Bryan Davis Keith · Monday September 27, 2010
There Are More Than Two Viable Chase Contenders
Coming into Richmond, both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were dead even with five wins apiece. The storyline was already written; Hamlin scored the victory on his home turf, taking the points lead and the point position as the latest challenger to stand up to the vaunted the No. 48 team. The stage was set… Johnson vs. Hamlin, the title chase that had been talked about since the preseason, was on.
After the aberration that is always the first Chase race at Loudon (only once has the winner of that event become the eventual champion), Dover made clear that Johnson vs. Hamlin is going to be the story of this ten-race playoff from here on out. On the one hand, you had Johnson as the class of the field, even on an off day for his pit crew (the No. 48 ranked sixth in total time on pit road, behind all three JGR entries, Kurt Busch’s No. 2 team, and teammate Jeff Gordon). His win slammed the door on the hopes of many competitors and race fans alike that after struggling at Loudon, the four-time defending champs were suddenly vulnerable.
On the other hand, Hamlin was returning to the same track that ended his title hopes one season ago, a combination of an ill-handling race car and a mental breakdown following a Nationwide Series race that he and his team never recovered from. This Sunday, at a track on which the team was averaging a finish outside the top 25, Hamlin stayed under the radar and out of trouble to run ninth. Instead of being within 80 points of the lead following Dover, which he said was the team’s goal, Hamlin now leads Johnson by 35 markers heading to Kansas.
Sure, there’s five other drivers within 80 points of the lead, and among them Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards were top-5 finishers Sunday. But between Kyle Busch fading late, Kurt having no teammates to lean on going forward, Carl still unable to find the lead and RCR as an organization laying an egg the day after the entire team had an inferno lit under them, yes, the rest of the 12-man field is ready to be written off. Hamlin vs. Johnson will be the story of this Chase.
But, speaking of team issues, be it a lack of teammates or a letdown in performance…
Hendrick Motorsports Is Fielding, Oh, Eight Cars
Consult any team sheet out there, and Hendrick Motorsports consists of the Nos. 5, 24, 48, 88. Four cars. But that’s ignoring the fact that Stewart-Haas Racing’s Nos. 14 and 39 are all but de facto HMS entries. And that’s ignoring the latest additions to the Hendrick farm system, at least for Dover and likely much of the Chase: the No. 09 of Phoenix Racing and the No. 71 of TRG Motorsports.
A walk down pit road prior to Sunday’s race indicated that the ever-expanding HMS tree had two more branches. TRG’s No. 71 entry, being driven by former Hendrick development driver Landon Cassill, had sticker tires in their pits despite being a start-and-park, and a number of crew members decked out in Stewart-Haas Racing gear that were observed both servicing the car and dismantling the TRG pit box after the team parked for alleged electrical issues after 126 laps (funny how Cassill’s crew chief mentioned to his driver prior to the green to let his team know if they had any misses in the motor).
More notable, though, was the Hendrick presence in the No. 09 pit box throughout Sunday’s 400-miler. Not only did this unsponsored team have a full allotment of sticker tires in their pits, there was also a direct presence of HMS personnel there throughout. The team had what appeared to be a pit coach present in their stall the entire race, with at least one other visit from other Hendrick personnel throughout the afternoon.
The Phoenix Racing example paints a clear picture of a win-win situation for all parties involved. For Phoenix owner James Finch, his team gets the best in the business offering input on his cars, and likely footing the tire bill (Finch has shown no hesitation to start-and-park when he doesn’t have the money). For driver Bobby Labonte, it means no more start-and-park. And for Hendrick Motorsports, it’s just another way to test more and skirt the rules on ownership limitation.
Is it really too hard to believe that a Hendrick pit coach being dispersed to a part-time race team isn’t just doing them a favor, but scouting and cultivating pit talent in case of injury or a need to sub on the No. 24 or 48 crew? Is it really too hard to believe that for HMS, spending the money to throw a few sets of tires to a former development driver and a former champion in Labonte is worthwhile if they can have two test squads running under race conditions every weekend?
