Commentary

Burton behind changes to teams

Updated: April 22, 2009, 12:47 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Two of the most beloved car numbers in NASCAR history are idling. The No. 28, made famous by Robert Yates and Davey Allison, and the No. 8, which formerly belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr., are the poster children for the devastating and escalating effects of the U.S. economic downturn on the auto racing industry.

The 40 is gone, too, also lost to a lack of dollars.

Since midseason 2008, hundreds of jobs have been lost in the wake of mergers and flat-out failures.

That begs the question: Should NASCAR look closely at a franchise model, in which teams would buy a guaranteed ownership stake -- or starting spot -- in Cup? Not necessarily franchising, specifically, but a "Top-43" program?

In Daytona, the answer always has been no. Since its inception, NASCAR has prided itself on its free-enterprise business model -- if you can pay, you can play. It's really that simple.

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But in a time when teams are struggling to find money -- a time when those that have it desperately fear losing it -- it might be time to survey the thought.

I brought this up Monday night on "NASCAR Now" when the "Top-35" rule -- meaning the top 35 cars in owners' points at each race are guaranteed a starting spot -- was broached. My thought was rather elementary -- a franchise model would offer sponsors a more stable platform and give owners something to sell when they're done. As it stands, owners might get 20 cents on the dollar for their investments when they cash out.

It made for some interesting reader/fan feedback and leads The Six this week.

Marty,

I know that as a reporter you have to not make waves (kiss butt) with NASCAR, the drivers, and the owners, for those great interviews you get. But have any of you looked at things from a real-world perspective? Everyone, including yourself, keeps talking about the guaranteed 35 and Franchising.

The excuse is always the same, the sponsors deserve recognition for all of that money they put out. Well that's bull and you know it. Those teams are supposed to be professionals, and if the owner of that team goes and asks for $20 million in sponsorship and gets it, then his team damn well better be able to qualify, if not they should have to answer to the sponsor, not be guaranteed a starting spot.

If you're fast enough to qualify, you deserve a chance to race. There are no guarantees in life or racing. I know that owners want some type of security, but none of them had any when they got in this sport, and most of them got in it for the love of racing, and built what they have now out of that love.

Franchising will be very expensive, and because of that you wouldn't have the likes of Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress who started with very little money but a lot of desire. Better yet, what about the next Alan Kulwicki?

Isn't it nice to be able to watch and see who's going to race on Sunday, instead of knowing already because they bought one of the guaranteed 43 franchises?

-- Andy Waldron, Lake City, Fla.

No. One of my colleagues, my man Jeff Gluck from NASCAR Scene, offered the same argument Monday. And while I fully understand the fundamental glamour of the fastest and most furious racing every weekend, how often does it happen? How often is a star car faster than a Top-35 car? Once a month, maybe?

And moreover, Andy, you have glorified start-and-park teams running faster in qualifying than the likes of Scott Speed's No. 82 car. Some folks complain about that, saying it's unfair to Speed and his team that Dave Blaney outruns him and then competes for only 40 laps.

It's simple: Get faster.

How many Rick Hendricks or Richard Childresses have entered the sport since 1984, Andy? It's a completely different world now. You talk about franchising being expensive? Do you know how much money it takes to start a Cup team from scratch, let alone hang in long enough to be competitive with the Hendricks and Roushes and Gibbses of the world?

One team executive broke it down for me this way: $15 million just for the building and initial capital investments. Add a couple million annually for chartered air travel. You haven't even gotten to the expensive part yet -- personnel. That costs $20 million for teams that don't build their own engines. And that doesn't include drivers. And engines? If you lease them, it's somewhere near $4 million per team per year. If you start your own engine program, it's unimaginable.

All said, total operating costs for top-15 teams are roughly $25 million per team. You probably could operate for less, but you would have to pay a smaller driver salary. So your wheelman probably wouldn't be as good.

So is a Top-43 program viable? Mayor Jeff Burton thinks so. Forty-three teams, and that's it. I'll let him explain why.

"Do we have better service at the grocery store because there are grocery store chains now," Burton said. "Wouldn't it be glamorous to have mom 'n' pop stores all over the place? Sure. But when do you walk into Harris Teeter now and not find what you want? Never! I understand the romantic side of things, where little teams come in and go be successful. But that's not how it works anymore.

"I've lived this thing of insecurity for car owners my entire career. I've seen good owners fall by the wayside because they weren't willing or able to make the right decisions or investments, so they got gone because they weren't able to produce. If we had a 43-car system, it'd give those owners more time to get their stuff together.

"Sponsors are still going to go with who produces. That won't change. But it's too insecure right now. Like it or not, this isn't the NASCAR of old. It wasn't long ago when Bill Elliott won that million dollars and it was like, 'Oh my God! Bill Elliott won a million dollars!' To be successful now, the investment required is just unbelievable. It's too much to ask of car owners to not have security."

That's not to say once you're in, you're always in. That's one of NASCAR's big aversions to this type of program -- 35 Kansas City Royals riding around in circles.

"There should be performance incentives, yes," Burton said. "If you're a team that consistently can't compete and can't finish races, over a period of time, you should be vulnerable. You shouldn't be able to just hold on to it.

"The Atlanta Braves aren't asked every week to earn the right to play a ballgame. But they have to earn their way into the playoffs. If you have a Top-43 system, it doesn't make you successful. If you're consistently unable to be competitive you're going to have sponsors not willing to commit, so you might have to sell out. It doesn't guarantee success.

"Some people think it's a gift, something car owners get and don't deserve. The same way [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones has to go earn the playoffs -- he ain't given it, he has to earn it. But he does know he'll be playing on Sunday night. I don't know why car owners shouldn't be allowed the same amount of security as NFL teams."

