The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Earnhardt's Free Pass, Busch's Less Than Intimidating Nature, And Mourning NASCAR's Past by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 25, 2009

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Did You Notice? … Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s been getting rather “lucky” these days? Just 19th in points after five races, so much talk has centered around the No. 88 team struggling to get it together. Some feel like they’ve turned the corner towards respectability in recent weeks … but I’m not so sure. Just check out this list of Free Pass totals so far this season:

2009 Free Pass Chart Through Bristol

Car # Driver Free Passes Used Number Of Races Used
88 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 6 4
9 Kasey Kahne 2 2
29 Kevin Harvick 2 2
34 John Andretti 2 2
77 Sam Hornish, Jr. 2 2
09 Sterling Marlin 2 1
71 David Gilliland 2 1

Note: 17 drivers tied with 1.

Those numbers for Earnhardt are staggering, not just in total number of passes but races used. He has needed help to maintain a lead lap finish in all but one race this season, and that was at California … a track that left his Chevy sitting in the garage with engine failure. At the other four races, Earnhardt has struggled to move up significantly after getting back on the lead lap. Take Atlanta, for example. Two Free Passes kept Earnhardt hanging on as the last lead lap runner in 11th, competing in a car that was running at or near the back of the pack following every restart. Without Earnhardt using the free pass twice that weekend, you’re looking at him dropping another 8-10 spots in the final results.

Both driver and team faced a similar story at Las Vegas and Bristol. Vegas was Junior’s best performance; he charged to 10th after getting his lap back during the fifth caution period on lap 96. At Thunder Valley, he was about a top 15 car the entire race, using the Lucky Dog twice and winding up 14th, ahead of only Carl Edwards and A.J. Allmendinger on the lead lap.

You get the picture by this point; Junior’s needed help to get put in position to finish even as high as he has. And whatever you think the problem is, the facts speak volumes for a four car Hendrick organization that prides itself on a top 5 finish being a disappointment. Junior hasn’t even had one of those since Martinsville last Fall, where he wound up second to Jimmie Johnson; and at this point, it’s been over eight months since he was the top-performing HMS car in a race (Coke Zero 400 – July 2008).

Did You Notice? … Kyle Busch seems to be distancing himself from comparisons to the Intimidator these days? His whole tirade in the Nationwide Series Saturday reminded me of a race in the Fall of 2000 at Talladega, the site of Dale Earnhardt’s last career win. That was one of the most ridiculous finishes to a race I’ve ever seen, one where Earnhardt came from 18th to 1st in just four laps in order to take the checkered flag.

Kyle Busch has no problem being a team player… when things go his way.

I thought of that because of the circumstances surrounding the win. If Earnhardt didn’t take tires under the race’s final caution on lap 167, he probably would have been up front and needn’t have had to worry about working through the pack. With that in mind, what if Earnhardt’s comeback just didn’t work out? What if he finished 5th and couldn’t make it all the way back to the front (remember, he was also in championship contention at the time, trying to catch Bobby Labonte on top of the Cup Series standings)? Would he have gotten out of his car, screamed at his crew chief, and blamed his team for putting him back in traffic?

Honestly, I just don’t think that would ever happen. For as much of a villain as Earnhardt could be on the race track, I just never remember him publicly chastising the hand that fed him. Sure, NASCAR would get a bunch of expletives every once in awhile if things didn’t go his way … but car owner Richard Childress? Or crew chiefs Larry McReynolds, Andy Petree, Kirk Shelmerdine, and the like? Rare was the day the Intimidator would intimidate the men who helped make his car go fast.

And that’s what I think puts Kyle in a different type of category. Sure, his pit crew messed up in what amounted to a big mistake in Saturday’s race. Without it, Busch would have very well come through with a weekend sweep. But screaming, “YOU SUCK!” to your pit crew on the scanner after that tire penalty? Really?

Rivalries amongst drivers play out really well amongst this fan base. We want to see Montoya and Harvick go at it, Stewart and Kurt Busch trade barbs … it’s what helps humanize the sport in an age of political correctness. Even a driver versus NASCAR feud plays out well, often taking on a good vs. evil mentality. But a driver going against his own team? Fans usually look at that one and scoff in disgust.

