Possible Menard, RCR union might not be such a bad idea
Reports surfaced Thursday that Paul Menard signed a multi-year deal with RCR
RCR must be careful to not fall a step behind the pack in sponsorship dollars
Atlanta Motor Speedway is losing a date on the Sprint Cup schedule next season
Richard Childress Racing expanding? It seems like just yesterday it contracted from four teams to three, reeling after a disastrous 2009 in which none of its cars finished inside the top 15 in points. But during a renaissance year in which drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer could all make the Chase, RCR could be on the verge of taking chances for 2011, when their competition is simply trying to tread water.
For months, Childress tried to find a sponsor to support 2009 driver Casey Mears. But at this point, one front runner in the sweepstakes appears to be Paul Menard, as reports surfaced Thursday of a possible multi-year deal with the organization. On the heels of those reports, Menard sent a text message to SI.com's Cory McCartney, saying he had not yet signed with RCR.
If the deal does come to fruition, many are prepared to pan the move as getting greedy, considering how much expansion failed the first time for Childress. But Menard's possible hiring isn't as awful as you would think. The fourth-year driver has vastly improved this season for Richard Petty Motorsports, briefly flirting with the top 12 while scoring a career-best three top-10 finishes in 21 starts. That may not seem like much, but Menard's been a 15th-to-20th-place car with the RPM organization in most races, leaving him 23rd in points and with an outside shot to finish inside the top 20 if things go his way. That's exactly where Mears finished in the fourth RCR Chevy, scoring zero top-5s and four top-10s before getting the boot last November.
Both men are sons of famous names. Here's the difference; Mears doesn't have $20 million backing him at every stage of his career. Childress is losing a big money sponsor for Harvick in Shell/Pennzoil this November, and while Budweiser is widely expected to step in as a replacement, it is actually one of the weaker-paying sponsors in the Cup garage. Considering Hendrick could land a blockbuster deal like Wal-Mart for Jeff Gordon (although nothing is signed), Childress needs to counter to make sure he doesn't fall a step behind his rival in the Chevy camp; remember, Menard's money could be spread across the entire team.
Menard also wouldn't put a strain on the fab shop. He's got just one DNF for a wreck this season, and is known as a driver who takes care of equipment. A solid performer on intermediate tracks, he would bring a baseline of information that could help shore up Childress' biggest weakness. Men in the Ford camp will quietly tell you Menard -- yes, Menard -- has been an exceptional team player this season, helping turn around their program after a season's worth of struggles.
For me, Menard's potential hiring calls into the question of RPM's future, even after AJ Allmendinger's move to re-sign with the No. 43. It now has just one driver returning for 2011, meaning Ford must put up the millions it'll take to lure a second man into the fold (Marcos Ambrose is a possibility). Otherwise, RPM must merge with a team like Front Row Motorsports, or face the prospect of tackling 2011 as a single-car team: not exactly a recipe for success at this level.
I know money, not talent, can sure buy you a Sprint Cup ride these days, but if Childress is looking for a fourth driver, he could pick far worse choices. Considering Hendrick or Roush aren't contracting from their multi-car programs anytime soon, and with no NASCAR rules changes, the best way for the rich to compete against the rich is get richer.
Who can fault Childress for that?
-- News broke today that Kentucky Speedway's 2011 Sprint Cup date will come at the expense of Atlanta Motor Speedway, as the track announced it has been cut down to one race, Labor Day weekend, next year. That ends a stretch going back to 1960 where AMS has hosted at least two events a season on the Cup circuit; only Daytona, Martinsville and Richmond had longer streaks. But attendance for the March event had been dwindling for years, leaving owner Speedway Motorsports, Inc. with no choice but to look elsewhere for revenue.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Bruton Smith is actively campaigning for his Las Vegas track to be the series finale next year, adding a second date to what's been one of the most highly attended spring race tracks on the schedule. Most assume New Hampshire will lose out if that happens, but beware a new dark horse contender to hit the chopping block: Infineon Raceway. Multiple sources have said the track's been offered as a sacrifice in recent weeks, but NASCAR remains hesitant because losing it would leave just one road course left on the Cup schedule: Watkins Glen.
The Vegas/Loudon/Sonoma answer may not come for a couple of weeks. But no matter what happens, know that the 2011 schedule is shaping up to be dramatically different for NASCAR.
-- Boris Said and Marcos Ambrose's NASCAR futures are linked together by money. Ambrose, who said returning to Australia was a legitimate possibility on Tuesday, has at least two concrete opportunities in the sport. But both depend on either sponsorship or how much a manufacturer is willing to put up to keep him in the U.S.
As for Said, he revealed this week what many behind the scenes have known for months: Bill Jenkins owes him money from his short-lived stint in the No. 26 car. He's not expected to run for him the rest of the season, and has nothing scheduled beyond Sunday's stint in the Red Bull No. 83. Without the money to get Said's self-owned team back off the ground, Said heads will find their man sitting on the sidelines for 2011 unless a sponsor steps up.