Simply stated, the number of companies, or individuals, capable of spending this kind of money for team sponsorship, as well as making the investment in an equal amount or more to promote the association, is shrinking. Simple math reveals that the number of available opportunities decreases exponentially as the cost of sponsoring a team increases.

Many teams this season are employing a "revolving primary sponsor" association in an effort to apportion the rising cost of sponsorship. DEI, Richard Childress, Roush Racing, Joe Gibbs, and Hendrick Motorsports are all running rotating primary sponsors on several of their cars as they try to make ends meet.

Another sponsor-related issue, the new 10-race playoff format instituted this season, has many companies rethinking their strategies. While the playoff might be an interesting twist for the fans and give television ratings a boost, sponsors who have paid millions of dollars for a 36-race season only to see their message get lost when their teams miss the final 10-race title chase are not going to be happy with the new system.

Some sponsors have already hinted they will reassess their sponsorship agreements, focusing on a 26-race campaign, as they become renewable. Future contracts would be structured to provide additional funding only if the team in question makes the playoffs. Beginning in the '05 season, this could result in teams pulling the plug on their efforts because of lack of funding after 26 races, leaving NASCAR with starting fields of 30 or fewer cars.

Some of these sponsorship concerns already impact the quality of events and the teams that fill them. Without more cost-effective competition rules and more sponsor considerations, NASCAR could be ripe for a financial crisis from within that could ultimately cripple the sport regardless of current economic fluctuations.

Since the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR has elevated safety to priority status. In part driven by the demise of the sport's biggest star, and also by heightened scrutiny from the media, NASCAR has made several strides to protect drivers in crash situations. Soft walls, along with new cockpit design and materials, have made race cars safer than ever. On the crew side, however, the safety of the participants in the garage area sometimes falls short.

Practice days at many Nextel Cup, Busch, and Truck Series venues reveal overcrowded garage stalls, as well as narrow and sometimes blocked walkways and drive-through areas. This is especially true when the cars are in long, slow-moving lines for technical inspection prior to the events.

Crewmen are casually dressed, many without gloves or safety eyewear, as they grind, cut, weld, and perform other dangerous duties. Smoking in highly flammable areas has always been and still is permitted in the NASCAR garage area. It is almost unfathomable to think what toll a major fire-in both human and financial loss-would exact at a place like Bristol or Martinsville, where everything is packed together like cordwood, and moving big pieces of equipment out of harm's way would be virtually impossible.

Eliminating smoking may not stop a major fire in a pit area full of flammable liquids and solids. It is, however, a good place to start looking at overall conditions in relation to worker and participant safety.

A more proactive approach in advancing the safety of all the participants, and not just the drivers, throughout the entire weekend is needed. NASCAR and its associated racetracks need to make those decisions now-before a government agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) decides for them.