Quick Hits: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Charlie TurnerSenior Writer IOctober 22, 2008

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Atlanta, Georgia this weekend for the seventh round of its ten-race playoffs. Atlanta is always a crucial stop on the NASCAR schedule, not only because it’s the home track for drivers like Bill Elliott and David Ragan, but because a lot of sponsorship dollars come from the city. Among the current major NASCAR sponsors to call the city home are AT&T, Coca-Cola, The Home Depot, and UPS.

Money may perhaps be the biggest concern in NASCAR nowadays, with many teams struggling to find sponsorship in a failing economy. Longtime sponsors like Texaco/Havoline and AAA have pulled back all motorsports sponsorship for next season, affecting multiple teams around the garage area. Even the manufacturers are struggling - Ford higher-ups admitted to merger talks at one point with General Motors, and Chrysler may merge with GM by the end of the year.

Recently, team merger rumors have been spreading all over the garage. While the sport’s powerhouses—Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and the like, have been basically immune to these rumors, some of the less prominent teams in the garage area have been subject to this speculation. While plenty of it has been nothing more than whimsy, as much of the silly season is, some of the rumors may inevitably come true.

This week’s Quick Hits are the top five merger rumors that have been floating around the garage area:

5. Yates Racing and Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 26 team: Granted, this one wouldn’t happen until RFR has to cut down to four teams for 2010. However, it would expand Yates to four cars, putting it on par with RFR, Hendrick, and Richard Childress Racing.

Jamie McMurray would be the likely castoff from the Roush stable, as the No. 26 is regularly the team’s lowest-ranking car. Crown Royal is reportedly solidly behind McMurray, so that sponsorship would probably follow him over. Assuming nothing changes from 2009, he would join Paul Menard, Travis Kvapil, and David Gilliland.

This one’s been in the works for a long time, making it a bit more likely than any of the following.

4. Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Bill Davis Racing: Reports state that GEM majority owner George Gillett wants to move his team to Toyota and expand to four cars. Buying a current top 35 team with a strong Truck Series program in BDR would only add to the team’s resources and sponsorship.

Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, and Reed Sorenson are already under contract for next season in Sprint Cup. Counting BDR’s truck drivers, the options for the team’s fourth car would probably be A.J. Allmendinger, Chase Miller, Michael Annett, and Johnny Benson. It’s likely that, given the No. 22’s unsponsored state, they would shut down at least one Truck team and GEM’s Nationwide team, and shift sponsorship dollars to that car.

If Ray Evernham sells his minority interest in the team, as has been suggested recently, this one has a legitimate shot of happening. Evernham remaining part of the team, however, could be a deal breaker. He has a strong relationship with Dodge, and given BDR’s issues with the manufacturer in the past and Dodge’s lack of Truck Series support, that could cause obstacles in the deal.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing: This rumor first appeared in late July. Given CGR’s loss of Texaco Havoline for 2009, and MWR’s loss of UPS for next year as well, it made plenty of sense at the time.

Under the terms of the deal, the combined entity would race Toyotas. Juan Montoya, Michael Waltrip, and David Reutimann would all take their contracts for next season to the new team. J.J. Yeley and Allmendinger would be the top choices for the fourth car, the No. 41, which currently carries the Target sponsorship. Another option would be to cut down to three teams and split Target between Montoya and Reutimann.

Given MWR’s recent alignment with JTG Daugherty Racing and addition of a No. 47 car for Marcos Ambrose, this deal couldn’t happen unless the No. 41 was eliminated altogether.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing and Petty Enterprises: This is one of the more recent rumors, only appearing in late September. Ganassi and Petty would unite to produce a flagship team for Dodge, which would take over lead status with the manufacturer if GEM defects to Toyota.

Montoya would retain his No. 42 with Wrigley’s sponsorship. Chad McCumbee would take over the No. 45 car, which would be renumbered 44, and keep most of that team’s current sponsorship. Kyle Petty and Bryan Clauson would probably each run a limited schedule in a part-time No. 45 car, with Petty carrying Wells Fargo sponsorship. Finally, Target would move over to the No. 43 and partner with Bobby Labonte.

Based on their longtime relationships with Dodge, this one would make some sense. It would keep Montoya in a Dodge, and faced with the potential loss of Kahne, the manufacturer needs all the firepower it can get. It would also allow Petty to remain with his family’s team for a part-time schedule, and provide a team with which Clauson could run a limited schedule in anticipation of moving up full-time eventually.

On a more personal note, however, who else thinks that Target red would mix poorly with Petty blue?

1. Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Petty Enterprises: Given the much-maligned status of both of these teams right now, this rumor was inevitable. The teams have a combined six drivers - Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Regan Smith, Labonte, McCumbee, and Petty - and two sponsors - Bass Pro Shops and Wells Fargo - for next season. The Wells Fargo sponsorship is tied to Petty alone, however, leaving his family team in limbo.

Under this deal, it’s unlikely Petty and his personal sponsorship would even factor in. DEI is obligated to Truex and Almirola for next year, and PE has already signed Labonte through 2012. McCumbee is basically a shoo-in for their second car anyway. Despite a near-miss at Talladega and a possible Rookie of the Year Award, Smith would be the other odd man out.

PE general manager Robbie Loomis denies that this deal is even likely, citing the team’s discussions with multiple other organizations. It doesn’t seem likely to merge two organizations of such different makeup anyway. Loomis said that one of the key factors in a potential merger is the growth of the Petty brand name, according to Mike Mulhern of the Winston-Salem Journal.

But it would certainly shake up the sport in more ways than one. For two teams once held in such high regard to plummet this low is unprecedented. Obviously, Petty-Earnhardt merchandise would make a lot of extra coin for the teams, but given the nature of the collectible market as of late, the gimmick would probably go way too far. You’d probably see the superteam asking Robby Gordon and Roger Penske for the rights to the numbers 7 and 77, to play off of Richard’s and Dale’s seven championships apiece.

Even thinking about that promo makes me sick.

It’s sad that the sport has plummeted to this level. It’s sad that our economic issues have affected so many - from teams to sponsors to the fans themselves - in such a negative way. Worst of all, however, it’s sad that we may see at least one of the names of the aforementioned organizations be wiped from the history books of the future - especially if that team has been around since the dawn of NASCAR.

Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson (Sprint Cup) and Benson (Truck Series) for their wins at Martinsville.

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