The Frontstretch: 5 Points to Ponder: Kahne Out of Line, RPM Out of Control, and NNS Regulars Out of Luck by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday October 19, 2010

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ONE: Top 35 Battle for More Than Just a Locked-In Spot

While ESPN is busy hyping the “closest Chase ever,” and there actually was plenty of activity at the front of the field in Charlotte Saturday night, the tightest battle NASCAR has to offer right now is waging farther back through the field. It’s the ongoing fight between Robby Gordon Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports for the final spot in the top 35… and the last locked-in position for the 43-car starting grid each week. With five races left in the season, that competition takes on all the more significance, for whoever winds up on top at Homestead gets a locked-in spot in the 2011 Daytona 500, making offseason sponsorship hunting that much easier.

Moreso for these two operations, that top 35 battle is one of literal life and death. For Front Row Motorsports, unless a sponsor materializes, their No. 38 car will disappear after Homestead if it’s not locked into the field. For Robby Gordon Motorsports, the last single car operation out there trying to stem the tide of the superteams, between the contractual obligations of the Extenze sponsorship they’re currently leaning on and the lack of sponsors they have otherwise, going to Daytona on the outside looking in is a rather bleak scenario for a team increasingly headed towards life support.

It’s a battle that, as of late, has shifted Front Row’s way. After a crushing 150-point penalty for bleeder valves at Pocono over the summer, David Gilliland has done a remarkable job leading the No. 38 team back to the brink of the top 35. At points Saturday night, Gilliland even had his team back inside it before falling two spots short of locking into the Martinsville field. Robby Gordon, who struggled to a 33rd-place result, was at a complete loss for how to fix his car, remarking after hearing of Gilliland’s run “we’re in trouble, boys” over the team radio. It does seem inevitable; the No. 38 will likely catch the No. 7 this weekend.

TRG is fighting for its life, hoping the No. 7 of Robby Gordon Motorsports slips just a little bit more out of the Top 35.

Fortunately for RGM, the team has a new target other than the surging FRM operation… TRG Motorsports’ No. 71, which now sits within 20 points of the cutoff. Andy Lally ran the distance Saturday night, but finished a woeful 19 laps down. With sponsor dollars limited and the team having relied on a revolving door of drivers, what was once a sure-fire locked in team with Bobby Labonte behind the wheel is now vulnerable.

TRG has proven able to survive the last two years not being locked in and without sponsorship, but Gordon’s team didn’t fare nearly as well when they were outside the top 35. RGM has a lot to race for the next five events… in their real battle, the one between them and TRG.

TWO: Kasey Kahne’s Meltdown Spells Serious Concern for the 2011 Campaign, Red Bull

Not since Kyle Busch stormed out of Texas Motor Speedway and left Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to finish an event in his No. 5 car has another driver left their team in a lurch, forced to find another wheelman to finish a bad day. But on Saturday, lightning struck again… and it wasn’t one of the usual suspects. Rather, it was Kasey Kahne, who after struggling with brake issues through Saturday’s race finally ended up in a wreck, did not return to his No. 9 car and left the driving to J.J. Yeley.

The team’s official word was that Kahne was physically ill and unable to continue. Other reports from the Charlotte media center Saturday night cited sources who saw Kahne storm from his damaged machine, leaving the garage with no intent of returning. According to a report by the AP’s Jenna Fryer, Kahne “threw up once on Saturday and didn’t feel the need to put forth the effort to get back in a car that didn’t meet his standards.”

“Didn’t feel the need to put forth the effort to get back in a car that didn’t meet his standards.” What a freaking joke. Say what you will about illnesses, Charlotte has been the sight of a number of gutty performances by drivers under the weather, be it Elliott Sadler running the distance despite being as sick as the Pedigree dog on his Ford in the 2005 Coca-Cola 600 or even Kevin Conway this past season, who gutted out 600 miles in a car that was well off the pace after throwing up in his helmet to bring his car across the finish line.

Where does Kahne get off? Saying he didn’t get back into his car because it didn’t meet his standards. And then to have the nerve to get upset about having a team member telling the driver, on his way out of the Richard Petty Motorsports camp, that he “needed to start doing [his] part.” Why the hell shouldn’t his crew be telling him to do his job if he’s got the nerve to storm out of the garage after his car gets torn up? Imagine what would happen to a crewman if they had the nerve to tell their driver after a wreck on-track that they weren’t going to fix it because the driver’s racing wasn’t up to their standards. This relationship isn’t a two-way street; racing is a team sport, and both sides owe it to each other to do their jobs in good times and bad.

