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What a crazy, wacky, strange and downright weird off-season: So what next in NASCAR-world, as the Daytona 500 looms?

By Mike Mulhern

   For anyone who was lost the past several weeks, say in the remoteness of Hawaii, or inside the Timbuktu of a fledgling website, the dramatic twists and turns in the world of NASCAR and the really strange, and still quite unsettled, shape of the upcoming NASCAR season must come as a distinct surprise.
   Uh, say stunning.
   This Daytona 500 Souvenir Program should be a real keeper.
   To say the brief off-season has been eventful is understatement, and the hits just keep on coming:

    -- What the heck has happened to Petty Enterprises, and legendary Number 43?
   Yes, this sport's long-anchoring franchise has been struggling for years, either unwilling or unable to spend to expand with the times. Last year's highly touted merger with the investment firm Boston Ventures was a flop. And the long-time Level Cross team (think since 1949) appeared to lose footing completely with that move to the Charlotte area. Kyle Petty was effectively dumped early last season. Richard Petty then lost his major sponsor, to Richard Childress. A Petty-DEI merger was in the negotiation stages over the early fall. Then Bobby Labonte decided to leave, in mid-December, when it was obvious Petty Enterprises had no big sponsor in the wings and sent a large number of crewmen packing. Richard Petty then finally decided to agree to some kind of terms to merge with George Gillett….though it's still unclear just how that deal will really shake out.
   -- Just what Gillett himself is doing is unclear too. Elliott Sadler is back with Gillett-Evernham, after a short, odd legal debate over the contract Sadler had just signed last year for another two seasons. Sadler said the past few weeks have been gut-wrenching. Perhaps Sadler himself has been ineffective at the wheel; but then teammate Kasey Kahne hasn't done much better overall. And the decline of this operation didn't come overnight. Ray Evernham himself, perhaps burned out from the pressures of ownership, seemed to let the two teams flounder for too long. Then he bailed out, in a deal with Gillett.
    Evernham now will be moving to the promotion and TV side of the sport, on ESPN's NASCAR Now, and doing some Nationwide tour events from the booth. And so far he seems much more comfortable on the sidelines than in the frying pan.
   Throw in the Chrysler-Dodge issues – and what the heck is going on there – and the sport's once lead Dodge operation has become just a player in the shadows. What Chrysler itself might do next with its NASCAR-Dodge division is up in the air….indeed it's probably been up in the air ever since Cerberus bought into Chrysler two years ago, despite those protestations to the contrary. And Bob Nardelli, the man running Chrysler, has been castigated in some business quarters for simply not doing a very good job…with comparisons to the decline of Home Depot during the final years of Nardelli's run there.
   What is clear is that whatever the questions are at Gillett-Evernham, Gillett himself doesn't appear to have any good answers.
   In fact Gillett's ham-handed handling of the Sadler matter is surprising, for a man with his business credentials. A private buyout would have been neater and cleaner.
   But then Gillett hasn't been as effective in running the team Ray Evernham created as had been expected. And Gillett's bid – quashed – to jump to Toyota, by somehow buying into the now up-in-the-air Bill Davis High Point operation was another example of Gillett's curious business sense. Don't forget the strange case of Patrick Carpentier. PR is clearly not Gillett's long suit.
   Where does the Gillett-Sadler agreement leave AJ Allmendinger, who had expected, just a few days ago, to have a full-time ride with Gillett? Good question.
   Yes, the NASCAR notebook this week is chock full of curious tidbits, some surprising, some expected, and that's the way this season may go – unpredictably. Many of these developments are simply heartbreaking, and not just for the lives and careers of the crewmen lost in the shuffling.
   -- Like, what to make of Bill Davis' own decision to leave the sport, after 15 years as one of the top owners (including victory in the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton)? Davis was Toyota's first anchor operation in NASCAR, but that vantage point was never successfully exploited. Davis' sponsorship issues were a drag all year on the team, which was unable to make any deal with ex-Formula One champ Gilles Villeneuve last spring to expand into a solid two-car operation, which is the bare minimum on the tour these days. And when rival Childress took Davis' Cat sponsorship (after 10 years with Davis), the writing was on the wall.
   In the wake of Davis' return to Arkansas, ace crew chief Tommy Baldwin has decided to jump into the fray as a car owner himself. Talk about underdogs, you've got to be rooting for Baldwin to succeed….and wonder how he expects to do it. If there is an Alan Kulwicki on the horizon this season, it may well be Baldwin, now running his new start-up out of Mooresville. Certainly, with all the just-fired crewmen out in the marketplace, Baldwin should be able to sign up a good crew quickly. And he doesn't have much time to do it, that's for sure.
   -- And how will Robby Gordon fare, as the tour's top independent, now with Toyota, after a year with Dodge, after a year with Ford, after several years with Chevrolet? Gordon – who at the moment is stuck in heavy fog somewhere in the Chilean Andes running the Dakar Rally -- squandered 2008. Staying with Ford would have been a better bet, than making the deal with Gillett Evernham. In fact Gordon, in his determination, since leaving the Childress camp four years ago, to prove that an independent can make it in this sport, against the giants like Hendrick and Roush and Childress, has struggled far too much. Businessman Gordon and racer Gordon may need to have a heart to heart.

