2009 season not so bad after all
Doom and gloom. It's all we heard, all anyone talked about leading up to the 2009 NASCAR season.
So one month into the Sprint Cup schedule, what have we learned?
We've learned that most of the doom-and-gloom predictions were greatly exaggerated.
Getting stuck with short fields? Hasn't happened.
A lack of competition? Things are clearly better than they were a year ago.
Attendance drop-off? Yes, but hardly the drastic reductions some people were expecting in this economy.
Auto manufacturers leaving the sport? Not yet, but that one remains uncertain.
And the biggest doom prediction of all -- that NASCAR might not survive? Please, not even a remote possibility and never was.
These are difficult days in America, not that you needed me to tell you. And NASCAR is no exception. Many of the gloomy preseason forecasts came because of the sport's enormous reliance on corporate sponsorship.
Finding new full-time sponsors right now is all but impossible. Close to 1,000 people employed by NASCAR teams lost their jobs as organizations folded or merged.
It's a difficult transition coming off two decades of unprecedented growth. NASCAR teams were filling their garages with money, but the pendulum had to swing back the other way.
Is it painful? Of course. Is it disastrous? Absolutely not.
"Part of it is understanding this sport is very resilient," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of communications. "Even given the belt-tightening, NASCAR is not overly dependent on one area of economics."
It's Poston's job to say things like that, but he has a point. NASCAR has a foundation that can weather -- and has weathered -- difficult times.
Let's look at some of the concerns expressed in the offseason.
First, most observers thought Cup would have a tough time maintaining 43-car fields. All four Cup races have sent drivers home, but the fields are dwindling.
Atlanta had 47 entries, and Bristol this weekend has 45. After this weekend, the top 35 guaranteed spots are based on the 2009 season results. Showing up for each event could become more difficult for teams outside the top 35 with limited funding.
Jeremy Mayfield's new team and the one-car operation of Tommy Baldwin (with Scott Riggs as the driver) are two examples. Both groups hope to run the full schedule but failed to qualify for the past two events.
It's a Catch-22. You have to make races to improve your chances of adding sponsorship, but it's hard to make races if you don't have a guaranteed spot.
But Poston said the fact that those teams are around at all is a testament to NASCAR's business model.
"The sport's free-market approach rewards innovation and entrepreneurial spirit," Poston said. "Also, steps NASCAR has taken have benefited the industry, like the new car and the suspension of testing."
Yes, many of you hate the new car. Poston's point is that the uniformity of building the car has cut costs and made it easier for a new team to get started. And limited testing has kept the big teams from continually gaining ground on the smaller teams.
"We also felt that the belt-tightening could pull more teams in line and be good for competition," Poston said. "If everyone is operating on a closer budget, it should make competition closer."
Some teams that struggled a year ago are doing better this season. Michael Waltrip Racing is an example. Waltrip was 33rd after four races in 2008; he's 16th now. Teammate David Reutimann was 27th at this point last season; he's in 12th.
"I feel the no-testing deal was a benefit for us," Reutimann said. "We were spending a lot of money on things [in testing] that may or may not help you.
"When you don't test, you have the finances to allocate in different areas, whether it be different personnel or different pieces of equipment, to make your cars better. So when we came out of the box we were much more prepared."
Maybe the same is true for Penske Racing. Kurt Busch is seven spots better than a year ago and has one victory, something he didn't have last March.
And A.J. Allmendinger is 20th, far better than he ever had ranked in his career. Now he needs a sponsor to step up and keep his car running.
One place where the predictions were correct, sort of, is decreased attendance. But Atlanta was the only Cup race at which the crowd was way off.
Auto Club Speedway still didn't sell all its seats, but the crowd at the Fontana, Calif., track was up from the two events last year. Las Vegas Motor Speedway had more than 130,000 fans in the stands.
Bristol might fail to sell out Sunday for the first time in 13 years, but the tiny Tennessee track probably still will have more than 150,000 in the house for the Cup race.
Reducing ticket prices has helped track promoters keep fans in the seats.
Times are tough, but the worst-case scenarios haven't happened. Doom and gloom? Not by a long shot.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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