AT&T-NASCAR trial features battle of heavyweights

AT&T wants to put its logo on Jeff Burton's race car. NASCAR, whose top series is sponsored by rival Nextel, says no. The courts ultimately will decide, but it won't be clear-cut, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: April 17, 2007, 3:30 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Some interesting arguments on both sides are bound to come up in AT&T's lawsuit against NASCAR.

For example, what if Nextel has plans to change to the Sprint Cup? Why would that be OK, but Cingular can't change to AT&T on Jeff Burton's car?

Another factor is that NASCAR teams are independent contractors, not franchises like teams in the NFL or Major League Baseball. Does an exclusivity deal NASCAR makes with Nextel apply to an independent contractor?

NASCAR believes it has the "smoking gun" in a letter to Richard Childress Racing, which states a name change from Cingular to another telecommunications company would not be allowed. But I'm told by attorneys that in the legal world, a letter isn't a binding contract.

It's also easy to see things from Nextel's perspective. The company is paying $75 million a year as NASCAR's title sponsor. You wouldn't go to Minute Maid Park in Houston and see a Tropicana sign.

Glad I'm not the judge on this one. The opening round is a hearing April 26 at the U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

DEI compromise?

Everyone is speculating about what will happen in the contract negotiations for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The scenarios are endless, but here's one that could work:

Earnhardt wants controlling interest in Dale Earnhardt Inc. Team owner Teresa Earnhardt will want something in return if she agrees to sell Junior 51 percent of DEI.

That compromise nugget could be the exclusive licensing rights to all the Dale Earnhardt Sr. merchandise.

Teresa would continue to control her late husband's brand and marketing profits. Junior would get control of the day-to-day racing decisions at DEI, which is what he says he wants.

The unknown in this contact equation is Kerry Earnhardt, the oldest son and Junior's half brother. With whom does Kerry side in this deal?

And Kerry has a nugget of his own -- son Jeffrey Earnhardt, 17, is an up-and-coming racer who is under contract with DEI.

Exit Montoya, enter Hamilton

The diversity plan worked both ways when Juan Pablo Montoya left Formula One to race in Nextel Cup. Montoya gave NASCAR the high-profile Hispanic driver it wanted.

But Montoya's departure from the McLaren team also opened up a spot for team boss Ron Dennis to hire his protégé, 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton, as the first black driver in F1.

Now Hamilton is the hottest thing in the series. His runner-up showing at Bahrain last weekend made him the first F1 rookie ever to start his career with three podium finishes.

Dennis could have a dilemma on his hands. Two-time champ Fernando Alonso may grumble about his young teammate having championship desires of his own this year.

"I have the same car and I seem to be as competitive as him," Hamilton said about Alonso.

The Texas Way

Speedway Motorsports Inc. mogul Bruton Smith said there's a big difference in how he built Texas Motor Speedway and how International Speedway Corp. is trying to build new tracks in Seattle and Denver.

"I've put $300 million in this place," Smith said last weekend at TMS. "All private capital. We didn't get the state or the city or the county to come in and put up $150 million or $200 million of it."

Chevy-powered

It's Chevy's world and everyone else is just visiting. Chevrolet teams have won six of seven Cup races this season, but the trend didn't start this year.

Chevrolet drivers are 15-2-1 in the last 18 races, dating back to last season. Ford has two wins and Dodge has one in that total.

If the Chase started today, Chevy would have eight spots, Ford three and Dodge one. Toyota's top-ranked driver is Dave Blaney in 37th.

Nose bleed

That nose job isn't looking so good on Ray Evernham's team. The Dodge teams got a design change to the nose of the Chargers this season.

It's been more than a cosmetic success for Chip Ganassi Racing. Ganassi driver David Stremme is the surprise of the season, ranking 12th in the standings after posting a career-best 10th-place showing at Texas.

And rookie teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is a Chase contender, one spot below Stremme in the standings.

The nose job also may work out for Roger Penske's Dodge team. Kurt Busch had a chance to win Sunday before getting caught on pit road when the caution flag flew.

But it's been a disaster for Evernham Motorsports. Kasey Kahne won six times last year with the old nose. Now he's 33rd in the standings with only one top-10 finish. Teammate Elliott Sadler is doing OK in 16th, but Scott Riggs is outside the top 35 and has to qualify on speed.

Evernham probably would slap that old nose on the car if he could. The next two races could help since Phoenix is a Car of Tomorrow race and Talladega is a restrictor-plate track.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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