The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Gray-Haired Success Stories, Some Vigor In Vegas, And ... Tony And Hendrick Snuggling Up? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 4, 2009

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Did You Notice? … The difference in the atmosphere at Vegas compared to Fontana the week before? If you could notice it that much on TV, just imagine what it was like in person. The last two Sundays, I walked through the Cup garage at the exact same time prior to the driver’s meeting. At Fontana, there were a handful of fans trying their best to sneak a peek at superstars entering the doors from above – there were a few feeble shouts, but certainly nothing too crazy, almost like the atmosphere at a AAA baseball game. At Vegas… it was 10,000 fans doing their best to scale over fences. What a mob scene, as people screamed at the top of their lungs for men like Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards – heck, even Vegas native Kyle Busch.

The atmosphere was just positively electric, no two ways about it. A lot of the credit has to go to Bruton Smith and the way he designed the new fan zone inside the infield; people can get up close and personal with their drivers right up into the sides of the Cup garage. Man, if only every track could have the design of Daytona and Vegas, I’d feel like people would never stop going to races; at these tracks, the fan interaction can get so close it really does feel like a larger than life event on Race Day.

Think what you will about the track itself, but it’s been a long time since I’ve left the garage feeling that energized … so to all the Vegas fans that made Sunday’s experience so great, I thank you. There’s no question in my mind at this point we’d be better off with this track – not Phoenix or California – as the one on the West Coast that has a second date.

Did You Notice? … Speaking of hometown hero Kyle Busch, did you see the heartfelt hug he exchanged with brother Kurt after the race? These two have had their share of run-ins over the years, most notably the ’07 All-Star race in which Busch the Younger slammed into Busch the Older and took them both out. But it appears that both have finally realized what most of us in the real world already know — that the bond of Brotherly Love is not all that easy to break apart. The fact the two were willing to acknowledge their heartfelt emotion in public was very refreshing to see — especially since they’re both known for their less than desirable tempers.

Did You Notice? … That despite all the worries about TRD blowing their engines during the race – five cars were sent to the rear after changing their engines — the only one from their camp that expired was from the underfunded No. 64 Gunselman Motorsports Camry. All of the teams which changed parts and pieces – including winner Kyle Busch – made it to the end without so much as a minor problem. Whether you like Toyota or not, you have to admit that’s impressive. The manufacturer acknowledged it had an issue, took quick action, and put replacement parts in place that didn’t break for these teams. It’s that type of follow through that gets you somewhere in this business…

Did You Notice? … Through three races in 2008, Carl Edwards had won two of them and established himself as the early man to beat for the Sprint Cup title. One year later, he’s led a total of just three laps while settling quietly in the lower half of the top 12. Already, he’s been involved in one wreck, one engine failure, and watched his teammate Matt Kenseth – winless all of last season – take two out of three checkered flags instead.

Momentum can be a real fickle thing in this business… and it’s that unpredictability which has always helped make NASCAR so great. I think Edwards will turn it around real easy starting this week – after all, Atlanta’s one of his best tracks on the circuit, if not the best – but his performance these first three weeks has been a real head-scratcher. Track position has definitely hurt them; at Vegas in particular, I counted Edwards losing a total of 24 spots in two consecutive stops due to poor decisions on pit road. As we’ve seen with the CoT, getting back in traffic like that digs a hole that’s hard to climb out of, and it really seemed to hamper the No. 99 on Sunday with what I believed was the best car on the race track at times.

