ATLANTA - For $80 million, NASCAR won't get a lot of bang for the buck today.
Nextel's agreement to become the title sponsor for what's now known as the Winston Cup Series is big news, but it was old news by the time the sanctioning body made their formal announcement Wednesday at Times Square in New York.
Much like news of a second race at the California Speedway, NASCAR had so many leaks of information leading up to the press conference it was telling everybody something they've already known for weeks.
The telecommunications company will take over for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as the primary benefactor on the nation's most popular racing series. After 31 years, RJR and its Winston brand will divert its dollars away from racing, only to be replaced by the fifth-largest cellular telephone company in the country.
Even before RJR said it was leaving the sport last February, a plan to replace the tobacco company already was in place. Fox, NBC, TNT and FX all need advertising to recoup the $2.6 billion it pays NASCAR for television rights. Because it's handcuffed by conditions of the tobacco settlements and other laws, RJR can't buy advertising on television.
It's the same reason Union 76 is leaving the sport at the end of the season as the official gasoline supplier of NASCAR. It won't buy television time, so it will be replaced with a gasoline company that will.
Nextel will pay about $80 million a year to be the title sponsor. Nearly $50 million of that will go directly to NASCAR. The other $30 million is earmarked for television advertising.
In the past couple of weeks, NASCAR managed to smooth out the rough edges of the deal. Nextel wanted to be the only telecommunications company in the sport, but it apparently decided to allow Cingular Wireless and Alltel to maintain their sponsorships with race teams. No other telecommunications companies will be allowed in, and if and when Cingular and Alltel leave, they won't be able to return.
Winston had the same agreement with NASCAR to keep Marlboro out of the sport.
The only thing that hasn't been leaked by NASCAR is the future of The Winston all-star race. The nonpoints race among the most recent winners on the circuit reportedly will be sponsored by Winston.
HELP WANTED: Mike Skinner wasn't surprised when he was fired Monday from his job with Morgan-McClure Motorsports.
Two days after he failed to qualify the No. 4 Kodak Pontiac for the race at the Michigan International Speedway, car owner Larry McClure lived up to his promise that he would turn his team upside down to fix it.
"I'm still a good race car driver," Skinner said. "I'm not happy with running at the back. It's almost a relief."
Trans Am road racer Johnny Miller will drive the car in this Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350 on the road course at Infineon Raceway. A permanent replacement hasn't been hired.
Skinner's termination came less than a week after Petty Enterprises fired John Andretti from his job with the famed No. 43 Dodge. As expected, Andretti is considered the leading candidate to move into the Morgan-McClure Pontiac.
HIRED GUNS: The road courses bring out a different group of "ringers" on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and Sunday's race at the two-mile, 10-turn Infineon Raceway is no different. Not only will Trans-Am points leader Miller driver drive for Morgan-McClure, but five other drivers accustomed to making both left- and right-handed turns will be in the field.
Joining Miller are Boris Said, Paul Menard, Scott Pruett, P.J. Jones and Ron Fellows.
Although they have a lot more experience driving on a twisting road course, stock car drivers still hold the edge. In fact, none of the road-racing specialists have won on either road courses, including Watkins Glen, N.Y.
PIT STOPS: Citgo announced it will not return as the sponsor for Jeff Burton's Ford at Roush Racing next year. ... This Saturday's O'Reilly 200 at the Memphis Motorsports Complex will be the 200th race in the history of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. ... The CART Champ Car World Series is for sale. After going public several years ago, its stock has dropped by nearly 90 percent to about $3 a share last week. One interested buyer might be Formula One, which would turn the open-wheeled series into a training ground.
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