The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... DNFs Are A Good Thing, NASCAR Needs A Senior Tour, And Menard's Mediocrity? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 11, 2009

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Did You Notice? … The complaints over the amount of engine failures to start the 2009 Sprint Cup season? To be honest, I like the unpredictability that’s been added back into the outcome of a race. For awhile there, it looked like parts and pieces had become so invincible there was no doubt as to whether the big name cars would last 500 miles each week. But now, even when someone like Kurt Busch is dominating, there’s always a doubt in the back of your mind as to whether the car is capable of making it the distance. I think that’s important for the sport, adding a small element of suspense that’s seemed to disappear in recent years. Isn’t part of the challenge for mechanics pushing their car to the absolute limit, while figuring out where to draw the line to ensure their creation makes it all the way to the checkered flag?

For those who are wondering, here’s how the DNF stats through four races compare to the previous two years (remember, the first full season of the CoT was in 2008):

26 Total DNFs (Average: 6.5)
8 Engine Failures

15 Total DNFs (Average: 3.8)
2 Engine Failures

28 Total DNFs (Average: 7.0)
11 Engine Failures

Right now, we’re talking about an average of 16% of the field failing to complete every race. It’s not like 20-25 cars are running at the finish … it’s 35 to 36. And that number reminds me of what it was like in NASCAR’s glory years of the 1990s, where side-by-side racing combined with mechanical innovation provided some of the best competition both on and off the race track. In fact, these 11 engine failures match the same amount the Cup Series had through four races … back in 1999.

Did You Notice? … That the lone manufacturer to avoid mechanical failure through all four races so far this season is Dodge. It’s clear the new R6 engine is pulling those Penske Championship Racing cars down the straightaways, raw power that helped Kurt Busch pull out to a lead of as much as ten seconds during green flag runs at Atlanta. Sure, the No. 2 car lost a cylinder in Las Vegas, but by and large it seems the kinks have been worked out and this bad boy is capable of running the distance.

A Dodge R6 engine, not Kobalt Tools, put Kurt Busch in Victory Lane and has his No. 2 Penske team looking like early contenders.

With that thought in mind, it makes you scratch your head as to why Richard Petty Motorsports refuses to change to the stronger power plant. In a statement released last week, RPM Vice President of Competition Mark McArdle said the team was comfortable with the old engine’s reliability. That’s nice to hear for Dodge … but does that mean RPM’s satisfied giving up a chance to run up front? Here were their finishes for the three intermediate tracks of Fontana, Las Vegas, and Atlanta:

Kasey Kahne: 12th, 11th, 7th
Elliott Sadler: 25th, 29th, 20th
Reed Sorenson: 21st, 34th, 33rd
A.J. Allmendinger: 29th, 33rd, 17th
Total Laps Led (all four drivers): 1 (Kasey Kahne)

Considering this was once the same shop that dominated 1.5-milers with Kahne back in 2006, even an average finish of 10.0 from their No. 1 driver has to be considered a major disappointment — especially when Kurt Busch alone has led 237 laps this season over at Penske. It makes you wonder why in the world RPM wouldn’t consider switching over to the new Dodge engine. Yes, more horsepower puts you at slightly higher risk of reliability issues; but when you’re running off the pace each week as it is, what in the world have you got to lose?

For some reason, there’s a nagging worry in the back of my head this decision comes down to money. Let me make it clear that in this case, I have no inside information as to what’s going on financially at RPM. So a worry is just that … a worry. But let’s investigate: this team had sponsors threatening to leave after the Elliott Sadler contract fiasco, and they currently keep struggling to finish off the full-season portfolio on Reed Sorenson’s No. 43 car – let alone fund the No. 44 of A.J. Allmendinger to run more than 10-12 races this season. Meanwhile, the Allstate logos have disappeared off the No. 9 car of Kasey Kahne, with only Budweiser assuming primary sponsorship on his Dodge. And who knows what the team paid in order to “merge” with the crumbling two-car organization of Petty Enterprises earlier this year.

Even if money isn’t an issue — that the organization is truly focused on running the old engine for the sake of reliability — it appears to be the wrong move. And if these teams continue to struggle after their strong Daytona start, only time will tell if the Evernham-less organization is willing to make the necessary technical investments in order to stay both relevant and competitive.

Did You Notice? … The worst-performing car that’s competed in all four races this season is the No. 98 Yates Racing Ford driven by Paul Menard? Menard bumped Travis Kvapil to third on the totem pole after infusing the organization with much-needed sponsorship money from his father’s company, Menards. But the expected improvement from the third-year driver after two tough years at DEI hasn’t materialized. Since he started off 2009 with wrecks in both Bud Shootout practice and the exhibition race itself, his season has been filled with a series of poor on-track decisions combined with devastating mechanical failures. With no finish better than 28th, Menard finds himself 38th in driver points, just 55 in front of Kvapil – who’s only run in three of the four Sprint Cup Series events to date with a newly-formed No. 28.

