The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Zipadelli's Class, Yeley's Free Pass, And Newman's No No by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday July 16, 2008

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Did You Notice? … That, to me the man who showed the most class of all during the Tony Stewart – Joe Gibbs – Haas CNC Racing saga is Greg Zipadelli. Here’s a man who’s been paired with Stewart through thick and thin for the past decade, providing the foundation needed for his driver to mature into the two-time Cup champion he is today. The longest crew chief/driver combination left on the circuit, they’ve stuck together like glue through the highs and the lows, becoming synonymous with success to the point neither one expected to part ways with the other.

“Zippy and I talk a lot, even in the offseason when we don’t get a chance to see each other,” said Stewart in an interview session this January. “We have the same passion and desire to win, and when you have that and when you have a combination like that, you work really hard to protect it. I think Zippy and I are now that position to where we don’t see [either of us] doing something away from the other. If one of us decides to retire, the other one is going along with him. If he says, ‘I’m done, I’m ready to do something different,’ then that’s probably when I’ll say I’m ready to do something different, too, or vice versa.”

Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli have spent their entire Cup careers together, making the decision to go their separate ways for 2009 especially agonizing.

With that in mind, it had to be the toughest decision of Zipadelli’s career to leave Stewart behind when his driver did decide JGR was no longer for him. If Zippy left, no one would have faulted him for taking the plunge – it’s similar to how Tony Eury, Jr. stayed by his cousin’s side in the move from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports. But in the end, loyalty to Gibbs proved just as deep for Zipadelli as his personal friendship with Stewart.

“Over 10 years ago, they gave me an opportunity to start something that most people in this world only dream of,” he said. “They hired a driver and asked me to come in and start [the No. 20 team.] They’ve stuck with me through the good, the bad. For me to leave and pursue something different than what I’m doing and where I’m doing it, it’s just not me.”

To stick with his head and not his heart – for Zipadelli loves the type of challenge Stewart is undertaking – had to be gut-wrenching. But in this era where it’s rare for one person to stay with one organization their whole career, you need to give Zipadelli credit for doing what he believed was right – and that one decision in itself could keep the No. 20 on course and Stewart with a bigger load on his plate for 2009 than he ever imagined.

Did You Notice? … That Ryan Newman’s decision to leave Penske Racing comes just one month after he said the team had to become more competitive in order for him to remain with them. OK, well since then, the car’s had three Top 15 finishes in four starts — with the lone exception a wreck at Daytona when Newman was running in the Top 10.

Whoops, Ryan! Looks like the team called your bluff a little bit. Man, I hate when drivers do this stuff … don’t lie to everyone and pretend you’ll stay if things improve. A college-educated man, Newman should know better; the wool hasn’t been pulled over anyone’s eyes, as he’s been linked to Stewart’s operation for weeks. I can understand the need to hide your true intentions – sponsors don’t like to hear their driver is leaving in June – but don’t pull your team’s chain on the way out the door. That just ain’t right.

Did You Notice? … The penalty for the No. 96 team removing weight before the race wasn’t exactly a penalty at all? OK, OK; I understand there’s confusion revolving around whether there should have been a penalty to begin with. ESPN.com’s David Newton reported the team had removed a water bag without an official present, a move which NASCAR thought was intended to lessen the amount of weight on the car. But subsequent follow-ups after the race seem to have proven the move was not intentional, with the bag simply placed in after post-race inspection to ensure driver J.J. Yeley’s water was cold enough to drink.

The whole thing is enough to make your head spin, but here’s the most confusing part of all: if the sanctioning body was truly intent on penalizing the No. 96 for the infraction, why in the heck did they call for a pass through penalty and then give the car their lap right back??? Shortly after the team fell a lap down, the sanctioning body threw a competition caution on lap 37 to allow teams to check for tire wear — since most of practice and qualifying was rained out. That was far too early for anyone in the field to get lapped, which meant Yeley was the immediate beneficiary of the Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap.

Call me crazy, but I’ll take that type of slap on the wrist anyday. “We’ll wag the finger at you now, J.J., but don’t worry – it’s only for 37 laps, and then you can get about right back where you started (Yeley began the race in 40th place).” Even if the penalty was unjustified, NASCAR didn’t appear to figure out the circumstances until the end of the race — so at the time, that penalty should have been far tougher. I mean, they were accused of removing freakin’ weight from the car! At the very least, Yeley should have been disallowed from getting the “Lucky Dog” pass and forced to get his lap back the hard way.

When all was said and done, the leniency wound up giving Hall of Fame Racing a gift of about 24 points, as Yeley stayed on the lead lap and fought to a 24th place finish. That doesn’t seem like much right now, but if the No. 96 ever knocks a team outside the Top 35, you’ll bet the “victim” will point to this confusing night as one that made a difference.

Did You Notice? … That since we’re on the topic of the Top 35, a very underreported incident occurred early in the race when the No. 00 of Michael McDowell – whose team is now 35th in owner points – was pushed up into the wall by the No. 70 of Jason Leffler. What’s the significance of the crash? Leffler drives for Haas CNC Racing, whose No. 66 car is fighting hard to move into a “locked in” qualifying spot for new driver/owner Tony Stewart in 2009. Because of that, McDowell found it just a little too coincidental the team car was the one who suddenly “broke loose” into his No. 00 less than ten laps into the race.

