The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... What Jimmie Johnson's Hiding, Why Patience For NASCAR Owners Pays Off, And Driver Depression by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 1, 2009

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Did You Notice? … During a garage walkthrough on Friday, the newest edition to Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 cloak of secrecy? It was a dark blue drape placed over his stall inside the garage area, meaning no one walking by could see what they were doing to set up the car. In the team’s defense, the forecast called for rain to hit later on that afternoon. But at the time I did my little garage walk – 11:00 AM – all other cars were in plain view on a cloudy but otherwise precipitation-free day.

This latest incident adds to a reputation for this team being a little overprotective about their equipment. Don’t believe me? The next time you’ve got a hot pass, walk a little too close to the Lowe’s Chevrolet while they’re looking under the hood and see what happens. To a certain degree, I do understand the right for Johnson & Co. to protect “copycats” from stealing their innovative ideas. After all, last time I checked stock car racing was supposed to be a competition, wasn’t it?

But the other side to this story is how often and how extensive Chad Knaus’ list of violating Sprint Cup rules has been. It would be one thing if the No. 48 car had never been caught doing anything wrong; but Knaus is always one that’s pushing the NASCAR envelope. Sure, any of his “gray area” changes should, and ideally will, be caught in the official inspection line. But wouldn’t you want to keep a much closer eye on a team that’s been known to cross the line in the past? That seems pretty logical to me … and there’s no way to do that with a drape protecting the car from public view.

Did You Notice? … How patience seems to still pay off in the long run? So often these days, Cup teams let their drivers go without giving them a full chance to develop. Between impatience amongst sponsors coupled with the pressure of media expectations, it’s pretty hard to leave a guy in a ride for two, maybe even three years.

But perhaps A.J. Allmendinger will become the classic case for promoting long-term growth over pulling the trigger too quickly. They released the former open-wheel star over at Team Red Bull after just a season and a half in the Cup Series (and limited time in stock cars prior to that). Even though the ‘Dinger had begun to turn things around last summer – scoring two top 10s and seven top 20s over a three-month period – it just wasn’t enough for the powers that be to offer him a long-term deal.

Welcome to Scott Speed’s world — a world outside the top 35.

But just look what’s happened to the team ever since. New driver Scott Speed is just another rookie, one armed with so little experience it’s been equivalent to TRB starting from scratch. Speed’s yet to score a top 20 finish this year and is languishing outside the top 35 in owner points, slotting in second in the rookie race to Joey Logano. Meanwhile, Allmendinger’s taken a part-time ride in Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 44 to two top 10 finishes and is jumping up to the fringes of Chase contention in 15th. You can even make an outside argument he’s become as competitive as Team Red Bull’s number one operation, the No. 83 car driven by Brian Vickers.

Of course, if Team Red Bull had only renewed its faith in developing the former Champ Car star just one more season, it’d have two cars looking to make the Chase right now instead of one simply trying to keep from qualifying for races on speed. But as NASCAR desperately searches for new stars throughout its top three series, it’s a lesson learned to be careful to throw away potential talent before giving them a long-term chance in the seat.

Did You Notice? … Sports is as much mental as it is physical? That’s all I could think of after analyzing Denny Hamlin’s post-race comments following the race at Martinsville. Yes, Hamlin’s one hell of a classy guy, but where’s the fire? Instead of being all fired up, Joe Gibbs’ “veteran” wheelman was acting like someone who absolutely expected to lose.

In one sense, I don’t blame him; after all, this was a guy on his way to one of the most dominating performances in Sprint Cup history last May, leading 381 of 382 laps at Richmond before a blown tire robbed him of a win at his hometown track. It seems like Hamlin hasn’t been the same since, and you’ve got to wonder what it’s going to take to change that mentality before seven, eight, even nine wins ultimately slip through his grasp.

