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Part 2 in a five-day series that chronicles the issues facing NASCAR
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
3. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggles again this season, will he ask out of his contract a year early?
It doesn’t appear likely. Earnhardt and Hendrick casually mentioned that contract extension talks — Earnhardt is currently signed through 2012 — were in the near future just one week after the personnel shakeup at HMS that aligned Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte in the new “48/88” shop. While that may be true, it may also be posturing, putting any sponsor’s apprehensions at ease while the company regroups and rolls out a new product in 2011. Any sponsorship negotiations attached to the Earnhardt name take a much more decided effort and additional diligence due to the asking price. Could the pair’s hinting at an early extension actually be step one in luring AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard back? Possibly.
Also, Earnhardt knows the resources currently behind him are unmatched. Hendrick Motorsports is the unquestioned powerhouse in the sport with 10 Cup titles in its trophy case and an all-star lineup that will only get bolstered in 2012 when Kasey Kahne comes on board (and that’s not to mention the relationship with Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing operation). Really, it won’t get any better for Junior. Or Hendrick.
Despite three subpar seasons at HMS, Earnhardt brings in over $30 million per year in sponsorship revenue alone. Factor in merchandise sales (of which Hendrick gets a cut) plus over $14 million in winnings over the last three years, and the numbers say Earnhardt — win or lose on the track — is raking in just as much money for Hendrick as his new shopmate.
Still, does a blues jeans and t-shirt Earnhardt fit in a starched white-collar world at Hendrick Motorsports? It certainly doesn’t appear so, but for the time being he’ll remain where he’s at through at least 2012.
4. How will NASCAR’s 20 percent cut in Nationwide Series purse money affect the
series in 2011?
When word came down last August that the Nationwide Series would see a 20 percent cut in purse money this season, jaws dropped. The series, along with the Cup and Truck circuits, suffered from a 10 percent purse reduction prior to 2010, stretching an already thin margin for the lifeblood of the two junior series: the low-budget, independent teams.
Those shoestring-budget teams that fill NASCAR’s fields in the Nationwide and Truck series often depend on purse money to pay the bills, a far cry from the Cup juggernauts that keep the lights on via sponsor dollars, not race earnings.
However, NASCAR’s announced reductions have been made with track operators in mind, not teams. An extended economic downturn has given way to sparse attendance figures and less corporate sponsorship backing for the facilities — many of which are owned by NASCAR’s track operating wing, International Speedway Corp. Therefore, the sanctioning body took the step to slash the purses tracks must pay, while still charging the same sanctioning fee — the money tracks must pay the sanctioning body to host its events. In refusing to accept any less itself, NASCAR has made the decision to hit the teams where it hurts: in the wallet.
What is expected to follow are less-than-full fields in the Nationwide Series, a development that’s been anticipated for some time, but may become a reality as the season’s erratic travel schedule combines with a substantially lighter payday to discourage the small teams — the backbone of the junior circuit — from making a go at a full-time effort. At the same time, Cup drivers’ inability to run for both championships will discourage some from making an appearance in as many NNS events, making for as awkward time to both reduce purse money and encourage smaller teams to market lesser-known (albeit, not less-deserving) drivers.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro