Sponsorship issues starting to crop up, sidelining some racers

Updated: March 11, 2008

Silly Season has gotten off to an early start in the Nationwide Series, as changes have begun heading into the sixth race of the year.

That's good news for Sterling Marlin, Kenny Wallace and David Stremme, while anything but good for Johnny Sauter, Brian Keselowski and Chase Austin.

Phoenix Racing released Sauter on Monday after Sauter hadn't finished better than 13th and sat 17th in points following Bristol. Sauter finished on the lead lap at Daytona and Fontana, but was a lap down in each of the past three races.

It had been a rugged start to the season for the team, as crew chief Jon Wolfe took a leave of absence prior to Daytona due to his wife's health concerns. He was replaced by Newt Moore, who was then suspended by NASCAR after a qualifying infraction was discovered at Daytona.

Wolfe and Moore have both been released by the team, with Marc Reno adding interim crew chief duties to his managerial role with the team. Now the team is looking for a full-time replacement, as Marlin takes over the car this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway (ESPN, Saturday at 3 p.m. ET).

Marlin has a long relationship with team owner James Finch, but as of now he's scheduled to run only at Nashville, though additional races could be added to his schedule.

Sauter, in a statement on his Web site, said he's looking for work.

"I was surprised to hear Phoenix Racing wanted to go in a different direction," Sauter said. "I felt like we'd turned a corner on a few things and were just having some really bad luck. But personnel changes happen in racing, like the fact that two of the best crew chiefs in the business were released from the team two weeks ago, so I'm not the only one who has felt the effects of these changes at Phoenix Racing.

"At the end of the day, I'm a racer and all I want is to be competitive, whether it's a truck, Nationwide or Cup team. I just want to be a team player and feel like I can make a difference for an organization."

Kenny Wallace now hopes he can make a difference for Jay Robinson Racing after sponsorship issues caused Fitz Motorsports to scale back operations on its No. 36 Dodge. The deal with Shark Energy Drink came together at the last minute and was based off of the amount of product that was sold.

Unfortunately for the team and Wallace, that did not translate into enough funding to operate the team. Owner Armando Fitz said the team will run the No. 36 car with the sponsor if the situation improves, but it'll be with a driver to be determined.

"Kenny Wallace has an opportunity to drive for another Nationwide Series team and we certainly don't want to hold him back," Fitz said. "Kenny has been a great friend and supporter of our program, and he deserves to be racing full time. We're going to regroup and focus on our No. 22. We feel great about our 2008 chances with Mike Bliss."

Wallace will be in the No. 28 Chevrolet fielded by Jay Robinson Racing this weekend, replacing Keselowski, who failed to finish two of his four starts with the team. The team has sponsorship from the U.S. Border Patrol for all but the races in Mexico City and Montreal.

"We put our heart and soul into the 36 Shark team and we just couldn't get the funds to keep the team going," Wallace said. "I'm very thankful to Armando Fitz. Armando meant [well], it just didn't turn out the way we wanted it to. I think that's what I'm most disappointed about is we had really good chemistry within the team.

"I'm very proud of our accomplishments -- we were 21st [in driver points] even after missing Daytona. But when one door closes, [another] one has opened."

Wallace can't wait to help Jay Robinson's team to the next level.

"Jay Robinson's a helluva guy, he's paid his dues, he really has," Wallace said. "Now he's worked hard and he's got this sponsorship and he's ready to start upgrading the team, and we will take this organization to the next level. I look at it as a challenge, and I am truly excited."

Rick Gay, who was Wallace's crew chief at Fitz Motorsports, is making the move along with several of the team's crew members.

The final change taking effect this weekend involves Rusty Wallace Racing's No. 64 car, where David Stremme will be behind the wheel instead of Chase Austin, who'd been scheduled to make his 2008 debut. The plan had been to spread the ride between Stremme, Austin and Max Papis, who would run the road courses.

The team's sponsor, Atreus Homes and Communities, though, is pleased with the way the team is running with Stremme, and that's led to the change. Austin remains employed by Rusty Wallace Racing, but it's unclear when he'll be behind the wheel this season.

"We have all been really pleased with the performance of the No. 64 team so far this year. David's top-5 at Las Vegas was one of the best finishes by a non-Cup driver this year, and we're heading into Nashville with two top-10s in the last three races," Rusty Wallace said. "Because of that, we're looking at the stand-alone races as very real opportunities to put our No. 66 [with Stephen Wallace] and No. 64 cars in Victory Lane.

"We feel that right now, having David in the No. 64 allows us to keep up the momentum we've built. With that said, this is by no means a reflection on Chase. He's a great kid and he's still a big part of our 2008 plans. He'll still be in the No. 64 this year, as will Max Papis; we've just changed Chase's schedule a bit to allow the No. 64 team to capitalize on their momentum."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN. He can be reached at mark.ashenfelter@espn.com.


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Full-time Nationwide Series driver Bobby Hamilton Jr. always looks forward to racing in his hometown of Nashville. Jayski.com's Mark Garrow previews Saturday's race (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) and spotlights Hamilton.
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Racing at Nashville Superspeedway is always a big deal for native Bobby Hamilton Jr. and he hopes to be focused on winning in his No. 25 Ford, while rooting for Willie Allen to qualify for the race in the No. 95 Dodge he co-owns with Earl Sadler.

Hamilton bought into the team during the offseason, but the team's running just a limited schedule at this point.

This will also be a big weekend for Baker Curb Racing, which fields the No. 27 for Brad Coleman and the No. 37 for Brad Baker.

Gary Baker bought the former Brewco Motorsports team last year and later added Mike Curb as a partner. They relocated the team to Nashville from Central City, Ky., and had high hopes for the season.

Coleman, who showed plenty of potential with Joe Gibbs Racing last year, has gotten off to a slow start, sitting 22nd in points with one top-10 thus far. Baker has made four starts in the No. 37, with Greg Biffle driving it once. The No. 37 needs sponsorship, or it might not make it through the full season.

Obviously, a strong finish in front of the hometown fans couldn't hurt.