Bruce Martin: Tough economy leaves rookies wondering about next season - Sports Illustrated

Tough economy leaves rookies wondering about next season

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- In a normal offseason, Regan Smith and Landon Cassill would both have a lot to look forward to. After all, Smith won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title in NASCAR Sprint Cup driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Cassill was the rookie award winner in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports.

But this is far from a normal offseason.

With NASCAR teams trying to adapt to a slumping economy, neither Smith nor Cassill have deals for next season. In Smith's case, DEI merged with the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team to form a four-car team for next season. Each operation began the 2008 season with three cars apiece, so that is a net loss of two cars to the Cup starting grid. Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex, Jr. and Aric Almirola will drive three of the four cars at the newly merged team, with the final driver to be named later. Smith is hopeful he'll get the ride but there are no guarantees.

"I'm pretty confident I'll be driving a Cup car for somebody next year," Smith said. "I just don't know which one, and if not, then I'll look to the other two series and work hard to get back to this level."

The highlight of Smith's season also provided him his greatest heartbreak -- when he was first to cross the finish line at the checkered flag at Talladega, only to be knocked back to 18th place after the race when NASCAR officials ruled he has purposely driven below the yellow line to improve his position and pass Tony Stewart, who was declared the winner.

"I don't know if you can ever get over that," Smith admitted. "It was a good opportunity to win a race. This series is so tough; I found that out firsthand this year. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come again. You've got to take the bright spots that came out of that day. I can lie down at night and feel confident saying that my guys performed well enough at Talladega to help me win a race, and they can do the same."

When it came to name recognition, Smith admitted he was overshadowed by a driver once considered the greatest American IndyCar driver of his generation. Both were part of the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Program in NASCAR Sprint Cup and much of the attention would go to Sam Hornish, Jr. and not Smith, the third driver at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

But at the end of a long season, it was Smith who was able to celebrate the rookie title while Hornish did not make the field for the final race in the season.

"There were a lot of big names that I was racing against and you look at the stuff at the beginning of the year, not very many people had me chartered as one of them that was going to contend for Raybestos Rookie of the Year championship," Smith said. "So I definitely had a little bit of a chip on the shoulder about that and wanted to go out there and prove that there is still a good ol' stock car path and NASCAR path to get to this series. I feel like we did that to a certain extent."

Smith finished 34th in the Cup standings while Hornish was 35th. However, Hornish's entry finished 38th in car owner points and Smith's car was 32nd, which is vital because only the top 35 are assured starting positions for the first five races next season.

Cassill's plight is very similar to Smith's. At 19, Cassill would appear to have a bright future, but after Earnhardt announced layoffs for his Nationwide Series team, Cassill's future was thrown in doubt.

"We just hope somebody is going to call us here in the next several months so we can put something together for next year and get the 5 car back to a full time program," Earnhardt said. "We've been searching around for several different deals, and we actually had a program for 18 races, but it ended up conflicting with something else way, way down the line, so it wasn't even anything to do with me or my team.

But it's tough. You find something, you think you've got it saved and you think you're going to have a sponsorship, and it don't work out. It's real tough."

A rookie of the year title does not always guarantee future stardom, but it usually means the rookies will be back for a sophomore season.

But in tough economic times, there are virtually no guarantees in a sport that depends on multi-million dollar sponsorships in order to compete.

Rather than have the cumbersome name Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, I have a better idea. Rename it "Chip and Dale Racing."

Now that would get some attention.

Matt Kenseth is one of NASCAR's best drivers. He is also the most overlooked by the fans.

At least he will be well-paid after he agreed to remain at Roush Fenway Racing by signing a contract extension last Thursday. Details of the contract were not announced.

Kenseth has been with Roush Fenway since 1998 and has claimed 16 Sprint Cup series wins and 24 Nationwide wins in addition to Roush Fenway's first Sprint Cup championship.

"It's been a great 11 years at Roush Fenway Racing," Kenseth said. "I appreciate everything Jack and DEWALT have done for me over the years. We've had a lot of success together, including a championship, and I'm really proud of that. I'm looking forward to the next few years and winning another."

Kenseth will go down in history as the driver who caused NASCAR to create The Chase. He won the 2003 Cup title with one victory, when every race of the season counted toward the championship. NASCAR's CEO Brian France thought it was too boring, so he came up with the monstrosity known as The Chase for the Championship, which began in 2004.

