The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... The Busch-Edwards Rivalry That Isn't, Truex's Public Posturing, And Touting Terry Labonte? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday July 9, 2008

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Did You Notice? … In a story I first broke last April to many doubters, ESPN.com confirmed Tuesday night Tony Stewart will indeed leave Joe Gibbs Racing after a decade and jump ship to Haas CNC. Things remained on track almost exactly as I reported — Stewart will own a 50% share in the organization, with the driver of the second car almost universally expected to be Ryan Newman.

Confirming Frontstretch news readers have known for a long time, Tony Stewart will be smiling somewhere other than Joe Gibbs Racing next season. Breaking news Tuesday night revealed Stewart had been released from his contract at JGR to pursue his new role as part-owner of Haas CNC Racing for 2009.

While the move at this point isn’t a surprise, it’s clearly a sad day for JGR, who — even with young talents Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — is losing what’s been the lifeblood of their organization for the better part of a decade. Yes, Logano will rip things up on the circuit whenever he moves to Cup, and Busch is in contention for his first career title; but no one can replace the uniqueness, the toughness, and the quality performances Stewart provided to this team since 1999. In the past decade, Stewart has never finished lower than 11th in points; that type of underappreciated consistency is what’s going to be missed for a program that’s now going to have to coddle three young talents and bring them along at exactly the right pace.

Did You Notice? … The scowl on Martin Truex, Jr.’s face throughout the Sprint Cup weekend at Daytona? Certainly, he has reason to be upset, as a 150-point penalty for a violation of the CoT template will almost certainly cost him a second straight Chase for the Championship bid. The way I see it, if this were an organization you’re planning to have a long-term future with, wouldn’t you be just a tad more supportive of your team instead of throwing them under the bus?

But that’s because it seems there may not be a long-term future for Truex with the No. 1. The young man’s reaction reminded me of the way Ryan Newman addressed the media just a few short weeks ago. Back then, Newman told SI.com colleague Brent James his team needed to pick up the pace in order for him to remain a part of Penske Racing (whether Newman should be saying such a thing is a whole other story – there is no “I” in “team,” but I digress). Instead, the truth increasingly appears to be that Newman had been busy aligning himself with another opportunity – i.e., Tony Stewart’s new two-car organization — and by going public with his “criticisms” of Penske, Newman gave himself an opportunity to look sympathetic, not traitorous, by coming up with this storyline that the team just wasn’t performing to the standards needed for a viable contract extension.

Returning to the present day, despite all the talk about Truex being “close” on a deal with DEI, it seems that the 28-year-old free agent to be is on the verge of doing the same thing. Yes, mistakes shouldn’t be made, but this is not the first team to come to the track with a Car of Tomorrow rules violation. And for all his talk about doing right by the rules, you wonder if a guy that’s won a total of one Sprint Cup race in his career has the right to talk tough like that. Here’s the irony of the whole situation, though; with the breaking news that Stewart is leaving JGR — and Joey Logano expected to replace him — the open rides are few and far between for Truex to choose from. Where is he going to go — Penske Racing? There’s not a whole lot of grass that’s greener on the other side…

Did You Notice? … That during this week’s rumors DEI is for sale, Teresa Earnhardt never came out and publicly denied them? Sure, you can speak for Max Siegel all you want, but if I’m the owner of a race team and I’m implicated in a sale I’m not involved in, I’d sure come out with guns a-blazing trying to find the reporter who broke the story. The fact that she didn’t seems a little suspicious to me … even though she’s never been one to speak through the press.

Did You Notice? … That halfway through the season, Carl Edwards has finished second in a Sprint Cup race three times – and all three of them have been to Kyle Busch. Edwards likes to play this up as a rivalry, but right now, Busch is putting on a good ol’ fashioned butt whooping — whether you want to admit it or not. Right now, Edwards trails Busch in wins (six to three), points (149), Top 5s (11 to 7), and Laps Led (900 to 396). Only in Top 10s does Edwards have a razor-thin edge – 13 to 12 – but that’s not going to be enough if he wants to overtake the No. 18 when it really counts in November.

Still, for those who despise Busch’s dominance during the first half of the Cup circuit, there’s hope Edwards can bounce back. So far this season, he’s won twice on tracks 1.5 miles in length – that’s one more than Busch, who paced the field at Atlanta but finished well behind the No. 99 at both Texas and Las Vegas. Since five 1.5-mile race tracks make up the ten race Chase, that should give Edwards a bit of a leg up on his closest competition.

