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Friday, May 18, 2007
Judge: AT&T able to put new logo on Burton car

By Angelique S. Chengelis

CONCORD, N.C. -- AT&T will be able to replace the Cingular logos on the No. 31 car driven by Jeff Burton with the AT&T "globe" logo beginning with Saturday night's NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge, based on a ruling by a federal judge Friday afternoon.

U.S. District Court senior judge Marvin Shoob issued a preliminary injunction barring NASCAR from interfering with AT&T's rights as primary sponsor of the car in the Nextel Cup series.

"I'm really happy for AT&T that we're going to be able to rebrand our car to AT&T and carry on and get back to really trying to win this championship," said team owner Richard Childress on Friday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "It's just a great day for RCR and AT&T."

NASCAR, however, still is pursuing legal options and has been granted a hearing before Shoob Saturday morning to stay today's decision. If the judge grants the stay, the No. 31 will remain with its current Cingular branding. If not, all of the current Cingular logos on the car will be replaced by the AT&T globe, and NASCAR plans to seek an emergency stay from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday morning. In his 32-page ruling, Shoob wrote "the court concludes that the continued appearance of the Cingular brand on the No. 31 car, unaccompanied by any indication that Cingular now does business as AT&T, is likely to confuse NASCAR fans."

When Sprint Nextel became primary sponsor of the NASCAR series, Cingular and Alltel were grandfathered in as sponsors. NASCAR argued in court that it was made clear to Cingular that if the company was sold -- AT&T and BellSouth merged last December and then became full owner of Cingular -- it would not be able to change logos on the Burton car.

"While we respect the court's decision, we disagree with this preliminary ruling," Dean Kessel, director of NASCAR Nextel Cup marking for Sprint Nextel, said in a statement. "Sprint Nextel has been committed to enhancing the NASCAR fan experience in many ways, including increasing the points fun payout and developing cutting-edge technology and services for the betterment of the fans, the teams and the sport.

"All of this was possible through the exclusivity granted to us as the series sponsor for the Nextel Cup and that exclusivity from NASCAR also grants us protection from other telecommunications competitors infringing on our sponsorship rights. The merger that created the new AT&T means their brand now represents a much broader and more comprehensive company than the Cingular brand."

AT&T filed suit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on March 16 and then filed a motion for preliminary injunction 10 days later.

Shoob said in Friday's filing the "court agrees that [AT&T's] inability to exercise its exclusive right of negotiation is a form of irreparable injury."

He also wrote that "Sprint Nextel knew that its exclusivity was going to be impaired because it agreed with NASCAR in the Nextel Sponsorship Agreement to grandfather in certain competitors."

Childress said he expects to begin negotiations with AT&T "pretty soon."

Angelique S. Chengelis is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.