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It's time for NASCAR execs to review their game plans, with the GM cloud hanging over this sport

Sunday's Michigan 400 winners? Quite likely. Carl Edwards (L) and car owner Jack Roush (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

    BROOKLYN, Mich.
    When NASCAR hits this Detroit neighborhood, each June and August, it's typically big news in Motor City.
    But this weekend Motor City is making waves at Michigan International Speedway, where Sunday's Michigan 400 will be run under the immense cloud of uncertainty about General Motors' future in this sport.
    Already it appears that Chrysler's economic woes will likely result in one Dodge operation next season, Roger Penske's. (And what happens to Richard Petty's four-car team is ripe for debate.)
    How much will GM consolidate its own NASCAR operations? Does Chevrolet really need to fund 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup teams?
    What happens next to many stock car operations seems painfully evident: more pink slips.
    At the end of 2008 some 1,000 NASCAR crewmen got dumped by team owners. Slowly, slowly, some of them have managed to find jobs, with some of the sport's smaller operations.
   But now those smaller operations are in danger of being run out of business entirely.
   When Johnny Benson, NASCAR's defending Truck series champion, is suddenly out of a ride, midway through the season, something is wrong.
   If the late Bill France Jr. were running things, he would have likely called up one of the sport's many sponsors and put together a deal for Benson.
   For years NASCAR executives have played this game by letting team owners and drivers know who owns the playing field….and NASCAR has done a very good job of marketing and publicizing this playing field – so teams can go out and rustle up sponsors to play the game.
   But now it may be time for NASCAR's bosses to start going to their own 'official' sponsors and start using some of them to help the marginal players in this game to stay afloat.
   It's past time for NASCAR to stop with the 'exclusivity' stuff and let teams makes whatever deals they can with whomever they can.
   Maybe things are finally starting to change in Daytona. NASCAR's meeting with its teams in Charlotte a couple of weeks ago was in a decidedly different tone than NASCAR's shut-up-and-race meeting here one year ago.
   Jeff Burton: "I hate to take one meeting with NASCAR and say 'This is how they are.' I will tell you that if you were a fly on the wall and you went to one meeting, you wouldn't think you were talking to the same people in the second meeting.
   "It's clear that a lot has changed in the world from one meeting to the next."
   Now what will NASCAR itself try to change?

   Maybe NASCAR could try to save the Truck series and pump up the Nationwide series by following the IRL lead with 'crate engines,' as a major cost-cutting tool.
   NASCAR once considered a common 'crate' engine, but after some testing decided against it.
   Perhaps that's an idea that needs revisiting: A Ford 'crate' motor. A Chevy 'crate' motor. A Toyota 'crate' motor. A Dodge 'crate' motor. Because keeping Detroit interesting in NASCAR should be a top concern.
   Engine costs are one of the biggest line items on any team's budget.
   And the IRL's Honda engine program appears to be working rather well.
    But Burton has worries about the concept: "It's a double-edged sword.
    "On the surface, a crate engine thing sounds like a great idea. But at the same time there are a lot of resources channeled through Hendrick Motorsports, through RCR, through Roush, that make our companies more stable and enable us to make the investments necessary to be here."
    One, of course, is major factory support from Detroit. And one particular issue for Childress to be concerned about is his Earnhardt-Childress engine division, which supplies engines for three Chevrolet teams. It is unclear how GM execs in Detroit may look at that division when planning cuts.
   "The crate thing for a lower-budget Nationwide team makes a lot of sense," Burton says. "But for the Nationwide teams that are winning races, I don't think it makes a lot of sense.  I think in some ways it lessens a team's ability to serve the sport.  
    "If you go to a crate motor, there are a lot of people who not be employed. 
    "Every time we start talking about saving money, we are talking about people. So we have to be careful.
   "Now I'll tell you if I owned a Nationwide team and somebody said your engine bill is going to be cut in half, that would sound pretty enticing to me. 
    "At the same time, it's kind of like paying taxes: I don't want to pay any more taxes than I need to pay, but if me paying some taxes makes our infrastructure better and health care better, then I'm okay with it.
    "So in some ways spending more money in our sport makes our sport stronger…and spending less money is not all positives.  
    "With the IRL and Honda, I don't know how that thing works. But in these times, it's like 'Hey, man, if we weren't relying on the manufacturers that might be a good thing.' But the majority of the time the manufacturers being here has been very beneficial to this sport. 
    "Marketing, merchandising, technology, the manufacturers have brought a lot to this sport. 
    "The manufacturers really started pushing the safety thing and put funding into that safety thing before anyone else. 
    "The manufacturers have brought a lot to this sport. So going to that (a crate motor rule) sounds good, but there also some real serious negatives to it."

The cat in the hat: What's Jack Roush got up his sleeve today? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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