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Lone Ford winner Kenseth covered by the Chevy spotlight

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - As potential sponsors line up to replace Anheuser-Busch as the sponsor to NASCAR's second-tier series, Sprint Nextel has this warning: Buyer beware.

Companies like Subway, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Allstate all have been mentioned as a possible title sponsor for what is now the Busch Series. But as Nextel has learned, that may not stop Quiznos, Target, Pepsi and Geico from going along for the ride, too.

When Nextel paid $750 million to replace R.J. Reynolds Tobacco's Winston brand as the title sponsor of the premier series, it thought it was getting a fertile platform to peddle their cell phones and service. Now their attention is divided between racing and the federal courts.

When it comes to racing, NASCAR wants a level playing field. Nextel's competition in the marketplace want the same thing. Should a title sponsor that pays $75 million a year to help finance and promote the sport expect some protection against their rivals? NASCAR believes so, and it's willing to go to court to prove it.

"We were sold a bill of goods in basic terms," Nextel's Dean Kessel told NASCAR Scene. "What we paid for is devalued."

Kessel runs the telecommunications company's marketing department for racing. Nextel originally agreed to allow Cingular and Alltel to remain in the sport when it replaced Winston as the series title sponsor in 2004 as long as they agreed not to change or increase their decals.

When AT&T bought Cingular last year, it immediately moved to replace the Cingular decal on Jeff Burton's car. NASCAR refused, but AT&T convinced a federal judge in Atlanta to overrule NASCAR in May. Burton's car now carries the familiar AT&T globe logo - a decal that's larger than the Cingular decal.

NASCAR last month responded with a $100 million lawsuit against AT&T, accusing the wireless provider of interfering with its exclusive sponsorship agreement.

NASCAR accused AT&T of breach of contract, fraud and misrepresentation and conspiracy to aid and abet wrongful interference with Nextel.

Nextel admitted a lawsuit against NASCAR is one of its options since it agreed to the 10-year agreement believing no other wireless company was allowed in the sport.

The sanctioning body said the problems with Nextel won't affect its search for a title sponsor for the Busch Series. Kessel can't help but wonder.

"If I'm looking at the Busch Series as a potential sponsor for that and I'm seeing what's going on here, that changes the dialogue," he said. "The big picture potentially is the (effects to) landscape of exclusivity in sports. We're expecting to receive that. Exclusivity is not new in sports. AT&T has done the same thing with 'American Idol,' they have done the same thing with the NCAA Final Four. You pay a premium for that, and there are rights and privileges that go back

to you."

In the past it used to be easy to protect a title sponsor. When the 24-Hours of Daytona was sponsored by SunBank, Daytona International Speedway had an official sit on the Barnett Bank logos of a winning Porsche owned by Preston Henn during all post-race pictures.

It's not that easy in today's marketplace.

"When it comes to sponsorships over the years, one of the things that's made NASCAR successful is we have always tip-toed through the minefield of sponsorships trying to prioritize the benefits of each without blowing ourselves up," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter. "I think with more sponsorships today and more money on the line - millions of dollars invested - that is more difficult to do today that it's ever been."

Where it ends will define sponsorships in the future.

"When you talk about exclusivity, that's not new in sports," Kessel said. "Every sport has that."

While Corporate America is watching everything closely, Kessel admitted most race fans won't notice a difference. They won't care who replaces Anheuser-Busch, or if AT&T is ordered to remove its logos.

"I don't think they care about the politics," he said. "The fan is out here to watch really good racing."