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Looks like NASCAR's got a lot of millionaire drivers...at least they're earning their paychecks

  Remember the last time here? Denny Hamlin dominated but ran short of gas, and Carl Edwards pulled out the win, and then celebrated in the grandstands (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Fresh off the heels of Maxim magazine's 'Cheating Death with Brian Vickers, NASCAR's wildest driver' comes a Forbes magazine article delineating the richest drivers and wealthiest teams in stock car racing.
   And it looks like there are a lot of millionaires in this sport. 
   Trevor Bayne just posted a $1.4 million payday for winning Daytona, though he of course won't get all that.

   Now for those fans trying to book $300 a night hotel rooms to see one of these races, and with oil prices hitting $120 a barrel, and gas prices thus going up, the Forbes article might not have the best timing.
   But the point of the article is to pooh-pooh those still fretting NASCAR might be on the decline. NASCAR is on the rebound, Forbes says, painting a rosy picture of the sport on the way back up.
   How accurate any of the figures are may be a matter of debate. But here's the gist of the matter, according to the magazine:
   -- Rick Hendrick's empire is valued at $350 million, still the richest in NASCAR, with revenues of $177 million last season. DuPont may be cutting back but Forbes says AARP's three-year sponsorship for Jeff Gordon is still a hefty $25 million a year.
   -- Jack Roush's empire is valued at $224 million, the second-richest, with revenues of $140 million in 2010.
   -- Richard Childress' empire is valued at $158 million, third on the list.
   -- Eight of the top 10 NASCAR operations are making money, with only Richard Petty Motorsports and Team Red Bull not, according to Forbes.
   -- Richard Petty Motorsports sold last fall for just $11 million.  (Ray Evernham, who first launched that operation way back when, and then sold to George Gillett, says Gillett still owns him nearly $20 million on that deal.)
   -- Popularity pays off at the tee-shirt stand, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still the highest paid driver in the sport, earning $29 million last year (despite another winless season). That's down slightly from $30 million the (winless) year before, and down from $35 million in 2008.
   -- Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt's teammate (and also winless last season), took in $25 million last year. That compares with $27 million 2009, and $30 million in 2008.
   -- The  rest of Forbes' top-10 NASCAR drivers: Jimmie Johnson, $24 million; Tony Stewart, $18 million; Kevin Harvick, $15 million; Carl Edwards, $14 million; Kyle Busch, $13 million; Kasey Kahne, $11.5 million; Denny Hamlin, $11 million; and Matt Kenseth, also $11 million. And those apparently aren't the only NASCAR millionaires.
  Maybe the biggest problem with NASCAR right now is the lack of 'a middle class' of drivers and team owners…

