A look at who’s available and may be joining a new team starting Tuesday
This time last year, the NFL lockout had just begun, claiming free agency as one of its first casualties. When the NFL finally got back to business on July 30, free agency was just one of numerous pieces of business that happened in earnest as teams had to scramble to make up for lost time.
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”
Retired Nashville florist George Kelley died this week. So what's that information doing in a sports blog? Glad you asked. Kelley should be a renowned figure in SEC sports history, but he's not, so I'm doing my tiny part to remedy that. In what has to be a unique distinction in SEC annals, Kelley played football for Tennessee and basketball for Vanderbilt.
Looking at the likely crop of candidates to take over for Bruce Weber
One of the most intriguing coaching positions in college basketball became available when Illinois dismissed Bruce Weber on Friday morning after nine seasons in Champaign. Some consider Illinois one of the elite jobs in the sport. The school has a strong history of success and is located near the hoops hotbed of Chicago. Others, however, believe this job is overrated.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, aka "Gronk," is throwing his hat into the ring for The Madden NFL 13 Cover in a big way. Gronk recently put together a video of himself "getting jacked at all times, going crazy" in a bid to win votes. BTW, we're loving the retro work out pants worn by his brothers.
After five years of skydiving downward in both ratings and relevance, 2011 appeared to be the season NASCAR pulled out the parachute. A white-knuckle championship battle, ending in a tie between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, led to a double-digit audience increase in the Chase. Five new first-time winners showcased the parity of competition, while the upcoming car models for 2013 are reported to put the “stock” back in stock cars. (What do we call them again? The Car of Tomorrow, Tomorrow?) Even with a disastrous start to 2012, courtesy of Mother Nature, the rain-delayed Daytona 500 pulled an 8.0 in the Nielsens, with a total of 36.5 million people tuning in for at least some portion of the event — making it the second-most watched stock car race in history.
But as evidence mounts that NASCAR is headed in the right direction on-track, its position in company boardrooms across America remains in a precarious position. Last year’s Daytona 500 champion, Trevor Bayne — despite being charismatic, youthful (21), and trouble-free — failed to secure a primary backer to run the Cup Series full-time this year. Even now, he’s positioned to start no more than 12 races, despite being paired with the legendary Wood Brothers while watching funding for his AAA-baseball type Nationwide ride dry up completely.
Matt Kenseth, this year’s 500 champion and a top-5 finisher in last year’s Cup Series point standings, remains without funding for a whopping 41 percent of this season’s schedule. Even teammate Edwards, who fell just short of the title, lost full-time backer AFLAC and is using a potpourri of a half-dozen primary sponsors to make it through.
Why does the financial bleeding refuse to stop? All other major sports continue to rake in the dough for everything from stadiums to postseason tournaments, watching their “recession revenues” skyrocket. According to Forbes’ yearly evaluations in the four major stick-and-ball sports, the average value of a franchise went up over the past 12 months: 7 percent in MLB, 6.5 percent in the NBA, 5 percent in the NHL and 4 percent in the NFL. And NASCAR? Its average value within the top nine teams declined 3 percent, down to $141 million — a number that pales in comparison to even the $240 million average value of a hockey franchise. So if “it’s the economy, stupid,” as many NASCAR executives like to claim, why are people and advertising dollars beefing up elsewhere? Money still makes the world go round, and even in the cases where there’s a limited amount, people are choosing to spend it in other places.
It’s because fixing the sport’s business model is harder than it looks. Every organization is a private contractor, meaning the sport has no control over everything from how they spend their money to how many races they enter. During NASCAR’s “boom” years, in the 1990s, that was a good thing: any Joe Schmo off the street with a license could come in with a racecar and attempt competition at even the sport’s top level. But as the price to play increased, NASCAR’s lack of leverage bit it as a “country club” level of elite owners gathered exorbitant amounts of money and resources to compete. Opening up their own engine shops, chassis centers and hiring the Best Buy geek squad of aerodynamic specialists, their price to play became bloated compared to the $5 million it took to win in the mid-’90s. Suddenly, $25 million for a sponsor was what a small, single-car team needed to match the amount a four-car organization was paying its glutton of 400-plus employees.
