Commentary

High-dollar Cup Series putting the squeeze on low-budget race teams

Success breeds stability in the world of Sprint Cup racing. Without wins and championships -- or a guy named Dale Jr. in your drivers' stable -- good fortune can turn in a hurry, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: March 19, 2008, 12:06 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

The Six stayed in the throttle this week -- and in fact multiplied quicker than the Brady Bunch. Who knew our little underground D2D fraternity was so expansive, not to mention such an inquisitive lot? Andrea from Lubbock, Texas, says she's creating a T-shirt that reads "I'm No. 7." Wow.

Questions and comments are in bountiful supply yet again, and my boys (more on them in a moment) tell me the straight Q&A vibe was good last time around, so we're sticking with it.

My boys also tell me, though, that it looks like my son knots my neckties for me. My son is 2. I try …

First up this week, the insane financial climate of the Sprint Cup Series.

Marty,

Cool commentary on the 28 Thunderbird. I couldn't agree with you more. That, too, is my favorite. I've always been a Robert Yates and Ford die-hard. I'm a little different in that I stay with the team and car regardless of driver. So for me it all started with Davey and continues through today with Travis.

[+] EnlargeTravis Kvapil
Chris Farina/Icon SMIFinancial stability can turn in a hurry, as illustrated by Yates Racing's sponsor-needy No. 28 Ford.

I was so happy to see the 28 back this year. I'm behind Travis Kvapil all the way (as well as Gilliland). I know I'm in the minority in terms of fan base, but it'll sure be fun to be representing when Yates Racing returns to the success they had in the '80s and '90s. Kvapil definitely has something for his competitors this year -- just watch!

Anyway, just wanted to say thank you for mentioning this because it's very rare we get to see or hear much about some of the "other" teams outside the limelight of the super teams and sponsors today. I know performance speaks, and understand that aspect, I just miss the coverage of my team. Thank you again.

-- Scott, Alta Loma, Calif.

The pleasure's all mine, Scott. Mentioning Davey struck a chord both among the fan base and in the industry. Dozens of folks shared their personal stories and thoughts about Davey. Sunday morning, heading into the racetrack at Bristol, several fans mentioned the piece. That's cool as hell to me and does my heart good.

Conversely, though, seeing the No. 28 in its current state saddens me. Stark white and struggling. Doug Yates is operating on a shoestring budget and it's scary. Other team owners should take note -- even the biggest boys in the sandbox are susceptible to a downturn.

I asked Jeff Gordon at Bristol his impressions on the financial state of the sport, and the fact that Morgan McClure is done, the Wood Brothers are hurting and Petty Enterprises is so far behind.

His answer wasn't corporate gobbledygook. It was the real deal.

"The sport's been on a trend for some time of being able to sustain the economy and the prices going up of people, race cars, salaries," Gordon said. "Teams don't want to bring in a billionaire partner because they want to share the love. They want to share the cost.

"They just realize that, 'Do I want to put everything I've ever built for my entire life on the line here? And take the risk? Is it worth it? Or do I want to be out there racing every weekend and know that I'm part of it?'"

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Rick Hendrick hasn't been forced to seek out investment partners yet, but it is the recent trend. Richard Childress started it, selling a stake in his team to an investment group in 2001. Jack Roush did it with Fenway Sports Group last year. Ray Evernham did it with George Gillett. Michael Waltrip did it with Robert Kauffman.

Hendrick has more sponsorship dollars and better resources than anyone right now, but Gordon says that could easily change.

"That could happen to Hendrick Motorsports someday," Gordon said. "If we continue to go the path that [NASCAR] is going down, the financial side of it is getting so big and such a commitment -- you're talking about teams building wind tunnels now.

"We're headed down that path of doing whatever it takes to be competitive, that it's going to reach a point where we're either not going to be able to support it or we're going to have to partner up with somebody to make it happen."

As owner of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48, Gordon has a keen understanding of the true financial climate in big-time auto racing.

"The business model is not a good model," he said. "Unless you have Jimmie Johnson that wins back-to-back championships, and I've won some championships, and Dale Jr., certainly, adds a big part of that [financial stability], too. There are certain teams out there that will stay very strong depending on what driver they have and what sponsor comes along with that driver.

"When we have success, like we've had at Hendrick, it makes us stronger. And if we don't stay on top of that, or when those tough times come, if they don't find a financial way to stay in it, they're going to go away.

"I think about it all the time. I see the financial side of Hendrick Motorsports these days and it scares the heck out of me when I see how much we're spending."

It seems a ridiculous thought that HMS could go the way of Wood Brothers Racing. But they were once as stable and successful as Hendrick Motorsports is now.

And look at Yates. Look how quickly their fortunes turned. Ten years ago they were the standard.

"It's really unfortunate that we've lost some great teams over the years, or had some of those teams that were the dominant force that built this sport are really a nonfactor now, with wins and championships," Gordon said.

Indeed it is. Sad.

Marty,

Will Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty switch points now?

-- Sandra McElroy, Scranton, Pa.

As of Wednesday morning, Petty Enterprises officials say no, Sandra. Labonte will retain his points position -- currently 19th in the owner standings -- leaving Kyle Petty, now 40th, to make the show on time alongside the likes of Jamie McMurray (36th) and Dario Franchitti (38th).

Roush Fenway Racing could swap McMurray's points with Matt Kenseth's if they so desired, since Kenseth has the 2003 title on which to fall back. But team officials tell me that's not going to happen.