Frankly, based on the conversations I heard in the Charlotte media center Saturday night, I feel confident asserting that the “sickness” story is just that, a story. The reports of Kahne throwing a tantrum after his wreck were well documented on the team radio, and surfaced long before the team’s comment that the driver was ill. Sounds like an awful convenient cover-up from here.

And what does this say for Kahne next year, who’s heading to a Red Bull Racing camp that’s had its own share of struggles in 2010? What happens if Kahne misses the Chase again and suddenly decides, knowing full well that Hendrick Motorsports is up for 2012, that the cars aren’t up to his standards and that there’s no longer any need for his best effort to be put forward?

If I’m working at Red Bull Racing, Saturday night has me gravely concerned about the attitude my one-year bullet is bringing with him.

THREE: It’s Not Just Kahne; Frustration Abounds at Richard Petty Motorsports

Unfortunately for Richard Petty Motorsports, it wasn’t just one driver that spent 500 miles on Saturday utterly frustrated… it was all four. The three other than Kahne all qualified in the top 10, but none of them were there for long. Paul Menard dropped like a rock, showing little strength after about the first 50 laps. Elliott Sadler uttered transmission after transmission over the team radio about how poorly his car handled in traffic. And A.J. Allmendinger couldn’t find enough ways to describe how weak his engine was even before it dropped a cylinder, referring to it as a “Nationwide motor” while constantly reminding his crew chief that he was being murdered down the straightaways.

With Sadler likely out of a ride after this season and Paul Menard on his way to Richard Childress Racing, it’s Allmendinger’s frustration that has to have the RPM camp most concerned. To have such issues with horsepower despite both stronger ties with the Roush Fenway camp – and Roush actually owing them a favor or two after helping Ford’s flagship operation overcome flawed simulation models earlier this summer – does not bode well for the ‘Dinger to have any chance of being more competitive in 2011. What’s more, the team’s new hired gun for next year, Marcos Ambrose, is no stranger to frustration himself, having been the victim of just about everything short of a plague of locusts through his 2010 season.

All of that driver tension, added to sponsorship uncertainties and the team’s ever tenuous financial situation hovering in the background, means one can’t help but see the RPM organization as a ticking time bomb near implosion.

FOUR: No Nationwide Tire Testing at Daytona; That’s Right…

Let’s see. New pavement. A new race car. And a series that will have a number of drivers competing in their first major NASCAR plate race. But NASCAR decides not to allow a tire test at the Daytona International Speedway following the track’s first repaving job in decades.

New car, same old story for the Nationwide Series as drivers who don’t participate in Cup won’t be allowed a chance to test early at Daytona.

Who in their right mind made this asinine decision? Unlike the Cup garage, who’ve at least been dealing with their COT for years now and aren’t trying to learn a new car on top of a new surface and have an applicable notebook, the Nationwide Series field (what’s left of it, anyways) are going to have absolutely nothing to base their preparations for their premier race on. Not to mention that the series’ rookies are going to have to learn Daytona’s new car, track, everything, in the span of the season’s first practice. As one writer in the media center quipped, “it’s going to look like the ARCA race out there.”

Well, except for the Cup teams in the Nationwide Series, who thanks to having the benefit of having Cup teams participate in that series’ tire test at Daytona, will have a much better idea of what to expect when the season opens for the Nationwide Series. Suddenly, it all makes sense; depriving the Nationwide Series of a tire test hurts anyone not affiliated with a Cup team. Business as usual.

FIVE: Enough with the Damned Debris Cautions

After Saturday’s night race became the eighth Cup event of the year to have a debris caution halt competition with less than 25 laps to go, Charlotte saw both of its events this past weekend largely impacted by phantom yellow flags that were thrown for no reason other than to bunch up the field late in the race.

Sure, that makes for entertaining racing and crazy finishes. But it also goes even further to erode the legitimacy of a sport that adopted a playoff hoping to do just that; be legitimate in a hugely crowded fall sports market.

This year’s ARCA finale at Rockingham hinted at being a yawner for a title fight. Patrick Sheltra led convincingly and dominated the first 150 laps of the race, while Craig Goess and Tom Hessert III all found themselves mired outside the top 10 with ill-handling race cars. Then in the last 50 laps, all run under green, saw Sheltra drop like a rock with a tight condition while Goess came to life and staged one of the more impressive charges seen in motorsports this season. When the checkered flag flew, the two title contenders were running within a car length of each other, the title settled by a little over a dozen points.

“Racing is not entertainment. Racing is entertaining,” the old adage goes. NASCAR would do well to remember that. The drama will take care of itself. And when it doesn’t, face it. There’s a deserving winner or champion, and having those folks win is what makes stock car racing a sport.