   -- Labonte, after abruptly leaving Petty Enterprises in December as that operation began to unravel, for lack of sponsorship, was headed this week to the new DEI-Chip Ganassi operation (to be run out of Ganassi's own shop in Concord, rather than either DEI shop in Mooresville)…only to switch plans at the last minute and jump from that Chevrolet operation to the Doug Yates/Jack Roush Ford camp. Labonte, if he'd wanted it and made a move last season, could probably have a ride at Childress' right now.

   -- Where Labonte's signing leaves Yates' own two men, David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil, is unclear, but Menard is clearly solid. Or maybe Yates, with the new 18-race-plus sponsorship from California-based computer company Ask.com, will have four teams. For an operation that Yates himself said was on the ropes last year, that would be a major plus.
   What's been going through Labonte's head these past few days? Heck, he's probably been just as confused as the rest of us. But it seems simple – a deal with Yates and Roush and Ford just looked more appealing than a deal with Ganassi and Teresa Earnhardt and Chevrolet. After all, who won more races in 2008?
   The shuffling of Labonte's new team -- what has been known as Hall of Fame Racing, lately a Gibbs-Toyota satellite operation with little apparent direction -- into the Yates-Roush Ford camp, has to be a good move, judging by Labonte's own analysis. After all Labonte has a NASCAR championship trophy and should know a good operation when he sees it (although the Petty deal never lived up to expectations).
    -- And now Max Siegel is leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., after two disappointing seasons, featuring the loss of franchise player Dale Earnhardt Jr., to Rick Hendrick, then the loss of sponsorship-solid Paul Menard, to Yates/Roush…and lastly the loss of Labonte.
   In a curious twist, Siegel will now head NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which NASCAR is moving to a new management company after five years with Access Marketing. Whether this move means NASCAR will be cranking its diversity programs up another notch, in the wake of settlement of that $225 million discrimination lawsuit, is unclear.
   NASCAR's diversity program has been much ballyhooed, and well promoted. But the bottom line has been less than impressive. Indeed it's still not quite clear just what the bottom line is – To get a minority driver into the Cup series as a solid player? Or to show that all NASCAR's doors are open to anyone who can show the talent to play the game, no matter what the position.
   Which leads directly to Juan Pablo Montoya: The Colombian racer has shown the talent not only to be a winner on the Cup tour but also the temperament and patience to make a run for the title. That NASCAR has been unable to leverage Montoya more effectively, and that owner Chip Ganassi has been unable to put Montoya in winning equipment, are two major blots on this sport. The blunt truth is if Montoya were in a Roush Ford or a Hendrick Chevrolet, he would be winning. How much longer will Montoya be willing to put up with mediocrity? Can Chevy execs help jump-start the new Earnhardt-Ganassi operation?
  How much of DEI's decline and fall can be blamed on Siegel is also unclear. However, DEI had four solid teams last year, and 400 good employees, and under Siegel's watch the sponsorship coffers were not replenished. And Paul Menard's jump to the Roush-Yates Ford camp didn't help. And what about the bad cards dealt Aric Almirola and Regan Smith, two highly promising newcomers who have been left to languish?
   So what all is going on here in NASCAR?
   Why such chaos?
   There seems more at play than just the economy.
   Perhaps, as Edward R. Murrow, quoting Shakespeare, said -- "Cassius was right: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"
   Certainly, as Evernham wisely predicts "The things that are happening today have the potential to mold what the sport is going to be 25 years from now."
   Yes, this appears to be the opening of a new era in NASCAR.
   And Daytona 500 SpeedWeeks is just 20 days away.



Welcome back Mike! I followed

Welcome back Mike! I followed your travels and videos from the sidelines last year and found your opinions and commentary to be quite refreshing and "feisty" as you say. Someone needs to tell it like it is and not have this NASCAR corporate-speak sugarcoated drivel that seems to be everywhere in this day and age. I sadly have gone from watching racing to only reading about all the issues that are still not resolved after a few years and are the reason I quit watching and going to the races to begin with. Nonetheless,I hope you can influence somebody somewhere for change so that it may rekindle my interest in this once great sport. Looking forward to the year as told by you.

So where are you hanging?

So where are you hanging? What's the closest track?
Give me some ammunition -- and I'll write about it.

I live near Pittsburgh and

I live near Pittsburgh and have gone to the Dover races and Michigan races (but never went to Pocono strangely) for about 14 years. I was one of the unfortunate souls to be in the infield at Michigan for the deluge and Tuesday race 2 years ago. I skipped the michigan race last year and am waiting for NASCAR to change something back around so I can resume going to the tracks thus I cant bring myself to let my infield pass expire. Was the Michigan track as empty as I heard? The poor state has been hit exceptionally hard by the recession and big 3 troubles. By the way awesome articles! Keep em coming!

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