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TAKING STOCK
MARK BEECH
February 16, 2009
Mergers and start-ups, rookies and strokers—what to look for in this season's leaner, meaner, not necessarily greener racing landscape
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February 16, 2009

Taking Stock

Mergers and start-ups, rookies and strokers—what to look for in this season's leaner, meaner, not necessarily greener racing landscape

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SUBTRACTION BY ADDITION

CUP RACING's super teams—Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing—combined to fill all 12 berths in the 2008 Chase, and they return at full strength despite the economic downturn. (RCR even added a fourth car.) But a steep drop in sponsorship dollars forced several smaller outfits into dramatic realignment. Most notable were the mergers of Chip Ganassi Racing with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Gillett Evernham Motorsports with Petty Enterprises. Those four teams accounted for only two wins last year, both by Gillett Evernham's Kasey Kahne.

Amazingly, Richard Petty probably considers himself lucky. Though he'll have no say in the day-to-day operation of the new team (and son Kyle loses his regular Cup ride), the King's name will stay in the game as the combined operation becomes Richard Petty Motorsports. Ray Evernham, on the other hand, is effectively out. The man who won three Cup titles as a crew chief with Jeff Gordon says that he is retired and maintains only a "consulting" role with the team he had owned since 2000.

Other big names in reduced roles this season include Robert Yates, who merged with Hall of Fame Racing, and the venerable Wood Brothers, who plan to run only a 12-race schedule with 53-year-old former series champ Bill Elliott at the wheel.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

THERE'S NO questioning the potential of one new operation. Stewart-Haas Racing will run two cars in 2009—one driven by team co-owner and two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, the other by '08 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman. Stewart's new crew chief is Darien Grubb, who won three races in the same capacity at Hendrick, including the '06 Daytona 500. Newman's is Tony Gibson, the car chief for Jeff Gordon from 1998 through 2002. But more than any other team, this one might be hurt by NASCAR's ban on off-season testing.

Stewart and Newman head to Daytona in cars they will have tested just once. Both drivers insist that performance isn't likely to be compromised by a lack of seat time, pointing to the amount of work they've been doing in the shop and with simulators, but others are skeptical. "They have to say that," says Roush Fenway driver Jamie McMurray. "What else are you going to say when you're not going to the track?"

One reason for confidence at Stewart-Haas is the team's open relationship with the powerful chassis and engine programs at Hendrick Motorsports. Any struggles for the new team this year aren't likely to be the result of inferior equipment. Newman, for one, has already noticed a significant difference. He left Penske after nine years in part because he wasn't satisfied with the team's engines. But after only one test with Stewart-Haas, Newman says he's going to have more horsepower in '09.

GETTING PAID BY THE LAP

AT NASCAR's annual media conference in Charlotte last month, chairman Brian France revealed that 15 new team owners had certified chassis with NASCAR's research and development shop during the off-season, the first step for anyone looking to enter a car in a Cup race in 2009. The news suggests that, with openings expected in the 43-car fields of some races as a result of the poor economy, some unattached racers see an opportunity to cash in. Count former Cup regulars Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek, as well as former Daytona 500--winning crew chief Tommy Baldwin among them. It's a situation reminiscent of NASCAR's early days, when independent one-car teams were crucial to the growth of racing.

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