I will say this in Hamlin’s defense, though: he’s not alone in terms of drivers who often need a Prozac instead of a chill pill after races. Here’s a look at a few other “Charlie Browns” on the Cup circuit these days:

Matt Kenseth: The only driver I know who takes a fourth-place finish as hard as a death in the family. This man can make Eeyore of the Hundred Acre Wood look chipper.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: On the radio and out of the spotlight, he’s willing to call Tony Eury, Jr. every name in the book when things go wrong. But when the cameras start rolling and the mics are in place? Junior simply struggles to put on any sort of happy face.

Casey Mears: I guess if you finish 20th every week, well, there’s nothing to get excited about, is there …

Mark Martin: If I finished runner-up in the title chase four times, I’d expect bad luck to happen to me, too. At least Martin has turned around his depression in recent years; now, even a blown engine in 43rd leaves him “Happy to just be a part of this A-B-C-D sponsored Chevrolet on my fourth-aborted Salute To You Tour!”

Did You Notice? … How silly it is for the Nationwide teams to hit the track this Thursday? At Texas, they’ve always had a schedule in April that spreads out over four days – not three.

Honestly, the schedule in my mind makes no sense. I can understand spreading out the track time in Charlotte, home base for 90 percent of the teams and drivers on the circuit – not to mention SPEED network television. But to do it in Fort Worth, where the sole consequence is causing teams and drivers to spend an extra night on a hotel room in this tough economy? And they’re not the only people that lose out on this deal, either. Because no one in television production hits the track until Friday, Nationwide qualifying won’t be televised by SPEED, leaving NNS fans in the dark and forced to rely on internet updates to figure out who won the pole.

Taking a deeper look at this, I just don’t understand why Eddie Gossage didn’t revise the schedule this year. I guess he’s looking at making more revenue by getting additional fans to come to the track on Thursday; but honestly, who in their right mind has the discretionary spending right now to make it a four-day trip to the track instead of three? For 2010, I think it’s time to change this anomaly for good.

Did You Notice? … Some short track aces tripped up big during the two-week swing at Bristol and Martinsville? I know it’s still early, but for guys I consider to be right on the “Chase Bubble” come August and September, these are the types of missed opportunities they’ll look back on should they miss the playoffs. Here’s a quick look at some specialists who really struggled to keep up:

Kurt Busch: The winningest Bristol driver this decade wound up 11th at Thunder Valley, then followed it up with an 18th-place clunker at Martinsville – with zero laps led in both races. Not exactly what you’d expect from a guy who came into this swing with solid momentum from an Atlanta win.

Kevin Harvick: Harvick finished 30th at Bristol (wrecked) and 11th at Martinsville for an average finish of just 20.5. And I thought the short tracks were RCR’s bread and butter…

Jeff Burton: Eighth and 15th over the last two weeks really isn’t all that terrible. But when you realize Burton was first and third during this same stretch in 2008, well … you realize that the No. 31 is not exactly clicking on all eight cylinders as of late.

Did You Notice? … The UConn Huskies in the Final Four? Sorry, I know it’s not NASCAR-related… but I had to give a shout out to my home state after a dominating NCAA Tourney performance. There’s more to our state than just the great racing at Stafford Springs and Thompson Speedway!

Now, if only they could tell their secrets of success to Joey Logano …

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:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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04/01/2009 12:54 AM

Amen on ‘Dinger. Good guy, lots of talent, needed time. Now he needs a sponsor. Somebody please help this guy, he’s for real.

With Johnson, sure, it is not cool, but hey until the rules say otherwise they have every right to protect their “intellectual property”. If I were as good as that team I’d do it too until somebody made me take it down.

Kenseth is Eeyore – how perfect! And yes, JR is just weird these days. No fire, you just get the sense that he doesn’t really want to be here anymore, go rest and play with the mega-millions. Just no fire in the belly at all if you ask me.

And yes, what the heck happened to the short track aces. The way Spurt Blush was running before Bristol you’d think he’d have lapped the field at the shorts. Just not there. RCR too, aside from Bowyer.

