Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday October 19, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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