With the annual budget of NASCAR Winston Cup teams running upward of $15 million, the sponsors that bankroll them have increasing sway in hiring drivers.
Veteran racer Rick Mast, 43, a native of Rockbridge Baths, Va., thought he had a job lined up to drive for car owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates this season. Instead, that job went to Jason Leffler, 25, a former USAC National Midget champion and Silver Crown champion with no Winston Cup experience.
The choice of Leffler, Sabates acknowledged, reflected the philosophy of the No. 01 Dodge team's sponsor, Cintas.
"BellSouth was the sponsor of our car, but it merged with SBC and formed Cintas, the second-largest wireless company in the world," Sabates said today. "And because Cintas was a young company, they wanted to have a young driver that they could grow with."
Leffler, who has driven two seasons in the Busch Grand National ranks, will start 15th in Sunday's Daytona 500, having finished seventh in today's 125-mile qualifying race.
Mast, meantime, missed the field by one spot, finishing 15th in his 125-mile race driving the No. 50 Chevrolet sponsored by Midwest Transit.
"It's not the end of the world," said Mast, who has 11 seasons under his belt. "But when you miss Daytona, it feels like the end of the world."
Fox Learns Racing Etiquette on the Fly
The Daytona 500 will be the first NASCAR race aired by Fox, and the network is working out the kinks of its coverage this week.
Just moments before today's first 125-mile qualifying race, Fox pit reporter Jeanne Zelasko butted into a pre-race conversation between Dale Earnhardt, who was strapped in his race car, and crew member Danny Lawrence.
"I know this is really important," Zelasko said, referring to the Earnhardt-Lawrence strategy session, "but so is this!"
Lawrence stepped aside, Zelasko got her question in and Earnhardt was captured on-camera chuckling.
Petty Credits an Assist From Andretti
Third-generation racer Kyle Petty charged from 18th to 13th on the final lap of his qualifying race to secure a spot in Sunday's race. Afterward, he gave all the credit to his teammate, John Andretti, who helped him weave his way through traffic.
"I wouldn't be in the race if it wasn't for John Andretti," said Petty, who also manages daily operations at Petty Enterprises' three-car team. "To have a teammate like that, he can drive for us forever. He's the man!"
Also making the field were all three Wallace brothers. Rusty Wallace will start 12th, Kenny Wallace 23rd and Mike Wallace 27th.
Kenny Wallace's No. 27 Pontiac is without a sponsor, but Wallace wasn't worried about finances after making the field.
"If corporate America doesn't want to sponsor a race car for the biggest race in the whole United States, with the biggest TV viewership, then it's their loss," he said. "But I can tell you what: If you sponsor my race car, you're going to get on TV, and you're going to sell product."
In addition to Mast, the drivers who didn't make the field for Sunday's race were Norm Benning, Todd Bodine, Derrike Cope, Dwayne Leik, Carl Long, Dave Marcis, Morgan Shepherd and Hut Stricklin.