Full Throttle · Frontstretch Staff · Monday August 7, 2006
NASCAR's silly season ramps up earlier every year. From the Kurt Busch/Jamie McMurray melodrama last year to the David Gilliland/RYR courtship this year, it seems like there are always drivers rumored to be moving to different teams, and drivers mentioned to be taking their seats that they are vacating. Frontstretch’s recent Mirror Driving discussion brought up the possibility of Ward Burton getting back into a Cup ride. The opinions expressed roused deep seated feeling among Ward's supporters, and brought to mind just how passionate NASCAR fans can be.
No question, Ward is an accomplished race car driver. He has won five races in his Nextel Cup career, including the 2002 Daytona 500. He has 24 Top 5s and 82 Top 10s in 356 races in NASCAR’s top series. Having spent his career in less than Championship caliber equipment, those totals are even more impressive than normal.
On top of his accomplishments, Ward is a genuine personality. He is extremely cordial to the fans, and fiercely dedicated to the environment. When his time with Haas Motorsports came to an end in 2004, Ward chose to take some time away from the sport to dedicate himself to advancing his wildlife foundation. That decision has probably cost him in the long run.
Unfortunately, Ward has now been out of a race car for a year and a half. He is also 44 years old. Those circumstances do not bode well for him in the modern world of NASCAR. Sponsors, for the most part, are more concerned about driver image than experience and abilities these days. Sterling Marlin lost his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates because he did not fit the demographics that Coors wanted for their driver. The fact that he would have won the Championship if not for an injury three years before didn’t make a difference to them.
Has Burton forgotten how to drive during his time off? Certainly not. Ward has forgotten more about driving a Cup car than Reed Sorenson and Martin Truex, Jr. have learned in their short careers. He was able to take average equipment and put it up front on multiple occasions. He would, without a doubt, be a great benefit to a team that is looking for a driver. In the situation at Robert Yates Racing, he would be an ideal addition to the team. Yates is talking about having two rookie drivers, with crew chiefs who are new to the roll, as their stable of race teams for next year. Bringing in a veteran, with the knowledge and experience that Burton possesses, would obviously be invaluable to the entire organization. However, the money to do that has to come from somewhere. This is where the passion starts to take hold. The Yates organization has stated that if Ward can secure a sponsor, he will have a ride. That is hardly a passionate response. If RYR is serious about turning their organization around in short order, they need to more aggressively pursue the backing necessary to add Burton, or another seasoned veteran, to their organization. The benefits far outweigh the detriments in making such a move.
The other aspect of passion is the fan support that will follow a driver. For those of you who read the responses to Mirror Driving last week, there is no doubt about the passion for Ward's fans. He has a loyal legion of fans who have not lost one ounce of their fervor since Burton has been out of the seat. Like all NASCAR fans, Burton's army of followers will fight, tooth and nail, for their man. That loyalty should be an enormous selling point for potential sponsors. Having that kind of following will guarantee extensive exposure to whatever company decides to sponsor a Burton effort. If Yates was serious about adding a veteran to their lineup, and increasing their effort to three teams for 2007, they would certainly be able to convince an interested sponsor that the legion of Burton fans would ensure them a valuable return on their investment.
When it comes down to it, passion is a very important part of NASCAR racing. There’s the passion of the drivers to get behind the wheel, cheat death, and beat the other competitors. There’s the passion by the team owners to secure the necessary sponsorship that will allow them to field the best possible equipment and give their drivers every opportunity to win in the ultra competitive world of Cup racing. Finally, there’s also the passion of the fans, the loyal followers of the drivers, teams, and manufacturers, that allow this sport to be what it is today. Silly Season stirs the deepest of emotions in these people most of all. Fans’ favorite drivers get shuffled like a deck of cards, and they have no control over where their beloved driver will end up. The only thing they can do is voice their feelings on call-in radio shows and message boards and hope the people who are making the decisions will take the time to listen.
Hopefully, the passion of those Ward Burton fans will pay off for their driver. But the passion to make it work at RYR has to come from every part of that arrangement in order for things to come together.
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