The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Sponsor Handshakes, The Ford vs Edwards Battle And A Fond Farewell by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday August 2, 2011

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ONE: Notice the NASCAR Presence in Victory Lane After Menard Won?

Paul Menard winning at Indianapolis was both fitting and a big deal. After scoring his first career Nationwide Series victory in Menard territory at the Milwaukee Mile back in 2006, the Wisconsin native upstaged that home state triumph in a big way, taking the checkered flag on the world’s most famous racing oval.

Was it the winner’s hand Mike Helton ran to shake in Victory Lane? Or the hand of the $20 million sponsor?

There’s no downplaying the significance of the event. For Menard, it was a career-first win that has been in the works since 2007, a rookie season marred by failing to qualify for the Daytona 500. For a sponsor that has draped their bright yellow colors all over race cars in just about every series across the country, it was the type of triumph even the biggest Fortune 500 company relishes. For a family that’s been spending time and money at the Brickyard for over 30 years, Sunday was a true culmination. Not to mention that Paul Menard proved to be up to a task Casey Mears only two years ago failed at—making RCR’s fourth team relevant.

However, anyone notice just how fast Mike Helton was to make an appearance in Victory Lane? How visible his entrance and his handshakes with the Menards were? Big win, no doubt, and there’s no denying just how intoxicated by Indianapolis NASCAR’s ruling bourgeoisie still are. But this was a huge win for NASCAR as well, because one of their most reliable sponsors just had their $20 million a year completely vindicated. Between funding a Truck Series title contender in Matt Crafton and now a race winner in the Cup Series with Menard (not to mention a player in the Chase hunt now), all those sponsor dollars appear to be more secure than ever.

Not hard to put two and two together. Why wouldn’t a NASCAR bigwig make a B-line to gladhand in that circumstance? Helton and Co. might as well given themselves a trophy this Sunday.

TWO: Is Ford’s Overwhelming Bid to Keep Edwards the Right Move?

With the Carl Edwards’ contract saga elevating from distraction to the hottest topic in the Cup garage, one that even has teammates clamoring for the No. 99 driver to make his decision already (see Greg Biffle), rumors are running wild. Joe Gibbs Racing continues to be the reported new home for a driver that has for years been the face of Ford Racing, while Ford is also supposedly throwing an offer of unprecedented value at the situation. The Blue Oval it seems, wants Carl Edwards to be their face for a long time to come.

Is that the right move? There’s no lack of track record for Edwards; he’s brought Ford some of it’s more recent memorable wins (Atlanta in 2005, Bristol in the summer of 2008) and the 2007 Nationwide Series championship. On the other hand though, even Edwards and his pearly whites haven’t been a guarantee to bring in sponsor dollars or the necessary return in value (primary backer Aflac sold off a number of its previously slated races in 2009, while Edwards’ NNS program this season has featured nothing but factory backing on numerous occasions). And there’s a more important question…what does it say that Ford is having to drop upwards of $40 million over three years to keep their flagship driver loyal to the brand?

Sure, this isn’t the earlier eras where manufacturer loyalty was the end-all-be-all in Cup racing, but makes have not found it impossible to keep big-time talent without rewriting record books. Case in point, Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2008 season to return to the bowtie brigade from driving Toyotas for a season…the same season Toyota was the class of the Cup ranks with Kyle Busch winning eight races.

Ford’s on top of the Cup game right now with the FR9 engine as well as a Daytona 500 trophy already in the bank this season. Edwards is in the flagship ride for the flagship team in the Ford Racing camp and has cars that can win now. Does that say that it’s going to take rewriting the history books again to keep him in the make?

Regardless of which side of the debate one falls on, this isn’t a slam-dunk either way.

THREE: Lally vs. Gordon a Battle to Watch

Team owner Robby Gordon cited engine woes as the reason his No. 7 Toyota lasted all of five laps on Sunday, a 43rd place result that was the straw to break the camel’s back in dropping Robby Gordon Motorsports out of the top 35 in favor of TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 team, as road-course regular Andy Lally continues his transition to big-time stock car racing. Two road race aces duking it out, two single-car teams fighting for a locked-in spot in the field and whatever sponsor-searching advantages they can secure as a result.

