Monday, February 2, 2009

Daytona Countdown

The countdown is on to Daytona SpeedWeeks. The action kicks off as usual with the ARCA RE/MAX Series as the opening act for the Budweiser Shootout. After a long off-season filled with talk of doom and gloom it will be nice to see cars on the racetrack.

The Elephant in the Room

The big talk of the off-season was, of course, the economy and its impact on the sport. Many teams have had to downsize or merge with other organizations to survive. While many members of the media keep count on how many workers have lost their jobs as a result, they often overlook the root cause of the problem: team owners let costs get out of control.

NASCAR's thick rulebook certainly doesn't help, but the bottom line is the team owners are the ones who let costs get out of control. Sure, it's easy to let spending go unchecked during times of prosperity, but what happens when things slow down? Of course what has happened with today's economy can't be classified as a slow down - it's more like the sudden stop Jimmie Johnson experienced when he slammed head-on into the barrier at Watkins Glen in the Busch Series race several years ago.

Might there be an upside to this?

I think so. When the stock market is perceived to be overvalued, investors sell off and there is a correction. That's exactly what is happening in NASCAR right now. Some sponsors might be willing to shell out $20 million for a primary sponsorship, but those are going to be even fewer and farther between in the future, even when the economy rights itself.

It shouldn't cost a team upwards of half a million dollars per race to go to the racetrack. If one looks at the Camping World Trucks as an example, those teams budget an average of roughly $100,000 per race. Cup races are usually double the distance of a Truck race, so it's easy to follow that a Cup team should be able to go to the track and compete for wins with $200,000 per event. That's less than $8 million a season based on 38 events.

Speaking of the Trucks, NASCAR has taken some interesting steps hoping to save the teams some money. Limiting the number of crew members at the track is a good start, and it will be interesting to see how the pit stop rules (either gas or tires on any given pit stop, not both) play out. And most interestingly, teams cannot use a fresh engine in three consecutive events. Hopefully this will help teams struggling to make ends meet stay competitive.

But I find it ironic that NASCAR now is trying to mandate how teams run their engines.

It wasn't that long ago that the Trucks ran a 9.5:1 compression engine, which was a lower-cost and dependable format. But somewhere along the way, it was decided that the Truck (and Nationwide) engines should be more in line with what the Cup teams were using and they went to a 12:1 compression ratio. Truck teams immediately saw their engine budgets double, and that's not considering losing the inventory of engines they already had on the shelf. Had NASCAR kept the 9.5:1 engine, the teams costs would never have spiked to begin with and maybe some of the teams that went by the wayside over the past half-dozen years would still be racing.

Who's In - Who's Out

I listened to Sirius NASCAR Radio while running some errands this afternoon and hosts Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers were making their predictions on who would and who wouldn't make the Chase come September. Keep in mind Chocolate is a life-long Richard Childress Racing employee so you can't exactly hold it against him that he picked all four RCR cars to make the playoff. Benjamin, who has been around this sport for decades as well, sees things a little harder for RCR this year as the organization fought for consistency over the second half of last season. I tend to agree: I think Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick will be solid this season and contend for wins and solidly make the Chase. But I think the shuffling of Clint Bowyer into the new No. 33 ride and Casey Mears in the No. 07 will both find it hard to keep up with their teammates.

So who do I pick? It's hard to go against Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon. Greg Biffle seems to be back on track, and you also have to think Matt Kenseth will be there. Harvick and Burton should be in the hunt, as will fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. That leaves three spots open. David Ragan showed last season he is ready to take the next step and contend, and I think he will crack the Chase lineup in 2009. I think it will be a tall order for Tony Stewart to make it in his first year with his own team, and his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing certainly won't do Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano any favors. Mark Martin is running the full season again, but the Hendrick No. 5 hasn't been a consistent contender since Ricky Rudd drove it in the early 1990s. That said, I think Martin will step up and put the car in the Chase. That leaves on spot open, which I think will go to a Dodge driver. The turmoil at GEM/Richard Petty Motorsports in the off-season won't help Kasey Kahne find the consistency needed to get back in the Chase. The one Dodge organization that has had little off-season turmoil is Penske Racing, which should find that Kurt Busch is back to form in 2009. He's my final Chase pick for the year. Let's look back in seven months and see how right these picks are and how close you came.

Truck Talk

The big worry for many over the off-season was that the Camping World Truck Series would simply fade away. Message board posts from fans everywhere said the same thing: the series only had 12 confirmed trucks and since there wouldn't be anything near a full field at any race this year NASCAR would discontinue the series.

That won't happen.

Sure there are some issues that need to be addressed to get the series back to where it was in its glory days when 50+ trucks showed up at many races, it's not as bad off as many have been lead to believe. Just because there aren't 36 "confirmed" full-time teams doesn't mean there won't be full fields in 2009. There's an indication that there will be many part-time teams joining the series this year, which is a great sign for the future.

When times are lean, that opens the doors to newcomers to make their way in. Even for some established teams, like HT Motorsports and SS Green Light Racing, it gives them an opportunity to rack up top-10s and maybe even fight for a win somewhere.

It might not be what you're used to, but I think the upcoming season will be one of the more interesting seasons in the history of the series.

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