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Felix Sabates: "We need a bad boy"

  Felix Sabates: with Jamie McMurray, in Daytona's victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Felix Sabates has an easy solution to the NASCAR slump: "We need a bad boy."
   To which Ryan Newman chimes in quickly: "I'll volunteer. Look at how many races Kyle Busch has won....and Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide championship. Looks like being bad can pay off."
   Like the late Dale Earnhardt showed during his legendary run.

   Of course NASCAR back then wasn't levying those secret $50,000 fines on drivers, like it levied on Newman and Denny Hamlin last year – not for things Newman and Hamlin did out on the track but for what the two stock car stars said, Hamlin complaining about Talladega crashes and Hamlin complaining about too many questionable caution flags.
    Back when Earnhardt was running roughshod through this sport, if NASCAR's Bill France Jr. wanted to hit with a penalty, France was pretty up front about it. Like Rick Hendrick recalled when France had to deal with that classic Earnhardt-Geoff Bodine feud.
    Earnhardt is a centerpiece story right now, because it's the 10th anniversary of his death.
   At every stop on the pre-season media tour, there have been questions about Earnhardt – What's your best Dale Earnhardt story? What would the sport look like today if Dale Earnhardt were still around? What would Dale Earnhardt be doing today if he were still alive?
   Sabates, who was in Daytona's victory lane a year ago celebrating with surprise 500 winner Jamie McMurray, knew Earnhardt very, very well. In fact sold him Sunday Money, that famous boat.
    So, Felix, what's your best Earnhardt story?
    "I can't tell it," Sabates says with a wicked laugh.
    But he would tell one: "When he won his last championship (1994), he called me up and said 'I want to buy a picture.'
   "'A picture of what?'
   "'A picture so that when people come to my house they'll know who signed the picture.'"
   "'You mean a painting.'
   "'Oh, whatever you call it, I want one.'
   "So we went up to New York City and Dale bought a picture.....a real nice picture."
   No one has been able to step in and fill the void Earnhardt's death left in this sport...in so many ways.
   Part of Earnhardt's persona was a remarkable ability to, after wrecking a driver, so quickly make amends.
   "Earnhardt had a way about him that made the competitors like him, away from the race track, even though they might hate him at the track," Sabates said.
   "He was cocky, but he was also nice.
   "And Earnhardt never made the money these drivers are making today. He was just happy to have a car to drive. And he never really spent any money on himself, except for that boat. I never knew him to go buy a new watch or a new pair of boots. He was just Dale. Blue jeans or black jeans."
    But today there aren't that many people, even drivers, who can really remember Earnhardt, Sabates says.
    And it's hard to say just how relevant Earnhardt might be to the fans today. "He is among the older fans," Sabates says.
   "But with the young people, he's just a myth.
   "Unfortunately that's one of the things that happened with us with NASCAR – we didn't do a very good job bringing in a new generation of fans...
   "And a lot of the older fans can't afford to the track. We don't have those fans who used to go to four or five races a season; they don't have the money to buy tickets to that many races. It's hard enough to buy a ticket to just one race."

