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Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2007

Commentary: Smaller NASCAR teams hurt by big-money focus

July 15, 2007

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— It's late Friday morning at Chicagoland Speedway and Larry McClure stands in the Nextel Cup garage watching his crew prepare for another day of drama.

The USG Sheetrock 400 qualifying order is taped to a toolbox in the next stall.

Jeremy Mayfield's team has marked its No.36 Toyota's position with a pink highlighter and circled the numbers of the cars Mayfield has to beat to make this week's race.

Next to last among 49 cars is the No.4. That's the Morgan-McClure Motorsports Chevrolet, driven by Ward Burton and owned by the man who's shaking his head.

"I've been doing this for 25 years," McClure says. "I guess I am really stubborn."

One week earlier at Daytona it rained before Burton could try to make the field for the Pepsi 400. NASCAR set the lineup by rule and McClure's car missed the cut.

McClure's not yet so frustrated he blames NASCAR for the fact it rained on a July afternoon in Florida, but his team's failure to make the show forced him to make some tough decisions.

This week, McClure had to tell five of his people they no longer had jobs.

"We have some really good people," McClure says, staring off toward no place in particular. "Those people we had to let go are valuable to me. We love them, we care about them. But I have to be able to pay my bills; that's something we've always done."

McClure told each person he laid off that as soon as he can find somebody else to help State Water Heaters provide sponsorship for his team, he'd hire them back.

"It's a terrible thing," McClure says. "If I had another $3million dollars this year, I could do a hell of a lot better."

McClure's team is in Garage 3. Up around Garage 1, where the top 12 teams in the Nextel Cup standings are, the weekend's big story involves Dale Earnhardt Jr. and word that Budweiser won't be his sponsor when he moves to Hendrick Motorsports.

Some sponsor is going to be writing a very, very big check to get Earnhardt Jr. Some other team will get a nice sum when it lands Budweiser for 2008.

That's important stuff.

But it is no more important as what McClure and the owners down in his end of the garage face these days.

"It's not right," McClure muses. "What's going to happen here is you're going to wind up with five or six car owners controlling the whole field. I don't think it's good for the sport long term."

As qualifying winds down, only Burton and Paul Menard, in a go-or-go-home car owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc., are left. Burton runs 179.581 mph, 36th fastest among 49 cars making qualifying attempts. But with the top 35 in car owner points locked into the show, all that matters is that Burton is faster than six of the other non-exempt cars. That means the No.4 Chevrolet will race on this Sunday.

"I've tried to be objective," McClure says. "But when I look at it, I think I've got the best team I've had in five years. It's hard to fight the rules every week. It takes its toll."

When introduced, the rule protecting the top 35 teams was designed to protect full-time teams and the sponsors who back them.

What it's actually doing, McClure says, is crippling him as well as others who are down here in this part of the garage with him.

"It doesn't let us compete for sponsors or people because you're out of the top 35 and you're not locked in," he says.

What would McClure do? Change the top 35 rule, for starters.

"Put more emphasis back on qualifying," he says. "The teams that are locked on don't care about qualifying. Let the current champion and the teams in the top 10 or 12 have guaranteed spots. That would be your stars, and then give these other people a chance to become stars."

McClure's team starts its 695th race today. It has 14 victories, but none since 1998. It has been more than 250 races since a Morgan-McClure car finished in the top five.

But does that make Larry McClure and people like him expendable?

McClure adjusts his focus. Now, he looks you dead square in the eyes.

"We're trying to bring good sponsors and good people into this sport, too," McClure says. "We feel like there's value for us being here."

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