Did You Notice?… For anyone wondering if the cream will fail to rise to the top once again this season, take a look at the laps led totals by team through three races:

Hendrick Motorsports — 264
Roush Fenway Racing — 150
Joe Gibbs Racing — 140
Richard Childress Racing — 79
Everyone Else — 54

Need I say any more? In between the surprises, it’s still the Big Four spending the most time out front; they’ve just been busy stabbing themselves in the foot more often than expected with uncharacteristic mechanical failures. You can’t expect that type of thing to continue all season long, right? But until they stop fooling around…

Did You Notice? … The old guard is fighting back three weeks into the NASCAR season? After years of being dominated by the era of younger, more marketable drivers, these senior citizens still remaining in the sport have put together some admirable performances under the radar these first three weeks (Mark Martin’s engine failures aside). Consider…

Gone are the days of Morgan Shepherd changing his own tires. The Nationwide Series’ oldest regular is running with the big boys and beating a number of them.

  • 66-year-old Morgan Shepherd has 19th and 13th place finishes these past two weeks, good enough to launch him into the top 20 in Nationwide Series points. I don’t know if the AARP is willing to sponsor someone, but you think somebody might give this ageless guy a look? I always knew something good might happen if the man just stopped starting and parking …
  • 45-year-old Todd Bodine won the Daytona Truck Series race with an unsponsored No. 30 Toyota, then was “best of the rest” in the Kyle Busch Truck Series 200 at California to move to second in the standings. Then, in just his second attempt driving an underfunded No. 64 Toyota in the Cup Series, he not only made the field but had the car running in the top 25 during its debut in Vegas before blowing an engine over the final 50 laps.
  • 45-year-old Michael Waltrip has more top 15 finishes than 2008 title contenders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson?
  • 44-year-old Bobby Labonte pulled together his first top 5 finish since the fall of 2006 with a consistent, fifth place run at Las Vegas. Finishing no lower than 22nd in his first three starts with Hall of Fame / Yates Racing, he’s surged to 10th in Sprint Cup points.
  • 39-year-old David Reutimann is one of only two drivers (Jeff Gordon) to start the season with three top 15 finishes. Fifth in the series standings, he’s outperforming 23-year-old David Ragan on the race track, whom former sponsor UPS aligned themselves with long-term in order to get younger and hipper after the 2008 season.
  • 39-year-old Max Papis qualified for his first Cup race on an oval this weekend, clocking in 26th after his engine struggled to start on pit road before heading out.

With Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart having unexpected surges at 37 years old, it seems like the era of the “young gun” is finally starting to tilt back the other way. It’s now just a matter of getting marketing to follow suit … but for the sport’s newest big money sponsor to align with someone like Labonte is a very, very good sign.

Did You Notice? … If the season ended today, eight of the 12 Chasers from 2008 would still make the playoffs? Here are the four drivers on the outside looking in: Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson (yes, the defending champ), and Jeff Burton. As of now, they’ve been replaced by Reutimann, Waltrip, Labonte, and Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch.

It’s still early, but that alignment tells us a few different things …

  • Right now, Michael Waltrip Racing has performed as well, if not better, than Richard Childress Racing. Las Vegas was definitely a step in the right direction, but you can really tell the RCR bunch would have loved to steal the win there in order to lick their wounds. Bristol and Martinsville will be a real important swing for them at the end of the month…
  • The power team in the four-car superstar camp at Hendrick is clearly Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 / 48. They’ve gotten out to such a solid start, Junior’s and Martin’s teams have given the early impression of teams trying too hard – and too desperately – to keep up.
  • Tony Stewart’s doing a great job as a driver / owner to remain in the top 12 … better than everyone expected. But when you’ve got Rick Hendrick in your corner … you almost wonder if the amount of help they’re giving Stewart is putting some strain on Hendrick’s own teams. So far, Tony Stewart has one hug from the man in Victory Lane, someone that’s not even supposed to be his owner … and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t even gotten close. Just a thought… I mean, did you see Hendrick interacting with Haas CNC Racing even once last year? It’s tit for tat, as Roush Fenway has its own “B” team as well (Yates Racing) … but still …

For more analysis on some of the top 12 party crashers, Vito Pugliese actually has a real good article out there today on their chances of holding off Junior, Johnson, and Edwards as they charge back up the ranks. Check it out…