Looking up at what I just wrote, there’s a little touch of irony going on in NASCAR right now. Its most popular driver is struggling to remain successful, while its most successful driver also remains one of its least popular. And people say this sport is scripted … NASCAR wishes the whole thing was scripted right about now.

Did You Notice? … That despite a multitude of side-by-side action at Bristol, there were just 13 lead changes, and five under green flag conditions. Since the track was repaved in mid-2007, the track is averaging just 11.5 lead changes per race, down from an average of 15 in the races held earlier this decade (2000-07).

That’s part of the reason a lot of fans just can’t warm up to the new Bristol; there’s a heck of a lot of passing, but none of it ever seems to occur up front. While that was a problem which began here before both the Car of Tomorrow and the repave, the fact remains that it’s harder than ever to pass for the lead at Bristol.

Now, there are plenty of people who defend the new style of racing in Thunder Valley… but the trend seems to steer towards plenty more who dislike it. As for me? I’ve gone from a one-time staunch defender to someone who misses the old racing after all. I think every track has something which defines their character; and for Bristol, it was the beating, the banging, and yes … the wrecks. And that’s not because the fans loved the carnage … they loved the emotion that came with it. Bristol used to be the one place in this politically correct world where true feelings amongst drivers shined through. Now … everyone gets to leave with a smile on their face and a three-sentence sponsor mention for the cameras.

Yeah, I hear those track supporters loud and clear: the side-by-side racing throughout the pack is great. But as I said on a radio show Monday night, the type of action we see now there is the type fans would like to see at a Charlotte, a Michigan … one of these 1.5-mile or 2-mile cookie cutters that often turn into single file parades.

At the old Bristol, it was all about pushing and shoving someone to get your way – the one place where single-file was not only acceptable, it was a necessity in order to get around the track in one piece. Not having a second groove there was a testament to how aggressively you had to drive it just to stay in control. Now… it all just seems so tame.

Did You Notice? … That in the wake of Yates Racing closing the No. 28, the No. 8 car over at DEI could be the next legendary car number to bite the dust? If Aric Almirola doesn’t step it up within the next two weeks, that car will either suspend operations or be turned over to another driver with sponsorship (J.J. Yeley has been rumored, but I have yet to get that confirmed).

That means, in the matter of just six months we’ll have lost the numbers 8, 21, and 28 from full-time competition, along with an ownership change at the 43 which will never leave that car quite the same. Where has all the history gone? It’s a double-edged sword around the sport these days … both NASCAR’s past and future are disappearing at exactly the same time. And that’s one heck of a sucky situation for the present day.

Don’t forget about Tom Bowles and Matt Taliaferro’s Athlon / Frontstretch Podcast, sponsored this season by Wrigley’s! Check out the archive by clicking here, and look for the newest edition to head your way sometime later this week! Of course, if all else fails, you can always listen to us on iTunes for FREE! Search for our weekly show under “Athlon.”

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
NASCAR Mailbox: A ‘Normal’ Saturday And A Valuable Lesson
Beyond the Cockpit: Tony ‘The Sarge’ Schumacher
Open Wheel Wednesday: Controversial Moves, Long Beach Crowds, and Being a Fuddy Duddy
The Frontstretch Five: Pleasant Surprises of 2014 So Far
IndyCar Driver Profile: Takuma Sato
Beyond the Cockpit: Tommy Baldwin on Owning His Team, Hall of Fame and the Number Seven


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03/25/2009 05:49 AM

This year I sold both my season tickets to Bristol after 8 years. Last year I left the night race with 100 laps to go. I won’t be renewing them for next year. The reason I loved Bristol was the intensity of the racing there. Now, it’s like a
race at MIS with traffic. What used to be the most intese competition other than the plate tracks has become ordinary. The change began with the ‘playoff’, when drivers got more worried about protecting their place in the top 12 than anything else. What once made racing at Bristol unique is no longer there. I’m tired of being accused of wanting to see wrecks more than racing. I want to see intensity, and that no longer happens at Bristol. Nascar has managed to make even the racing at Bristol cookie cutter and bland.

