Commentary

It's encouraging NASCAR found a truck sponsor, but hard times loom

NASCAR deserves plenty of credit for landing a truck series sponsor in this economy. Next up? Helping its teams get by as dollars get harder to find, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: October 23, 2008, 7:46 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Thursday was a day to celebrate for NASCAR.

Signing a series title sponsor in the middle of bleak economic times is a good sign that things will be OK in the long run, but everyone realizes many tough days are ahead.

Camping World will replace Craftsman Tools as the title sponsor of the truck series starting next season, the beginning of an exclusive seven-year deal.

The announcement puts a halt to increased speculation in recent weeks that the truck series might shut down after 2009.

It also shows that NASCAR can bring on major corporate dollars at a time when many companies are cutting back and reducing expenditures.

NASCAR teams are seeing it firsthand, and many will fall victim to the cutbacks.

Consequently, NASCAR is in transition. More than a decade of skyrocketing costs have caused teams to drastically change the way they conduct business.

Over the last two seasons, seven Sprint Cup teams have been involved in either mergers with other organizations or partnerships with investors or other teams.

More are coming. Five teams right now -- Dale Earnhardt Inc., Petty Enterprises, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Bill Davis Racing -- are considering their options, looking to stabilize their future in the sport.

Petty Enterprises, which already sold controlling interest to Boston Ventures earlier this year, now is looking to merge with another team, possibly Ganassi or DEI.

Robbie Loomis, vice president of race operations of Petty Enterprises, said Tuesday that the organization is "very committed" to Dodge. That would lead one to believe that merging with Ganassi (a Dodge team) was likely over DEI (a Chevrolet team).

Not necessarily. General Motors and Chrysler are considering a merger, which would make Chevy and Dodge part of the same company.

Gillett Evernham Motorsports (a team that George Gillett bought controlling interest in from Ray Evernham last year) is considering a move from Dodge to Toyota. Bill Davis Racing, a one-car team for Toyota, could merge with GEM.

Increased costs and a challenging economy are the causes of all these possible realignments. Teams are trying to put their organizations in a position to stay competitive.

All these teams need additional sponsorship for 2009. DEI has full sponsorship for only one of four cars. Petty needs a sponsor for the No. 43 Dodge of Bobby Labonte, and Ganassi has half a season sponsorship on the No. 42 Dodge of Juan Pablo Montoya.

Theoretically, merging would spread the sponsorship dollars and help recruit new sponsors.

At the moment, only 32 Cup cars are fully funded for 2009. It led to speculation that NASCAR might reduce the field next year below 43 entries. NASCAR chairman Brian France said Thursday that will not happen.

But these teams without sponsors must do something drastic if they want to catch the Big Four -- Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing. The 12 drivers in the 2008 Chase come from those four operations.

France points out that NASCAR has weathered tough economic situations many times in the past, including the aftermath of 9/11. But he realizes the current economic climate is serious.

"With the backdrop of the credit crises and all the rest, there's nervousness and uncertainty," France said Thursday on a conference call. "People's ability to do the things they wanted to do financially has been affected. That's the nature of every industry right now.

"But you can't freeze, either. We have to still be aggressive. We have to look at it long-term. And we have to take as much of the cost out of it as we can for the team owners."

Team owners are doing what they have to do to survive, but there is a potential downside. Increased mergers and partnerships mean power is concentrated into fewer hands.

NASCAR tried to address this with the edict of a four-car limit for team owners. But "partnerships" are bringing larger teams through various alignments that, at the very least, circumvent that rule in some ways.

Roush Fenway has a partnership with Yates Racing, which will bring eight cars under that alignment next year. Hendrick Motorsports has an engine and technology agreement with Stewart Haas Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing builds chassis and engines for Hall of Fame Racing. Richard Childress Racing and DEI operate separately, but they share an engine program. Brad Daugherty's new Cup team for 2009 (with Marcos Ambrose as the driver) has aligned itself with Michael Waltrip Racing.

New mergers being discussed now will bring more teams under one umbrella.

France doesn't have a problem with the partnerships, saying Thursday that teams always have aligned themselves in various ways over the years.

But these are transformational times for NASCAR, and no one knows for sure how things will look when the transformation is complete.

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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