WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- At the end of the drivers' meeting for last Sunday's Sirius at the Glen, Ryan Newman popped the all-important question.
"Where's Victory Lane?" he asked with a devilish smile, even prompting a grin from NASCAR president Mike Helton.
It was a rare light moment these days about Victory Lane, which has become a focal point of controversy.
NASCAR has made PowerAde the official sponsor of Victory Lane and expects winning drivers to speed there for the postrace celebration, where three PowerAde bottles gets plunked on the roof of the winning car. It matters not that PowerAde is made by Coca-Cola, that several drivers have sponsorship deals with Pepsi, or that several tracks have Gatorade emblazoned all over Victory Lane.
Because Nextel Cup racing has become so competitive, wins are cherished as never before and drivers don't want to give up the emotion of the moment when they do win.
"I think it needs to be celebrated," said Rusty Wallace. "You need to have your crew with you and your family with you and have a big time doing it instead of worrying about turning it into a commercial event."
That was echoed by Ricky Rudd, who has started 738 consecutive Cup races but hasn't won in two years.
"When you win a race, you want to be able to share it with your crew, share it with your fans," Rudd said. "The rest of it, the television and all that stuff, to me it's always been a necessary evil of the business.
"Don't get me wrong, Victory Lane is a great place to be. But it gets to be so rehearsed that you almost need to let the drivers and teams go have their celebration. Let them have their 10 minutes, then go through the work process. Victory Lane is work."
After winning at Watkins Glen on Sunday and despite a bad case of stomach cramps that nearly forced him out of his car during the race, Tony Stewart obligingly donned nearly 60 hats in Victory Lane.
"Now it's definitely a lot more scripted because there's a lot more commitments, for teams, for NASCAR and for the tracks," said Mike Arning, who handles public relations for Stewart. "It takes almost two hours. My hat bag is the size of a hockey bag.
"The most unscripted fun happens when the driver crosses the finish line," Arning said. "The crew jumps up and down and celebrates, but it's almost like it ends when he gets to Victory Lane. The spontaniety of winning is kind of lost. It's still cool, but it's not this big party. It is what it is."
What it is is the chance for NASCAR to plug its official sponsors in front of a television audience that has increased substantially since stock car racing's governing body signed a television deal with NBC, Fox and TNT two years ago.
Although there is nothing in the rule book addressing what winning drivers are required to do, they are told to sit inside the car until the television cameras are live so viewers at home can see their reaction when they climb out.
In August, exposure for those blue bottles has dropped significantly.
Jimmie Johnson, who counts Pepsi as a sponsor, circumvented an order from Helton not to touch the bottles by knocking them off with a sign after his win at Pocono Raceway and was fined $10,000. A week later, teammate Jeff Gordon, another Pepsi driver, won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the fourth time in 11 years and celebrated on the track's famed row of bricks. And Stewart was so ill that as soon as he climbed out of his car he was immediately whisked to his trailer to recover and returned long after the telecast had signed off.
Neither Gordon nor Stewart was fined.
"The most important thing is for us to maintain the celebration," said Gordon, who has won four Cup championships. "What happened (at Indianapolis) from my end of it certainly didn't have anything to do with sponsors. That's where I wanted to share that moment with my team, and NASCAR had no problem with that. They just wanted the car in Victory Lane."
Conflicts are inevitable. According to Joyce Julius & Associates, a Michigan firm that calculates exposure value at sporting events for corporate entities, each year between 700 and 1,000 sponsors sign on with NASCAR. There aren't enough seconds in a day for all of them.
"There are going to be conflicting sponsors and you're going to have those issues, but they're going to have to be handled in a professional way and in a respectful manner," said Kyle Petty. "They've been handled in the heat of the moment and at the height of emotion, and a lot of times that's not the best way to handle things.
"The problem is it's changed recently," Petty said. "Is the change a plus or a minus? Right now, you've got to give it a minus. You can't say it's a plus because it's caused controversy. Who would ever have thought in a sport that's growing the way this sport's growing we'd be arguing about bottles sitting on the roofs of cars in Victory Lane?"
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