That’s important, because as the sport enters 2012 a decline in both owners and revenues continue to give us one crucial exception to the rule. Take a look at how the top 5 NASCAR race teams in value have evolved over the last five years since Forbes first rated them in mid-2006:
Forbes’ Most Valuable NASCAR Teams: 2007
1) Roush Fenway Racing - $316 million
2) Hendrick Motorsports - $297 million
3) Joe Gibbs Racing - $173 million
4) Evernham Motorsports - $128 million
5) Richard Childress Racing - $124 million
Total value of the top 9 teams in the sport: $1.444 billion
No. 1 Team (Roush Fenway Racing): 21.8 percent of that total
Forbes’ Most Valuable NASCAR Teams: February 2012
1) Hendrick Motorsports - $350 million
Percentage Difference: +17.8 percent
2) Roush Fenway Racing - $185 million
Percentage Difference: -41.5 percent
3) Joe Gibbs Racing: $155 million
Percentage Difference: -10.4 percent
4) Richard Childress Racing: $147 million
Percentage Difference: +15.6 percent
5) Stewart-Haas Racing: $108 million
Percentage Difference: N/A
Total value of the top 9 teams in the sport: $1.267 billion (8.7 percent decline)
No. 1 Team (Hendrick Motorsports): 27.6 percent of that total
You’ll notice that Hendrick, which was second before Jimmie Johnson racked up the first of five straight titles, now has nearly double the value of any other Cup Series organization. That’s not unusual in sports; in baseball, for example, the Yankees’ value ($1.7 billion) is almost twice that of the second-place Boston Red Sox. But in baseball, where every team is franchised, the Yankees pay a penalty for spending too much money, a luxury tax that benefits other teams and helps keep the sport’s competitive balance intact.
In NASCAR, there is no such thing, meaning as other teams fall further behind Hendrick can still charge top dollar for everything from advertising space to engines and chassis. Its equipment has now won six straight titles; even Stewart’s win last year, with his Stewart-Haas Racing team, came through the grace of Hendrick sheet metal and horsepower slapped on the side. As revenues increase, there are no consequences for Hendrick to consider cutting spending or streamlining its business. In fact, with the SHR partnership throwing an assist to “satellite” organizations, it only increases its value. And it’s A-plus marketing department, with statistics to sell, continues to rack up worldwide deals: they’re on the verge of getting a Chinese company, Trina Solar, to back Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 for nine events.
Does that mean money buys championships? Not necessarily, but the important thing is it appears that way to the owners who matter. Kenseth is the perfect example: he already has three sponsors in Best Buy, Zest (a new company) and Valvoline that, if Roush Fenway Racing lowered its operating costs could back him in all 36 events. Their presence is a sign the Fortune 500 isn’t completely ignoring the sport, they’re just putting their foot down and saying, “We’re not giving you a blank check anymore.”
But with the top team still pushing the envelope, how could Roush lower the price tag? No wonder Edwards has more logos on the side of his uniform than that guy with the pieces of flare in Office Space. Broken apart, then sold on particular drivers’ talent, that fleet of companies could back nearly 25 percent of the 43-car grid. But the price to play, uncontrolled, remains high enough that RFR believes the strategy must be to filter funding straight to their sponsor’s dream.
The same applies to an owner looking to enter the sport from the outside. No one wants to enter racing to run second, and right now, the impression is to run first, based on stats, you need to spend at a rate that creates a $350 million NASCAR organization. Even beyond Hendrick, the value for a team like Richard Childress Racing suggests an operating cost per team approaching $50 million.
Certainly in Hendrick’s case, considering Johnson left Daytona with negative points, the actual truth to that statement – money buys championships – is far from a guarantee. But the one place where NASCAR is right about the economy is too much money scares potential owners away, from Red Bull Racing bailing back to Europe to former Cup champion Robert Yates, who chose to retire rather than fall further behind the country club crowd.
This year, Forbes stopped short of ranking the top 10 NASCAR franchises because it only found nine that stood above the fray. What’s the solution? Some say franchising — the first step towards some sort of “salary cap” or “luxury tax” model the other major sports have employed. Others say an expansion of NASCAR’s one rule it tried to use to stop uncontrolled growth: a four-team “limit” per owner. Reducing that to two, plus outlawing the sales of engines and chassis to teams you do not own could limit information sharing, although it would do little to nothing to cut costs. Others feel like putting creativity back in the hands of the mechanics, like relaxing rules for the 2013 model and reducing dependence on aerodynamics, will give underdogs the ability to compete once again at the fraction of the cost. If it’s proven they can win — consistently, to the point a single-car team is making the Chase — perhaps the economics would magically reverse themselves.
There is no perfect solution out there right now. But it’s clear there’s a problem, and the quicker NASCAR stops denying it, blaming a dragging economy and starts working towards long-term fixes, the better off it’s going to be.