The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Waltrip Succeeds, Martin Fails, The Top 35 Self-Destructs, And ... Johnson's Beard? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday February 18, 2009

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Did You Notice? … The firestorm surrounding cutting the Daytona 500 48 laps short? Personally, I think the anger should be focused on the starting time of the race more than anything else. The 3:45 EST start makes it near impossible to avoid the type of weather issues that we experienced in Sunday’s event. If anything pops up, you don’t have the whole afternoon to kill drying the track and making sure the full distance gets run. Why are we starting the race so late? I can’t find an acceptable answer just yet. Personally, I think a 1:00 EST start time would be perfect …

As for the concept of the race not going 500 miles … personally, I disagree with the majority of fans complaining. I don’t remember anywhere near this type of crazy response after Michael Waltrip won a rain-shortened 500 in 2003. The rules for rain-shortened races have been in place for decades, and it’s one of the few things NASCAR has actually been consistent on. The weather is part of the sport’s unpredictability, one of the few things left that can mix things up in a land filled with non-adjustable cars and near zero mechanical failures.

Did You Notice? … That the three highest finishing Toyotas in the 500 came out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable? Two years removed from the embarrassing “jet fuel” incident that nearly sank his three-car team at Daytona, Waltrip himself came home in 7th place, with David Reutimann 12th and MWR-supported Marcos Ambrose 17th in the JTG-Daugherty Racing car.

Regardless of the fast start, it’s still a critical year for Waltrip and his program, which was in jeopardy of losing Reutimann until sponsor Aaron’s stepped up to the plate to fund the full season for the No. 00. But no matter what you think of everyone’s favorite sponsor robot, you have to admit Waltrip’s survival to this point has been impressive. Who would have guessed two years ago that in 2009 Richard Petty, Bill Davis, Morgan-McClure, Chip Ganassi, and DEI would all be merged and/or dissolved, while Michael Waltrip Racing would still be going strong with 2-3 cars? Think about that for a second … Michael Waltrip outlasted these tough economic times better than Chip Ganassi. I know, I know; everything in that sentence just sounds so wrong. But someone, somewhere in that MWR shop must be doing something right. And if Waltrip does have anything left in the tank (and I know some will argue there was never anything there in the first place), it’s going to be new crew chief “Bootie” Barker who’ll bring it out of him. One of the most underrated crew chiefs in the garage, Barker has made a habit of succeeding with middle-tier teams throughout his Cup career. If Waltrip doesn’t make it with that guy at the helm, well … retirement could and should be a viable option.

Did You Notice? … That despite the praise we’ve just heaped on Waltrip and his program, he wouldn’t have even made the Daytona 500 without the benefit of the top 35 rule. All year long at DYN, we’re going to keep track of how this ridiculous rule makes it difficult to impossible for startup teams to have an opportunity to succeed. This week, we decided to attack the issue by setting Daytona’s starting lineup through its old qualifying system – you know, when races like the Duels actually meant something more. For those fans new to the sport, here’s how you qualified for the Great American Race prior to the top 35 rule:

No worries, guys… I’m in the Top 35.

Starting Positions 1-2: Locked in through pole qualifying
Starting Positions 3-30: Locked in by finishing through the Duels (Top 14 finishers in each race, not including the front row starter in each one who’d already qualified)
Starting Positions 31-36: Set by fastest qualifying speed of cars not already locked into the field
Starting Positions 37-42: Six provisionals given to those cars highest in owner points not locked into the field
Starting Position 43: A Past Champion’s Provisional … if no past champion, given to the highest car in owner points not yet in the field

How would this system have changed the outcome of the starting lineup? Three startup teams who missed the show would have made the race: Mike Wallace in the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet, Joe Nemechek in his self-owned No. 87 Toyota, and Brad Keselowski in the No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. Who would those teams knock out? Robby Gordon, Sam Hornish, Jr., and perhaps the biggest surprise of all: two-time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip, who would lose his spot to the champion’s provisional and Terry Labonte.

As you can see, the top 35 rule has an immediate impact on the season. Not only does Waltrip get a top 10 finish instead of a DNQ, but the TRG No. 71 loses out on a potential sponsor. According to owner Kevin Buckler, he had a financial backer ready to come on board for the race for $250,000 … and if the team had a good run, who knew what might have happened beyond that? Instead, they’re still struggling to establish themselves moving forward, while the multi-car giants get another free pass.

Did You Notice? … Not a single driver who started the 500 in the top 10 finished in the top 10? (Tony Stewart qualified 5th, but started the race from the rear after being forced into a backup car for the race). As far as I could research, that’s the first time in the entire history of Daytona that’s happened. Add Kenseth’s win from a starting position of 43rd (he, too, was sent to the rear before the start of the race) and you can pretty much stop worrying about qualifying at restrictor plate tracks from here on out (as long as your team is guaranteed in).

If you need any more proof, for the second straight year at Daytona Dodges qualified like utter crap (no one in the Top 25 fastest speeds) — only to come out strong in the draft and snag more top 10 finishers than any other manufacturer. It just goes to show you the 500 is no longer a showcase of who’s fast for one lap, but rather who’s able to master the chess game of the draft over 500 miles.

Did You Notice? … Only four of last year’s 12 Chasers finished in the Top 12 in this year’s Daytona 500? But before you think a changing of the guard is underway, don’t get too excited; the same thing happened last year, too. By the time the series had been through the three aerodynamic intermediate tracks of California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, the drivers you’d expect to see on top of the standings were leading the way once more. There is a slight difference this year in that more big name drivers are starting the season in a deeper hole: Kyle Busch is the most notable of that group, starting off his year with a disappointing 41st. But if drivers won the pre-Chase title all the time with runs like 42nd, 40th, etc. in the Daytona 500, I think everyone can easily recover enough to move up to 12th by September.

