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Steering Through Tough Times

Jimmie Johnson will look to win his fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title as the season begins with the Daytona 500 on Sunday. (Geoff Burke - Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson will look to win his fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title as the season begins with the Daytona 500 on Sunday. (Geoff Burke - Getty Images)
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By Liz Clarke
Thursday, February 12, 2009; Page E06

No sport relies more on corporate dollars than NASCAR. But given the current economic crisis, the sport that celebrates high-octane excess is learning to make do with less. Signs of the new austerity are evident as NASCAR gears up for the season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday.

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· With the ranks of sponsors able to pay $15 million to $20 million a year to bankroll a front-running car dwindling, some of the sport's proudest teams have been forced to merge with rivals just to stay afloat. Dale Earnhardt Inc., which once fielded three cars, is now Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Petty Enterprises teamed with Gillett Evernham Motorsports but won top billing, with the new entity re-branded Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM).

Other teams have scaled back their ambitions. The storied Wood Brothers will run only 12 of the season's 36 races. And hundreds of jobs have been lost to the cost-cutting at nearly every race shop along the industrial corridor north of Charlotte.

· Across the country, track owners are discounting tickets and tossing in perks such as all-you-can-eat vouchers to coax cash-strapped families to the stands. Driver Denny Hamlin is going a step further, buying four tickets to each race this year and giving them away to the fan who e-mails the best essay to his Web site.

· NASCAR has banned testing at its racetracks in an effort to curtail runaway spending driven by teams with deep pockets. And even four-time champion Jeff Gordon is parking his private jet and flying commercially from time to time.

· With more entrants than starting spots, Sunday's Daytona 500 is guaranteed to have a full 43-car field. A few of those cars, however, still don't have sponsors, and their relatively bare bodies will look funny to fans accustomed to seeing corporate logos adorning every square inch of sheet metal.

Today's pair of 150-mile qualifying races will cull the hopefuls and set Sunday's starting positions three through 43. Martin Truex, Jr. will start from the pole, having turned in the fastest qualifying lap in the No. 1 Chevrolet fielded by the new Earnhardt-Ganassi operation.

But if the economy continues to deteriorate, NASCAR may have a hard time finding 43 cars -- sponsored or not -- to fill its fields over the course of its 10-month season.

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