The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? Nice Guys Finish Last, NASCAR's Diversity Nightmare, And Chase Vulnerability by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 11, 2008

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Did You Notice? … That one of the compelling themes in NASCAR as of late is proof of the phrase, “Nice guys finish last?” David Reutimann is the latest example; known as a man who won’t bump anyone out of the way in order to get to the front, Reutimann got loose with Clint Bowyer oh-so-close behind him in the final laps of the Nashville race on Saturday night. While Brad Keselowski went on to win, Reutimann – who had been in position to take the checkers before a late-race caution bunched up the field — fell back to a fourth place finish on older tires.

“The No. 2 got a good start and we got down into (turn) three and he was real close to the back of me and got me loose,” Reutimann claimed when it was all said and done. “He didn’t touch me – we were racing.”

“Once the No. 2 got to us, it was game over.”

Reutimann may have cut Bowyer a break in that interview; the replays showed the cars were awfully close entering that corner, and it’s my opinion that just the ever so slightest bit of contact could have been made. But even if there wasn’t, Bowyer himself fell victim to overaggression on the race’s last lap, when David Stremme just plain hit the No. 2 car going through the final turns to grab second place. And that behavior’s in line with what we’re seeing throughout NASCAR’s top three series: everyone seems to be falling victim to a case of bump ‘n’ run. Forget about racing side-by-side; the handling of these cars has become so difficult, instead of taking time to make the pass, it’s simply easier to just bodyslam people out of the way.

David Reutimann is known for his squeaky-clean driving style, preferring to use skill instead of his bumper to get to the front.

The proof is in the pudding … er, results sheet. One of the most aggressive drivers of our time, Kyle Busch, has entered the limelight of Victory Lane over in Sprint Cup, while the passivity of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t paid off. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver isn’t known for bumping people out of the way, but racing clean in a few different instances has allowed his winless streak to rise to 76 – in contrast, Busch had no problem making contact with the No. 88 while fighting for the win at Richmond.

The movement’s quickly spread to NASCAR’s other divisions, too. Over in the Craftsman Truck Series a few weeks back, it was rookie Donny Lia laying the bumper to squeaky clean David Starr in order to take the first checkered flag of his career at Mansfield. Other drivers accused him of driving dirty; but it was Lia walking away with the trophy, not anyone else. And even the drivers known for a “gentlemanly” reputation are going through a little phase of laying the chrome horn. Who can forget Mark Martin’s ill-timed bump during the Las Vegas Nationwide Series race this March, a mistake which caused a wreck that ruined the chances of both Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski to take the win?

Whenever these incidents have come up this season, our sport hasn’t laid down any penalties; in fact, they’ve labeled each case the outcome of good, hard racing – a throwback to the NASCAR of old. But for those drivers who hate engaging in such tactics, they might need to take heed of how the aggression’s ratcheting up. With the laps winding down and the win on the line, what are you going to do? You can take second place by racing a guy clean, and then hear it from your sponsors, your fans, and your car owner as to why you’re not winning races. Or, you can lay a bumper to the guy, hope for the best, and get out of there with a race-winning trophy – which, five years from now, is all everyone is going to remember.

It’s an interesting quandary, and one in which there’s no clear answer. The honorable thing to do is to race somebody clean; but more than ever these days, I’m noticing the paychecks get written when contact gets made. For every Jeff Burton win at Bristol, there’s five Donny Lias trumping them all …

Did You Notice? … That the obsessive dominance of the Big Four – Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Hendrick Motorsports – isn’t just limited to the Cup Series. After Nashville, those teams occupy six of the top eight positions in owner points, with Rusty Wallace Incorporated’s No. 64 and Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 99 the only interlopers. You’ll notice I count the No. 88 owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as a Hendrick Motorsports entity – as much as I was happy to see the kid get his first series win, right now I think we’re all in “common sense” agreement that team receives a great deal of chassis and technical support from Hendrick.

