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NASCAR: Party goes on for drivers

Associated Press
NEW YORK ó Jimmie Johnson coolly entered an Irish bar jammed with NASCAR fans and promptly ordered a round of beer for everyone.
Pint glass raised, he toasted the rowdy crowd.
Johnson clearly came to New York this year ready to party.
And why not? His third consecutive NASCAR championship this season tied Cale Yarborough’s 30-year-old record, and the laid-back but focused Californian doesn’t appear ready to slow down anytime soon.
“Yes, I want to win a fourth,” Johnson said. “Right now, I’m a part of history, I’d love to make history. Not pulling the Babe Ruth and pointing over to the outfield and saying I’m going to hit it over here, but hell yeah, I want to win a fourth. We’ll see.”
His festive mood is part of the territory during NASCAR’s weeklong celebration to the champion, which wraps up with Friday night’s season-ending awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The driver who has spent all of his career putting forth a buttoned-up, professional persona is finally comfortable showcasing his playful side.
His whirlwind tour of New York has been one big party, at a time when NASCAR could really use one.
The sport is trudging forward during this economic crisis, which has quickly rocked the entire industry. Teams are struggling to find sponsorship, and the lack of funds led to hundreds of layoffs following the Nov. 18 season finale.
The Big Three automakers had a second round of meetings before Congress this week to plead for a financial rescue plan, and there’s genuine concern General Motors might not make it to the end of the year.
“Please, don’t forget to support our domestic auto manufacturers,” Chad Knaus said in his acceptance speech as championship-winning crew chief. “Those guys are having a hard time, and they need our support right now.”
So, yes, the party has roared on this week, but there’s a definite feel that its been scaled back a bit. The annual champions lunch at famed 21 Club was scaled down to Foley’s NY Pub & Restaurant, where Johnson bought the pints for the grateful crowd.
“We wanted to really get back to a grassroots level,” said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston.
But the cutbacks are everywhere. Ford and Chevrolet both canceled their annual Friday night parties, NASCAR scaled back on the employees it brings to the awards show and several other organizations cut down their attendees ó or aren’t coming at all.
“It’s kind of hard to have a party in the midst of a lot of misery,” said championship-winning car owner Rick Hendrick.
A car dealer as well as a NASCAR team owner, Hendrick is nervous about the state of the automobile industry but believes Chrysler, Ford and GM will continue their involvement in the sport.
But Hendrick is also worried about the NASCAR industry as a whole.
“I think the Big Three, that’s important to all of us, but the bigger picture is overall sponsorship,” Hendrick said. “I think the folks that entertain at the track, have hospitality and sponsors, they’re looking to reduce expenses everywhere. We’ll feel it all the way around. Anything we can do to help all sides of it is going to be important.”
Two-time series champion Tony Stewart has seen the difficulties firsthand as he readies for his first year as a NASCAR team owner. He needed split sponsorship from Office Depot and Old Spice to cover his car, and is still seeking money for 13 races on Ryan Newman’s car.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr., who just wrapped up his sixth season as NASCAR’s most popular driver, has yet to announce his sponsorship plans for his JR Motorsports-owned Nationwide Series team.
“We’re still working on it,” Stewart said of his sponsorship search. “Obviously, the economy is not helping us out. But the good thing is that companies are still in discussions. We’re pushing forward anyway, that’s not going to keep us from running Ryan’s car. But the good news is we’re still having meetings and that’s encouraging because their are companies still willing to spend money in NASCAR.”

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