Economy sharpens focus of car makers

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BROOKLYN, Mich. --- The Big Three, each fighting record losses in an economy of $4 a gallon gas prices and a shrinking dollar, have chosen today's Michigan International Speedway to make a stand.

NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards (left) said there's a newfound camaraderie among Ford drivers to help the company produce a desirable product in changing economic times.  Associated Press
Associated Press
NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards (left) said there's a newfound camaraderie among Ford drivers to help the company produce a desirable product in changing economic times.

They're trying to restore consumer confidence amid a litany of problems, hoping the old racing adage "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" still holds true. Today's LifeLock 400 is 60 miles from downtown Detroit, the home of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. The race isn't sold out; the busiest campgrounds in the sport are empty. Nobody has felt the brunt of the slowed economy worse than car makers.

But a win today not only gives a car company bragging rights, it can offer a diversion, no matter how temporary, to the difficult days ahead.

To make matters even worse, the Big Three are against another formidable obstacle -- Toyota.

Ford held a pep rally Thursday for all of its drivers and car owners. The purpose of the meeting was to make sure everyone understood the significance of the current challenges.

"We're at a point right now in America, and with these cars companies here in Detroit ... this has to be the turning point, the way we do business, the way Americans look at where they're buying cars," Carl Edwards said. "So, definitely a renewed spirit of camaraderie among the Ford drivers ... (to) try to help them with the changes that they're making, creating compact cars that people believe in."

Ford and Dodge have combined to win the past 13 races at the two-mile track, but Kyle Busch's Toyota starts on the pole. He earned that when rain washed out time trials on Friday, forcing NASCAR to set the starting lineup using the current standings.

After going winless last year, Toyota has rebounded to win five of the first 14 races in 2008. Busch said the Japanese car company put an additional focus on Michigan because it's another chance to exert itself as a leading player in the car business.

"That would be pretty awesome," he said.

"It would definitely be pretty cool to not only just win here because we want to get another win, but to win in a manufacturer's backyard is pretty cool."

For the Big Three, protecting home turf is more than good business; it's about survival.

"The bottom line is gas is unaffordable right now, and we have to offer them products that they believe in, and that's what Ford's focus is right now," Edwards said. "It's a huge shift from where it's been."

Jimmie Johnson, the two-time defending series champion, said that, even in a series in which cars essentially are identical in shape and defined only by decals, brand loyalty still is paramount at Michigan.

"I know that the Roush guys and Ford have had a lot of success here," he said. "We don't like that, being a Chevy team. We want to win in Chevrolet's backyard. "

Kasey Kahne, whose Dodge has won two of the past three races -- three of four counting the All-Star race -- won at Michigan in 2006. In the past 13 races at Michigan, Ford has won seven times, and Dodge has won six.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.


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