Burton's No. 31 car is sponsored by cell phone service provider Cingular, but AT&T recently took full ownership of Cingular as part of its recent merger with BellSouth and intends to eliminate the brand name.
AT&T spokesman Clay Owen said NASCAR officials repeatedly have not allowed AT&T to switch from a Cingular logo to an AT&T logo because of their deal with Nextel, which sponsors NASCAR's top series - the Nextel Cup.
He said AT&T filed the lawsuit - which seeks permission to make the logo switch and damages for the "substantial harm" NASCAR has caused to the company - Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
"This is really the last resort for us," Owen said. "We've tried to resolve this amicably for months now."
In the lawsuit, AT&T says Cingular has spent more than $100 million to establish itself as a "loyal supporter" of NASCAR, and that nearly half its customers identify themselves as NASCAR fans.
The lawsuit calls altering the design of the No. 31 car an "integral part" of the company's brand name switch, and that NASCAR's refusal to allow it inhibits the company's ability to "attract new customers and retain existing ones."
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said he had not yet seen the lawsuit.
"Our position is we don't comment on litigation," Hunter said.
In a statement, Dean Kessel, Sprint Nextel's director of NASCAR Nextel Cup Series marketing, said it would be premature to comment because it had not been named in the lawsuit. The legal showdown could have wide-ranging repercussions for NASCAR and its teams. Like most leagues, NASCAR signs deals with corporations allowing them to become an official product of the series. But sponsors are the lifeblood of racing teams, which get the majority of their budgets from those deals. The tension between NASCAR and its teams has increased in recent years, as some team executives have complained NASCAR seems to be competing with them instead of helping them sign sponsors. NASCAR's Nextel deal forbids teams that race in the series from signing new sponsorship agreements with competing telecom companies. The deal does contain a provision that allows teams with existing telecom sponsorships, such as Childress' team, to keep their sponsors.
Owen said Cingular's contract with Childress' team contains provisions, required by NASCAR because of its Nextel deal, that say Cingular can't increase the size or placement of its logo on the car and can't switch its sponsorship to another team. But Owen said that contract does not contain language preventing a logo change if Cingular is bought out by another company.
Cingular, which is being renamed AT&T Mobility LLC, is based in Atlanta. Another Childress driver, Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, is sponsored by Shell/Pennzoil's line of lubricants and has faced complaints about the placement of Shell logos. Sunoco, the official fuel supplier of NASCAR, was not happy about the big Shell logos on Harvick's car, driving uniform and helmet at Daytona. The team will sport new uniforms and helmets for the March 25 race at Bristol, Conn. And Friday afternoon, Robby Gordon's crew was busy removing decals from his No. 7 car before qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway after NASCAR ruled his team could not switch Motorola sponsorship from his Busch Series car to the Nextel Cup car. "I didn't anticipate this," said Gordon, also the owner of Robby Gordon Motorsports. "We're still not quite sure what is happening. NASCAR is working with us, and we're doing what has to be done." Gordon had hoped to move the Motorola sponsorship to his Cup car after losing another primary sponsor, Harrah's, a week earlier. "When we did our relationship with Nextel, there was a list developed that NASCAR agreed upon, when we did the contract, of specific brand names of telecommunications (companies) that were and were not OK," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "In the case of the 7 car, we have got one (sponsor) that was specifically on that list. "Every now and then we have one or two (sponsors) that have a conflict," Helton said. "I think it's an indication of the size of the sport and the complexities that come along with the size of the sport. "At the end of the day," he added, "there has be somebody policing the sport to determine what is OK and what is not OK. That's what we do and that's what we're going to do."