Did You Notice? … The racing at Vegas itself is actually improving? Yes, Vegas isn’t quite at the competition level of the pinnacle of 1.5-mile tracks, Atlanta. But as the track ages and the new pavement sets in, there’s definitely a level of improvement every time we go there. I honestly thought the weekend’s two races were more than acceptable; and as Matt McLaughlin mentioned Monday morning, the Nationwide race was one of the better ones we’ve seen in the series the past 12 months. I really like a race track where even the best drivers have to showcase maximum talent or risk losing control on their own, and the way NASCAR’s biggest stars were spinning out on Saturday made me wonder if we were racing at someplace like Rockingham or Darlington instead.

Is the Car of Tomorrow still incredibly restrictive towards side-by-side racing in Cup? Yes, there’s still no question it’s a problem. Was the middle portion of Vegas filled with some spread-out, follow the leader-type action that had the crowd letting out a collective yawn? Absolutely. But by and large, the overall quality of racing was not that bad. I know that after the first two weeks, fans are looking for a series of A+ races to make up for that sorry start. But the chances of those happening quickly, in succession, are slim to none no matter what types of cars you have on the speedway; so everyone needs to take a deep breath and hope things keep improving at three of the series’ best tracks: Atlanta, Bristol, and Martinsville up next.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Pauline
03/04/2009 08:33 AM
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I’m not quite sure how Mark Martin loosing an engine 22 laps in is him trying too hard?!

Joe W.
03/04/2009 09:32 AM
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I have a couple of thoughts on this article. You act as if Carl Edwards has been running poorly. This is not the case. He was running up front at Daytona when he got taken out in the big one and was running 4th when his engine let go at Vegas. He still managed to finish in the top 20 in both races. He is not off to the start they would like but that team is far from out of it. Now as far as the unexpected surges from Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, unexpected by who? These two drivers are two of the most talented in all of motorsports. Did you really expect them to have two bad years in a row? I think this is only the begining of the sucess both will have this year. And to answer the Rick Hendrick question again. Rick hugged Tony in Victory lane at Daytona because the Nationwide car Tony drove was a Hendrick car. It was not a Stewart-Hass car but a full Hendrick car with Hendrickcars.com as the sponser. I am also happy for Bobby Labonte’s early runs and really think that team will only improve. This could be a great season for all.

KenKars
03/04/2009 10:32 AM
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I didn’t understand the comment either – about Rick Hendrick “not being an owner” for Tony Stewart – when it was made very clear that the Nationwide car he was driving was Rick Hendrick owned and sponsored!! Did Bowles even watch that race !?

Managing Editor
03/04/2009 10:55 AM
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To answer the comments about Hendrick Motorsports … yes, the car Stewart won in was a Hendrick car. But Hendrick is interacting with the Stewart-Haas owned team ALL the time in the garage area. It’s not just a one-time appearance as a thank you for winning his Hendrick car at Daytona … I’m not saying Stewart isn’t running his own team. What I’m saying is he’s getting a heck of a lot of help.

Bobb
03/04/2009 12:17 PM
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Hey Bowles!

The next Nationwide race is March 21st and it’s wholly expected that we’ll see you entering cars there in an effort to do something about the “start and park” teams. We all know the weak economy is the underlying issue behind the start and parkers and once we get back to a strong economy with more sponsors, your pet peave of “start and park” will cease. Making note of the sitiation last week and again this week, I feel confident that you’re the kinda guy that makes things happens rather than sitting in the cheap seats whining.

Tony Stewart Racing is a customer of Hendrick; I’m sure Mr. Hendrick wants to keep a strong relationship to assure he keeps selling to Stewart; there’s nothing sinister, nothing wrong, nothing worthy of inciting falsehoods.

Did you notice… that the COT is an incredibly safe racecar and we haven’t had a fatality or serious injury yet? It’s a balancing act… weighing maiming and killing drivers versus developing a new racecar. Like the pre-COT car, plate races still have a moment or two of side by side racing, or did you forget to mention that?