Of course, the influence of the “Big Four” in this series is nothing new, and it’s a great study of how extended dominance by a few select car owners can turn out over a period of time. Their reign atop the series began in 2006, when the “Big Four” swept the Top 5 in owner points — all with Cup drivers at the helm. Last year, they occupied the top four slots, while combining to win 27 of 35 Nationwide races in the process.

So in year three of the Big Four invasion, what are the long-term effects? Eight cars in the field of 43 started and parked at Nashville, and about two dozen teams are struggling to find a viable primary sponsor. The Big Four continue to become a viable entity – phenom Joey Logano just picked up sponsorship from GameStop for Joe Gibbs Racing – while some of the strongest Nationwide-only teams, like Baker-Curb’s No. 37, don’t even have the money to buy tires and run the full scheduled distance.

If you think this kind of collapse can’t happen in the Cup Series, don’t be fooled. Just look at the stories coming out this week: Michael Waltrip Racing in trouble, Petty Enterprises getting an investor – but still needing a sponsor, BAM Racing shutting down last month, etc. With the ratcheting cost of participation, sponsors aren’t going to pay $20 million to run 20th at best each week; and why should they? And if you’re a mid-pack team, what past results can you point to in order to show you’ll one day be competitive again? Those days are slipping further and further into the distance …

All I can say is if you thought 2004 was bad in terms of Cup field fillers, I shudder to think what the possibilities for 2009 could behold.

Did You Notice? … That as attention swirls around the pending lawsuit involving fired African-American official Mauricia Grant, there’s going to be additional scrutiny given to the sport’s Drive For Diversity program. And as Tommy Thompson so expertly pointed out on this site the other day, the track record simply isn’t good. Right now, there’s no African-American racing in any of NASCAR’s top three series. Bill Lester – the man once championed to fill that void after competing in a handful of Cup races in 2006 – is now 47, and hasn’t had a ride in either Cup, Nationwide, or Trucks since mid-2007. Chase Austin was promised a part-time schedule in Rusty Wallace, Incorporated’s No. 64 car; instead, David Stremme’s experiencing such success they’re letting him drive the thing full-time.

Of course, NASCAR’s track record with women ain’t so great either: look up Crocker, Erin for the latest example. But while the IRL has become the poster child for women entering motorsports – and Formula 1 has a dark-skinned racing superstar in Lewis Hamilton – NASCAR is clearly behind the times. You can throw out all the statistics you want about drivers racing in the lower divisions, but the bottom line is that it’s Joey Logano moving up the ladder at Joe Gibbs Racing… not development series driver Marc Davis. It’s Chase Austin getting released at Hendrick Motorsports, while white driver Landon Cassill gets plenty of time to develop. And so on, and so on … and as for the Grant story itself, it clearly bears watching. This isn’t the first discrimination lawsuit NASCAR’s faced … and with the list of people named in this report that also claim they got harassed, it’s very possible this won’t be the last.

Did You Notice? … That after the halfway point of the regular season last year, 11 of the 12 drivers who made the Chase were already in the Top 12? Only part-timer Mark Martin fell out, replaced by Kurt Busch as the season wore on.

I think that number will be lower this year — and based on history, you’d expect at least one guy currently listed in the Chase to fall out. So, while the obvious choice is Tony Stewart, I’m going to go with Kevin Harvick as my personal pick to flop. At the beginning of this season, I thought it was a mistake for Harvick’s team to not change things up and leave crew chief Todd Berrier behind. In February and March, they proved me wrong, but the last two months of the season have flushed out the car’s continual inability to consistently run up front. In the last nine races, Harvick’s led just one lap, and the most aggressive driver in the RCR stable has instead been settling for 13th place finishes.

It’s clear something isn’t right over at the No. 29; and I’m not sure if keeping the status quo is the right way to go. Perhaps if they do miss the Chase, the addition of a fourth team will be the loophole Childress needs to do a crew mixup; because right now, it seems that team needs one more than anyone else in the organization.

Contact Tom Bowles

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alan4s
06/11/2008 06:45 AM
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Thomas,

You do know that Lewis Hamilton is not African-American, right? Yes, he’s black, but he’s British.

