The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Owners Gain Power, Sponsors Turn Sour, NASCAR Goes F-1, And Logano's Bad Run by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 17, 2008

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Did You Notice? … Or wonder why one of Formula One’s top race managers is headed over NASCAR’s way? Steve Hallam, the head of race operations for McLaren, is moving overseas to take what AutoSport termed a “similar position within NASCAR.” No official word from Daytona Beach as to what, exactly, that position might be, though with the France family purchasing the Grand Am Series you have to wonder if he’ll wind up there. But there’s a good chance Hallam will end up on the stock car side of the fence; and if he does, it’ll raise questions as to whether he’ll help usher in a transition to Formula 1’s “franchise” rules, as well as refocus engineering within the NASCAR community.

In some ways, the move could come at a good time for the sport. Hallam’s amazingly talented, having been in charge of engineering for F-1 greats such as Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, and Mikka Hakkinen. With a technical resume that’s second to none, perhaps there’s no one better to attack the inefficiencies currently offered by our sport’s Car of Tomorrow.

But at the same time, I question whether Hallam will be able to dirty the aerodynamics and bring things under control – or fine tune these things halfway in the other direction, to the point we yearned for the days of the current aerodynamic dependency. It’s one thing for the drivers to come to NASCAR and accept the challenge of the sport – but does an F-1 boss have the type of background they’re looking for to bring them back to their roots? Remember, stock cars aren’t supposed to come with problems like “aero push” or “busted splitter.” Fans are looking for racing machines that get them more in touch with the “stock” in “stock cars” – but has Hallam ever seen a dirt track in his life? Been on the ground floor on the short tracks of South Boston, Hickory, and half-milers all across the country? How is he going to help NASCAR develop race cars that connect their top series back towards these developmental aspects of the business, when all he knows is a world in which high-tech engineering makes all the difference?

Here’s the problem with NASCAR developing a Formula 1 mentality: People in America don’t follow Formula 1 to the point there’s not even a Grand Prix in this country. Trying to move in that direction – letting technology and money triumph over the “stock” in stock cars – is not going to get fans back in the stands to watch their product. I very well could be wrong … but the attendance numbers this year suggest otherwise.

Did You Notice? … Jay Frye’s decision to stay at Team Red Bull was another one we should have seen coming? After all, this is a man who spent a decade in the same job at MB2 Motorsports. How could he leave a team he’s been building from the bottom up after only a year? The crews love him, the drivers love him, and even Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz has a deep respect for how he’s turned around this program.

A.J. Allmendinger’s job security for 2009 got a major boost once Jay Frye announced he would be remaining with Team Red Bull.

Frye’s decision could also mean the difference in A.J. Allmendinger’s career. The manager’s been adamant since Day One that the Californian is a future driving talent, and has been an advocate of his throughout the second-year driver’s ups and downs transitioning to NASCAR’s top series – even when he forced Allmendinger out and put Mike Skinner in for six weeks. If Frye had left for Stewart-Haas Racing – combined with the owner’s reluctance to field three cars and his loyalty to former F-1 driver Scott Speed – you’d have to think Allmendinger could be on thin ice. But instead, Frye’s loyalty and trust may very well win out in the end, leading to a 2 ½ to 3 car team next year where each driver is given the opportunity they deserve to be successful.

Did You Notice? … That Greg Biffle has more wins under the Chase format (five) than any other driver except Jimmie Johnson? We probably should have given the guy a little more credit to be this year’s Chase Cinderella.

Did You Notice? … There’s a backup candidate in case Biffle turns into a one-race wonder? Neatly hidden within the New Hampshire running order was a fourth place finish by Jeff Burton – his best run since Martinsville the end of March. At 40, Burton’s the oldest competitor in this 12-man field, but he’s also experienced enough to know that consistency is what’s needed to contend for a championship. I picked Burton 12th in my Chase prediction list – but at the same time, he’s crafty enough to snooker us all with a third or fourth place finish if he regains momentum established earlier this year.