For the second year in a row, there was a split championship in the Nationwide Series, with one team celebrating the driver's championship and another the owner's title. Both were able to share in the glory at the Nationwide Series Banquet at the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando last Saturday night.

Clint Bowyer won the driver's title for Richard Childress Racing while J.D. Gibbs won the owner's championship thanks to an outstanding performance by four drivers in the No. 20 entry throughout the season.

Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Joey Logano all took turns driving that car in 2008. Logano was behind the wheel in the season-ending Ford 300 and his 10th-place finish gave Gibbs the owners title.

"It was special to have all those guys, Kyle and Denny and Tony and Joey get in that car and run it, and then for the guys at the shop that have worked all year long, it would have been real frustrating to go the whole year and not have something to show for it," Gibbs said. "Now to be able to come down to Orlando and celebrate as a team, we've never done that before as a Nationwide team. That's a big deal for us, so we're real excited about it."

Gibbs admitted he considered putting Logano in the No. 18 Gibbs car and letting Kyle Busch drive in the No. 20 because Busch is the winningest driver in the series this season, with a record-tying 10 victories. But the 18-year-old Logano needs to learn how to compete in championship situations, so Gibbs left him in the No. 20.

"When we first started, way back when, we said, 'Hey, Joey, here's the deal. Obviously this car is way up in points. We can let that ride and you stay in it and go, or we can switch you to the 18. Are you comfortable doing that?'" Gibbs explained. "He said, 'I want to learn, and part of learning is the pressure. I'm ready for that. I think it's going to help me be a better driver down the road.' He said from day one, bring it on, and to his credit, he was able to pull it off under pretty rough circumstances a lot of times."

With corn-grown Ethanol getting heat for the perception that it has raised food prices abroad, the IndyCar Series is bailing on the Ethanol industry in the U.S. and will get sugar-based Ethanol from Brazil beginning in 2009.

The multi-year deal names APEX-Brasil an official partner of the Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis 500, which includes cooperation from UNICA (the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association) to identify those interested in supplying ethanol to the series. Initially, UNICA will look to partner with a U.S.-based ethanol company to supply the IndyCar Series with corn-based ethanol.

One of the primary messages of the new partnership is that regardless of the sources used in the production of ethanol -- corn, sugarcane, or various cellulosic materials in the future -- the end product is identical, a clean, renewable bio-fuel that reduces dependence on fossil fuels and combats one of the major causes of climate change.

"The move to other sources of ethanol is a natural progression as the ethanol industry continues to grow and evolve," said Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the Indy Racing League, the sanctioning body for the IndyCar Series. "We continue to strive to be on the leading edge of the greening of racing. The IndyCar Series was the first motorsports series to mandate use of a renewable fuel, and now we will work with the ethanol industry in both the United States and Brazil to promote the use of all types of ethanol by consumers.

"During our recent manufacturer roundtables, the participating engine companies were enthusiastic about our potential use of various sources of ethanol. We feel this move is another step in the right direction with our goal of introducing a new engine and chassis by 2011."

Brazilians Tony Kanaan teamed with Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Giaffone, Renato Russian and Luciano Burti to win the Granja Viana 500 -- a 500-mile kart race in Sao Paulo, Brazil - for the eighth time in its 12 years.

The event, held at the Giaffone family's venue, featured 65 karts. IndyCar Series drivers Vitor Meira, Mario Moraes and Raphael Matos also competed. A second Kanaan kart included co-drivers Cristiano da Matta and Antonio Pizzonia.

"Each time I win, I feel a different emotion," said Kanaan, who finished third in the 2008 IndyCar Series championship with Andretti Green Racing. "The team was very dedicated during the race, and in the end this helped us to win the trophy. This is my eighth victory, and I have a great history with this race that I can tell my son about."

Kanaan, whose No. 72 kart started from the pole, also will be competing in the International Challenge of Go-Kart Champs on Nov. 30 in Florianopolis, Brazil - a charity race organized by Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa.

Turkey, and lots of it.

But seriously, Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks for what we have. And this will be a unique Thanksgiving Day for NASCAR as many of the crewmembers are without a job on this holiday, making this industry no different than the general workforce of the United States. So on Thursday, give thanks for health and loved ones, because that's what matters most in this world.

OK, enough mushiness. I promise to return next week as my typical snarky, cynical, sarcastic and acerbic self.

Now, pass the damn stuffing.