Now, with the Pocono Raceway and Watkins Glen International the next two tracks on the docket, what better place for two road racers to settle this? 10 points, two courses that lend themselves to those familiar with the road racing discipline. And for Gordon more than any other, a true existential battle. It’s hard to forget just how bad RGM’s first season back in 2005 was, with the No. 7 team missing race after race and blowing engines in just about every event they did manage to qualify for.

Expect the No. 7 team to come guns blazing to Watkins Glen, and to see Gordon leave it all on the track. I wrote pretty much the same thing leading up to Sonoma, but this time is different…Robby’s out of the top 35 now. Worst case is now reality.

For Lally, it’s simple; capitalize on Ford horsepower to score a few more points than the No. 7 at Pocono, and be in position to capitalize should Gordon’s aggression translate to a broken part or a run off course late in the event. It might not be up front, but there’s going to be some good racing in this pack the next few weeks. Shame TV likely won’t show any of it.

FOUR: Dillon Brothers Both Ready for a Step Up

Austin Dillon is a Truck Series regular, yet in four Nationwide starts this season he’s posted three top 10s and his worst finish of 14th this past weekend came only after a late-race wreck…in a race he was in contention to win. Ty Dillon is an ARCA Racing Series regular that has won half of the races run this season on a variety of race tracks and is running away with the series crown in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the days of Frank Kimmel and Tri-State Motorsports.

Both are slated for promotions next season to the NNS and Truck ranks, respectively, but they might as well get them now. Austin may not be dominating the Truck Series the same way his brother is in ARCA, but he’s taken to Nationwide racing like a fish to water. And there’s something to be said about this talented prospect racing 35 times a year instead of 25.

As for Ty, well, who didn’t see this one coming? A driver that wins two of his first three ARCA starts driving for Richard Childress Racing in the ARCA ranks mauling everything in his path?

Fact is, both the Dillon brothers came into 2011 with a ton of hype. So far, they’re both delivering.

FIVE: LOR, You Will Be Missed

The ARCA race was possibly the best event of all the weekend in Indianapolis, with Dillon, Ryan Blaney and even James Buescher putting on a short-track clinic at the front of the field. The Trucks were up to their usual goodness on the bullring, and the Nationwide race overcame yet another dominant performance at the front with copious amounts of side-by-side racing through the pack and a finish that brought beating, banging and some frayed tempers.

Lucas Oil Raceway didn’t disappoint…yet again. So naturally, NASCAR isn’t returning in 2012 unless something unforeseen happens.

LOR, thank you for the memories. You will be missed.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Robert Eastman
08/02/2011 08:51 AM

Is it possible that the “beeline to glad-hand John Menard” by Mike Helton is a tip-off of things to come… like a “NASCAR Menard’s Truck Series” Title sponsorship?

Carl D.
08/02/2011 11:03 AM

Hey… Nascar never met a big-dollar sponsor that they didn’t covet to be the “Official Blah-Blah-Blah of Nascar“.

08/02/2011 11:35 AM

Looks that way to me. If NA$CAR doesn’t ask(demand) too much money it might happen. When is the Nationwide contract up? Wonder how the people buying the building materials from Menard feel about where there money is going. The way I have seen it over the years companies who sponsor a team or participate somehow in racing must charge more for their product to be able to spend $20 million or more. The last time I did home improvment I bought from a local supplier rather than Home Depot and saved money.

08/02/2011 12:23 PM

I did notice a fully suited helton waiting for a handshake.
sure hope the menards had some sanitary wipes handy…

08/02/2011 12:59 PM

I say LOR will not be missed as much as IRP will be. Change the name as much as you want, but the track will always be IRP!!!!

08/02/2011 04:35 PM

I can’t recall Carl Edwards in the NNS driving a Ford sponsored car. He’s been in a Copart car, a Fastenal Car and one or two others. Now Stenhouse and Bayne have been in unsponsored rides.

Also, RGM ran a Dodge at Indy, not a Toyota. Robby hasn’t been in a Toyota in months.

08/02/2011 11:41 PM

Jr.s’ favorite color is orange…?

08/03/2011 01:04 AM

The loss of yet another short track is just another nail in the coffin for me and nascar.

One step closer to WWE on wheels. Maybe for the chase the drivers can paint their face and Maybelline can be the official sponsor of nascar.

I can see Dale Jr. with that sick AMP green on his face now.