The biggest mystery in NASCAR this fall isn't so much a whodunit as a what's-the-deal? On Sept. 10 Richard Petty Motorsports and Yates Racing announced that the two teams had signed a letter of intent to merge operations in time for the 2010 season. Five weeks on, that remains all anybody knows, including some of those who stand to be directly involved with the new partnership.
The announcement specified that the merged team would field four cars, but RPM co-owner Richard Petty later said he didn't know if that was correct; at New Hampshire last month RPM driver Kasey Kahne said he had no idea who was in charge of even his current team. All the confusion has created a void that's been filled by speculation about possible roster changes and rumors about an influx of cash from Saudi Arabia. On Oct. 3 at Kansas Speedway, Colorado businessman George Gillett Jr., the principal owner of RPM (as well as a co-owner of the English soccer team Liverpool FC), admitted, "We raised more questions than we answered." No kidding.
But it's possible to deduce a few potential results of the deal. The new partnership will race Fords (RPM currently races Dodges), and that should help another Ford team, Roush Fenway Racing, which already has a competitive alliance with Yates similar to the one between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing. As the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas coalition charges toward a championship (the two teams accounted for four of the top five finishers in the Pepsi 500 in Fontana, Calif., on Sunday, including race winner and points leader Jimmie Johnson), it has become clear that the once-powerful Roush Fenway operation, with just two victories all season, has lost a step. Hendrick and Stewart are working with information from six cars and with input from three Cup champions in Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Roush has a five-car team with one series champ in Matt Kenseth, but only one of the two drivers at Yates has even run a full schedule this season. In short, there's a gap between the two alliances in both the amount of data and the quality of analysis. Team owner Jack Roush did not respond to SI's requests for comment last week.
But as much as any competitive edge, the deal between Petty and Yates is about surviving in NASCAR's lean economy. Just one Yates car is fully funded: Paul Menard's ride in the number 98 Ford is paid for primarily by his family's home-improvement empire. RPM not only has Kahne, a 2009 Chaser who's won 10 Cup races since '06 and is one of the most popular drivers in the series, but also his gold-plated Budweiser sponsorship. Then there's Petty, the King himself, who remains a mainstay in the sport even though this is his struggling team's third merger in 15 months. There are also rumors that Gillett is in negotiations to bring in a Saudi prince, Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saud as a backer—a possibility Gillett doesn't dismiss. "It's a very, very early social conversation," he says.
October 18, 2009
So the fundamental truth at the root of all this amorphous deal-making is no mystery at all. Indeed, it's the same one that has governed racing since NASCAR's inception. "Cash is king," says former champion Darrell Waltrip. "It's about staying [alive] in the sport."
Now on SI.com
Chase analysis from Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus
No Chaser took a bigger hit at California than Denny Hamlin (below). Leading the race with 60 laps to go, Hamlin got a quick jump on a restart and thought he had cleared the second-place car, driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, which was running inside him. Entering the first turn, Hamlin dived to the inside intending to block Montoya, but instead clipped fenders and went spinning into the end of the pit wall. Though Hamlin went straight to the garage to have his front end repaired, he missed 25 laps of racing. Upon his return, he was black-flagged by NASCAR officials for being unable to maintain the minimum safe speed. Hamlin finished 37th and fell from sixth to ninth in the Chase standings. "A rookie mistake," said the fourth-year veteran. "I thought I was clear."