But with that said, the Roush Fenway Racing driver does gives away a large portion of that edge when you look at the some of the other tracks we’ll visit from September through November. Take Dover, for example. Edwards led 64 laps and finished second … to Kyle Busch. How about Talladega? Edwards failed to lead a lap and finished 40th … while Busch celebrated in Victory Lane. You get the picture; it looks like if the No. 99 is going to be a formidable threat come playoff time, they’re going to have to show they can beat their biggest rival mano e mano during a race in the regular season. With a Chase bid all but firmly secured, there’s no question that should be their focus over the next eight weeks.

Did You Notice? … That behind Busch and Edwards, just one other driver has won more than one race so far this season – the No. 9 car of Kasey Kahne, who cashed in on races in Charlotte and Pocono in a three-week span. But with Kahne too inconsistent to be considered a legitimate title contender, it puts in perspective just how much Edwards and Busch have been head and shoulders above the rest of the field so far in 2008.

Did You Notice? … That for all of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s restrictor plate prowess, he hasn’t won a points-paying race at either Daytona or Talladega since the Fall of 2004? The No. 88 car was the class of the field at times Saturday night, leading 51 of the first 132 laps before being freight trained on a crucial late-race restart. You can’t say you were surprised by all that, though; for when it comes to crunch time, it just seems that Junior never finds the dancing partner he needs anymore. Teamed with an organization in Hendrick Motorsports that won two of the last four Daytona 500s, you certainly expected more from Junior than just an 8th and a 9th place finish at both races there this season. He’s got one more restrictor plate chance left to cash in – at Talladega this October – but if he doesn’t, it would be hard not to rate Junior’s plate performance with Hendrick slightly disappointing.

Did You Notice? … In just five races driving the No. 45 Dodge, Terry Labonte has brought the car home with two Top 20 finishes, including a surprising 17th at Daytona. When you consider the fact that’s two more than previous driver Kyle Petty had all season before Labonte stepped behind the wheel, you’ve got to give the two-time Cup Series champ a lot of credit – especially since he’d had all but a whopping two races worth of experience with the Car of Tomorrow heading into his six-race stint driving the No. 45.

Now, the question will be whether the newly reenergized team will continue to perform once Petty returns at Indianapolis, or if Labonte’s stint behind the wheel was the only short-term resurgence they’ll receive the rest of the season.

Did You Notice? … Halfway through the year, there are a whopping zero drivers from single car teams within the Top 25 in the championship standings. The highest of those is Robby Gordon in 30th, one of just two programs (Dave Blaney and Bill Davis Racing is the other) to own a spot in the coveted Top 35 in owner points.

But wait … there’s more. The best performance by any driver from a two-car team is Brian Vickers in 15th for Team Red Bull. With that in mind, there’s a realistic chance every car that makes the Chase this season will come from at least a three-car operation – the first time in the five-year history of the playoffs that’s happened.

So much for keeping things on a level playing field …

Contact Tom Bowles

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dawg
07/09/2008 08:52 AM
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You make it sound somewhere between disloyal, & downright traitorous for a driver to opt out of a contract. To seek a better opportunity. Drivers are routinely released from contracts by the owners. With the comment that” This is a results based business.” That street has to run both ways. Drivers only have so many peak years. I see no reason why anyone should not seek better opportunities. It’s not like they are just ignoring their contracts. There is always a settlement whether it’s the driver, or owner initiating the change.

Adam
07/09/2008 09:41 AM
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I think that your criticism of Truex is a little unfair. True, he has only one win, but he is at DEI, post Dale. Even Junior couldn’t win at DEI since it started its decline. Also, Truex is the leader of that organization, he needs to demand more out of them. He didn’t say anything too critical, that I have seen. The fact remains, if Junior was the one making these statements it would be praised as leadership. The fact remains Truex stayed loyal to DEI because of Junior and the break he gave him. That world has changed. If he decides to leave I would not fault him one bit.

marshall
07/09/2008 10:26 AM
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Gibbs Racing owes a lot to Tony . But Stewart has never been interested in taking the easy way . Leaving Gibbs and building his own team gives him a new mountain to conquer . Wanna bet he’ll be just as succesfull as a team owner in NASCAR as he has been in every other facet of auto racing ?

