s obvious they haven’t stopped to take a look at NASCAR. What the heck do we have to do with it? Well, as stock car racing knows, it is so much easier to lose fans than win them back these days and the best way to do it? Give them an impression they’ve put in four hours of time (or some hard-earned money to go to the stadium) only to see an event manipulated by officiating. What are some of the main complaints of racing fans today? Cautions for “phantom debris” that randomly bunch up the field, altering the outcome of an event. Calling penalties for cheating only to take them back (Jimmie Johnson, 2012 Daytona) or not properly explain them despite their importance (Clint Bowyer, 2010). Adding the Chase to force a close championship battle down the stretch. Perception becomes reality, in their minds and suddenly every controversial call lands them on the side against the sanctioning body and Brian France.

The NFL, with their absurd call in the end zone to end Monday night’s Green Bay – Seattle game, handing the victory to the wrong team, combined with all their other comical mistakes of the first few weeks is headed in that same direction. How many more plays before fans are saying, “Enough!” and turning off the television? We’ve seen it happen here.

Good to know this sport isn’t the only one whose executives can make a bad decision. We’re just still waiting for ours to return to making good ones.

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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