One thing’s for sure; it’s a lot harder to believe that Hendrick Motorsports is just doing TRG and Phoenix Racing a favor.
Lance McGrew Will Not Be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s Crew Chief By November
Despite their best efforts to test and utilize every resource imaginable, Hendrick’s No. 88 team still continued to flounder at Dover. Any semblance of the momentum that Dale Jr. and his crew had following a fourth-place run at Loudon went out the window, with Jr. spending much of the first half of the race complaining about the tires and how the way they wore was not appropriate for Dover’s racing surface, as well as another ill-handling race car. This lasted until lap 189, when Jr. told crew chief Lance McGrew over the radio, “I don’t want to be talked to today.”
From that point on, the team radio was nearly silent for the next 200 laps, with McGrew obliging the driver’s wishes and taking feedback when it came. It didn’t do much good, with the No. 88 finishing three laps down in 23rd, the only Hendrick (well, HMS) car not to finish in the top 15 or on the lead lap. The story of 2010, played out again, in a drama that’s lasted for well over a year.
Well, push has got to come to shove now. The driver says he doesn’t want to be talked to, and the crew chief obliges? When they’re struggling to score a top 25? It doesn’t matter if this is Hendrick Motorsports or PRISM Motorsports, that’s an unacceptable state of affairs. And that it came on the heels of the team’s best race since the Daytona 500 only underscores the depth of the problem facing the No. 88 team. No matter how much Jr. might not want it, this driver needs an authoritarian on the box that’s going to kick him in the ass.
Call it a hunch, but I feel a change is going to come very, very soon. And the McGrew era of Earnhardt’s career will go out with a whimper, much like the fight McGrew put up with his frustrated driver on Sunday.
Dover International Speedway Will Host Two Cup Races in 2012
NASCAR’s estimate for Sunday’s crowd at Dover was 88,000. Yeah, right. Between having sections of the grandstands closed and thousands of seats covered by tarps advertising Hershey’s Milk and Heluva Good!, there were maybe 88,000 empty seats. I’m assuming NASCAR mixed up the attendance estimate with the empty seats count; it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve screwed something up.
That said, there probably isn’t another venue on the Sprint Cup circuit that has seen such a dramatic drop in attendance that’s so visible in the grandstands. Not even five years ago, Dover was reporting crowds of over 140,000 fans, and there was no exaggeration involved. Today, ESPN’s cameras couldn’t even try to conceal just how many empty seats there were.
For fans of the racing at Dover, that news is about as bad as it comes, for multiple reasons. For one, it gives the France family’s ISC ammo in seeking a replacement second race for Lesa France Kennedy’s pet Auto Club Speedway (kidding, kidding).
What Dover’s second consecutive poor showing in attendance on Sunday does is raise very valid questions as to whether the race track can stand on its own as a viable business. Sources employed with the track informed Frontstretch over the weekend that the casino portion of the Dover Downs complex will not in any way shape or form be used to bankroll the racetrack. If the track can’t stand on its own, it will be shut down. And as the shutdown of Memphis Motorsports Park after last season’s Nationwide Series event demonstrated, Dover Motorsports, Inc. will not hesitate to pull the plug on a facility, whether it has a NASCAR date secured or not.
In fact, having secured dates really doesn’t seem to factor into DMI’s decisionmaking at all. It’s a simple question of dollars and sense. Just look at Gateway International Raceway. Despite having scored a second Nationwide Series race for the facility this season, DMI announced that the facility will no longer host a Nationwide Series event following the 2010 season, citing the fact that the cost of sanctioning such races would not make playing host to NASCAR’s AAA level a viable business decision.
You’d better believe that those same sanctioning costs for Cup races are higher. And if 2011 has Dover drawing at best 55,000 fans for a Cup race, betting that DMI will pull the plug on at least one Cup race for 2012 will be the safest bet a gambler could make. On a track that has a casino on the premises, no less.
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