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How about some championship focus here...and maybe NASCAR shouldn't be throwing sponsors under the bus

  If NASCAR's Bill France Jr. were still running things, he'd be telling his men to get back on message -- the championship. And he'd probably be pretty blunt about it. And he'd probably be asking some pretty pointed questions about why Daytona execs aren't doing a better job handling these sponsors. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   While the story line for this weekend's Phoenix 500 so far is focused on Kyle Busch and his Texas run-in and the NASCAR penalties, which appeared close to perhaps costing this sport yet another major multi-million-dollar sponsorship, in these already hard times, there is of course another footnote to the Busch flap….the championship battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart.
   It's one of the tightest championships in years, and yet NASCAR executives have gone wildly off-message with the Kyle Busch story line instead.

   Red Bull: going, going, gone.
   Diageo/Crown Royal: going, going, gone.
   UPS: going, going, gone.
   Aflac: cutting back.
   And now NASCAR has thrown Mars/M&Ms under the bus?
   How many major sponsors is NASCAR willing to lose this year?
   Car owners Jack Roush and Richard Childress forced to cut Sprint Cup teams, at the cost of how many jobs, for how many families….
   An ill-conceived and expensive engine changeover to electronic fuel injection looming, a blatant PR move…
   That expensive, and perhaps superfluous, changeover to E-15, with the expensive new gas cans needed because ethanol tends to absorb water….and stock car gas men have been worried about so much gas being spilled during pit road refueling this season that they're saying the sport has been extremely lucky not to have a major pit road fire.
   And, oh by the way, can you guys stop by Daytona International Speedway next Tuesday on your way to Homestead-Miami for the season finale and help test some possible rules changes for 2012?
   Off-message much?
   Where's the focus in the NASCAR headquarters?
   It should be on this championship race, with only another eight days to run. And yet Sunday's Phoenix 500 is coming into view with rabid Kyle Busch fans threatening boycotts and rabid anti-Busch fans cheering all the furor.
   Uh, a little championship focus here, please?
   And where is NASCAR CEO Brian France anyway? Why wasn't he at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend to weigh in on the Kyle Busch flap, and perhaps put it all to be with a little more style and care than actually went down?

   So for the moment – awaiting Saturday qualifying here (Saturday qualifying? again?) -- let's check out the newly repaved track, and that dipsy-doodle backstretch. And how are Goodyear's tires here working? And what's going on inside the heads of Mr. Stewart and Mr. Edwards?   
   Track boss Brian Sperber says the repaving team, which has been doing NASCAR tracks for nearly six years now, followed computer-generated designs for the odd backstretch that showed such a layout would be more conducive to side-by-side racing all the way around here.
   Not everyone here is convinced the computers were right.
   However that's not the only variable. There are a lot of them, drivers say.
     Stewart's take: "You hate to have to come into a situation like this where you don't know the variables.
    "But it's the same for everybody.
     "Who adapts to it is going to be a big key.
    "There are still variables yet to be answered about the racing side of it."
   Edwards' take: "Practice went so well, I feel there's a big weight off my shoulders."
   Paul Menard posted the quickest laps of the cloudy day, at 141.121 mph, just a bit quicker than Edwards.
   Kyle Busch, under the microscope here, was fifth quickest. Stewart was noticeably off, at 138 mph.
   However speed alone may not be the key issue here, rather strategy, Edwards says, "because it may be hard to pass.
   "And if we can beat Tony for this championship, with him having the best chase he's ever had, a two-time champ, that will mean a lot for this team.
   "But a lot of people have told me 'Hey, man, just have some fun with this.' And I've been trying to keep that in mind.
   "We might have to step it up these next few races...But we're on a run that really started in the summer of 2010, and this is one of the longest good runs we've had.
    "Running in the Nationwide race should give me a better idea of what to expect Sunday. Right now there's about a lane and a half, and if you get out of that, it's slippery. I saw a couple of guys hit the wall. And I don't know what to expect on restarts, if the outside line or inside line would work better."
   Goodyear's Stu Grant says things look very good on the tire front: "This is the Indianapolis setup, so we know it puts down rubber. It's a proven setup. The left-side tire is the Indy left-side, and the right-side is the Indy right-side just with a little less rubber, to compensate for heat build-up.
   "Things don't seem to be changing much from the way it all went when we tested here.
   "We've got good rubber down on the lower groove; the rubber on the outer groove is still a little thin. But when we get enough cars out there running side by side, they're going to put down enough rubber to get an outside groove. We know this Indianapolis setup puts rubber down."

    Will the outside groove come in for Sunday's race?
   "No," Juan Pablo Montoya says. "At some point, somebody is going to have to run up there."
    And, uh, how about that new contract between Montoya and team owner Chip Ganassi? "I'll be driving this car next year," Montoya said. "We're all good."
   Anything more? "None of your business," Montoya replied with a laugh.
   Jimmie Johnson isn't much more optimistic: "Unfortunately it's been tough to really get a wide race track out there.  There's been some huge efforts made to put rubber down….
   "For some reason we've had a hard time finding grip…which is odd with brand-new asphalt.
    "It might just take a while before the track ages in the right manner for our cars to be real comfortable here and widen out and use all of the new areas they created for us. 
    "The reconfiguration in one and two, I don't know how that's going to evolve. They built all that banking (off turn two), and all that extra space to run, but I don't think you're really in the turn long enough to work an outside lane.  At least as of now. 
    "We'll see as things evolve.  Passing may be a bit difficult.
    "The good thing is it's a fun lap to drive. I have never been through a combination of turns that we have at this track -- and then we show up and turn three is going a lot faster than we ever have before, and there is a downhill flat entry that makes turn three very exciting."