    Game face: Jamie McMurray (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    To try to reverse the slide NASCAR's marketeers have been wide open. Cheaper tickets, a few hotel deals even. And plenty of hoopla.
    Yes, as the new stock car racing season revs up on the runway, there's a lot of 'new' to consider. Even debate.
    Like the new championship points system, with the Jamie McMurray rule as incentive: if a man sits 16th or 17th or 18th, in late July, and playoff hopes are fading, all he has to do to make the playoff cut is start winning races, because two spots in the chase are going to be reserved for the tour's big regular season winners who would otherwise be left on the sidelines. Will that make for some home runs over the summer? Maybe so.
    But at the moment all the powers in this sport seem very concerned about opening the new year on the right foot. Pom-poms are in high gear.
    Daytona has new asphalt....and every day drivers and crews are pondering possible new twists in tactics and strategy.
    Greg Biffle offers interesting questions about the bump-draft...
    Crew chiefs are sweating out pit stops with the new E-15 fuel and tricky new gas cans that may lead to a flurry of botched pit stops.
    Engine men say E-15, despite some NASCAR claims, isn't offering any extra horsepower punch, and it in fact cuts fuel mileage significantly.
    The new nose on these stock cars creates some new aerodynamic issues too, and drivers aren't quite sure how to play the side-draft and other passing maneuvers at Daytona.
    But questions and controversy are typically good for this sport...unless there's another fan backlash. Changing the championship points system doesn't appear so far to be a huge popular move.
    However car makers are poised for a major recovery in sales. Ford says fourth quarter profits are up a whopping 20 percent. The Dow has hit 12,000. There are some economic positives at work.
    Sabates, with some 20 years in this sport as team owner, now aligned with Chip Ganassi, says the poor U.S. economy has been a major drag on the NASCAR world, and he's banking on a recovery to raise this boat too.
   Hanging over everyone – again – Jimmie Johnson's five straight championships, and the specter of a record-breaking sixth. Last year Johnson was vulnerable but still pulled off the winning finish.
    Has all that hurt this sport?
    "The last two years the economy was the culprit in all this," Sabates says. "I don't think it had anything to do with anybody in NASCAR. It was just the economy that put everybody behind the eight-ball."
   Sabates says rival Rick Hendrick's car dealership base gave his stock car operation a stronger base than other NASCAR teams. "Rick is a very large automobile dealer; if he never made a dime off his race team, it wouldn't matter to him. If he had to take $20 million out of his own pocket, it wouldn't matter to him.
   "But to someone like Chip – he makes his living off his race team. So how much he can put into the teams has been a big issue the last couple of years.
   "And I don't think Jack (Roush) has put as much money into his teams the last two years.....
   "But we did -- because we were behind before anybody else was behind. So by the time the whole world went to bananas, we were having oranges.
   "So it kind of turned out to our advantage."
    Last season was a remarkable one all the way around for Ganassi, not just in NASCAR but also in Indy-car and sports cars. His men were winners everywhere.
    But it was the NASCAR turnaround that was so stunning. For the past several years Ganassi's NASCAR teams simply didn't get much done.
    Why the sudden change?
   "If you remember, when Chip came in, we were a General Motors team, and we were getting a lot of financial support from Chevrolet. Then Chip changed to Dodge...which I didn't agree with. Changing to Dodge was a detriment to us.
   "But now we're back with Chevrolet and we're running good again."
   With consider support from Richard Childress' engine operation. "A big help," Sabates says.
   "Look at Dodge today," Sabates went on. "Dodge only has one team now, Roger Penske's. And Chevrolet has all these teams, and they share."
   Sabates said when Ganassi was with Dodge the bulk of Dodge's support went to Penske.
   McMurray's scrambling Daytona victory last year set the stage for the amazing Ganassi-Sabates comeback.
   McMurray, who had spent that off-season wondering if he'd even have a ride in 2010, and then wound up winning this sport's biggest races, Daytona and the Brickyard, has now signed a long-expected new contract with Ganassi and Sabates.
   "Excited to get all the contract stuff out of the way...I don't know that anyone really enjoys going through that," McMurray says with a sigh of relief.
   While most NASCAR drivers will be kicking back this weekend, resting up for SpeedWeeks, which opens February 9th, McMurray and Johnson will be back in Daytona running in the 24 Hours. McMurray will be running with Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. The 24 Hours goes green 3:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday. TV coverage on SPEED will include14 hours live (3 to 10 Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday).
   And chances are very good that McMurray will be celebrating in victory lane, because Ganassi's sports cars are so solid that this running could mark his fifth 24 win in a row.
   A twist: yes, there is new asphalt on the big Daytona banking, but the infield road course part wasn't repaved, which surprised a number of drivers.
   "But the transition from the big track to the road course is way better than what we had before," McMurray says. "You can drive the car in so much deeper."
    It's been a whirlwind year for McMurray, and the off-season has been more than dramatic: the birth of his first son.
    "Being a dad has been....well, all your friends that have kids try to explain to you the feeling and how exciting it is and how great it is, and you think you get it, but until you get to experience it for yourself, you don't," McMurray says.
    "And it's been wonderful."
    Last week's Daytona test was the first time McMurray has been on the NASCAR road since Carter was born Thanksgiving week.
   "Before I left home Christy told me 'It's going to be really hard for you to leave.'
   "I was like 'It's not going to be that big a deal; I'm going to be okay.'
   "And when I got ready to leave I was like 'Man, this is really hard.' You go in there and give him a little hug, and you get a good smell before you leave -- because babies smell wonderful. Why are you laughing at me? I'm being serious, I'm being really honest. The scent is wonderful."

    And McMurray's take on NASCAR's new 'McMurray Rule?'
    "Everyone has asked me about the points and the chase because it would have put us in it last year.  But my thought is they set those points at the beginning of the season, and everyone knows the rules, and if you make it, you make it, and if you don't, you don't.
     "I don't want to say I don't care, because I do. But as long as it's the same for everybody, it really doesn't matter to me."

   Gotta love those sunglasses: Team owner Felix Sabates (L) and Juan Pablo Montoya (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Financial Support From Chevrolet?

I think Felix is spinning there, because I remember SABCO in 2000 - the team was a mess and there obviously was not much Chevy backing if any; they were not running with any muscle and hadn't since Kyle Petty blew everyone's doors off at the 1995 Mason-Dixon 500. When Ganassi bought the team he secured Dodge backing and that helped begin the process where Dodge went away from the One Team approach to having its teams be little fiefdoms. Ganassi began getting the better stuff, then when Penske jumped in the switch to making Penske the designated champion began right away.

It made Dodge's program the worst in the sport, and their teams paid dearly for it.

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