Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday November 5, 2007
Kurt Busch has proved his stock car talent, winning the 2004 Nextel Cup championship. On the flip side, teammate Sam Hornish, Jr. has yet to prove he can make a race as a Nextel Cup rookie.
But both may have the same comfy exemption to make starting fields for 2008; and that has left many a NASCAR observer scratching their head in disbelief.
The word around the garage at Texas was that car owner Roger Penske is considering making a change next year to his driver lineup, taking advantage of the rules as they are written to ensure Hornish a starting spot in the first five races next season. In a move that would put all three of his cars on solid ground, Penske is thinking of putting his open wheel star turned stock car rookie into the No. 2 car – or at the very least, applying the owner's points from that car to Hornish’s ride for the 2008 season. In the meantime, Kurt Busch would have points from Penske’s third entry, the No. 06, which he plans to bring full-time in 2008. Under that scenario, the slew of Hornish DNQs which have plagued him throughout the Chase will stop in a hurry; his team would have an automatic starting spot in the first five races, based on Busch’s owner points from 2007. All the rookie would need is to flip the ignition to earn the spot; meanwhile, Busch would qualify on speed, with the luxury of his Past Champion's Provisional to fall back on should he falter.
Such a move doesn’t appear to be illegal; but while this would appear to be within the bounds of the rules as they are currently written, it is by no means how they were intended, a shady manipulation which appears as nothing more than a cheap move by what was a classy organization.
Of course, competition can often get in the way of classy, and Penske’s fire to rise to the top of the sport remains strong; he has long been haunted by the championship drought he’s endured at the NASCAR Cup level. With 11 championships in open wheel cars and multiple Indy 500 titles, he’s reached the pinnacle of everything that brand of racing has to offer; in addition, he’s won titles in Trans Am, USRRC, and SCCA Can-Am throughout a long, storied career as a car owner. Penske’s had race-winning success in Cup, too; but despite 57 victories spread over three separate decades, he has never been able to bring home the championship. For some reason, the ultimate prize has eluded him ever since he started winning NASCAR races in 1973 with Mark Donohue.
But as Penske found the road to the top that much tougher after an up and down ’06 and ’07, he’s realized that to take the next step, his team needs to once again go back to a three-car operation, hoping to take advantage of the economies of scale and compete with the Hendricks and Roush Fenways of the sport. Of course, when weighing the concept of expansion, Penske has the added benefit of having a past Cup champion in his lineup. That means increasing the number of cars will not translate into having to gamble with qualifying for that new team – as long as Penske takes advantage of the aforementioned loophole in the rules. It’s a scenario that gives him the opening he needs to give an open wheel transplant, Hornish, the cushion to develop into the stock car talent the car owner strongly believes he can become.
But while the loophole exists, should it really be taken advantage of, or for that matter even considered, by someone as classy as Penske? There has never been a question about the man's ability to manage, or to get the right people in the right positions to be successful in whatever endeavor he undertakes. The one thing that has been unquestioned about Penske since the beginning is his demand for perfection. Everything must be done the best it possibly can, and the lack of success in Cup has to be gnawing at him like a bad rash. But even with the strength of conviction that Hornish can provide the missing piece he needs, it is still surprising that someone who is such a stickler would stoop to this level to make sure his new driver makes the races to start the new season.
Of course, that decision is to move Hornish to Cup in the first place is controversial; no question, he has been less than stellar in his short stock car career. The Ohio native has yet to qualify for a race at the Cup level, and his Busch Series record is not something that legends are made of. Hornish has not scored a Top 10 finish in nine career starts in that series, with his career best being a 15th at Atlanta earlier this year; his next best finish is 25th, and he’s failed to finish nearly half his starts due to wrecks of his own making.
With that said, there is no question that Hornish is a good race car driver. The man has won the Indianapolis 500 and is a former IRL champ; however, the fendered cars do not seem to be suiting his style, and after six failed attempts to make a Cup race, it’s clear he may need some seasoning in a lower series before being labeled a competitive threat in Cup.
But the time to prepare appears to be running out. As of now, it looks like Hornish gets just two more Busch Series starts before taking the green for the 2008 Daytona 500 – no matter how he performs throughout Speedweeks.
Beyond the questions surrounding Hornish’s development is the ultimate issue of the intention of the Past Champion’s Provisional rule, and the fact that Penske is seemingly spitting in the face of it with his actions. This special exemption was put in place originally to try and allow for the older champions who were near the end of their careers and driving less than top of the line equipment (like Darrell Waltrip) to still be able to make the shows – allowing their large numbers of fans coming to the races an opportunity to see them run one more time. At its peak, it worked well, limiting DNQs of Waltrip and Richard Petty while allowing their fans the relief of not seeing the indignity of a NASCAR legend fail to qualify for the main event.
However, the rule was not put into place to afford a team owner the opportunity to expand his operation, giving another driver a free pass into the first five races of the season while letting a recent past champ rest on the laurels of the provisional with a new car. Certainly, there have been owners in the last few years who have juggled points to ensure that a car would be guaranteed a starting spot; but those have generally been when drivers were switching teams, and the Past Champion's Provisional was not in play. Now, the fact that Penske risks taking the points away from a true Past Champion that needs them just seems to fly in the face of the spirit of the rule. In this case, Dale Jarrett appears to be the innocent victim; with just five races remaining in his storied career, he will go from being a lock to make his final starts in the No. 44 UPS Toyota to being in jeopardy of failing to qualify every time out.
Let's hope that NASCAR will see clear of this ruse and prevent the movement of Penske’s owner points before the start of next season. Unfortunately, since there is precedent of points being moved between cars in the past, NASCAR may sit on their hands and choose to do nothing, citing the need to remain consistent. Based on what’s been seen and heard so far, that’s exactly what they appear to be doing. However, let's all hope – for the good of the sport – that they reconsider, holding up a stop sign to Mr. Penske and informing him that such shenanigans will not be tolerated.
For in the end, the proper way for Sam Hornish, Jr. to start his Nextel Cup career should be to get into races the old-fashioned way – on speed.
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