It really isn’t necessary for Mrs Earnhardt to comment on the hourly gossip ginned up by the blogoshere .

Truex , if he leaves DEI , will likely end up at RCR .

You only need to listen in on the scanner talk between the Penske drivers and their respective crew chiefs during any race to understand how unhappy the drivers are with the cars they are being given . Newman just wants to be competitive again .

As has been said many times before by many people , the Dale Jr. move to Hendrick was a move sideways , not a move up . The supposedly superior HMS cars have been no more competitive for Jr. than the DEI cars he left . In fact , in a number of races this year , those DEI cars have outrun Dale’s new ride . What irritates me about Jr. is the constant blameing of his crew , his car , his competitors . Just once i would like to hear him admit that he as the driver just didn’t get it done in a particular race .

Larry
07/09/2008 10:41 AM
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You’re right about Jr at the plate races. He will win again at the plate tracks, but it will be a fluke when it happens. Jr is a victim of his own success, because any driver out there knows that if he dances with Jr during the closing laps that driver has NO chance of winning. Therefore Jr will never have a race partner at the end of of a plate race, unless it just happens to fall that way, and that will be rare. Lately he has been consistently dropped kicked at the end of plate races, I expect this trend to continue.The plate races are a crap shoot, the best car rarely wins a plate race anymore. Should this be considered a failure on Jr’s part? No, it is what it is, and finding someone to dance with Jr coming to the money laps, is nothing more than wishful thinking. When you get right down to it,the days of one driver dominating the plate tracks is over.

marshall
07/09/2008 10:45 AM
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Regarding Terry Labonte , anyone surprised by his performance in the Kyle Petty car wasn’t paying attention during his career . Terry was always a great talent , just overshadowed by his team mates who had numerous full time PR people to tell the world how talented they were . Terry just did his job at the track and then went about his life . He is a very nice , very quiet person who was , and is , more comfortable out of the spotlight . But his record in NASCAR shows just how good a driver he is .

Mike In NH
07/09/2008 12:13 PM
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JGR will have any driver not signed for sure for next year knocking on the door with their resume in an attempt to get the 20 seat. Logano is just not ready yet, and JGR wanted him for a fourth Cup team (and has said so as recently as a couple of months ago). JGR doesn’t HAVE to go with Logano for the 20. Truex would be a good fit, and Ryan Newman would be dumb to at least listen to an offer from JGR before going to Tony’s team, because as Stewart has said, it doesn’t hurt to listen. There are other Cup drivers that would work too – Reutimann for one.

Of course, JGR has Marc Davis climbing the ladder too, so maybe they will go with Logano in the 20 and put Davis in a fourth Cup team down the road.

falcon325
07/09/2008 12:34 PM
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>>The supposedly superior HMS cars have been no more competitive for Jr. than the DEI cars he left.<<

HUH?!

Was Junior second in the points at the halfway mark driving TEI cars last year, marshall?

Had he won any races?

ed
07/09/2008 01:30 PM
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Not to pick on Marshall but I am willing to place a wager that Stewart will not be a successful as an owner.

Not that easy plus Tony needs to bring in some really good people to manage. He does not know how and most likely never will. Also, Tony is Notoriously cheap. I mean super TIGHT but obviously a generous charity donor. He has no idea what it will cost. If he tries to run things like his idol Foyt, he will be just as succesful. Not.

marshall
07/09/2008 02:42 PM
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Falcon325 , a competitive race car really has little to do with how high up in the points you are . A competitive car is one that competes for the win on a regular basis . As Tony Stewart knows , a competitive car does not always guarantee a good finish . A car that is maybe not so competitive can still be in second place in the points due to good luck or the misfortune of others , or both . The DEI cars have overall run very well so far this year . And the front row at Daytona shows it .

Ginger
07/09/2008 03:07 PM
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So Jr’s performance was sub-par, huh? Well, let’s see. He was drop kicked by Bowyer into Kenseth knocking the heck out his right fender. He managed to come from 14th to 8th on the last couple of laps finishing there. He increased his spot in the chase from 3rd to 2nd. Yeah, man, pretty bad performance. NOT

Wait until next year when his dancing partner, TS, will not be driving a Toy. Fun times will be had by these boys.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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If you want to know more about Tom Bowles or to view all of his articles here at the Frontstretch, check out his archive and bio page.

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