The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Lesa Takes The Helm, NASCAR's Expensive Engines, And No Guts, No Glory by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 15, 2009

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Did You Notice? … That not only are the number of car owners shrinking in the Cup Series today, but so are the number of engine suppliers? Through seven races, the top 38 teams in the Cup Series standings get their motors from just seven shops. Here’s a quick breakdown of how it all works out:

Earnhardt-Childress – 9 Teams^
Roush/Yates – 7 Teams
Hendrick – 6 Teams
Toyota Racing Development – 6 Teams
Richard Petty Motorsports – 4 Teams
Joe Gibbs Racing – 3 Teams
Penske Racing – 3 Teams

^ – Front Row Motorsports (No. 34 – John Andretti) uses a combination of Earnhardt/Childress and Pro Motors.

As you might expect, this consolidation of power in shops across the NASCAR community has become a major roadblock for others looking to break into the sport. More than one new car owner has told me the biggest expense in looking to establish themselves on the circuit is being able to afford an engine contract with a competitive team. If you’re an unsponsored car you have two options these days: run with a lower-tier engine program and hope to come close to breaking even on the purse, or dig yourself a deep financial hole with an expensive engine contract with a top team – in hopes that extra horsepower will make you run fast enough to attract a high-end sponsor.

So far this season, it looks like neither one of these strategies are working out as planned. TRG Motorsports is the best of the underdog operations these days, using the power of Earnhardt-Childress engines to their advantage. However, they’ve not been able to secure a primary sponsor to give them a sense of security moving forward through 2009. And for some of the other programs – Tommy Baldwin Racing and Mayfield Motorsports come to mind – they’ve chosen to avoid the expensive cost of those high-end contracts. Unfortunately, that’s come with a spurt of DNQs that have left them well outside the top 35 moving forward.

With common chassis, it’s the horsepower under the hood that remains the major innovation that can separate the contenders from the pretenders. So, while the common chassis may have done some good in making cars cheaper to purchase, parity could remain a simple illusion until the smaller teams have the ability to come in, build their own engine program, and compete with the big boys. Right now, that’s just too expensive … and so the “new blood” stays away or runs itself out of business before they even get their feet on solid ground.

Did You Notice? … With Jim France stepping down as CEO of International Speedway Corporation, the future of the company is now officially in the hands of the next generation of Frances. Continuing the tradition since the company was incorporated in 1953 (then known as Bill France Racing, Inc.) Lesa France Kennedy will take the helm as CEO effective June 1st.

At deadline this news is still breaking, so I’m still processing what this change will mean for the future of the sport – which means I don’t have ridiculously groundbreaking analysis here. But know this much … this move is big for the sport’s future. You’ve got to understand that ISC – which controls roughly half of the nearly two dozen tracks the Cup Series races on each year – has only had three CEOs throughout its 50-plus year existence: Bill France, Sr., Bill France, Jr., and Jim France. With that type of stability, any change at the top is significant; and with Jim once thought to replace Brian France as CEO of the sport, his basic “retirement” now makes that a virtual impossibility. For better or for worse, it’s Brian and Lesa steering the mother ship of stock car racing for the foreseeable future.

Did You Notice? … The highest-placed Nationwide-only driver has the potential to be someone the series could finally market itself around over the long-term? After a few inconsistent seasons behind the Braun Racing Toyota, Jason Leffler sits an impressive fourth in points six races into the season, just 196 points behind the Carl Edwards–Kyle Busch championship battle up front. Leffler hasn’t won a race yet, but he’s with one of the few Nationwide-only outfits that have the resources to do so, especially when we come to standalone races later in the season like Gateway and IRP.

Jason Leffler is quietly sitting right in the thick of the Nationwide Series title chase, a unique and now competitive face in a series searching for an identity.

The reason I mention Leffler is that in terms of future marketing for the series, aging veterans like David Green, Jason Keller, and Kenny Wallace will struggle to ever be championship contenders again. But in Leffler, you have a guy with a unique personality that’s also tried and failed at the Cup level twice. The Nationwide Series is where he’s consistently had the greatest amount of success, and one in which he can spend the next five, six, seven years and have a very successful career. That puts him in a different league than guys like Brad Keselowski and Justin Allgaier, both of whom the series will be lucky to even have next year as both their age and early season performances have left them in position to scoop up vacant Cup rides.

