Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday September 2, 2010
With an even dozen races left in the season, it used to be that NASCAR’s so-called Silly Season-that time of year when drivers and teams announced partings of the ways and new contractual unions-was just heating up. In more recent years, Silly Season has started earlier and lasted longer than in the past. Some big names came up this year, though a couple of those became anti-climactic. But that got me thinking about Silly Seasons past and some of the winners and losers to come out of them. It’s not always what you’d expect, and clearly, there is more to it than finding a talented driver.
If there wasn’t, anyone could do it, right?
But there is, and not everyone can make a driver-team combination work. While a driver’s previous record comes into play, that’s not a guarantee of success. Conversely, sometimes a driver with a less than stellar resume becomes an overnight sensation with the right team. Sure, the numbers are important, but what else does it take to build a successful team, including the driver?
First, there has to be chemistry. Chemistry between driver and team, team and owner, owner and driver. And chemistry isn’t necessarily something that can be bought. Look no further for proof of this than Jamie McMurray. McMurray came to Sprint Cup in late 2003 as Chip Ganassi’s young gun driver, rolling to a pair of Nationwide wins that season and winning his first Cup race in just his second start. In his first full season with then-upstart Chip Ganassi Racing, McMurray finished 13th in points and in his second season finished 11th, just shy of the ten driver Chase field. In 2005, McMurray again missed a Chase bid by a scant pair of spots, finishing 12th.
And everyone said that Ganassi’s equipment was holding McMurray back.
So McMurray moved on, signing to drive for perennial championship contender Roush Racing, taking over the No. 97 of 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch (the car number was changed to 26). This was when McMurray would really show what he could do, right? He would make the Chase easily, right?
Wrong. McMurray languished at Roush (later Roush-Fenway) for four forgettable seasons. He won twice, but his best points finish was 16th in 2008, well out of Chase contention. So the critics questioned his talent, the same talent that a few years before they had touted as being held back only by inferior equipment. So, when NASCAR’s four-team cap took effect, McMurray was the odd man out at RFR. His prospects didn’t look promising; he’d blown his chance, right?
Wrong again. McMurray went back to where he began for 2010, though it’s now called Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Ganassi had believed in the young phenom and he believed in the beleaguered veteran. Sponsor Bass Pro Shops took some convincing, but they began the 2010 season on the hood of McMurray’s No. 1 car. McMurray thanked them by promptly winning the Daytona 500. And just in case they still weren’t convinced, he won the Brickyard 400, too. McMurray sits a hundred points or so outside the Chase and likely won’t make it this year, but his season illustrated the importance of that elusive chemistry.
Some teams have a business model that simply isn’t one size fits all. Not every driver can fit in, and that includes some of the best in the business. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. signed to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, he was the fifth driver for four teams. Clearly, someone had to go, and most folks figured it would be Casey Mears. Mears wasn’t winning at the pace of his teammates. But Mears fit the Hendrick mold-clean cut, affable, well-spoken, non-controversial, a team player.
Kyle Busch, possibly Hendrick’s second most talented driver at the time behind only four-time champion Jeff Gordon, would be the casualty. He won a race in 2007 for HMS and, unlike Mears, made the Chase. But he never quite fit the Hendrick mold the way his teammates did, and that left Busch the odd man out, despite his superior talent to both Mears and Earnhardt. Busch wasn’t the team player the others were. He was short with reporters and impetuous in attitude. His talent wasn’t enough.
Yet Busch flourished with Joe Gibbs Racing, an organization more willing and better equipped to deal with Busch’s attitude. In his first season at JGR, Busch won eight times, one more than series champion Jimmie Johnson. It wasn’t that Busch suddenly became more talented than he had been at HMS. It was that he fit in better at JGR.
Conversely, Hendrick Motorsports proved to be a match made in Heaven for Johnson. Johnson was a good driver in mediocre equipment in two full seasons in the Nationwide Series with upstart Herzog Motorsports, but his numbers certainly weren’t anything you’d write home about. But Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon saw something in the relatively unknown young driver and chose him over a slew of drivers with more substantial resumes for the brand new No. 48. Critics wondered what they were thinking.
Johnson immediately showed that with the right team to work with and the cars HMS could put under him, he could race with anyone, putting down one of the finest rookie seasons ever in the Cup series. In seven full seasons, Johnson, Hendrick’s what-were-they-thinking driver, has never finished lower than fifth in points. He has 52 wins, second among active drivers only to Gordon. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time for Johnson, and he showed that in the right place, at the right time, every ounce of raw talent can emerge.
Hendrick once again showed that the right fit is as important as talent in 2010, signing Kasey Kahne to the No. 5 starting in 2012. Comments from Kurt Busch suggested that Penske Racing’s ultra-talented but volatile driver was angling for that ride. “Even if I had a shot at the 5 car, pretty boy Kasey Kahne got picked over me,” said Busch at Watkins Glen, and many owners would have chosen Busch over Kahne based on their careers.
But Busch would not have been any better a fit at HMS than his brother was. The elder Busch is a high-maintenance driver, and when things go bad, he’s quick to lay blame with his team, something that doesn’t fly at HMS. Besides, Kahne won’t rock the boat and won’t say something that both he and Hendrick might regret later, while Busch has, over the course of his career, developed a taste for foot. Whether or not that’s intentional is beside the point. And Busch could well be the driver who will bring Penske a title. He’s top dog there, and would have been fourth fiddle at Hendrick, a role better suited to Kahne.
It’s not easy to find a driver who completes the complex puzzle that is a NASCAR Sprint Cup team. What a driver is on paper doesn’t tell the whole story, and sometimes if an owner read that paper, he’d overlook the driver on it. Put too much stock in the paper and Jamie McMurray would probably be in the Nationwide Series this year. Take away the paper and Jamie McMurray is winning—and winning big—with Chip Ganassi. On the paper, Jimmie Johnson was a decent driver; off it, he’s spectacular. On paper, Kurt and Kyle Busch are two of the most talented drivers to grace the garage each week. Off it, neither fits in at a team where teamwork is everything, but both flourish in an environment that puts the priorities elsewhere.
It’s not just about talent, and that’s why it’s so hard to win. But a team that gets it all right will win and win big.
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