The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Petty's Like Waltrip, Drivers Get Paid Too Much, And Parity's Lost by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 1, 2008

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Did You Notice? … That the way Kyle Petty’s career is ending is very reminiscent of … Darrell Waltrip? Before I covered this sport through TV and print, I made no secret of the fact Waltrip was my favorite driver. His fall from grace in the years leading up to retirement (save for a few races in ’98 with DEI) was painful to watch, especially for a kid that idolized him growing up.

During that rough stretch, there’s an article I read from motorsports writer Bones Bourcier that I’ll always treasure. It was written at the end of ’96, when Waltrip brought everyone together to announce his 25th anniversary celebration in motorsports. At the time, people believed 1997 would also be his last full-time season in the Cup Series. Waltrip was just coming off the worst year of his career at the time, with only two Top 10s and eleven DNFs that saw him plummet to 29th in points.

So, when to everyone’s surprise Waltrip said ’97 would be a celebration – not a retirement tour – Bourcier wrote an incredible piece about the habit for drivers to hang on too long. He interviewed David Pearson, who had a difficult end to his own career and gave some remarkable quotes about how when the end does come, no one can stop it… but even fewer believe it. The piece turned philosophical, raising the question that the difference between drivers who retire on top and those who leave kicking and screaming is how much they understand their inability to change the hands of Father Time.

But Waltrip never believed time was against him; and because of it, you saw him running junk for years, finishing ten, twelve, twenty laps off the pace at race tracks where he wasn’t competitive for 35th, let alone 15th. Looking back, he was given one last, great chance with DEI in competitive equipment and made the best of it in ’98. After a handful of Top 15 finishes, he should have stepped out when Steve Park stepped back into the No. 1 car. The problem was, Waltrip refused to believe it was over, thinking he could go out on top while even his basic skills were diminishing. That led him into a “double whammy” type of scenario. Waltrip took rides that even the best drivers at the time couldn’t win with, when even the most competitive equipment wouldn’t give him more than a Top 10 run a time or two.

Which brings us to Petty’s current problem. No one denies his right to keep racing in honor of son Adam, killed in a terrible accident at Loudon in 2000. For years, longtime fans have hoped for that one miracle moment, where Petty enters Victory Lane and is finally able to tearfully dedicate a win to his fallen child. But wishful thinking doesn’t always grant the wish. We’re eight years removed from that fateful day, and at 48, Petty is running each week like Waltrip used to run at the end of his career – struggling to even keep the car at minimum speed. Yes, I understand Petty Enterprises equipment has struggled for several years now. But there’s a difference between finishing a fighting 35th, and running so many laps down it’s clear you’re barely keeping up with the race track. So far this season, Petty’s finished on the lead lap just once in 14 starts; and in nine of them, he’s ended the race three or more laps behind. In a series where the Lucky Dog has led to record numbers of cars finishing within striking distance of the leader, that’s nothing short of astounding.

Kyle Petty’s No. 45 has been lucky to be even side-by-side with upper echelon Cup rides… and that’s likely as close as Petty will ever be again to competitive equipment.

Patti Petty hopes Kyle gets picked up by someone else in 2009. Well, I’m not so excited about that prospect. Waltrip at least had a brief renaissance in B+ quality equipment. But right now, in this economic climate, what team is going to make that available for Kyle? Universally praised as a booth analyst, he could retire and have a long, fruitful career influencing our sport in television, just like Waltrip has done in the last eight years.

Instead, he’s looking Father Time directly in the face … and just hoping he’ll go away. Bones, I think it’s time for you to write another piece …

Did You Notice? … That 29 races into the season, 35 different drivers have scored a Top 10 finish. Why do I bring that up? The year before the Car of Tomorrow (i.e. – Car of Parity) debuted in 2006, 38 different drivers scored a Top 10 over the course of a full season. So, unless there’s a rash of surprise performers over the next seven races, the number of drivers cracking the Top 10 barrier each year is going to end up about the same, with or without the “CoP.”

But what about if we turned back the clock to 2001 – well before the era of the Chase, multi-car team dominance, and the CoT? You had – get this — a total of 45 drivers score a Top 10 finish over the course of the season. Of course, those men came from over two dozen different Cup teams, as well, nearly twice the number of car owners who have broken the Top 10 barrier so far this season. Hmm … more owners meant more driving opportunities, increased competition, and greater parity. I’m sensing a trend.

And in case you’re wondering, nineteen different drivers from thirteen different teams won a Cup Series race in 2001. Seven years later, we have eleven winning drivers coming from just six different teams – a drop of over 50%.

Did You Notice? … That while we’re on the subject of consistency, Kyle Busch is the only one of the 12 drivers in the Chase not to score a Top 10 finish? Consider that he’d never gone more than two consecutive races outside the Top 10 until the playoffs. Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time …

Did You Notice? … How much famous drivers charge simply to talk to people? While doing some research, I stumbled across this site allamericanspeakers.com, which matches up motivational speakers with an opportunity that fits for them. So, I started poking around and before I knew it, I was browsing the names of famous drivers and figuring out how much their time would cost.

Did you know … that to bring Joe Nemechek into your favorite birthday party or college event, it’s going to cost you between $10,001 and $20,000? Shockingly, he’s going at the same rate as Chaser Kevin Harvick, who’s had a whole lot more success on the track to speak of. No offense to Joe, but how can you be a motivational speaker when you haven’t been motivated by recent success?

Here’s the ultimate kicker, though: the most expensive driver list on that website isn’t Harvick or former drivers Mario and Michael Andretti. It’s – get this — Robby Gordon. That’s right, for the discount price of $50,001 and above, you can get Gordon to speak at your special event! How in the heck could Gordon be worth $40,000 more than Harvick; does he throw a helmet at the crowd or something? And keep in mind these guys make a living on the race track, not in front of a microphone. How polished are these speaking appearances? Wouldn’t you like to see someone like Robby speak for one hour in front of a crowd? I don’t know about you, but the Cup banquet is usually awkward enough for me … and how refreshing is it that in one hour of speaking, Robby makes more than several Americans make in just one year! I think I know where he’ll get his money to run the No. 7 car in 2009.

Wondering what your favorite driver was worth? Feel free to browse the site by clicking here. Man, I knew I should have jumpstarted my driving career when I started kicking butt at NASCAR ‘05 …

Contact Tom Bowles

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Mike
10/01/2008 11:03 PM
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That site is years out of date with many of the drivers being with the wrong teams, I can’t imagine the prices are close to being right.

 

Contact 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.

Want even more Tom Bowles? Check out Tom's archive at SI.com.