Race goes on, but change is in the Michigan wind

June, 13, 2009
06/13/09
7:08
PM ET

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Once-mighty Detroit lies little more than an hour's drive to the east. And so time was when the garage area at Michigan International Speedway teemed on race weekends with bigwigs who'd cruised over from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.

The grandstands were packed with factory workers cheering for the brands they built on the assembly lines over at Dearborn, Warren, Auburn Hills, even Flint in its long-past day, and the plants just across the Canadian border in Windsor, Ontario.

It's less crowded around here now. Not that it's a ghost town. Just subdued. You can feel the pall.

The only cheerful, omnipresent manufacturer figure is Lee White, the chieftain of Toyota Racing Development.

Just the Ford presence alone was a festival all its own, and I wonder about old acquaintances long gone to the buyouts, the early retirements …

Ford's favorite racing son, the self-made engineer Jack Roush, headquartered in nearby Livonia, always made sure they had something to feel good about.

Eleven times his cars have won here, because Roush focuses his efforts here like no place else.

But this time, Roush's highest-starting driver for Sunday's LifeLock 400 is Matt Kenseth in 16th. Greg Biffle will start 20th, David Ragan 23rd, Carl Edwards 29th and Jamie McMurray 31st.

Kenseth is the only winner this year among them, with his rain-aided victory in the Daytona 500 followed by a fully earned one at Fontana, Calif.

Edwards, the most baffling disappointment this year, not just at Roush but on the whole Sprint Cup tour -- his nine wins last year led to his being named as consensus pick to win the 2009 Cup -- probably has the best chance to renew the Roush tradition at MIS.

Despite his poor starting spot, "This place is an easy place to pass if you've got a fast race car," Edwards said.

Off pace as the Roush Fenway team has been this year, Ford is in the best shape -- or, you could say, the least bad shape -- of the three American-based manufacturers.

"I don't understand everything that's going on with all the money in the country, but what I do know is that Ford is standing on its own feet," Edwards said.

Not so with Chrysler and GM, both of whom are subsisting now on a combination of bankruptcy and government bailouts.

The primary news story of the weekend here has been GM's announcement of NASCAR-wide cuts in cash support for teams. That includes cutting off cash from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports, which fields Nationwide cars, and Kevin Harvick Inc., which fields vehicles in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

And the cash flow from GM continues in Cup only to the top teams, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

As long as technical support continues -- and Earnhardt believes that it will -- then the cash cuts may be of little real significance. Earnhardt characterized the GM contribution to his Nationwide team's budget as "very small."

His sister, Kelley Earnhardt, released a statement that JR Motorsports shouldn't have much difficulty adjusting to the GM cash cutbacks.

And that's true NASCAR-wide. Manufacturer money has never been as big as the public and some media people assumed. An educated guess would be perhaps 10 percent, tops, of big teams' budgets.

But two Toyotas occupy the front row here, driven by Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch, and three of the top four positions counting David Reutimann. The only Chevrolet, and the only American-based brand, in the two front rows is Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, starting third.

So NASCAR goes on, at a reasonably good pace, all economic factors considered.

It's just that I-94, the main artery out here from once-mighty Detroit, is no longer pumping as vibrantly with traffic of moguls and workers, all of them fans, to the home track of the American automobile industry.

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