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Winston Cup Series




Wednesday, June 18
Updated: June 19, 10:25 PM ET
Name will change, but not the racing
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com

Jerry Bonkowski It may be sacrilege, but I'm going to say it anyway: Winston Cup will go up in smoke at season's end, to be replaced by one ringy-dingy of sorts.

But all kidding aside, fans can rest assured, even if they fear the destruction of the top level of stock-car racing as we know it, with the departure of Winston and parent company R.J. Reynolds as series title sponsor following the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami (Fla.).

The only thing changing is the name and who pays the bills, a task that will soon fall to Nextel, maker of wireless phones and other similar products.

I've had a few e-mails from fans of late, asking what Winston's departure and Nextel's ascension to series sponsor will mean to the long-term future and viability of the sport. Their cyber-missives had an air of great concern of what might happen to the most popular form of motorsports in the U.S.

But honestly, there's no need for concern, let alone gloom and doom. The ultra-competitive racing we have called Winston Cup racing for the past 33 years will not change one iota when Nextel comes on board in 2004. While admittedly it may seem awkward and will take some time to get used to saying "Nextel Cup" instead of "Winston Cup," it really will be much ado about nothing.

Even though Winston and RJR will still be around for the final 21 races of the current season, with business as usual, it's not too early to start thanking them for the more than three decades of involvement they've had with the sport. Saying goodbye to a company that has made stock-car racing what it is today, and the numerous employees who work for it and whom I call friends, is not easy.

I think back to how NASCAR and Winston Cup became so entwined, so joined at the hip over the years, so to speak, that it's become a natural thing for people to mutually associate one with the other and vice-versa. NASCAR is Winston Cup and Winston Cup is NASCAR. It's been that way for years, and for many, it will continue that way, only with somebody else signing the prize, marketing and sponsorship checks.

Yes, Winston has done some amazing things in stock-car racing. It's fair to say that NASCAR would be nowhere near what it is today -- America's most popular form of motorsports, with more than 75 million regular fans -- without Winston's and RJR's involvement.

But, as the saying goes, all good things must end. RJR was forced to pull out of its nearly two-decade run as series sponsor in the National Hot Rod Association two years ago after the unprecedented lawsuit against the tobacco industry forced companies like RJR to start paring their involvement with the sports world bit by bit.

While many thought RJR would continue ad infinitum with NASCAR through Winston Cup (which the outcome of the tobacco industry suit did allow), it's fairly obvious why the marriage must end after 33 years. RJR utilized NASCAR to market its Winston brand of cigarettes. With fewer people smoking these days, wider brand variety and the billions of dollars in settlement money that RJR and other cigarette makers have been and will continue to be forced to pay to settle litigation, it's no surprise that RJR has to split from NASCAR.

Even if Winston had been replaced by Oreo Cookies or M&M's or Martha Stewart or Toys 'R' Us or George Foreman's grills, it would not have changed the type of racing we've all become accustomed to. We're still going to see the same kind of close racing, tight standings and competition that has become NASCAR's hallmark over the last three decades.

It's nothing personal; it's just business. And if business continues to get progressively worst, something ultimately has to go. NASCAR is that something.

And, in a way, I have to wonder if NASCAR officials like chairman Bill France and president Mike Helton aren't relieved, in a way, to be rid of Winston. For many years, they've been the torch-bearers when it came to defending their company's association with another firm that produces a controversial product that has continued to become more and more vilified over the years because of the health risks associated with smoking cigarettes.

To be honest, I've heard enough about "freedom of choice" and a "person's free will" when it came to smoking and association with NASCAR and other forms of motorsports to last me two lifetimes. If nothing else, Nextel will give NASCAR an outlet that will allow it to focus even more on racing, rather than having to continually defend its association with a company that sells the so-called demon weed.

While I'm sure Nextel is a very fine company, I can't help but sympathize with it as well. Trying to replace Winston and RJR is not going to be easy. It will, in fact, become an extremely formidable task. Nextel is becoming the series title sponsor because it wants its corporate name and the products it produces and sells to have even more widespread reach. And with a base of 75 million potential customers, it's good business for Nextel to take over after Winston's core business went bad.

What's more, I'm sure Nextel's corporate types, particularly those who will be handling public and media relations from here on out, will invariably grow exasperated and frustrated more often than not as fans, the media and even drivers and team owners themselves, will inadvertently continue to call racing "Winston Cup" rather than "Nextel Cup." It's only human nature, and breaking habits and associations -- like quitting smoking -- is often difficult to do.

Suffice it to say, it's going to take time and lots of it, to replace an institution that has been synonymous with NASCAR for so long.

What does surprise me about all this is how Nextel wound up outbidding other companies that were rumored to be in the running to replace Winston, entities such as Budweiser, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. All of those, as well as other smaller companies, had been mentioned as potential successors to Winston.

To be honest, I had not even heard about Nextel's interest in replacing Winston until two weeks ago. Even after I heard it, I still thought it was a long shot, that Bud or Coke or Mickey D's would ultimately win out.

But such was not the case.

Even if Winston had been replaced by Oreo Cookies or M&M's or Martha Stewart or Toys 'R' Us or George Foreman's grills, it would not have changed the type of racing to which we've all become accustomed. We're still going to see the same kind of close racing, tight standings and competition that has become NASCAR's hallmark over the last three decades, which is completely separate, for the most part, from its corporate partnership during that same period with Winston and RJR.

Winston and RJR made NASCAR's name more famous, but it was men like Richard Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart, Richard Childress, Robert Yates, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush and countless others who made the sport what it is today.

Thanks, Winston and RJR, for the memories, for your help, for your guidance, for your millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship and your cultivation of the sport to what it is today.

And welcome, Nextel, and best of luck. You've got some very big shoes to fill.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.

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