Paul Menard brought much needed sponsorship to Yates Racing, but not the performance boost the organization also needs.

Sadly, the whole scenario reconfirms the old adage, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Yates was sorely in need of some financial backing after using a hodgepodge of different sponsors to fund the No. 28 Ford for a full season, and with Menards on the table, it was easy to bite. But in doing so, he broke apart a car that, with Kvapil, secured four top 10s and finished 24th in owner points in 2008. Now, the organization is stuck with their new pickup, has a significant downgrade in performance, and their once-promising future No. 1 driver is halfway out the door (Kvapil has no guarantees to continue beyond the fifth race of the season in Bristol). It’s just a shame the men with the money have their talented Wisconsin drivers a little confused. because you wonder what Kvapil could have done with the same amount of cash at his disposal.

Did You Notice? … The listed attendance for the race at Atlanta was 94,400, according to official statistics released by the track and NASCAR Media? Come on! As someone who was at the speedway virtually all weekend long, there is no way that crowd came even close to 94,400! To be honest, they were lucky if the stands were packed even halfway close to that amount.

Even if you were sitting at home, you just needed to see a few overhead shots of the blimp to figure out all you needed to know. Entire parking lots were empty at that place, with full sections of the grandstands dotted with just a handful of people. For once, you can’t blame the weather at Atlanta either; it was a beautiful day for a race, with temperatures reaching up into the 70s by the time the green flag flew.

I happen to be a huge fan of the racing we have at AMS each year; even the ill-handling race cars aren’t enough to eliminate the multiple grooves that cause exciting side-by-side action back in the pack. But if this race loses its date and moves to Kentucky next season, I wouldn’t blame Bruton Smith one bit. If it comes down to Atlanta and New Hampshire, the racing up north is much better attended and supported throughout the course of the weekend, complemented by a wider New England fan base with no other race track to choose from. Atlanta could be a victim of the saturated Southeast market; and while that’s tough to swallow, it’s the hard-line economic truth.

Did You Notice? … Crew member Jimmy Watts’ penalty does not include a monetary fine … and I’m fine with that. A lot has been written about the pure idiocy of Watts running off pit road and onto the race track in order to catch a runaway tire that drifted out of Marcos Ambrose’s pit. But before you start screaming about how his bonehead move ruined your favorite driver’s shot at the win, let’s go ahead and put ourselves in his shoes for a minute.

Or can we? No one can understand the sheer intensity of a green flag pit stop, a 15-second pressure-packed moment in which one mistake can ruin your team’s chance to visit Victory Lane. In the case of Ambrose, you had a team overachieving to the tune of three top 22 finishes to start their first full season on the Cup circuit. You had a driver running reasonably well, whose chances at a fourth solid finish suddenly got put in jeopardy the second that tire started rolling out of his pit box.

You, Jimmy Watts, are sitting there in the heat of the moment. The second you see that Goodyear start to wobble, you start to see the chances of a solid finish slip away. You’re yelling at the tire changer, but everyone’s so wrapped up in their own job the sense of urgency you feel just doesn’t transfer. So, in a split-second decision, you refocus — and all you think about is making sure your driver doesn’t lose this race because of his pit crew. Remember, part of your job on pit road is to make sure there’s no penalties while the car is being serviced… and there’s a penalty that’s about to be assessed.

So, losing sight of your own personal safety, you go out there and run after that tire, the instantaneous adrenaline of competition overwhelming the brain’s ability to process common sense. In that special moment, you’re sacrificing yourself as an individual in the face of team success … and isn’t that what this sport is all about?

Sure, I understand the four-race suspension … something has to be done because the action itself is something that can’t be tolerated in the interests of safety. But don’t slam a guy for doing whatever he felt was necessary in the heat of the moment to help his driver. Wouldn’t that be someone you’d want working on your car when you’re trying to win a race?

Did You Notice? … The excitement surrounding Bristol’s Saturday Night Special? In case you haven’t heard, legends of the sport that include Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Terry Labonte, and Rusty Wallace will go at it in late models for a $100,000 top prize for charity. Their presence serves as a welcome reminder the sport could really benefit from the buzz generated by a Senior Tour. After all, golf has one — so why can’t we? I know there was an announcement for an Old School Racing Series run by a separate organization, but their schedule never materialized … and in this economy, I think it’s a movement NASCAR would have to get behind for the whole thing to get off the ground.

