ATLANTA - The shakeup at Penske South Racing started last week when the No. 12 race team was dissolved. It continued Wednesday with the resignation of Rusty Wallace's crew chief.
The departure ends the longest running relationship between a driver and crew chief on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit.
Ryan Pemberton told the team he would leave at the end of the year to recover from 22 grueling years on the road.
Bill Wilburn, who's been with Wallace since 1992 as a front tire changer, will replace Pemberton atop the toolbox next season.
"This is definitely as amicable a situation as possible," Pemberton said. "I've been on the road for 22 straight years and I'm ready for a change. My boys are growing up so fast, and I'm really missing that side of life so much.
"I'm looking forward to staying in the sport, but in a position where I'm in the shop most of the time and not a road warrior any more. I'll always be thankful to everyone involved her at Penske Racing for giving me some of the best years of my career."
Roger Penske, majority owner at Penske South, has been involved in several moves in the racing off-season. Last month, he decided to move both of his IndyCar teams out of CART and into the rival Indy Racing League. Penske was one of the founding members of CART, but pressure from his sponsor and the continued decline of CART forced him to jump ship.
Then he decided to fold one of this stock car teams. The No. 12 Ford, driven most of the year by Jeremy Mayfield and finished by Mike Wallace, was the best car in the Penske fleet at the end of the season with a couple top-10 finishes in the last 10 races.
Penske decided to devote all of the team's resources on Wallace's team and a new car being driven by rookie Ryan Newman.
Pemberton's departure ended a seven-year stint as Wallace's crew chief. Based on the way Wallace struggled down the stretch this year, it wasn't a surprise. He also missed this year's race at the Texas Motor Speedway while suffering with fatigue.
Wallace's best finish was a seventh at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte in the final eight races of the year.
Joining the members of the No. 12 team in the unemployment line last week was the crew of Melling Racing.
That team hasn't been able to land sponsorship for the 2002 season, so it closed its doors.
Driver Stacy Compton has an opportunity to drive the ST Motorsports and its No. 59 Chevrolet on the NASCAR Busch Series next year if he can't find full-time work in Winston Cup. He and Kevin Lepage are the two finalists for the job at A.J. Foyt's No. 14 car.
Also, members of Andy Petree's No. 33 team are on alert. Petree said he will race the first three races in 2002 with Mike Wallace as his driver, but if he can't get a sponsor after that, his team might fold as well.
Brett Bodine's team is still looking for a primary sponsor, as is Ultra Motorsports' No. 7 Ford.
All this makes the words of NASCAR president Mike Helton seem curious. During his state-of-the-sport address last week, Helton said the sport was economically sound.
The new television contract with NBC, Fox, TNT and FX proved to be the boon NASCAR expected. The networks, however, weren't prepared for the massive financial losses.
Although 38 percent of the nation's households were casual or ardent fans, the networks said they lost about $100 million in revenues.
According to figures provided by NASCAR, the sport's fan base grew by 12 million to 75 million which includes a group of 30 million experts consider hardcore fans.
Ratings revealed an increase of 40 percent of viewers in the coveted age bracket between 18 and 34.
"They're finding our sport to be a cool thing," Helton said.
TESTING, TESTING, ONE, TWO, THREE:
It might be the off-season, but that doesn't mean the sport has ground to a halt.
Sterling Marlin's team already as tested two days at Lakeland, Fla., and every team is preparing for one of two, two-day test sessions next month at the Daytona International Speedway.
Odd-numbered teams in the final NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings will test Jan. 7-8; even-numbered teams will test Jan. 14-15.
Rules prohibit any testing as a track that sanctions NASCAR events during December, but short tracks like Lakeland aren't associated with NASCAR and they prove to be a great place to work on things like braking, engine combinations and transmissions.
Ricky Rudd had exploratory surgery on his back this week. He said the wear and tear of sitting in a race seat has caused his fifth vertebra to move out of alignment. ... Jim Long, who used to work at Ultra Motorsports, is the leading candidate to become the new crew chief for Terry Labonte's No. 5 Chevrolet. His former crew chief, Gary DeHart, will move into the research and development department for Hendrick Motorsports. ... With Mike Wallace being picked to drive Andy Petree's No. 33 Chevrolet in the first three races next year, it appears Robert Pressley will wind up either in the Craftsman Truck Series or the NASCAR Busch Series. One option might be as the full-time driver for Michael Waltrip's No. 99 Busch Series cars.
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