Bowles… I care little for your attitude… you whine like a crabby ol’ woman about insignificant things. I can’t wait until you cowboy up and begin writing really informative stuff about so many of the positives happening constantly in NASCAR.

There’re two kinds of people in the world… those that make things happen, and those that find fault. Bowles, you have yet to make #$%@ happen.

Joe W.
03/04/2009 12:21 PM
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Thanks for clarifying. Did you really think Chevrolet racing spent all that time and money to get Tony back to let him fail? I am sure the Chevy racing folks are encouraging as much help from Hendrick as is possible. I never understood why people thought Tony would struggle this year. Did they really think he was going to have the same old Haas racing team? Tony is smart and he knows who to team up with, and so does Rick Hendrick. I think to many people were selling Stewart short. He will be just fine as an owner.

Kevin in SoCal
03/04/2009 12:26 PM
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Couldnt resist another crack at California, eh Tom? However, I’m in agreement this time. Las Vegas would make for a better second date than Fontana would. But there’s a better chance of getting ice water in hell than ISC giving up a date to Bruton Smith and SMI. The Kentucky Speedway lawsuit has merit but there’s no way to prove it.

Managing Editor
03/04/2009 01:04 PM
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As for start and park teams, I stand by what I’ve wrote last week and in previous columns. NASCAR is providing the framework for teams to make money without competing. If it’s profitable, why in the heck would you stop? That’s going to make the S & Pers stay longer than ever before … and make them that much harder to root out even once the economy gets back on track.

Bobb
03/04/2009 01:49 PM
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Don’t just stand by what you said about start and park teams… field some cars full time and knock the s & p crowd out of the game.

NASCAR provides a framework for whiners to do something about their complaints…

Blame the economy, not NASCAR.

I stand behind what I said; put YOUR money where your mouth is!

usetawuz
03/04/2009 04:22 PM
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Hendrick Motorsports — 264
Roush Fenway Racing — 150 *Joe Gibbs Racing — 140
Richard Childress Racing — 79*
Everyone Else — 54

It doesn’t matter how many laps you lead is the last lap isn’t one of them.

Wins

Rousch-Fenway 2
Joe Gibbs racing 1

Everyone else 0

M. B. Voelker
03/04/2009 07:19 PM
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Its no use, Bobb.

The moaners, whiners, and doomsayers all know EXACTLY what’s wrong with Nascar and how it could be made perfect. But not one of them has ever made the smallest move towards putting their money where their mouths are and starting their own series.

Funny, isn’t it? They know EXACTLY how a perfect racing series should be run and even though fans and drivers would certainly flock to a series that was so much better than Nascar they don’t even give it a try.

Marc
03/04/2009 08:11 PM
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Hey MB give it a rest. Nobody can compete. My Gosh, the France family has everything wrapped up in contracts. Even the drivers cant say anything against NASCAR. NASCAR is a strong syndicate controlled by the Carliones, err that is Frances, and they have the clout. ASA, ARCA, all the other fledgelings that started, failed. Not from lack of desire, but by stranglehold of the France family.

M. B. Voelker
03/05/2009 12:27 PM
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So Marc, you’ve actually TRIED to start a racing series? The France family has actually cracked down on you with those exclusionary tactics?

And the case number for your anti-trust law suit is? Or did you file the lawsuit under the RICO act?

Funny, series like ARCA, the IRL, and the World of Outlaws seem to be running without France family interference.

The perpetual whiners need to put up or shut up.

Marc
03/05/2009 06:31 PM
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And you must be Brian France mascarading as M B Voelker. No I haven’t tried any racing series. I’m working on my third million now. I never got the first two, so I decided to try again. Freedom of speech is a founding principle of this country. If you don’t like what people are saying, put up a valid argument in defense of your point. Telling people to shut up is not the answer. I do not follow anyone blindly, and I will state my opinion any time anywhere, whether anyone agrees.

 

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.

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