There was a report this week, too, that Petty Enterprises is contemplating calling on Terry Labonte to drive the No. 45 Dodge. With Dale Jarrett retired and Kurt Busch in the field via the top-35 rule, Labonte would be the most recent Cup Series champion (1996) not already guaranteed into the field.

The Labonte brothers on the same team would be cool, a dream come true for Bobby.

Marty,

I'm a Bristol fan and always will be. But that race Sunday wasn't what I spend so much money to go to Bristol for. Are the drivers being more careful because of the Chase or the top-35 or something? That just wasn't Bristol.

-- Chris Dickerson, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Several folks have mentioned similar comments to me, Chris. In fact, I was at a gas station in Abingdon, Va., Sunday night, filling up my truck and chugging Red Bull in preparation for the monotonous four-hour drive home, and a Junior-clad lad approached with a beer and a concern: "Bristol sucks now."

He was old-school -- his gear was red, not green -- and he yearned for the smash-up derby that Bristol once was. Here's the difference: The drivers can actually race now.

Used to be drivers had to race around the bottom of the track at Bristol. If they weren't on the bottom, they were in the fence -- and they took five guys with them. Fans loved the edge-of-your-seat anticipation of the next slip-up. Me included.

Nowadays, after the resurfacing, there's an outside groove, and with it side-by-side racing. Bristol is still exciting, just for different reasons. Not that there weren't some yawns and bobbing heads in the media area, but it's that way every week halfway through Sunday.

Marty,

I'm not sure if it was you but it looked just like you at the campground this weekend at Bristol. I pointed you out to my wife and she said there's no way you would be out here. It was a big group of guys and dark, and we rode by on a golf kart and yelled your name. Was it you?

-- Brady Santos, Red Bank, N.J.

Yep, that was me Brady, stuck in the muck at Farmer Bob's Campground, singing "Dixieland Delight" on the karaoke machine. My boys -- Pork Chop, Jimmy, Party Boy, Griff, Red and Mike -- were stationed there, a 3-iron from Bristol Dragway. Six of them, crammed into a single-bed pop-up trailer for the weekend. Heinous.

These are Virginia's finest, folks. And they don't show up to run second.

They raise hell with the best of 'em, and sing better than any of them. Mike gets things started with "The Rose," the Bette Midler classic brought back into vogue by Napoleon Dynamite's happy hands club. Mike's signing is akin to a bulldog's appearance -- so ugly it's attractive. Folks begin to flock, and it's on from there.

I hung out just long enough to smell like campfire for the rest of the weekend, but easily could have stayed all night. I hate it when my job gets in the way of a good time.

Last note on the campground: Congratulations to Pork Chop. His man, Jeff Burton, went to Victory Lane. I've written about Chop several times before. His devotion to Burton -- ardent doesn't even start; maniacal would work -- goes back more than a decade. It's legit. He used to wear NASCAR sunglasses in college. He's old-school Burton, complete with an Exide Batteries beer coozie and 1998-era pink and blue Chase Authentics Zubaz pit cap. Ugliest damn hat ever made, y'all. He wears it like a crown.

Marty,

What is the purpose of the straps on the shoulders of the drivers' fire suits? I always assumed they were to make it easier to grab a driver and pull them out of, say, a burning car, but I've noticed some teams, like Hendrick, don't have them anymore.

-- Joseph, Yorktown, Va.

Interesting observation, Joe. I always assumed "epaulets," as they're called, were a style preference, but never gave any thought to the safety aspect. I sent your question to the folks at Simpson Performance Products, who had longtime employee and registered historian Chet Tobias provide an answer.

Tobias explained that early driver uniforms, used in the '60s, were coveralls soaked in a Borax solution. These uniforms had no shoulder epaulets. Sometime in the early '70s, when Nomex came into fashion for use in fire suits, epaulets were added.

At this same time, open cockpit cars were being built using bolt-on and welded roll cages, rather than single roll bars. The addition of the cage restricted the driver in a quick exit from the car.

As you suspected, Joe, epaulets served as an aid to rescue workers in pulling drivers out of the cars in the event of a fire. Since the advent of additional safety and driver comfort devices like wraparound containment seats and additional roll bars in the cage structure, the epaulet is now just a trim feature on the suit.

Due to most race cars' construction these days, the only practical rescue use for epaulets is in USAC wingless open-wheel cars.

Marty,

Admittedly not a Tony Stewart fan, I was shocked to see the lack of media coverage after Harvick stuck Stewart in the wall at Bristol. I never saw any Stewart-ranting interviews after the race on ESPN or Speed and watched a NASCAR show on TV the day after the race and they made it sound like it was no big deal.

Where's the fight? I thought Stewart would be throwing punches in the pits after the race. Did I miss something?

-- Shawn, Charlotte, N.C.

Nope. There were no punches, Shawn. In fact, there was barely any verbal sparring aside from Harvick's response to a comment he was told Stewart's spotter said.

These guys are close buddies. Stewart drove Harvick's Nationwide cars pre-Toyota, and Monday night handed his Sirius microphone to Harvick to offer play-by-play as Stewart waxed his bear-rug bod to benefit Victory Junction.

Stewart knows Harvick didn't purposefully dump him, so ultimately he was a realist about the situation: It's one of them racin' deals.

Marty,

I have always wondered who or what makes the decision of how the NASCAR haulers park in the middle of the racetrack.

-- Chris Villarreal, El Paso, Texas

The transporters are lined up via the current week's owner points, Chris, except during the first five races of each season, during which they line up according to the previous season's final owner point standings.

Also, the previous season's champion always has the first transporter stall.

That's all the time we have for this go-round, team. Happy Easter, and thank you for your time.

The Six is a phenomenon.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.