NASCAR in the doldrums

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The atmosphere was sombre as Jimmie Johnson wrapped up his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. There were cheers for a hard-fought title battle between Johnson, 33, and Carl Edwards, 29, that went down to the wire, with Edwards winning three of the last five races and Johnson taking the other two. After the marathon 10-month, 36 race season Johnson beat Edwards by just 69 points – 6684 vs 6615 – and there were more cheers for Johnson for equalling Cale Yarborough’s heretofore unique achievement of winning three consecutive NASCAR championships back in 1976-78.

Yet the mood was dark rather then celebratory because many teams faced immediate budget and job cuts in the face of the evolving global financial crisis and looming bankruptcies for Detroit’s ‘Big Three’ auto manufacturers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Since its founding almost 60 years ago NASCAR has depended on the Detroit manufacturers to fuel its various spurts in growth, and NASCAR’s spectacular boom over the past 15 years provided a tremendous forum for Detroit to promote its wares.

But the Big Three are in big trouble, struggling with dramatic losses in sales and serious possibilities of going bankrupt. The companies’ bosses spent much of November pleading for a bailout from the federal government and, as I write in late November, it looked like there was little chance of it being approved by the US Congress until late January when Barack Obama moves into the White House. Incredibly, General Motors was burning through so much cash there was a chance it might not survive to the end of January!

The closing months of the 2008 season also witnessed sharp drops in ticket sales at most NASCAR races, with large swathes of empty grandstands as the championship battle took shape. This trend has been developing for two or three years but is now a serious problem because almost all of NASCAR’s tracks are owned by the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports (SMI), a pair of competing, publicly-traded companies whose share prices had already plummeted before the onset of the financial crisis. With few prospects for growth in ticket sales, ISC and SMI are sure to face big problems in the coming years.

As the season finished NASCAR announced a ban on testing at all tracks that host Cup, Nationwide or Truck series races, declaring that it will save ‘tens of millions’ of dollars. “We need to do the best we can to contain costs for our teams,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice-president of competition. “Whether it pertains to the introduction of new parts and pieces, test policies, or rules and regulations, we need to keep a good handle on all these things.

We want to help the teams keep costs in check as best we can. That’s our largest concern right now.”

Going into the season-closer another announcement came that Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates have merged their Charlotte-based NASCAR team with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The new team is called Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and will field four Chevrolets in 2009 driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex, Aric Almirola and another driver to be determined.

Both teams have been struggling to find sponsorship and, with the situation worsening, the merger was the only way either operation would survive. The merger resulted in more than 100 job cuts but saved another 300. Each team fielded three cars last year, although Ganassi stopped running his third car for Dario Franchitti in late summer and laid off 70 employees. So it will be interesting to see what the state of play is for 2009. How many healthy cars and teams will be on the grid come February’s season-opening Daytona 500?

Despite the growing financial limitations, everyone will be working flat-out in ’09 to stop Jimmie Johnson winning a record-setting fourth consecutive championship. Johnson won his 2008 title in unassuming, low-key style. Jimmie is a clean and tidy gentleman racer in one of the roughest, toughest forms of motor sport. He’s a good guy, softly spoken and unexcitable, but he’s also a tremendous racer who may well be the sport’s most respected champion of ’08.

Johnson made his Cup debut with Rick Hendrick’s four-car Chevrolet team in 2001. Team leader and four-time champion Jeff Gordon convinced Hendrick to hire Johnson and also agreed to become a co-owner of Jimmie’s car. Right away Johnson proved Gordon’s confidence in him was warranted as he won three races, including the Daytona 500 in 2002, his first full season with the team, and challenged for the title in 2003 and ’04. Johnson finished a strong second in both years before beginning his championship tear in 2006.

For much of this past year many people reckoned Johnson was out of the title hunt. He won just two races over the first six months of the season and was overshadowed for most of the summer by Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, who dominated the headlines and seemed to be the primary title contenders. But come autumn Johnson reminded everyone why he had won two straight championships in 2006 and ’07.

Johnson was in contention to win all but three of the last dozen races and scored key victories at Martinsville in October and Phoenix in November. He eventually wrapped up his championship with seven wins and eight more top-five finishes, and has now arrived in legendary company.

Yarborough won his trio of titles driving Junior Johnson’s Chevrolets and enjoyed a long career spanning more than 30 years. Cale was a bull-necked former football player, born and bred in South Carolina, and a classic southern stock car driver renowned as one of NASCAR’s hardest racers. In stark contrast, Johnson grew up far away from true stock car country, in California, where he started racing on motocross bikes and off-road and dirt track specials.

Today, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus enjoy a close and tremendously fruitful working relationship, essential to success in any form of racing, and in NASCAR in particular. But in the end it is Johnson who makes the difference.

He is cool, analytical and relentless, with a keen ability to get the best from his car. He also rarely, if ever, gets involved in fender-banging episodes or vendettas. Johnson is a gentleman racer like his hero Rick Mears, and for that he deserves praise and respect.

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