Mike In NH
06/11/2008 07:40 AM
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The line you wrote about Logano and Davis implies (hopefully unintentionally) that race is a reason behind Logano being in Nationwide and not Davis. That’s just not true – Logano is the better racer, that’s why. You can’t be saying that NASCAR should dispense with merit and go with race as a factor for promotion instead? Because handouts like that will do far more harm to the diversity drive than good – neither the fans nor the racers (including minority racers) want to see guys get rides based on a handout, which is what that is. It says they can’t make it on their own.

Speaking of the better racer – why would you pull Stremme from the 64 car when he’s doing so well and put a newbie in his place? Stremme is getting face time for that car, which translates to sponsor dollars – a not insignificant factor for keeping him as well. If Chase is good he’ll get a shot somewhere, but lets face it, for anyone regardless of race it’s not easy to get a Cup or Nationwide ride, especially with a competitive team.

I’m a fan of Marc Davis and I’m convinced he’ll get his shot too, and soon, and also that he wants to make it on his own merits. He’s also been a team owner since he was 15 (FastKids/FastTrucks and a limited late model team at South Boston) so he could also become one of NASCAR’s few African American owners.

And on the nice guys part of the story – you could finish last, or you could be second in the Cup points standings. And Mark Martin apologized profusely for getting into the 88 car – his teammate – he didn’t do it on purpose, which is what you implied in the article. I can’t recall the last time MM got into someone on purpose.

john
06/11/2008 08:51 AM
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lol “African-American” Lewis Hamilton—oops.

Regardless, on the one hand we have all the rumours and allegations by that Jewish driver (sorry, I forget his name) being persecuted for his religion, and now this African-American official being fired and claiming discrimination… but on the other hand, you have the fact that there simply hasn’t BEEN a minority driver that has proven to have the chops… I think it’s just unfortunate coincidence mind you, I’m sure they’re out.

As far as Erin Crocker, I dunno wtf is going on there, she should’ve already been winning Truck races, by this point…

Managing Editor
06/11/2008 10:05 AM
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Yeah John, that was a very bad mistake … thanks for pointing it out, correction has been made. We apologize for the error.

Luis
06/11/2008 02:32 PM
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John, the Jewish driver you are referring to is Mike Bliss.

Now that Takuma Sato’s Super Aguri F1 eam is toast, every effort should be made to bring him into NASCAR.

dh
06/11/2008 02:46 PM
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yes, I def agree with the situation on the 29. Week in and week out I listen to Harvick talk about not getting the right handle on the car. I think Berrier is good, but either he’s not agressive, or too agressive and not giving Kevin what he needs. Some changes NEED to happen soon, or else you’re right, he’ll fall out of the chase. And that would suck.

Mike
06/11/2008 03:43 PM
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I really hate to say this – because it seems so taboo – but the “drive for diversity” program is a joke. Go to most any karting event, roadcourses, oval etc. What does the demographic look like? In college, there are student bodies based upon race, unless your generic “white”, same goes for corporate America; now racing? this is idiotic. If they want diversity – fine I can understand that – make it so ALL less fortunate kids can have an avenue – most top-tier professional drivers come from money…(from money I mean Family income of into 6-figures)otherwise they will never be able to run where they need to to get noticed…so – why restrict the assistance of those less fortunate based upon race? Before somebody lables me “racist” keep in mind the definition – is it not determining criteria based upon ones race???

SS Mike
06/11/2008 05:59 PM
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The NHRA has had Blacks, Hispanics and Women in their series for over 40 years. And all have won.

And the NHRA has never had a B.S. diveristy program.

Maybe Blacks just have no interest in NA$CAR.

Nancy
06/12/2008 06:29 PM
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I am a big fan of stock car racing and when I first heard of this lawsuit, I thought it might be bogus. However after to reading the allegations in the suit itself, this woman has documented a number of incidents in which there was definitely a hostile work environment. NASCAR needs to worry very much about this suit, not the cost, but damage to the “new” image that NASCAR has tried to craft.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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