Speaking of the NFL, there's another key issue: NASCAR's dictatorial reign. Burton said it should continue.

"We have to be careful not to follow the NFL or Major League Baseball model, where athletes and owners end up with a lot of power," Burton said. "It's in our sport's best interest to have the sanctioning body make the rules and be a dictatorship. That's in our best interest.

"You should be able to have a conversation with them and express your opinion, but it's ultimately their decision."

The Top-35 rule has benefited the industry. You can't convince me otherwise. Whether or not it'll admit it, NASCAR needs assurance that its teams are racing as hard as they can each weekend. No one is guaranteed success in racing, but NASCAR feels the current business model offers that opportunity, without a huge initial investment.

"The only people who will say the Top-35 rule isn't wonderful are people who don't understand how our sport really works, and the commitment it takes from the owners," Burton said. "And people that want it to be like it used to be, when there were 10 good teams. I grew up a Cale Yarborough fan, but it wasn't as hard then as it is now."

What matters most, and has for 60 years, is the on-track product.

"What puts on the best races?" Burton pondered. "What gives fans the best opportunity to see great racing? When you have great racing, we have fans and sponsors willing to make the commitment in NASCAR, and more true investments in the teams. That means the teams can invest in being competitive. That means better racing."

Back to the argument that the 43 fastest cars should be making the show each week. Some other forms of racing, like the NHRA, take that approach.

"If there were only 43 teams, then that conversation goes away," Burton said. "That sounds good and all, but you can't run a business that way. These [Cup team] businesses have gotten so big, and require such an extreme investment, that that logic makes no sense.

"Why should a team that runs 10 races a year be able to take a team out of a race that's in the top 20 in points? Why is that fair? Everybody has bad days now and then. That wouldn't be good for the sport."

Speaking of franchises …

Marty,

How long will Petty and or Dodge be able to hold on to Kasey Kahne? How long is his contract? Is a change coming?

-- Mark, Puyallup, Wash.

Kahne's current contract runs through the conclusion of the 2010 season, Mark. And if he even makes it that far with Richard Petty Motorsports -- which, quite frankly, would surprise me -- he won't re-sign. Kahne is immensely talented, and he and Kenny Francis are one of the sport's best driver/crew chief combinations.

But they're hampered terribly by poor management. Kahne loves Budweiser and Budweiser loves him, so presuming Bud wants to remain in the sport I could see them going elsewhere together. If RPM management is smart they'll offer him the free world to stay. And even then he still may not take it.

David Reutimann has had a lot of fun with The Franchise moniker of late over at Michael Waltrip Racing. Granted, it fits.

But no one is as important to his respective organization right now as Kahne is to RPM.

He is the franchise. And if RPM loses him, it may be all she wrote.

Song of the week: I'm going to Coyote Joe's in Charlotte on Friday night to see my boy Eric Church kill it. So naturally he gets the nod this week. "What I Almost Was."

A lot of folks experience this dynamic in life: you want something so badly for so long, and when it doesn't materialize you're crushed, feel completely defeated -- only to realize years later that that setback was among your life's greatest blessings.

I live that song every single day.

Hey Marty,

We've traded a few emails previously (once when I was looking for a way to watch NASCAR Now from Canada and again when I apologized for doubting you answered your own emails) and I'm hoping you can help me out. My career path leads me to living in Roanoke, Va. Any cool places or good restaurants I should check out?

-- Jeremy Hawks, Roanoke, Va.

By all means, Jeremy, hit Corned Beef & Co. downtown. I grew up in Pearisburg, Va., pop. Mayberry. Roanoke was the big city. The real big city. It even had a (regional) airport and a Sam's Club. I moved to Roanoke after college and Corned Beef blew my mind. The biggest party I'd ever attended was in a hayfield -- and girls didn't dress like that in the hayfield.

Marty,

Does elevation or air temp affect downforce or aerodynamics?

-- Matt, SLC

I don't know much about such things, Matt, so I asked a couple of crew chiefs for you. I'm told air temperature doesn't affect downforce, but elevation certainly does. The air gets thinner at higher elevation. Thinner air is less dense, which equates to less downforce on the car. Pikes Peak out in Colorado Sprints is a good example of that. Air temperature, meanwhile, affects engine performance. Cooler air makes more horsepower.

Hey, Jackass,

That's what you wore to visit the Vatican? I'm not even Catholic and it seems to me you should dress a little better to visit the Pope's house. Seriously though, keep up the good work. You're the best NASCAR writer out there.

-- Tom Owens Jr., Mars, Pa.

Yes sir -- Alpinestars T-shirt. Give me some credit, Tom. At least it's Italian. Lainie and I climbed all the way to the top of the Vatican. It's breathtaking. But if you're claustrophobic, steer clear.

Marty,

I'm from the New River Valley, so I'm biased that you're the best there is. But did you fall and hit your head? I was watching NASCAR Now on Monday night and you were going over your new schedule for Cup and said that some tracks should get second dates. And you didn't say Richmond?!? Marty, tell me you were either drunk or you forgot.

-- Chrissy Westmoreland, Falls Church, Va.

Best e-mail of the week by a landslide, Chrissy. Nearly spit my coffee out. And you're right, (no, I wasn't drunk) I forgot Richmond. I felt so bad about it in the aftermath, in fact, I e-mailed track president Doug Fritz to apologize.

Richmond, by every measurement, deserves two Cup races annually. It is the track standard, from my perspective. And, like Bristol, it's mind-boggling to me that there are still tickets available.

That's my time this week. No Phoenix for me. It's my birthday week. I'm older than pond water.

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

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