That’s why seeing a guy like Leffler succeed would ultimately be good for a series desperate to redefine itself. If he could just inch his way into the championship battle, it will give the series a little more of a leg to stand on and a different personality to can market…one that won’t disappear in a few years to run a Cup race the following day.

Did You Notice? … The notable furor surrounding Joe Nemechek not being allowed to finish the race after flipping over onto his roof? I’m not going to speak too much on the topic – it’s discussed at length in our Mirror Driving feature – but I think the incident itself speaks volumes about the way the three touring series are handled today.

To put it bluntly, Nemechek showed guts, passion, and aggression in wanting to finish that race. Back in 1997, Dale Earnhardt had a much more serious flip at Daytona and was allowed to end up finishing the event. But 12 years later, NASCAR refused to do such a thing under the context of “playing it safe.” And so, the emotion was placed with rules and regulations, keeping Nemechek on the sidelines while the rest of the race played out to a peaceful conclusion.

Again, I’m not saying safety shouldn’t be a top priority, but people don’t fill the stands to see drivers “play it safe.” People don’t fill the stands to see drivers that are run-of-the-mill. If they wanted to do that, well, I know a hill nearby where people can watch drivers go single file down a local highway in Pennsylvania. I’ll sell some tickets and they can watch that.

No, I’m not being callous; my biggest fear is to work a race where a driver winds up dying. But in the end, “safety” is an illusion, isn’t it? Every time drivers strap into a car and go 200 miles an hour into the turn, they’re taking their life into their hands because the sport is inherently dangerous. No amount of rules and regulations will ever change that fact; and at some point, we just need to sit back, take a deep breath, and let go.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
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NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
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Bobb
04/15/2009 02:09 AM
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“Safety is an illusion” surely disregards the engineering and improvements made throughout the history of the sport.

So long as NASCAR puts safety first and insists that the package be intact, they’ll never be in the wrong.

It’s simple to hindsight any decision by anyone, but if it’s lawyers in a suit doing the hindsight questioning, NASCAR would have lots to lose and little to gain by allowing a compromised car to continue.

Nemechek wanted to continue on but like many cars for many reasons, NASCAR prohibited it… as they prohibit cars with 4 of 5 lugnuts, window nettings that have come undone, refueling equipment still attached… there’s a pattern of consistency involving safety, including roof flaps.

Sorry to post such an unpopular reply, but in the long run, it’s what we all expect from NASCAR; safety and consistency.

MJR in Springfield VA
04/15/2009 06:28 AM
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“For better or for worse, it’s Brian and Lesa steering the mother ship of stock car racing for the foreseeable future.”

Danger, danger Will Robinson, DANGER!!!

Shayne Flaherty
04/15/2009 06:59 AM
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Joe spoke about this last night. The roof flaps were the issue with NASCAR. Not a popular call by NASCAR, but the right call by NASCAR.

M.B. Voelker
04/15/2009 09:52 AM
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You figure that teams which were incapable of securing adequate financing but jumped in way over their heads anyways are somehow entitled to succeed regardless of their inadequacies?

You figure that if a driver has guts and heart he should be allowed to race in a car that is missing critical components necessary for bringing him back alive should he be in another wreck?

Do you grasp that this involves real people in the real world and not the digital constructs of a video game?

News flash — in the real world underfunded businesses fail.

News flash — inadequate safety equipment already cost Martha Nemechek one son.

Bobb
04/15/2009 12:51 PM
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M.B. Voelker; I instantly thought of John Nemechek as I went to post my opposition to the “safety is an illusion” comment.

Surely the author of the piece knew his tragedy also.

For all the whining that NASCAR blew the call regarding Joe Nemechek, I’d like to remind those critical of NASCAR that the death rate is going down rapidly. The number of drivers incapicitated is following that trend. Be as disregarding as you will about safety, but it isn’t just an illusion.

Safety advancements, like headstones in a cemetary, are far from an illusion.

Dennis
04/15/2009 02:46 PM
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Safety is not an illusion. Certainly sitting on the couch is safer than racing, but great strides have been made in making racing safer. Failure to manage the risk is the danger. NASCAR made the correct call.

djones
04/15/2009 05:59 PM
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Now that Lesa is in charge, look for more races at CA and KS. There goes any chance for Bruton to get any second race dates.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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.