   Speaking of numbers….
   Remember when NASCAR last month announced this new championship point system that it was billed as making things simpler and easier for fans to understand?
    So far that doesn't seem to be the case, however.
    -- Tony Stewart beat Clint Bowyer in a thrilling photo finish to Saturday's Nationwide 300….but neither of them got any points, and third-place finisher Landon Cassill is atop the tour standings….but Cassill doesn't have a full-time ride and he left Daytona figuring he wouldn't even be running here this weekend.
    -- Michael Waltrip won Friday's Truck race….but he didn't get any points, and neither did four of the top six finishers. Can you name that tour leader?
    -- And Daytona winner Trevor Bayne didn't get any points either for winning the 500. So runner-up Carl Edwards has the Sprint Cup points lead.
    Got all that now?
    Maybe it's not too late to scrap this whole 'new points' thing – like Coke once quickly scrapped 'New Coke' – and get back to something everyone understands.
   Zero points for winning the biggest race, 42 points for running second…..
   Don't think that's quite what Bob Latford, the man who devised the long-time championship system, had in mind.
    NASCAR's goal in changing the points rules for this season was, well, what was it again?
   To penalize Cup drivers who step over to the Nationwide and Truck series. With the plan that if someone else wins one of those two championships it would be better for those two series.
    However unless the dynamic changes – that big-buck sponsors want big-name drivers, typically Cup – the legitimacy of this year's Nationwide and Trucks championships may be at question.
    Here's Landon Cassill: "I hope that some of these Nationwide only drivers, or Nationwide championship drivers, I don't know what you would tag them with, I hope they do win some races, (to) legitimize their run for the title.
    "You'll probably see me in the Cup series more than the Nationwide series actually this year.  I did declare Nationwide points, but just hopefully if I pick up a 20 race deal or something, I can run good enough to be in the top 10 (to get year-end bonus money).
   "I don't have anything in place.  There's no contract.  There's no sponsor.  It's week to week. It's tough.  I mean, there's a lot of young drivers in my situation. 
     "There's some young drivers that have rides, like Trevor and Ricky (Stenhouse).  They've landed with good teams and good sponsors. They've kept those rides.
   "I've been with good sponsors before.  Unfortunately sometimes that bucket doesn't stay full of water.  It just kind of drains out and the sponsors will go for the older drivers.
   "You look at Josh Wise and Michael McDowell -- they're just like me, hustling every week.  It is tough.
    "I had two or three full time ride opportunities in Truck and Nationwide this year but was passed over for veteran drivers. 
     "I bring energy, I bring fire, I'm talented. That's why I'm here.  Just like Clint Bowyer when he was coming up through Nationwide….That's what I can do if you put me in these cars. 
     "But the sponsors want the drivers that have been used over and over again." 
     Maybe a cheaper price point for race cars themselves would help all the way around. NASCAR officials haven't done a great job of keep costs down.
    That great radiator debate at Daytona is just one example. For the past three years Cup teams have increasing gone to high-pressure/high-dollar radiators, to gain speed. Instead of a $300 radiator, Cup radiators would cost $15,000 or more.
    Then, just days before the sport's biggest race NASCAR officials decided to put a pop-off valve on those things, turning them in $300 radiators again. Three years too late, and on the eve of the Daytona 500. First teams have to spend all that money….then the equipment they've spent all that money on is junk.
     And Nationwide teams are this year saddled with having to build all new cars, at great expense. What the field looks like here and at Las Vegas, and at California next month, could tell a tale.
    Meanwhile Carl Edwards, though he didn't win Sunday's season-opening, comes here as the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour leader -- because NASCAR's new rules bar winner Bayne from getting any points for winning the biggest race of the season.
    That's not the only anomaly so far this month. At Daytona none of Rick Hendrick's guys finished that well, none of the Richard Childress guys either, and none of the Joe Gibbs guys.
    But those Roush Yates Fords certainly looked tough all day, and they were 1-2-3 at the finish.
    Edwards, like most of his fellow drivers, was glad to get out of Daytona after a rather harrowing SpeedWeeks.
   "It's nice to get out of this one, considering the chaos that was going on," Edwards says. "It is nice to get out with a great points run.
    "It was hard. Man, it was mentally taxing, very tough mentally.  My head hurt…I don't know if it's from dehydration or stress.  It's a very stressful race. 
    "Having to communicate with people, through spotters or switching over to the radio, hand signals, whatever you could do.  There was a lot of communication going on.
    "Imagine going 200 mph, and that gray little wall in front of you is all you can see -- the back bumper of Kasey Kahne's car, on lap 182, I'm staring at the back bumper.  All of a sudden it tilted this way. I thought 'All right, my car tilted or his car tilted.  I don't know which.'
    "I thought I blew a front left-tire. I backed off and saw that his right-front was down and my left-front was down. He blew a (brake) rotor and shot debris back. 
     "That was one of the bullets we dodged. Super fortunate it happened where it happened, and I could pull onto pit road.  You couldn't get any luckier than that."

    Now the 'regular' season begins in earnest, Phoenix this weekend. Las Vegas the next. (Then that off-weekend where the Atlanta 500 was run for so many years.)
   Certainly NASCAR drivers have picked right back up where they left off last season, driving wild and crazy.
   Is this sport turning things around?
   "The ratings and all that stuff doesn't tell the story of what is going on out there on the race track," Edwards says. "We really do have the most competitive racing that I have been a part of.
    "…A new winner, an up-and-coming guy in a sport, who is tied to so much history….this is as good as it gets. If people aren't watching, that is their problem, because we have great stuff going on here."
    And Trevor Bayne.
   "I think the world is going to like him a lot," Edwards says. "I think he will have a lot of fun and do a good job representing the sport.
   "He is a guy that has a ton of enthusiasm. He will walk right up to you and stick his hand out and shake your hand. He seems like a really good guy.
    "When you are competing against people, you don't always have that kind of feeling that you really like being around them.
     "And, hey, maybe now if he keeps winning races, we won't get along as well. But he seems like a really great guy.
     "He and I talked a little in the off season about what he was going to do.  He was a little nervous about committing to a partial Cup schedule. But I said "Look, man, just go out and run great, and you won't be a partial Cup driver.
    "Hopefully corporate America, or someone, will take notice that this young man will be a great representative for them and he can run the full series.  I believe he could be very, very tough, especially as he gets more experience."
    Which starts here this weekend.


If NASCAR is not going to

If NASCAR is not going to limit the number of races the Cup drivers can run, and also limit the total number of Cup drivers in the field at each race, then their efforts are going to be worthless. All the sponsors care about is that their cars are on the track, and instead of these sponsors putting their logos an up-and-coming driver/team's car they are still sponsoring a Cup driver since they're still driving most every week. The points don't matter to the Cup driver, as they are just skimming the money and the seat time. This still screws the Nationwide owners and drivers trying to support a team against the Cup owners and drivers. NASCAR had the right idea, but the solution was poor. What else would we expect from France and Helton? And to the fans like me who don't want to see a race full of Cup drivers that isn't a Cup race, we are still disappointed.

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