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Drivers: Rockingham demise inevitable

By Mike Mulhern

The big story here yesterday, bigger than qualifying for tonight's Chevy 400 on Richmond International Raceway's newly paved track, was the announcement by NASCAR'S Brian France of the settlement of the two-year-old lawsuit over Bruton Smith's disputed second Texas Nextel Cup date.

The settlement in that suit, filed by stockholder Francis Ferko, gives Smith his second tour stop and also "releases ISC and NASCAR from all claims related to the litigation," including the antitrust monopoly complaints that NASCAR unfairly controls the sport by giving out Cup dates at its discretion and that ISC - also principally owned by the France family, like NASCAR - has been the chief beneficiary.

Ferko has steadfastly declined to discuss why he initiated the case or how he hired some of the country's biggest attorneys, and in his only brief discussion a few weeks ago he said would be bound by a confidentiality agreement if the case was settled.

Smith had little to say yesterday, and Ferko said he wanted a day to digest things before deciding what, if anything, he wanted to say.

"We are very pleased to have reached the settlement agreement," Smith said in a brief statement. "The second Texas date falls in line with NASCAR's overlying strategy of expanding into under-served markets and will help strengthen the sport's national appeal. My desire, as it has always been, is to continue to help NASCAR build the sport."

There was profuse praise from all quarters for France.

Humpy Wheeler, who runs Speedway Motorsports for Smith, said that France "has made a very bold move with this realignment of the schedule. It's really difficult for the people in Darlington and Rockingham. On the other side, the people in Texas get a second date and people in Phoenix get a second date.

"This is what I call the nationalization of the schedule. The NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball all have gone through this. Things change.

"In the next decade, if you are not in a major market and you don't have 100,000 seats, you're going to be in tough shape, because economically you just can't make any money."

The resolution of the Ferko suit, Wheeler said, made sense: "This was a terribly, terribly expensive lawsuit. It consumed a tremendous amount of time, and it was settled amicably. We're all very happy that it was and that it doesn't have to go to court. This could have tied things up for five, even 10 years down the road, and nobody wanted to carry that sack that long.

"I think everyone has come out very well on this. Certainly Brian France has made some bold moves since he's been president (since last September), and this might have been the boldest he's done, the settlement of this suit. I've got to give him credit."

Driver Jamie McMurray said that France is being logical: "Fans drive this sport and the sponsors are here because of the fans. If they can't sell tickets, then you've got to go where they can sell tickets. There's a lot of travel on the new schedule, but you've got to go where the fans are.

"You can't be stuck in 1970."

"Change is hard to accept, but I think it's cool those guys are taking us to bigger and better places.

Teammate Sterling Marlin is more old school.

"We've got a lot of travel with the new schedule," Marlin said. "There's a lot of expense involved going to California. Maybe before we get all the tracks out west we need to stand back and look at things a little harder.

"We lost North Wilkesboro; it was a great track. If you put 100,000 seats at Wilkesboro you'd sell 100,000 tickets. People like the short-track racing, and that was a great track.

"We run twice at some tracks that I don't think we need to run twice at now. We go to New Hampshire twice. I don't know why we go there twice, but we do. Some tracks have two races that don't need them. Maybe we could plug a Rockingham in there.

"Rockingham to me was one of the best tracks we raced at. You could run three deep and put on a real good show. I guess the area just wouldn't pull in the fans."

Brendan Gaughan said that the tracks getting second dates had better deliver: "If you can't sell out your date, then you shouldn't get it.

"California is very close to not being able to sell out their dates. They sold out the first one, but just barely. We'll see how the second one goes. If it doesn't, they'll probably take that date somewhere else.

"We're not trying to slight the traditional NASCAR fan," Gaughan said. "They're still very important to us. There are still 14 races in the Southeast. But this is entertainment. Teams get moved and bought and sold because they can't get fans. Look at Charlotte's basketball team - they moved because they couldn't get fans. That's part of any major sport. NASCAR is no different."

"I've said for several years now it was in the best interest of our sport to be in as many places as possible," Jeff Burton said. "Getting to Phoenix twice and California twice and Texas twice, all of that makes a lot of sense because it spreads us out around the country.

"It's disappointing to lose Rockingham, for sure. Rockingham is one of the most fun places for drivers. But what's in the best interest of the sport isn't necessarily in the best interests of the driver at times, and I think this is one of those occasions.

"I hate to see North Carolina lose another race, but, again, we go back to long-term benefit for the sport, and it's best served by being in as many regions around the country as possible."

Dale Jarrett agrees: "You can't say it's a bad thing because we're going to be giving our sponsors more for their dollar in bigger market areas. On the other side, we had some great races at both Rockingham and Darlington."

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