Bruce Martin
Tuesday November 24th, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- There may still be confetti floating in the South Florida air after Jimmie Johnson's championship celebration Sunday night, but in this "full-speed ahead" sport of NASCAR, nothing ever comes to a complete stop. That's just the way NASCAR Chairman Brian France wants it.

Having endured a challenging season brought on by a sluggish economy, France remains optimistic that 2010 will be better, if only slightly. "It's about making sure race teams have their new business model figured out, because it's changed drastically -- the same with our tracks," France said. "That is still the priority"

France contends NASCAR is attempting to tap into the emerging "green economy," although some believe NASCAR's definition of a "green initiative" is actually the addition of more money. After all, NASCAR's economic model works best when the economy is booming.

Still, with interest, attendance and television ratings down from the highs set earlier this decade, and the media industry on the decline too, NASCAR continues to get plenty of coverage in daily newspapers, on the internet and TV.

"We have had, on balance, a very good season," France said. "You expect me to say that, but it has been. We're not without our ups and downs. In a long season, as many races as we have, we're going to have some of those. But we're real pleased with a lot of the things we did accomplish, through what still remains a very difficult economy, very difficult on our race fans.

"We continue to be pleased with the initial promise to the teams that we were going to react in an accelerated fashion, if we could, with everything from testing to rules packages and everything in between with policy to see if we could take additional cost out of their race operation budgets. We've done that in a lot of ways. We'll be doing more of that because, obviously, it's important, and obviously, we don't believe that 2010 looks, from just a pure economy standpoint, an awful lot better."

France has experienced the challenge of living up to the mythic stature of his grandfather and father. Both "Big Bill" and Bill Jr. were powerful leaders who left an impressive legacy of growth. When the leadership role was passed over to Brian, he made some dramatic changes, including the playoff-style Chase format that Johnson won for the fourth consecutive time over the weekend. Also, a standardized car was introduced -- originally called the "Car of Tomorrow -- in 2007.

Many NASCAR fans didn't accept the dramatic changes, and while some fans have stopped attending races because of the economy, others have stayed away because of the product.

But looking ahead to 2010, France has to make sure teams can afford to compete, that the car counts will stabilize and the garage area will be full of teams wanting to participate.

"The cost structure is a function of the free market and what is available at the time in terms of sponsorship, in terms of other related revenues that the teams can obtain," France said. "We had this same conversation this time last year when the economy was even worse. There were a lot of predictions.

"There are always teams at this time of year that are under-funded, that are looking for sponsors. That's not anything new. I think, clearly, the sponsorship market is tougher than it's ever been in my memory. I don't anticipate that getting remarkably better. Although I will tell you we're starting to see the teams which do the selling of the sport, they're starting to feel the ice thawing on that. I think you'll see some companies over the offseason that are very close to joining us at one level or another.

"It will get better because we still have the best value proposition in sports. Despite any of the other dynamics going in or around us, it's still the only place you can brand on the playing field in the manner that we do. We're very proud of that, and we've always built around that, and we will continue to."

NASCAR took a big step in saving teams money with its "no-testing" policy last year. But an inequity remains between the teams that have money, resources and technology, and those in the "start-and-park" category, teams that are simply there to coast and collect.

NASCAR will continue its "no-testing policy into 2010. Also, next year's schedule was announced over the summer without any major changes, although NASCAR will return to the standard starting times of 1 p.m. for races in the Eastern Time Zone, 3 p.m. Eastern for races in the West and 7:30 p.m. for night races.

France did indicate the 2011 schedule could include a change or two as Kansas Speedway wants a second race date and Kentucky Speedway wants to be added to the schedule. "It's certainly possible that changes could happen in 2011," he said.

And don't expect France to change "The Chase." Although the format may have actually been created by Mark Dyer, it happened during France's tenure and has become an indelible part of his and Johnson's legacy.

Kyle Busch had a season for the ages in the Nationwide Series, culminating with his first NASCAR championship after he won Saturday's Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"This was such a great year," said Busch, who beat Carl Edwards by 210 points. "It is a true testament to this team. To come out and win the final race of the season and win the championship really means a lot.

"It wasn't a cake-walk this year; it was a tough year. It shows the competition and the stress of this series and everybody involved. There were battles all the way around."

Saturday night's victory was Busch's ninth Nationwide Series win this season. Combine that with his victories in the Camping World Truck Series and the Sprint Cup Series and Busch finished the season with an incredible 20 NASCAR wins.

Team Penske has a "Power-ful" three-driver lineup in the IZOD IndyCar Series now that Will Power will compete for the entire 2010 season. He joins championship contender Ryan Briscoe and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves on owner Roger Penske's team.

Power joined Penske in 2009 as a replacement to Castroneves while he was involved in his tax evasion trial in Miami. Power realized if Castroneves had been convicted, the No. 3 Penske IndyCar would have been his for the full season but he would have to step aside and give the car back to Castroneves if he was cleared of his legal problems.

Castroneves' acquittal on April 17 brought a swift change to Power, who turned the car over to the Brazilian driver the next day. Power stepped in to another Penske car -- No. 12 -- and put it on the pole for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Power would make the most of his limited role at Team Penske by finishing fifth in the Indianapolis 500 -- a race won by Castroneves. That earned Power a few more races with the team, including the Rexall Edmonton Indy, in which he drove to an impressive victory.

After that race, Power vowed that "Penske is the only team I want to race for."

That wish was fulfilled when Power was named to a full-time ride in a Penske car sponsored by Verizon Wireless.

It is the first time since 1994 that Penske Racing will have a three-driver lineup. That year, it dominated the CART Series with Al Unser Jr. winning both the Indianapolis 500 and the series title with Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy as his teammates.

"The opportunity was there," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said of expanding the team. "It's not every day that you have an opportunity like we have to put three proper programs together with your three very capable drivers. All the moons aligned for us, and we feel obviously that this is a great opportunity for all of us."

"By finding a sponsor in a difficult economy, team owner Roger Penske once again proved why he is the most successful team owner in IndyCar history. The addition of Verizon is another "name brand" sponsor that can help spread the IndyCar word because that company is prohibited from sponsoring a car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series because of Sprint's exclusive contract as series sponsor.

Power has made tremendous progress after suffering a season-ending back injury when he crashed with Nelson Philippe in practice at Infineon Raceway on Aug. 22. Thursday's announcement ensures his return to the cockpit.

"It doesn't matter if it's practice or the race, the 77 and I just don't seem to flow together. I don't know why. It's been that way for a long time. I saw him again tonight, and I'm like, man, 'I've got to get out of here.'" -- Four-time champion Jimmie Johnson on his favorite driver, Sam Hornish Jr.

"The thing is, if you go out there and you race people the way you want to be raced, and you do a really, really good job, you don't have to use a mask and a gun. That's not how I want to come out ahead, with a gun and a mask, you know. I'd rather go out there, work hard, and earn it." -- Mark Martin on his reputation of being NASCAR's "Mr. Clean."

"What would be even better is if there were five drivers that teamed up at the beginning of next year and wrecked him in each of the first five races and he'd be out of the top 35 coming into the sixth race so he'd have to qualify on time. I'm going to be the leader. I'm going to ante up everybody else. Maybe you shouldn't have let the cat out of the bag." -- Kyle Busch on what he would like to do to Brad Keselowski.

Now that the race cars have been shut off, the transporters have returned home and another long season is over, it's time to focus on the important things in life, such as spending Thanksgiving Day with family and loved ones. And if getting stuffed on turkey, dressing and all the trimmings isn't enough, it's time for football overload.

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