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NASCAR continues to be hit by bad economy
Anything associated with NASCAR has become an expensive proposition, whether it's running or sponsoring a team, backing a racing operation out of Detroit or just taking the family to the track for a nice weekend of racing. And with the U.S. economy as ragged and disjunctive as it has been, now might be the time for NASCAR to rethink the Nationwide and Trucks series.

The problems about to swamp the Sprint Cup series are obvious -- there's a lack of sponsorship money for operations with budgets that have ballooned to $25 million to $30 million a team. Dale Earnhardt Inc. is a four-team operation with four drivers and more than 60 race cars … and perhaps no major sponsorship at all next season, unless Teresa Earnhardt, General Motors executives and Richard Childress can make something happen.

But NASCAR's other two series are in similar trouble, and NASCAR is already looking at cutting the size of those fields for next season's races, because there might not be enough teams around. If that happens, NASCAR could be forced to renegotiate TV contracts, too.

And there are indications that on the Sprint Cup side, there might be only 30 or so fully sponsored teams to run next February's Daytona 500.

This is the rainy day that NASCAR should have been preparing for.

Jimmie Johnson leads Jeff Burton (by 69 points) and Greg Biffle (by 86) in Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship, but the title chase is suddenly playing second fiddle to the off-track drama that has a number of team owners on the ropes, perhaps even ready to close the doors.

The sport will survive. But NASCAR needs to make some serious moves to shore things up.

Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday?

It doesn't look as if that approach is working that well right now for Detroit. But with U.S. carmakers scrambling to become more relevant to consumers, perhaps NASCAR can lend a hand.

NASCAR and Detroit have gone hand in hand for decades … until the past few years at least, since NASCAR chose "common template" bodies that left race cars indistinct from each other, whether they're Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges or Toyotas.

NASCAR needs to readdress its relationship with Detroit.

Remember when NASCAR's Saturday series -- for years sponsored by Busch, now sponsored by Nationwide -- was a classic developmental series for up-and-coming drivers who hoped to make the big league?

Remember that classic Busch run at Charlotte by little-known Dale Earnhardt back in 1978 that brought him a full Cup ride in 1979?

It might not happen that way today, when a good Nationwide team costs maybe $10 million a year. And now NASCAR has ordered its Nationwide teams to start building and testing the winged cars, an expensive venture.

Detroit isn't cutting NASCAR out of its marketing budget. This branch of the sport really is a very cheap bang for the buck. Everything else is on the table, though.

So while Detroit manufacturers look at quick, easy budget cuts, such as dropping lavish pace-car programs and track "exclusivity" for marketing, NASCAR executives might consider rethinking those programs and stop being greedy. They could open all the tracks for Detroit marketing and eliminating "exclusivity," or go with a "green" pace-car program to help Detroit sell more fuel-efficient cars?

NASCAR is spending too much time forcing team owners to spend money unnecessarily and not enough time trying to make racing more cost efficient.

TV ratings for Sprint Cup are flat. Is that because the winged car isn't doing a good job? If so, then it's time to reevaluate.

One thing NASCAR obviously needs to do is reevaluate the Saturday Nationwide tour, which has become nothing more than Cup Lite.

NASCAR needs to reshape the series so that it again becomes a proving ground for young and rising drivers, instead of a lucrative playground and test session for the star Cup teams.

NASCAR's France family, in the role as track owner, and track mega-owner Bruton Smith have both used the presence of big-name Cup stars to sell Saturday seats. But the Frances and Smith need to get together and figure out a new marketing angle for that part of race weekend. Sponsors, in this climate, can't afford to gamble on the young, relatively untested drivers the sport needs to keep adding to the mix, to hit upon a Regan Smith, Carl Edwards or Greg Biffle.

The Truck series might also need to be drastically revamped. When Bill France Jr. first launched the series, he planned a Truck team as an inexpensive way for new drivers, new owners and new sponsors to get into NASCAR racing.

The Trucks might provide some of the best on-track action racing has to offer. And TV ratings for Truck races are way up this season, in contrast to the other two tours.

But when it costs $3 million to $6 million to run a Truck team, something has gone awry.

Maybe it's time for NASCAR to drop Trucks and switch to a national Cup-weekend road-racing tour with Grand Am cars? That would bring a different demographic, different cars, perhaps different sponsors and drivers, too.

Or maybe NASCAR should limit Trucks and/or Nationwide drivers to two years in one of those series and then require them to move up.

Todd Bodine, 44, has done a little of everything in his NASCAR career, including winning the 2006 Truck championship. He said: "Economically, as a sport, we're pricing ourselves right out of the market, for corporations to be able to afford us.

"I know NASCAR is looking at that. But they need to step up and hurry about it. Our supply (NASCAR) is so high, demand is down. You can turn on TV every day, and there is something about NASCAR.

"If you flood the market people won't care to watch it. Supply and demand is pretty easy to figure out. Cut the Cup races back to 28. Then let the demand go up."

Bodine also said he doesn't like Cup drivers filling up two-thirds of the Nationwide fields.

"I think fans like to see different drivers, to see new up-and-coming drivers," Bodine said. "And they don't get that, because of all the Cup drivers in those fields. If you got the Cup guys out of the Nationwide series, then you'd have that back as a development series.

"And one reason the Trucks are so popular is the races are shorter.

"If Trucks went away, you'd see a tremendous revolt from the fans. Everywhere we go -- and I'm not just saying this because I'm a Truck racer; I do want to get back to Cup and Nationwide -- fans tell us they love watching us, over Nationwide and Cup, because it's better racing and shorter racing." Winston-Salem Journal

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