Tony Stewart (R) and crew chief Darian Grubb, just after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at Homestead
By Mike Mulhern
It's a big, big hit.
And now we know one reason Tony Stewart was so angry at Bristol, and then so subdued here: the defending NASCAR champion is losing major sponsor Office Depot at the end of the season.
When the sport's champion loses his sponsorship, and only nine months after that sizzling title charge, it's not a good sign, for Stewart or for the sport itself.
Office Depot (NYSE: ODP) will save an estimated $20 million to $25 million by dropping its NASCAR sponsorship, which was full-time on 22 of the tour's 36 events.
Presumably Stewart will make a move to keep Office Depot somehow involved, though at what level is unclear.
Office Depot stock is trading at a 52-week low of $1.53, well off it's spring high of $3.79.
The office supply company has been a long-time player in the sport, with Carl Edwards for a while, and with Stewart since he moved back to Chevrolet in 2009.
The loss of Office Depot leaves Stewart scrambling. He was already working to find sponsorship for teammate Ryan Newman following the loss of the U.S. Army sponsorship. Stewart's third Cup tour driver, Danica Patrick, is thus the only one with full-time sponsorship.
There are still no answers about Dale Earnhardt's blown right-front tire during last week's tire test on newly repaved Kansas Speedway.
Goodyear's Stu Grant:
"We went to Kansas and used the Michigan race tire as our control tire, and Earnhardt was one of the guys on the control tire, just putting laps and laps on it.
"He had the right-front that lost air at about lap 25 of a 30-lap run. We sent the tire back to Akron, and Rick Campbell (the company's head NASCAR tire design boss) was to go down and check on the lab work.
"I don't have an answer yet, but our guys are working on it."
Earnhardt said the hit was "really, really hard. Not a lot of fun.
"I don't really know what happened to the tire. We looked at the tire the best we could, and the tire wasn't worn into the fabric, so it wasn't a wear issue.
"The way the tire came apart was really odd. And from what I was told at the track, looking at the tire with the guys, it seemed from what I could tell a real odd occurrence.
"Not something that was easy to explain.
"I feel confident Goodyear is going to bring a good tire there (for the Oct. 21st Sprint Cup race), and I don't have any worries about that tire or that particular race."
When will track owner Bruton Smith and Atlanta track boss Ed Clark finally repave this 1-1/2-mile track?
Atlanta now has one of the oldest asphalt racing surfaces of all 23 tracks on the tour. And the specter of a pothole on race day, as happened at Daytona two years ago, embarrassingly during the Daytona 500, is something the sport can't risk.
However drivers and crews love the current abrasive surface, because it wears tires, and changes up speed. The lap speeds fall off dramatically after just five laps, considering the 45-lap fuel window.
But the repaving techniques and asphalt compounds used the past several years in this sport have given drivers a very consistent, low-wear surface, and forced Goodyear to come with hard tires.
The Kansas repave is an example of the 'new' asphalt designs in this sport...which Jeff Gordon says are not good for racing, for drivers or fans. Repaving one of these tracks of course is a major, expensive undertaking, and track owners like the long-life the new asphalts provide.
"At Kansas the brand new surface is, as always, super-smooth and provides no wear," Grant says.
"And Kansas, to increase the speeds, also went with variable banking, progressive banking, so as you get closer to the wall there is more banking, which makes it fast up at the top."
The Kansas track had a uniform 15 degrees of banking in the corners; the new design is 17 degrees in the low groove, up to 20 degrees near the wall
"One thing all these repaves have in common is this very dense, tight aggregate," Grant says. "The asphalt recipe is really good, and it provides a surface with hardly any tire wear. So what we fight at these new tracks is heat."
Tire wear in effect helps cool the tires.
And when it comes time to repave Atlanta, "we'll talk to the pavers and get a core sample, and compare that to the other repaves, and do a characterization of the track," Grant says.
But drivers like a tire to 'give up' speed over a run. That is the way things go here right now, but on new tracks, or a new repave here, that will almost certainly change. Which is why Gordon suggests track owners and repavers come up with a different solution.
"We can't build a tire that has two seconds of fall-off; that's a function of the track, like (old) Darlington and Rockingham, with these old, rough surfaces," Grant says.
"If Atlanta does a repave like these other tracks, you'll lose that here."
So why can't Goodyear make some suggestions to the track designers? "We have had some discussion about that," Grant says. "There are some ideas.
"But the tracks go with the current asphalt designs because they want a surface that lasts."
One question about the Kansas repave is why repave at all, because that track only opened in 2001. Atlanta, in contrast, was last repaved in 1997.
The repave may in fact be as much to improve the base of the track as to change the racing characteristics.
NASCAR racing as an Olympic sport?
Well, if badminton, synchronized diving, dressage, and table tennis are Olympic events, why not racing....which after all is one of the world's most popular spectator sports.
Three Olympians -- DeeDee Trotter, of nearby Ellenwood, Ga., Vincent Hancock, of nearby Eatonton, and Jamie Lynn Gray, of Columbus, Ga. -- were guests of Atlanta Motor Speedway all weekend. Trotter just won gold in the 4X400, Gray just won gold in rifle, and Hancock won gold skeet shooting.
NASCAR racing as an Olympic sport?
"I think it's something we should look for in the future," Hancock says. "Each Olympic venue gets the opportunity to put in an event. In 2016 it will be golf.
"So maybe we could see it (auto racing) in the future."
Trotter, who got quite a thrill during her 135 mph pace car ride here, was even more enthusiastic about the prospect: "I think it would be fantastic to have NASCAR as an Olympic sport, or race car driving as an Olympic sport.
"...because it has that competitiveness. And you can really see where it takes some kind of focus. No disrespect to any other Olympic sports, but some of them are not as challenging as NASCAR and race car driving.
"So I would love to see that, in a competitive environment, with gold medalists. It has that element of what makes a great Olympic sport."
NASCAR's Brett Bodine gave these three Olympians a thrill ride around Atlanta Motor Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)