“I don’t know if he got loose or what he did, but it’s awfully convenient we’re racing the No. 66 for the Top 35 and the No. 70 takes us out,” said McDowell after the race. “It’s all right. We’ll just bounce back. If they want to play that way for the Top 35, then we can do the same. We’ve got three cars to their two. We can take care of it if we need to.”

Wow … a couple of things. First of all, while in watching the replay I believe Leffler did just break loose – making the wreck unintentional – McDowell does bring up a good point for the future. With these multi-car teams getting bigger by the day and the Top 35 critically important, who’s to say someone won’t get team orders to take another driver out as subtly as possible? Especially when you consider the fate of a “lame duck” driver or someone like Leffler – who’s just driving part-time in Cup with no chance of getting the ride full-time in 2009 – there’s less incentive to keep them from driving dirty.

Let me make things clear in this case: Leffler wrecking McDowell was an accident, and the rookie seemed to show a little immaturity in his responses (in fact, I’m half-wondering if NASCAR’s going to talk to him about the reaction, because threatening to take cars out is serious business). But could such a scenario happen in the future? It’s honestly not out of the question …

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Roo
07/16/2008 07:00 AM
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Don’t fault Newman.

Three top 15 finishes in four starts? That’s settling. That’s not improving, it’s just not sucking quite so much.

M. B. Voelker
07/16/2008 08:02 AM
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I agree with Roo, the improvement Newman was looking for was top 5’s and contending for the win, not just managing to avoid the back half of the field.

Keith12
07/16/2008 10:29 AM
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Yeah, this Bowles guy doesn’t think very highly of Newman. Read some of his past articles. A Nascar writer who has his favorites and not so favorites. Be more professional next time Bowles.

Managing Editor
07/16/2008 11:53 AM
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Hey Keith,

That’s not true … it doesn’t matter who the driver is, I would be saying the same thing about anyone. Tony Stewart did the same thing … don’t try and tease the public by saying “If A and B happened, I’d stay …” when you’re busy signing on the dotted line somewhere else.

There’s an admirable way around it. Instead of saying, “I’ll stay only if the team improves,” you say “I’ve got a lot of options on the table, and I can’t say anything at this time.”

Notice that Penske chose not to re-sign Newman before the deal was announced. That’s somewhat telling of how the situation was handled on the driver’s side of the equation.

Thanks for reading and writing in, Keith!

Fly12
07/16/2008 12:00 PM
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I take it you don’t actually watch the race or listen to the scanners before you comment on drivers. At Chicago Newmans Dodge was so underpowered he was being passed on the straightaways by the 44,84 and I think even the 96 and 66 had more HP. Newman called for his own 2 tire stop at the end to get a top 10. And if that is not enough just look at the performance of Former Cup Champion Kurt Busch. PRS has been producing nothing but junk all year and it is steadily getting worse.

HankZ
07/16/2008 12:28 PM
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Just so you know…if you ever have to cut back at the FS because of high gas prices :)…please don’t cut the DYN section…its my fav of the week. Thx!

Kenneth
07/16/2008 12:31 PM
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Yeah, I agree that the whole ‘performance’ thing was basically Newman’s crutch to leave all along no matter what happened. Heck, I think the move from a well-funded 2-car team with all the resources in the world that has proven it can win to another 2-car team with all the resources in the world that hasn’t proven it can win is indicative of how silly the ‘performance is EVERYTHING’ argument is that Newman was using.

I like Michael McDowell a lot, and while I do agree the Leffler crash was an accident (Why would Leffler, a driver firmly in the Toyota system, use a part-time gig in a Chevy car to take out another Toyota?), I’ve never quite seen someone have such a bizarre introduction to NASCAR. Horrific wreck at Texas, being called out by a respected veteran, already rumored to be falling out with MWR, and now starting conspiracy theories. And yet, you almost never hear about him.

Keith12
07/16/2008 01:04 PM
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Bowles, Do you consider top 15’s an improvement? They were running to 15 when he said he wanted to see an improvement.

Ryan is still unsigned. And he always said that he had other options, including staying with Penske. At least those are the interviews I saw and read. And BTW, I heard that Penske was talking to other drivers before the announcement.

FSBryan
07/16/2008 04:35 PM
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Glad to see Newman Nation is speaking up. 3 Top-15s in 4 races, yes, but let’s look at those finishes. One was a road course, and lets face it, the driver can do a lot with a little there…look at Marcos Ambrose. Loudon was a solid run. Daytona was a plate race, the one place that Penske can still run well. Chicago, Newman was a 20th place car that stole a Top-10 with pit strategy…the third time they’ve gotten Top-10s because of 2 tire stops this season.

Had this stretch of races been 4 intermediate tracks, I doubt Newman would have scored a single Top-15 without the benefit of late cautions. Outside of Daytona, Newman has not been a contender to win in the last month, and until he’s there the team is not performing to the level appropriate for a driver of his caliber.

 

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Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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