Or it used to.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Charlotte-Martinsville Edition
No Bull: When Did NASCAR Institute Elimination into the Chase?
One Last Look At NASCAR’s Hall Before Closing The Door On Next Year
Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Errors Muck Up Charlotte

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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Carl D.
10/19/2010 08:06 AM

Poor Kasey…. He’s been touched by the hand of Rick Hendrick, you’d think everyone would realize it’s all about him.

10/19/2010 09:01 AM

Point 1: The loss of the Front Row and Robby Gordon racing teams is inevitable. Within five years, both will be a distant memory. Sad but true.

Points 2 & 3: I don’t like Kasey’s diva-like attitude. I think he is an over rated driver alongside the (other) woman in na$car Danica, and her owner, Jr. I really don’t think that he will be a consistently dominant force at Hendrick.
On the other hand, I don’t blame him at all for refusing to get back into a Petty car. The Petty team has used and re-used parts ad nauseum until they fail for years. It is well documented and Petty’s team themselves said it was a cost saving measure to make sure there was money available during the difficult times. (That statement was made while STP was still on the car) While the Petty teams are certainly struggling financially, some corners SHOULDN’T be cut. Brakes are one of those corners. Can anyone remember way back to Mother’s Day weekend of 2010? Back to a time when A.J. was getting the used parts, and Kasey was considered the teams top prospect. What happened to Dinger’s car that Saturday? The brake rotor exploded and created a scary looking crash involving him and the 48. Now, I’ll grant you, that Kasey blamed his brake failure on cheap fluid, and not used rotors, but the effect is the same. A car that hits nearly 200mph twice every lap should have a reliable way to slow itself down.
As for Red Bull being worried, why? They do not have a history of only retiring a part when it disintegrates, they are consistently fast, and financially secure. What more could a Diva ask for?

Point 4: I don’t see a problem with not testing at Daytona, probably 40 of the 43 starters will be Cup regulars and they have the experience to handle the lack of information.

Point 5: na$car’s not listening.

Bill B
10/19/2010 10:50 AM

The best part of the 7 vs 38 battle is that it means Conway won’t be able to be in the 7 because Conway (by virtue of Extenze sponsorship) has bought his way into the series without having the talent to back it up.
This is no different then Menard’s (who has finally shown improvement 3 years later) or Buckshot Jones’ father buying him a spot in the field.

10/19/2010 11:55 AM

I’m sure carl and dave have driven a car at 200 mph with no brakes just waiting for the crash to happen. Did this happen just once, no it happened three freaken times. Funny how tough all you couch potatoes are sitting on your couch. Who has had to suffer through all the bad years at rpm, who has had to work his a## off to help the team become respectable. He should have left the team ages ago. Anybody who has watched kasey drive a sprint car knows he has the talent to become a nascar champion. The problem at RPM isn’t kasey, lets see how they do next year without him.

10/19/2010 12:04 PM

Instead of driving for Hendricks in 2012 maybe Kasey should go back to the dirt tracks if he wants to win.

Bill B
10/19/2010 12:06 PM

Couldn’t Kasey have taken out Johnson before he parked? (sarcasm intended) LOL

10/19/2010 12:12 PM

Kasey Kahne is overqualified for the kind of rides RPM is giving him, but that doesn’t excuse his diva antics. And since Stan is so concerned about safety issues I’m sure he’d agree how wreckless it was for Kasey to quit on his team like that and insult them with such a lame excuse. It’s like being rude to your waitress before you get your food. Who knows what she’ll do to it in the kitchen before she brings it to you. And with Talladega coming up you want the guys prepping that car to love you like crazy. But I could be wrong. Maybe an overinflated ego works just like an airbag!

x-na$car fan
10/19/2010 12:43 PM

KK has always been a prima dona. Back when Mayfield was driving for Evernham & running up front KK got mad & they took everything away from JM & gave them to KK – JMs cars – JMs CC – JMs pit crew. He hasn’t run for crap since JM left there.

10/19/2010 12:46 PM

Diva or not you all drive a car without brakes at 200 mph & let the same bunch repair it that built it & let’s see it you get back in it! Live in glass houses people?

John McManus
10/19/2010 12:54 PM

Wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago that Kahne was running so well that journalists commented. He has stood head and shoulders above his teammates since signing with Hendrick.

Remember, Kahne like the serf drivers are was shoved into the inferior Petty camp.

Bill B
10/19/2010 01:54 PM

Give me a million dollars and drive the car with no brakes. Sure, I’ll wreck on the first lap but for a million dollars, what the heck.