So, if this Saturday Night Special thing works out, how about NASCAR follows up with an “Old Timer’s Race” just before the big All-Star event at Charlotte? It would be a 20-lap special on the short-track oval in the center of the speedway where Allison, Waltrip, Pearson, and Yarborough could duke it out just like old times. Don’t you think that would give a, well, boring special event in recent years one heck of a shot in the arm? Just a thought that I hope someone will pick up on in the coming weeks and months…

Contact Tom Bowles

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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03/11/2009 09:54 AM

Daddy’s money buys rides, not talent. They should have known that.

03/11/2009 11:37 AM

I think most don’t realize, that guy might have wanted to go run the tire down to avoid someone hitting it and punting it into the grandstand and killing someone, considering it might have rolled all the way to the front stretch. Yellow was going to fly either way, too.

Scott Avery
03/11/2009 12:06 PM

Old man Menard aint got enough money to get his boy into victory lane.Its sad just how much money has influenced this sport.

Ford Fan
03/11/2009 12:10 PM

I read somewhere a statement by Mark McArdle that RPM had approximately 100 of the old Dodge motors. At $50-100,000 that is 5-10 million dollars. The implication was that they weren’t going to just throw that money away. Probably what they need to do is start mixing the new motor in at the 1 1/2 and 2 mile raceways and use the old motors up at the short tracks. That way they spread the costs and can be testing the new motor while being more competitive.

03/11/2009 12:33 PM

Tuesday’s “Court of Brian” strikes again. Watts was punished on Sunday…leave it at that. This double-dipping of punishment is BS.

Kevin in SoCal
03/11/2009 01:49 PM

There already is a NASCAR senior tour, the Truck Series. Its just not labeled as such. And if these guys wanted to race again, I’m sure with their names they could get Truck Series rides.

03/11/2009 01:57 PM

I think the 4 week suspension is too long, 2 weeks would be enough. More importantly I think putting the crew chief on probation for the Rest of The Year is out of line. I would say 4 – 6 weeks probation at the very most afterall he is responsible for the actions of the crew.

03/11/2009 02:09 PM


I agree with you noticing that RPM has a boatload of old motors.

However, RPM (as it is today) is way behind in the chassis development portion of their program. Last week, Elliot Sadler said in an interview that horsepower is not their issue… being able to USE horsepower is their biggest challenge.

Recall that while the COT cars we see on the track all look alike, the chassis under the skin is going through a development and reconfiguration constantly. Some of the teams are quoted as saying they’re onto their 5th generation chassis already. A team that lags behind in developing a new generation is going to be, and stay behind for quite a while.

At the thrid race of this season, RPM surrendered finishing position in favor of testing and developing technology going forward. Likewise, at Atlanta, again all the RPM cars tried different approaches; they’re behind in even having a base setup to approach the 1.5 mile tracks that make up the meat of the season! Even yesterday, (Tuesday, March 10th) Sadler’s team threw even more new stuff at their chassis during the initial part of their Goodyear tire test at Darlington.

RPM is more interested in surviving this year to become stronger for next year. During the recent off season, RPM didn’t exist and it wasn’t until the last few weeks before Daytona that they established their teams. Recall that AJ Allmendinger’s car is not fully sponsored for this year. Is it their goal to skimp by as much as possible to keep the Allmendinger ride alive throughtout 2009? It would be a failure if RPM ends 2009 without having all 4 cars in the top 35.

03/11/2009 02:45 PM

I’ve always found it very strange that there isn’t a senior series in NASCAR . There have been many discussions about one over the years , and many failed attempts at one , IRP in Jaguars for instance , but they never seem to go anywhere . In fact that series at IRP was well attended by fans and drivers alike . But the series owners lost an awfull lot of very , very expensive and rare Jaguar race cars so it was dropped . The drivers all want it . The fans all want it . Why not get one going . Jay Signore might still have enough IROC cars in the shop to put on some races .

Duncan M.
03/11/2009 04:11 PM

Everyone wants to point the finger at Watts. Shame on NASCAR for letting that tire roll so far before waving the caution flag. Once it passed pit road, there was going to be no safe retrieval of the tire without a yellow.

03/11/2009 06:50 PM

Look at it this way. One of the knocks on Atlanta, was the traffic. with attendance in the dumper. The traffis has gotten lots better.

03/11/2009 09:35 PM

Menard’s talents definitely does not match the level of sponsorship $$$ he’s got, but he was on track for top-20 finishes at both Fontana and Vegas until a busted transmission and contact from the Biff, respectedly, ended his day. Lady luck’s just been hard on him (as well as other drivers who switched teams to try to find greener pasture like Mark Martin & Ryan Newman).

Ted Main
03/11/2009 10:42 PM

How does a 4 race suspension become fair when crew chiefs are given the same penalty for cheating. It seems there is quite an imbalance with this decision ????


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
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