03/25/2009 07:40 AM

Kyle tells his crew they suck, which they did, and he’s rude? Jr. drops the f bomb every other word and it’s entertaining? Another comparision of double standards for you. The crew did lose that race for them and they deserved to shove the car off the track. I’ve seen Kyle stomp away when he was the one that screwed up and lost a race too so that’s just his losers mind set. NO ONE will be the Intiminator, but Kyle’s driving style sure does give me some flashbacks to the Days of Dale and I’m enjoying that.

M.B. Voelker
03/25/2009 07:41 AM

Why do drivers keep their emotions so tightly in check?

Fan and media hypocrisy — as exemplified by your bashing of Kyle Busch for having the audacity to first get mad at having a win taken from him and actually daring to direct his anger at the responsible party then you turn around in the fourth paragraph after that complaining that drivers don’t get mad.

Not to mention that Hendrick’s highly-profitable t-shirt salesman has long been known for the vicious tirades he unleashes against his crew chief and team when the car isn’t to his liking.

But that’s different, right?

03/25/2009 07:50 AM

Re the Poll: All the people that voted that Kyle is absolutely NOT like Earnhardt must be all the ones that turned Dale into St. Dale after he died because if they knew anything about the young, brash, hungry Dale and were fans of “racing”, they would see the similarities. Sorry guys, but Kyle brings back a lot more memories of Dales driving than anyone else in NASCAR right now. People yell “no emotion!: and they gripe and moan when the one guy in NASCAR does show emotion.

03/25/2009 08:26 AM

As a 50 year attendee, watcher, fan of what is now nascrap, I can not believe the people who would defend a punk like kyle!! Yes, he is a good, possibly great driver, but he is a sorry excuse for a human being. His father did a sorry job of raising him! His problem? He has no respect for ANYONE! He is a spoiled brat and pouts and screams when he doesn’t get his way! Oh,wait! I guess he reminds you of your kids!! Now I understand.

Bill B
03/25/2009 08:55 AM

I have a different spin on the question of “Why do drivers keep their emotions so tightly in check?”

While fans may love controversy and the media may harp on it, as a rule it is a distraction from the business at hand – running well and winning races. I am sure there are a handful of drivers that may be able to use controversy as a positive factor to increase their resolve in any given week but that is the exception not the rule. In the long run controversy is a distraction.

Judy S
03/25/2009 09:07 AM

What you did not mention about Dale Jr’s lucky dogs was how hard and well he had to race to stay in position for those lucky dogs!

Joe W.
03/25/2009 09:53 AM

Sorry guys, but Kyle Busch is nothing like Dale Earnhardt. Dale worked his way up and that is what created his desire. It started as a desire to put food on the table. Kyle Busch came up with a silver spoon in his mouth. There is no comparing them. If you want a driver who is like Dale on the track, Tony Stewart is much more like Dale. He has worked his way up and earned the respect he has.

Randall Butler
03/25/2009 11:11 AM

As one who attended his first NASCAR race in 1957, I qualify as a 50+ year attendee of NASCAR. I am a fan of Kyle Busch. He is the driver that is putting some fire and excitement in NASCAR these days. He does many good charitable works, helps work on his cars on occasion, gave $100,000 to an older driver now in unfortunate circumstances, frequently drops by the raceshop and takes the crew out to eat, and drives the 51 truck for free, just because he enjoys racing.

I also don’t get the accusation that he is where he is because he was born with the proverbial “silver spoon”.

I may now be 72 years young, but I appreciate a really talented driver with a little fire in his belly.

03/25/2009 12:17 PM

Joe W-
Dale Sr. did NOT race to put food on the table. He raced to pay for his play. If it was the money he was after, the local factory would have paid better earlier.

That was a perfect example of Missu3’ contention that fans turn him into ST. Dale.