Did You Notice? … That at this point in Silly Season, there’s no primary sponsors announced who are completely new to the sport? Sure, there have been some big time switches, where companies like UPS, Office Depot, and Caterpillar have changed their team affiliation – but all those companies have been involved with NASCAR for several years now.

Instead, just a handful of part-time Cup sponsors (AFLAC, Aaron’s) have increased their involvement to at least 18 races apiece, with Old Spice coming over from the Nationwide Series to jump on board with Tony Stewart’s Cup car. But that’s hardly enough to balance out companies like AAA, Dodge, and Texaco permanently ending their full-time involvement for good.

What’s the reasoning behind the poor sponsorship climate today? I think you’ve got a lot of companies who just don’t have the advertising budgets to spend $25 million and be a full-time sponsor. $6 million used to work, $10 million used to work … but not $25 million. That causes situations like the No. 19 car of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, who has multi-million dollar corporations Best Buy, Garmin, McDonald’s, and Stanley Tools sharing a limited number of races apiece as the primary sponsor. But could you imagine if all those companies’ budgets were spread out to fund individual teams over the course of a full season – or if they were convinced to spend all year long on a Nationwide Series car? We wouldn’t have nearly the financial crunch we have today – that’s for darned sure.

The problem is, these businesses realize they don’t have to spend nearly half that money to get the connection they’re looking for. Why, just one race on the side of a car like Carl Edwards’, and they get the sponsor appearances, a commercial, little diecasts with their company name on it, and the ability to pledge themselves as a dedicated sponsor of one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers. It’s a way to save money in this economic climate … and it’s working, amidst the escalating costs that force top teams to take on even more of these Fortune 500 corporations just to survive.

Did You Notice? … That all the talk amongst car owners for Silly Season has turned towards consolidation – not expansion? Let’s assume each of the two latest rumors is true, that Michael Waltrip Racing and Chip Ganassi merge – to go along with a purchase of Bill Davis Racing by GEM.

Here’s how that would leave the Sprint Cup landscape set up for 2009:

Hendrick Motorsports — 4 Teams
B Squad – Stewart-Haas Racing — 2 Teams

Roush Racing — 5 Teams
B Squad – Yates Racing — 2 Teams (pending sponsorship)

Joe Gibbs Racing — 3 Teams
B Squad – Hall of Fame Racing — 1 Team

Richard Childress Racing — 4 Teams
B Squad – Dale Earnhardt, Inc. — 4 Teams (pending sponsorship)

Gillett Evernham Motorsports — 4 Teams

Ganassi / Waltrip Racing — 4 Teams

Side note: I really like terming teams like “Yates Racing” the “B” squad. Can you imagine Jack Roush to Jamie McMurray next year: “I’ve had just about enough of you. To the “B” Squad!”

Alright, so I digress. That’s six people (Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, Childress, Gillett, and Waltrip) with relative control over 33 teams on the circuit. Now, let’s check out who’s left outside this group for 2009:

Penske Racing — 3 Teams
Team Red Bull — 2 / 3 Teams
Petty Enterprises — 2 Teams, No Sponsors
Wood Brothers — 1 Team, No Sponsor
Furniture Row — 1 Team
Robby Gordon Motorsports — 1 Team
NEW! JTG Racing — 1 Team (Ambrose)

Just like that, the number of owners attempting Cup races would slip significantly from 19 to just 13 – and that’s assuming the Woods make their way back for 2009. Of course, the fewer owners there are, the more power gets consolidated – and the less room for movement there is for new drivers, owners, and crewmen.

Did You Notice? … How Joey Logano’s Sprint Cup debut never lived up to the hype? Sure, other rookies have had disappointing first starts behind the wheel … Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson come to mind. But here’s a guy that’s been driving circles around the Nationwide Series for weeks, and then he gets in a crappy Cup car and can’t drive worth a damn. If that’s not a sign of the current disparity in equipment between teams, then I just don’t know what is.