Carl D.
10/19/2010 02:19 PM

Bobby Labonte made a bone-headed move to Petty and paid for it with his career. Even so, he never once refused to drive the car and never turned his back on the team. Bobby showed class, maturity, and professionalism. Kahne just showed his ass.

10/19/2010 02:23 PM

The prediction of RGM and FRM being gone in five years could come true for sure.What has happened to Nascar saying they were going to help the little guy out.Sounds like the old smoke and mirrors talk.If nascar keeps going the way they are of only two or three teams being at the top,soon the IRL won’t have to work that hard to take over the top drawing motorsport in america.

10/19/2010 02:53 PM

So on the little poll on the left. 90 out of 100 people think Nascar deliberately threw debris cautions the last 2 races. And Nascar still thinks we are stupid.

ESPN would do good to include the Top 35 battle during their broadcasts. But of course the ADD crowd don’t have any interest in that so we can’t have that.

Um Bryan, you kind of contradicted #3 when you mentioned #4. You say Kahne was out of line, but then you say RPM is imploding. Failed brakes in 3 races this season? Really? And he doesn’t have a legitimate gripe? If the team I drove for were skimpy about their brakes, I wouldn’t want to get in their car either.

With this lack of testing at Daytona, Brain France’s plan to remove all NW drivers from the NW series and replace them with Cup drivers is almost complete.

10/19/2010 03:34 PM

Kahne has given 100% to RPM in ALL it’s incarnations and he and Kenny Francis have made miracles happen with garbage equipment. Why is Kasey a diva in one segment of your post, and then RPM is virtually disintegrating in the next section, but it’s all Kasey’s fault. Where the hell has he been any sort of “diva“in his career? ONE horrendous race/frustration level and he’s a diva? Knowing there was a solution to the problem and the 9 team wasn’t allowed to use it, that makes him a Diva? Not getting in a car with zero brakes makes him a Diva? Come on, people. RPM as an organization has no class, whatsoever.

10/19/2010 05:19 PM

Kasey has been a diva his entire career – which, by the way, consists of exactly as many Chase appearances as Jeremy Mayfield had – 2 in 7 years, and only 1 points finish better than 10th, despite being catered to, coddled, suing his way out of a Ford contract to get into this car, pouting his way into getting the better crew, and not getting as good results as Mayfield, and now walking off to this bizarre deal he chose.

If he really had brake failure how did he manage to slow down enough to pit the car? Maybe his brakes weren’t great, but Kyle Busch managed to drive his car with a stuck throttle by turning it off and on when he got to the corners, no reason Kasey couldn’t so the same.

It will be very interesting to see how he works at HMS, when he won’t be the focus of the organization, and they won’t be bending over backwards to the detriment of their 2 4 time Cup champions for him.

It’s sad to watch what Robby’s team has become, especially when you see little teams like FRM, Furniture Row and the 26 car when they make the race, the latter 2 also being 1 car operations, consistently finish better than Robby. If not for the 150 point penalty the 38 had earlier in the year, there’s no telling how many races he would have missed this year. I really expected more out of him.

10/19/2010 06:02 PM

I question the article’s position on Kahne getting back into the car.

Other “sources” have reported that because of the recent brake issues, Kahne’s crew chief requested they be allowed to use a different type of brake fluid, and RPM turned down the request.

He (Kahne) may be getting paid well, but if my crew chief requests a different brake fluid, is denied, and then I lose my brakes at 200 mph, I am not getting back into that car.

10/19/2010 06:44 PM

First I believe KK needed to get back in the car. I believe he had every right to refuse, but it is his job. But to say he is not doing his part is totally wrong. He is passionate about running well and trying to win hence his anger. If he was just riding out the rest of the season, his reaction would be more a yup yup yo that how things go attitude. He expected to run well. During practice Dale Jarret mentioned that Kasey runs well here because he uses little break- so I find it ironic that his breaks fail so early in the race.

10/19/2010 09:03 PM

When RPM announced they were switching to Ford, Kahne laid down on them. If you’ve ever heard him on the radio at a race, he sounds like Darrell Waltrip – he could win every race if it weren’t for the 42 idiots out there screwing him up. KK is pathetic.

10/20/2010 01:08 PM

I send KK packing.
Jacob. You nailed it. LOL so true.

10/20/2010 09:46 PM

Anyone who has shown the loyalty to “going nowhere” teams is not a Diva. If he would have walked from the teams that gave him inferior equipment years ago, then he’s a Diva. A winning Diva, but still. Instead, like a true racer, he has stuck out one bad team after another. There comes a time when enough is enough, and I think Kasey was long justified in his reaction.