   Who will win the championship, Stewart or Edwards?
   Denny Hamlin, who came in here last fall as the man to beat for the title, and then beat himself, says he's leaning toward Edwards.
   "Carl still has the points lead, so I think he's fine, to be honest with you," Hamlin says. "I think he's only raced as hard as he's had to up, until last week. 
     "It's worked for them so far.  At Homestead he's going to be very strong, he'll be one of the guys to beat.
    "When Carl feels some pressure, he's going to have to perform a little better, and I think he has the ability to do that. Their cars are fast enough to do that."

    On the other hand, Jeff Gordon seems to lean toward Stewart.
    "Carl started the season really, really strong , and then it seemed other teams caught up," Gordon says. "But they've been able to maintain consistency.
    "Everybody is surprised by Tony Stewart.  I didn't think anybody expected Tony Stewart to win four of the first eight races.
     "Whatever they found, whatever they've done….you just can't count out a great driver and champion like Tony and that team.  It's been pretty impressive…and I think it's been very surprising to Carl.
    "I think last week (Stewart dominant victory) surprised Carl a lot.  I think Carl expected not to do well at Martinsville, and he was pretty happy with a top-10. But I think he expected to go to Texas and be the dominant car; yet Tony was the dominant car.  I think that sent quite a message.
   "That's why I say these last two weeks are going to be very interesting."

   Nice overnight paint job for Kyle Busch. Interstate's Norm Miller, the guy who helped Joe Gibbs break into this sport, stepped to the plate when Mars bailed out. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Your excellent and always

Your excellent and always informative article raised legitimate points. Yes, Nascar CEO Brian France should be making his presence known throughout the course of the Chase. He should be present to answer concerns both fans and media personnel need answered. Nascar sponsorship, fan support, diversity, reaching out to a more global market and not just concentrating on tracks located in the U.S. Nascar is not "the old boys club" as it was years past, it's international, therefore Nascar has an obligation to international fans who support the sport by traveling to various tracks located in the U.S., camping, staying in various hotels/motels on route to these tracks, and helping feed the American economy with international dollars. Instead of concentrating all their efforts on Kyle Busch's lack of respect for the sport, they need to channel their energies into "selling this sport internationally." Nascar needs to be realistic in their approach to this sport, if they want to gain popularity, younger fans, while maintaining the hard core fans. Inconsistencies in rules appear to be a major problem within Nascar which leaves both the media and fans alike scratching their heads wondering what's next for rule changes. This sport has lost much of its' luster, swagger with many outside the sport laughing. Nascar has become a joke, a reality tv show with characters right out of the Jerry Springer show. The nonsense and insanity has to stop sometime.

very interesting points you

very interesting points you make....i agree nascar needs to push 'international' more; the mexico city race was a good start, and montreal works well too. potential sponsors (and many current sponsors) have international outlooks (like CAT, FedEx, Lowe's) and NASCAR should play to that. one issue in the kylebusch case of course is nascar's notorious inconsistency. fans today see right through that. and nascar is not only in danger of losing credibility in the world at large imho, but also in danger of becoming simply irrelevant. when they start laughing at you, you're toast.
in my opinion, we need some new thinking in the corporate headquarters. 'old school' may be interesting, but this is a 'new school' era, and not everyone in the sport is in step with that yet.
bottom line i feel is that nascar should have resolved the kylebusch situation at texas and not let it drag out to phoenix. simply bad marketing there. this should be a championship weekend featuring tony and carl, not a kylebusch-ron hornaday-joegibbs-nascar penalty weekend.
i think bill france jr. would have seen that clearly.

You forgot maybe the biggest

You forgot maybe the biggest offenders, The MEDIA... They have done more to fan the fires and create a feeding frenzy.... The only time I have seen such tripe is when I buy groceries and look at the cover of the National Enquirer (except they tend to have better writers.)

lol! i've been looking for

lol! i've been looking for 'the media' for a couple of years now. ever since U.S. newspapers decided en masse to can all the veteran nascar journalists, there hasn't been much of a nascar media corps anymore imho. i keep hoping newspaper publishers/owners will eventually come to their senses and get back to their duties, but sad to say i dont see any movement in that direction. more like the 10 pm tv news with car crashes as the lead story.....

To Mike Mulhern, Just so you

To Mike Mulhern, Just so you know, I'm just now reading your column. I was on twitter earlier discussing brian france and his glaring absence at TX last week. Great minds.....

nascar/brian france has done more to ruin the sport than KyB tried to do last Friday night. Why doesn't bf just step down already? There's your cure for new thinking at nascar's HQ, Mike @15:22. ;) The Bill's must me spinning in their graves. Fix the top and the bottom will fix itself.

To Nancy and Mike @15:22 above, I agree with your posts,except racing in mexico and other foreign countries. That's just another money burden the owners would have to carry. Now with the new fuel injection coming in 2012, they're already going to be poor. We may only see partial fields (to go with the partial fan attendance at the tracks) next year. How can the S&P teams even afford to show up?

Regarding the championship,nascar could really capitalize on it. If for the sole reason JJ is not winning number six.

Where's Brian France? He's

Where's Brian France? He's been hangin' out with Teresa Earnhardt lately. (Very rarely seen; the both of them at the track!) Haven't you heard Sue? I thought you'd be first to see that while reading the National Enquirer! Keep on writing Mike! Your work is far superior than those cut-n-paste blog reports online.

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