Did You Notice? … The following one-liners you didn’t expect to see after the Daytona 500:

  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. expressing the emotions of “defiance” and “anger” for the first time since … still thinking … maybe since he gave stepmom Teresa the middle finger and left DEI?
  • Kurt Busch showcasing both patience and perseverance, finishing 10th with a half-wrecked race car that probably was left in the junkyard on Monday? Apparently, someone’s had a man-to-man talk with him since Martinsville last Fall.
  • No EGR cars in the top 10 after Truex won the pole for the race?
  • Terry Labonte actually finishing the race in 24th, on the lead lap? After a total of one lap in practice between Thursday and Sunday, I felt certain the No. 66 team would pull the ultimate start-and-park.
  • Jimmie Johnson try and imitate Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s five o’clock shadow? Seriously, what is up with that? When random fans are asking me why this is happening, it’s a problem. Jimmie, there’s a reason I refuse to grow a beard or a goatee … because it makes me look like crap. It’s OK to admit failure when it comes to facial hair. Really, it is…

Did You Notice? … How Mark Martin’s bad breaks from on top of the pit box didn’t change with his move to Hendrick? In the closing stages of Sunday’s race, it looked like the No. 5 car was lurking in the back of the top 10, waiting for the right time to make a calculated move to the front. But instead of looking at the radar screen, Martin’s crew chief Alan Gustafson was busy figuring out what hard luck way his driver could lose the race this year. He decided that four new tires when weather was five miles away would do the trick, joining the Steve Letarte / Jeff Gordon combo in bringing Martin down pit road for fresh rubber.

Of course, we all know what happened after that – there wasn’t enough time for the duo to get back up front, and both drivers ended up well outside the top 10. I just think it’s crazy that every time Martin puts himself in position to win lately, some outside circumstance comes in and makes sure it doesn’t happen. The most notable example last year was at Phoenix, when DEI’s resistance to gamble on fuel with a part-time driver forced Martin to pit road, virtually gift-wrapping the victory for Jimmie Johnson. Back then, it was Hendrick who was lauded for making the right call.

Funny how the shoe slides on the other foot the second Martin switches teams.

Contact Tom Bowles

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02/18/2009 09:15 AM

Barker is indeed the saving grace at MWR . I had hoped Tony Stewart would keep him on , but no matter . Bootie is a great crew chief .
NASCAR start times are directly tied to TV . They feel they have a larger viewing audience by starting and finishing later , so until someone convinces them otherwise they will continue to start the races later .
I’m glad you’re going to keep track of the Top 35 disaster . I only wish your numbers would have an effect on NASCAR . But of course they don’t really care about outside opinions , even with the facts against them .

02/18/2009 09:43 AM

What with the Life Flight helicopter ride , the gruling operation to save that finger , not to mention the long stay in ICU , and weeks of therapy , its no wonder Jimmie Johnson didn’t shave .
I just can’t picture Curtis Turner , Dale Earnhardt Sr. , Junior Johnson , or for that matter most other racing drivers who would have given much thought to a cut finger . They would have wrapped it with a shop rag and kept on racing .

02/18/2009 10:22 AM

Jimmie didn’t shave (like Junior) and had a bad finish (like Junior). Solution: Don’t try to please all the idiots who say you are boring, shave and win your fourth championship. Real race fans liked you the way you really are.

02/18/2009 11:25 AM

I completely agree that the race on Sunday started too late.

About Michael Waltrip not making the 500 if the top-35 rule didn’t exist: preparation changes with your situation/circumstances. Recall last year when they had to make the field on time. Their cars were substantially faster on qualifying day. It was what they focused on. This year that scenario wasn’t present, so the cars were prepared more towards race trim.

A similar situation may have bit Brad Keselowski this past Speedweeks. I believe I read that they went down to Daytona more focused on race trim because, up until that Thursday Speedweeks began, they thought they were locked-in. If that’s the case, though they came close to making the race, I see where they potentially could have lost a step preparing for the wrong circumstance they would be facing.

Don Bishop
02/18/2009 01:46 PM

Top 35 cars is not far to other cars and sponsers Let everyon race in and to heck with the good old boys and there money!!!!

Bill B
02/18/2009 02:08 PM

Not only should the go back to letting the guys with the top speeds qualify but they should also go back to allowing all teams to use qualifying set-ups then change to race set-ups afterward. Afterall if you don’t think guys outside of the top 35 are showing up with qualifying set-ups each race then you aren’t looking close enough. This is why you can’t compare how someone outside the top 35 qualified compared to someone inside the top 35. One group is running race set-ups the other qualifying set-ups.

02/18/2009 08:26 PM

Jimmy was only trying to look like his Hollywood hero, Joaquin Phoenix. Kinda acts like him, too.

John Wyckoff
02/18/2009 09:53 PM

Top 35 rule needs to be eliminated. Qualify on speed and speed alone. There should be no two ways about it.

02/18/2009 10:06 PM

As Artie Johnson used to say,“very interesting.” Jr. Really has done very little in cup. Yet he’s seen in Daytona as the savior of NA$CAR. His legion of fans think he can do no wrong. JJ, on the other hand has won Three, count ‘em Three Championships, in a row. Yet fans, & media alike continue to knock him. He’s too bland, It’s really more Chad, than Jimmy, etc,etc,etc.
Two responders to this post chose to slam him. Jealous Jr. fans perhaps?


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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