Bryan Davis Keith · Saturday March 31, 2012
It was one of the more uneventful Martinsville races in recent memory, and the same could be said for the return of John Wes Townley. Making his first Truck Series start since 2008, and his first in any level of NASCAR racing since the summer of 2010, the No. 09 returned in one piece, two laps off the pace in 23rd.
And it was what it was. It was a calm, collected performance for both driver and team, but it was also a backmarker, 23rd-place finish, a result that did get aid from attrition. It was about as anti-climatic a conclusion to Townley’s return to NASCAR as could play out. But leaving Martinsville, the future of both driver and RAB Racing is no clearer after the events of Saturday.
At least a mixed review is better than a disaster. Townley’s press conference Friday, which revolved nearly entirely around his return from suspension after a DUI arrest prior to Daytona earlier this year, went off without any major gaffes. Though late-race contact in the race’s final caution on lap 235 did cause damage to the No. 09, the wreck was not of Townley’s making, nor was the damage significant enough to cause major worry to an RAB team that’s not swimming in cash at this point in 2012.
Perhaps most significantly, Townley did well to keep himself out of precarious situations. Only twice throughout the 250 laps run Saturday did the oft-maligned driver put himself in a bad spot; lap 90 saw Townley grossly overdrive turn 1, only at the last second backing off and avoiding what would have been harsh contact with Max Gresham, while lap 92 saw Townley bobble exiting turn 3 and collect the No. 60 of J.R. Fitzpatrick (Fitzpatrick was crowding Townley’s Toyota on the curb as they entered turn 3, but did not come down from his line through the corner). Considering the number of accidents, the number of torn up race cars, the sheer number of bad situations that Townley has already created or found himself in over the course of a brief and erratic NASCAR career, this Saturday could be considered a win without argument.
However, Saturday also demonstrated nothing suggesting that the driver who is now returning to racing for a third time in four years is sitting on a wealth of talent that’s going to suddenly explode and bring both he and RAB to competitiveness. Despite running a nearly flawless race in terms of staying out of trouble and remaining composed, the No. 09 was never a contender to do anything significant. On a lap 82 restart that saw the team running in the Lucky Dog position, it wasn’t a quarter of a lap before any prayer of scoring a free pass went out the window; Townley, starting on the high side, entered turn 1 higher than needed and ended up pinned behind Gresham’s off-pace vehicle, leaving the No. 09 to be freight-trained. It was the one shot the team had in the afternoon to get back on the lead lap, and it was over before it started.
What was even more concerning was the feedback being offered by the driver…or the almost complete lack thereof. Townley radioed handling conditions around lap 11 of the race. Then again on lap 76 under caution… and never again. Though there weren’t many pit stops to be had over the course of the race, the communication channel was overwhelmingly one-way, and it wasn’t coming from the cockpit. Though the team’s crew chief seemed pleased with the direction of the team’s adjustments and the performance of his race truck, those adjustments were coming largely as observations from the top of the box than from the wheelman. This wasn’t a case of a neutral-handling vehicle or the driver being content… this one was a case of absolute silence. That over half of the communication on the team radio throughout the entire afternoon was a reminder not to overdrive the corners says even more about the psyche of this race team…and the confidence in their prodigal son pilot.
Again, it was what it was. None of these observations can be considered surprising or unexpected. But they say a lot more by saying nothing. After finally facing the off-track trouble head on and getting back to racing, Sunday is going to look a whole lot like Friday did for RAB and Townley when they arrived in the Martinsville infield.
For the driver, there’s the blunt honest question of talent. Can this guy actually hack it enough to make a career of racing in NASCAR? There’s a question of direction, of motivation…and of conviction as well. In remarks before the media Friday, Townley copped out of the only challenging question he faced when asked if he felt he had an alcohol problem, responding “there’s a lot of things that have been implemented into this year through NASCAR, through my team that we’re going to continue to evaluate me and evaluate where I am and, to answer your question, I don’t know the answer as far as the problem goes.”
Hardly confidence-inspiring remarks when they’re uttered in the same answer that the driver stressed his need to take responsibility for his actions. And coupled with a racer that essentially had his hand held through a quiet 250 laps, it has to be to queried… just why is Townley back? Let’s not forget that after leaving/being forced out at Richard Childress Racing in 2010 on the heels of another alcohol citation in Las Vegas and an ugly practice crash at Phoenix only weeks later, Townley was supposed to return to RAB Racing’s Nationwide Series team.
That reunion lasted only four events. Townley never showed up to race at Richmond, and never told the team; his father actually texted team owner Robby Benton early in the morning of the event to say his son wouldn’t be driving. From there, despite having what Benton termed an agreement to run the rest of the season, Townley and his Zaxby’s sponsorship didn’t appear again on the No. 09 car. To predict the future, look to the past… and the past of this marriage isn’t encouraging.
Speaking of that Zaxby’s sponsorship, it was hard not to notice that for the first time in his racing career, Townley’s vehicle wasn’t draped in the bright yellow colors of the Zaxby’s chain. Instead, the vehicle was black-and-white, with scarcely an associate sponsor to be seen. How in the world can a race team and the racing community at large be confident that this time will work for Townley when the family business is no longer putting their colors on the race vehicles they’re paying for? Who’s to say this return to racing isn’t happening because there’s nothing else for driver and family to do?
Sadly, for RAB Racing, there really doesn’t seem to be a choice but to jump in again. Despite time and time again being burned by this relationship, be it a hideous 2009 Nationwide Series campaign that was marred by copious amounts of sheet metal or the end of season 2010 arrangement that dissolved 14 hours from taking the green flag at Richmond, Townley and Zaxby’s are about the only constant the No. 09 operation has had to hang its hat on. Now, with the team’s flagship Nationwide car and driver Kenny Wallace in absolutely desperate need of financial backing, sponsor dollars are sponsor dollars, no matter where they’re coming from.
It is what it is. This arrangement has been tried and failed for RAB Racing, but in this climate, there’s no alternative. Though the Kroger 250 didn’t go wrong, it didn’t rectify anything either.
It was what it was.
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