Hey, speaking of Bowyer, give it up for a guy that said “oh well, I’d rather drive than sweep floors” and took a lemon and made lemonaide. Some good lessons there for us. A very underrated driver and dogged determined, this guy could really go places. Hope he does, hard but clean racer who gives his all. Like a young Jeff Burton.

04/01/2009 03:28 AM

Somebody please sponsor A.J. Allmendinger!

It’s a given that he’s going to run good.

Maybe one of the energy drink companies should step up and rub it in Red Bull’s face. That would be awesome.

04/01/2009 08:45 AM

The longer show at Texas is what any promoter worth his salt would do . Make the show bigger , longer , louder , and get more people to spend more money any way you can .
Thats been the creed of race track promoters since the days of the county fair races .
You’re reading wwwaaayyy too much into what the Johnson team is doing . Just as they hoped you would .

04/01/2009 10:14 AM

As far as the Thursday deal goes at Texas, on Thursday night in April there’s always a season ticket holders event, so things are arranged to have a little on-track action beforehand.

04/01/2009 11:07 AM

Oh by the way everyone. Remember they are no more Chevrolets, so now which driver will get the first win in the new “Ombamobile”. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it’s the #88, which would mean the change needed to make him a winner was a new owner at GM!! Many didn’t like it when Toyota came to the party and now Fiat may be knocking on the door.

As Bob Dylan`s song goes “The Times They Are A-Changin`” Chevrolet fans will know have to decide whether to join bitter rival Ford, the foreign Toyota or jump on the Obama wagon. Hard choice huh??

Kevin in SoCal
04/01/2009 12:32 PM

Tom said: “There’s more to our state than just the great racing at Stafford Springs and Thompson Speedway!”

Yeah, and there’s more to my state than just fruits, nuts, and bad racetracks, but not many care. :)

04/01/2009 02:19 PM

On the subject of ousting Almindinger and replacing him with Scott Speed, I’ll reiterate what I said last year when it came down. They’re taking a guy out of a ride just when he starts putting together good finishes consistantly in favor of a guy (Speed) who has no experience driving cup cars. Not to mention the time and money Red Bull$&#$ invested in Almindinger. I really hope Alminger attains a good ride and rubs it in RedBulls collective faces.

04/01/2009 04:31 PM

I may be wrong in my foggy memory, but wasn’t there a Winston Cup team that put a towel over the pedals just to screw with other teams? Seems like it was in the ESPN days (the old ESPN). If true, perhaps Chads just having some fun. I know we’ve done similar stunts on the Saturday night programs and it always provided great amusement and generated lots of talk.

04/01/2009 04:46 PM

As I recall, Red Bull offered Almendinger another year. They didn’t want to bring Speed up this year. He thought he had a 3-year deal with another team and asked to be released. Red Bull agreed but then the deal fell through.

FS Insider
04/01/2009 04:50 PM


Based on what I know from inside knowledge of the situation, you’re mostly correct. The crux of the issue was when push came to shove, Red Bull wasn’t willing to stand behind Allmendinger with a long-term commitment.

Let’s put it this way: if you had gone through six months of being asked about your contract, and then you were only offered a one-year extension so you’d have to face those same questions again … what would you do? With Speed right behind him and no long-term commitment, the ‘Dinger’s hand was forced …

04/01/2009 05:10 PM

“Hamlin’s one hell of a classy guy, but where’s the fire? Instead of being all fired up, Joe Gibbs’ “veteran” wheelman was acting like someone who absolutely expected to lose.”
So let me get this straight. If Hamlin throws a fit after the race, the media would be on him for being a whiner. If he accepts the result for what they were, good hard racing that he got beat at, and takes the high road then he’s a depressed and beaten down driver. No wonder these drivers don’t know how to act anymore.

04/01/2009 08:25 PM

Tom, don’t forget we also have Waterford Speedbowl as well. A good little short track that has some pretty exciting racing, especially when the super modifieds get out there.

04/02/2009 09:44 AM

With the S & P brigade looking for change in the cushions. If Eddy Gossage wants to pay 10 grand for someone to throw a helmet this year. He just might get some takers.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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