And…No Kyle is not like the SR., but the results sure look alike

Kevin in SoCal
03/25/2009 12:28 PM

Judy, that’s classic! What a spin doctor you are. LOL

What the anti-KB people need to realize is that we know Kyle is a spoiled brat when things arent going his way. What the comparisons to Dale Sr. are trying to say is that Kyle drives like Dale ON THE RACETRACK. Not that Kyle acts like Dale. Somebody needs to be compared to Dale Sr, because neither of his sons are doing it.
And I’m not a Kyle Busch fan, I just appreciate his driving style and his checkers or wreckers attitude on the track.
One last thing for the Kyle haters: How did you feel about him BEFORE he spun out your boy Dale Jr at Richmond? All this hate started once he did that and made himself a household name. LOL

Joe W.
03/25/2009 01:09 PM

Mik, I disagree with you completely. You tell me you would pick factory work over racing? Dale still raced to put food on the table. Kyle never had to. I do not even see why it is needed to compare anyone to Dale Sr. Now Kevin I am not a member of Jr. Nation. I could not stand Kyle Busch when he drove for Hendrick. It has nothing to do with the Richmond wreck, even though it was 100% Busch’s fault. He had the same lousy attitude when he drove for Hendrick. He is not just a spoiled brat when things do not go his way. He is a spoiled brat even when they do. Remember how he complained after he won Bristol 2 years ago when driving for Hendrick? That type of thing is why he does not drive for Hendrick anymore.

03/25/2009 01:30 PM

Earnhardt Senior fans need to get over themselves. Many of them didn’t know who he was until he unfortunately got killed at Daytona. Only then did he become Saint Dale in their eyes. He did a lot of rough driving in his time, too.

Those folks don’t want to hear it, but Kyle Busch (and I’m not a real fan of either of them but respect them both) is very probably better now—early in his career—than DE was at his best. DE isn’t a Saint and never was. He & KB are a lot alike—drivers getting the job done the best they know how.

Those who canonized DE need to get on with their lives—he isn’t coming back.

03/25/2009 02:24 PM

I have little interest in any driver’s life once the checkered flag flies.
On the racetrack is where they “talk”; they’re hired guns to win races and championships.
All the rest is secondary.

03/25/2009 02:58 PM

Kevin, Let the record show that I am NOT a Jr. fan. I feel he is over-rated as a driver, but I would rather have one like him than 20 like kyle!!

03/25/2009 07:35 PM

Say what you will about KB, the boy can drive the inside lane, the outside lane, pass with a car that can’t pass and can get 3 wide all by himself. He is fun to watch. But I would love to see his pit crew take 2 tires off and walk away with it on the jack just once. As for Jr. He is just a younger Kyle Petty, mid-field filler with a famous name.

03/25/2009 08:53 PM

jaymat, your an idiot, plain and simple…
DE took below average equipment in his early days, and was sucessful. He played by the rules that applied during his time. Kyle the wonderful has been driving top notch equipment from day one in nascar. What has he had to overcome?

03/25/2009 10:10 PM

Tell you what people. I was one of the biggest Dale Earnhardt fans of all times. When he died, my love for racing died. But leave the term Saint to those who love the Lord so much they will lay their life down for their fellow man. Not a sports hero. Dale was a man’s man, and probably a womans dream, but not a Saint. He could outdrive anybody, took no prisoners, and gave no quarters. And he would lay it on the line to Bill France. The major difference in Busch and Dale Earnhardt is that no one cares what he has to say. He has not amassed 7 championships. He may one day, but he is not the elder statesman of NASCAR. Period.

03/26/2009 01:00 AM

When I say “Saint Dale,” I’m referring to all those folks who have those little 3 decals with halos in their windows. They’re the misguided folks who made him into Saint Dale; so, in essence, I agree w/ Marc.

As for my being an idiot (re. Pcarp), two things: First, KB overcomes 42 other drivers with regularlity. Second, at least I know how to spell “you’re” and punctuate and capitalize. Get thee to a dictionary—or a mirror—before you call someone else an idiot, lest there be guilt by association.

M.B. Voelker
03/26/2009 09:17 AM

I have to laugh when people talk about Kyle Busch only winning because he has top equipment.

No other driver can get any speed out of those chronically underfunded, far-down-the-Toyota-totem-pole, Billy Ballew trucks. On a week that Kyle isn’t in the seat they’re mid-pack trucks. Put Kyle in and the same stuff is up front and hard to beat.

Too bad about that burst bubble there.

03/27/2009 11:54 PM

Kyle Busch in a truck. Wow-Wee. Out there with a bunch of has beens and never was.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters

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