On a side note, let’s compare the finishes of Logano in the No. 96 to when he pulls his one or two starts in a fourth No. 02 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Sure, Hall of Fame gets technical support from Gibbs … but when you’re relying on someone else who runs their own race teams, the stuff you’re getting is never going to be at quite the same level as the teams they run themselves.

Did You Notice? … That an article on Nationwide Series start-and-parkers was mysteriously removed from thehotlap.com? In it, team owners justified how and why they’re pulling in after just a few laps. Johnny Davis Motorsports claimed they needed to run their second “S&P” car – the No. 0 – just to break even each week, while Kenny Hendrick explained Stanton Barrett enters him in the No. 31 as an R&D effort to help his primary car.

But either way, both men were among a handful that revealed what we already know – their goal each week with these cars is not to win, but simply to collect a check. That philosophy alone takes the competition out of NASCAR and replaces it with the financial bottom line. If people want to watch business in action, they’d much rather tune to CNBC. Don’t you think?

Contact Tom Bowles

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S.D. Grady
09/17/2008 07:43 AM
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I listened to Joey Logano’s radio during the race. Not only was it a lower standard of equipment he was driving, he clearly needs to build the experience to tell the crews what is wrong and what to fix. The frustration in the rookie’s voice as he complained he just can’t drive it was palpable. He’s on a steep learning curve…to see how well he climbs it will be interesting. Beyond better equipment, it became clear to me that Logano needs a mentor sitting on the pit box.

Melissa
09/17/2008 09:03 AM
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Joey wasn’t driving a 96 car. His car was the 02 car that they took to Richmond. It just had the 96 number on the side of it. He also had alot of JGR people working on that car during the weekend. So make no mistake. That car was all JGR.

marshall
09/17/2008 09:32 AM
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Tom, you might want to wait until Mr. Hallams’ new job title is officially announced before you decide what NASCAR project he’ll be attending to . And it may very well be that he is just simply interested in a change of career or country , maybe both . NASCAR already has everything under control with the COT ( so they constantly tell us ) so Mr. Hallam shouldn’t be needed in that position .
Aero problems in NASCAR existed from the days on the beach . Smokey Yunick did some aero work on a Chevy in 1957 and published the results . Aero push , loose , and yaw were always there , probably much more so than today , but since no one had any particular fixes , the drivers just lived with it .
The lack of sponsors is brought on by the same thing that bloggers discuss almost daily . The attendance and tv ratings have been steadily declining . Large corporations have marketing departments that pay very close attention to those numbers , and would never allow their company to spend huge amounts on a sport that is sliding downhill . The return on investment for advertising in NASCAR just isn’t there anymore .

dawg
09/17/2008 02:29 PM
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These teams who show up to collect a check, add nothing to the show. They simply bleed off $$ from the teams that come to race. In the early days NA$CAR didn’t pay all the way down the order. If they stopped subsidising owners who have no intention of racing,& instead increased the payout to owners who really race. The series would be stronger in the long run. That is if the idiots who are running it don’t kill it off with a version of their new car they are so proud of!

jim
09/17/2008 04:01 PM
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Not sure if all this attendance and tv ratings can be blamed on the economy, you don’t see it it in football, college or pro, baseball is the same. I seem to know more people who aren’t watching or going to the races and these are people that have been fans for 30 yrs but they are still going to the sprints and modifieds, and we raised our kids to be fans and now in their 20’s they think the shase is and 35 point rule are dumb, even the new fans from 10 or 12 yrs ago they don’t watch anymore, and for targeting Latino fans all the ones I know here in the north east don’t seem to care about nascar. You are looking for markrtable drivers and not talent, look who might not have been marketable when they first came in Elliot, Earnhart,Bonnett,Cale,Bobby, etc. Nascar has a commerical “Be yourself”

chris
09/17/2008 05:53 PM
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…what Melissa said, above.

Logano even said during Saturday practice: It’s the same car we had at richmond, so I’m sure we can find the speed…

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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