The Great Divide

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When Petty Enterprises finally closes the deal to bring the famed No. 43 to Gillett Evernham Motorsports as most expect, it will bring to a close one of the wildest chapters in NASCAR history.

The economic downturn and financial crisis that has our country in a headlock has made its way into the NASCAR garage area full force.

In its wake was a series of cutbacks, firings, layoffs, mergers and team contractions that have severely altered the landscape of the 2009 Sprint Cup Series season.

As Petty, GEM, DEI and Ganassi worked to meld their operations into viable teams that could field cars on next year’s schedule, the smaller independent teams like Bill Davis Racing, Hall of Fame, Furniture Row and the Wood Brothers have either cut back to limited or partial schedules or in some cases may not open their doors again.

The maneuvers of survival have divided the sport even further into two distinct classes – the haves of the super teams and the have-nots of the rest.

Hendrick, Roush, JGR and RCR are head and shoulders above anyone else in the sport right now. In 2008, only four drivers not with one of the powerhouses won. Next year it will be a major story if any driver not with one of the quartet makes it to victory lane. In fact a top ten finish for a non-super team driver will be news.

The NASCAR world looks very much like Major League Baseball and the shift of power to the large market teams that dominate the sport. While the Yankees can sign pitcher C.C. Sabathia to a $160 million deal and the Red Sox court Mark Texiera for $200 million, the Pittsburgh Pirates are afraid to raise the price of popcorn because their fans are so cash-strapped.

But because the money rolls into the major media and corporate sponsor-backed markets of New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, the big market teams have no such financial worries.
Same holds true in NASCAR where the 15 cars among the big four teams are fully sponsored and able to go out and get the resources needed to be competitive and win races and championships.

That doe not bold well for the theory that 20 or 25 drivers can win any week that NASCAR has been able to promote over the last decade or so. While the fields were much more wide open than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, that number is shrinking and those that don’t like to see the sight of Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch in victory lane virtually every week aren’t going to like it.

Which may cause more fans to tune out on television and not buy tickets to sit in the stands.

And if this keeps up, raising the price of popcorn might be the least of NASCAR’s troubles.

Hopefully when the economy comes back, more money will flow into the sport and mid-level teams will be able to generate the sponsorship dollars needed to compete.

Until then the big boys will rule while everyone else races for best in class.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2008

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