The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Restrictor Plate One-Hit Wonders And The New Precedent Of "Probation" by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 22, 2009

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Did You Notice? … Just probation for Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Did you really expect the sanctioning body to do anything more after their little post-race altercation at Phoenix? We already have the U.S. Army spread out in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere across the globe… there’s no need to dispatch an additional battalion to protect Brian France and Co. should they have made the bold, unprecedented move of suspending Earnhardt for aggressive driving — or taking away points that could possibly keep him from Chase-ing with the season he’s had.

Looking back at the past year, probation is the exact same penalty Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart got for their on-track altercation at Daytona last February, as well as what Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch received for their Bristol brouhaha. The new precedent has been set, ladies and gentlemen…the question now is whether more drivers not named Robby Gordon will take advantage of it, understanding that throwing a little temper tantrum now and then won’t put you in position to lose a title.

What’s my take on the whole thing? Thank God. It’s about time some sort of small-scale fireworks ensued on what’s been a dud of a 2009 Cup season to date. It’s just too bad it happened with two drivers who didn’t really have an impact on the final outcome of the race itself.

Did You Notice? … This whole ideal this week that since Mark Martin won, that made the bad racing OK? On message boards and fan sites all over the place, people are talking about how boring the racing was this weekend – yet Martin’s win is good enough to sweep all the bad blood under the rug.

While Martin’s win on Saturday was unsurprisingly popular, it was surprising to hear a number of fans who criticized the racing that took place at PIR… until after the outcome was decided.

To me, that’s a little hypocritical. Look, I appreciate the magnitude Mark Martin’s win – as I explained in Monday’s article – but you can’t call the sanctioning body out for single-file racing and then proclaim it’s all OK just because a classy driver won. If the racing sucked, it sucked… simple as that. Fans looking to effect permanent change can’t flip-flop based on which driver is in first place. Personally, I’m in the minority concerning the race at Phoenix, because I thought there was some pretty hefty competition between spots back in the pack. But if you disagree…claiming Martin’s win made the racing acceptable doesn’t make much sense to me.

Did You Notice? … The Daytona 500 is less of an indicator of season-long success than ever before? Heading into the second restrictor plate race of the year, no less than six of this year’s top 10 finishers in the Great American Race have yet to better their runs from February (and that’s not including winner Matt Kenseth, who’s tumbled to 12th in points after starting 2009 2-for-2 with Victory Lane). Desperate for the draft to salvage what’s left of their season, let’s take a look at each of these men who left their mojo down in Florida:

Kevin Harvick
Daytona 500: 2nd
Best Finish Since: 4th – Atlanta

As I wrote about a few weeks back, Harvick’s poor start can be attributed in part to a history of poor performances on “cookie cutters” like Fontana and Texas. Fontana was actually Harvick’s first DNF in over two years – stopping short his quest to pass Herman Beam in that category – and the team really hasn’t seemed to get back on track since. What’s really appeared to hurt Harvick more than anything lately is his pitiful performance at the short tracks. In three starts in Bristol, Martinsville, and Phoenix this year the No. 29 has an almost-unthinkable average finish of 23.7 – without many extenuating circumstances other than a set of poor-handling race cars. That’s the epitome of shooting one’s self in the foot during what’s usually RCR’s strongest stretch of the year.

Instead, that disaster’s left the team just 16th in the Sprint Cup standings, 77 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final spot in the Chase. In the meantime, Harvick’s self-owned programs continue to excel, with Harvick finishing fifth in his No. 33 Chevy at Phoenix Friday night to score his third top 5 finish in just five Nationwide Series starts this year. He’s also seemed to find a possible home in announcing, critically praised for his role in the ARCA broadcast this Sunday. But if Talladega leads to a terrible disaster, you wonder if maybe, just maybe, DeLana should go run the shops for a month while Harvick focuses on the ride he’s paid to drive. Michael Waltrip can tell him a thing or two about the consequences of putting too much on your plate… and unlike Waltrip, Harvick actually runs the risk of getting fired on the Cup side if he fails.

A.J. Allmendinger
Daytona 500: 3rd
Best Finish Since: 9th – Martinsville

In some ways, it’s deceiving for the ‘Dinger to make my list, since he’s run well enough to earn himself a contract extension through 2010. That RPM was willing to lock up the open-wheeler without enough sponsorship for a full season (yet) speaks volumes as to how they feel about his potential. But while I do think he’s always been the real deal, it’s notable the man’s had the extra incentive of fighting for a job for oh, about the last 12 months. Now that Allmendinger’s finally received the stability he seeks, the key is to keep the fire burning and not get too comfortable in an age where far too many are content to settle for 20th place. Finishes of 34th and 35th the past two weeks have made the Chase a long shot at best; now that the ‘Dinger’s shooting for wins and a top 20 points finish, will that be incentive enough to keep his development on track?

Elliott Sadler
Daytona 500: 5th
Best Finish Since: 20th (twice)

There’s no question Sadler’s looked the worst of these restrictor plate one-hit wonders. He’s been so invisible this year, sometimes I even forget the freaking guy’s on the race track. But for this one, it seems the biggest problem appears to be Mother Nature. If the rain had come just one lap earlier, it’d be Sadler, not Kenseth, as your 2009 Daytona 500 winner – and that loss appears to have taken the wind out of this Virginian’s sails.

Of course, let’s not forget this guy needed legal action to put him back behind the driver’s seat this year, too…and that’s bound to mess up team chemistry just a bit. Sadler and RPM look to me like a married couple who’ve gotten back together just because it’d be more of a pain to break up. But marriages of convenience in this sport tend to come with a ticking time bomb attached… and for Sadler, the clock is quickly running out.

David Ragan
Daytona 500: 6th
Best Finish Since: 17th – Fontana

Who would have guessed that Ragan’d be on this list? Armed with both a high-dollar sponsor and that always tenuous “driver about to have a breakout season” tag attached to his back, the Chase appeared to have already put together a golden throne for this man’s arrival. Hopefully, it won’t be that expensive to make a return, because there’s no way that’s going to happen at this point. You could count the number of laps Ragan’s led on your thumb, and at 30th in Sprint Cup points he’s already over 220 points out of the Chase. Thank God for Ragan both youth and exuberance are on his side, or Jack Roush would have actually had to stop and think for a minute about whether he should actually release Jamie McMurray after all.

And on a side note, you’ve got to feel just a little sorry for sponsor UPS. The year after they bolt from David Reutimann, Michael Waltrip Racing suddenly rises from the ashes and puts him in position to both win and make the Chase. In over eight seasons of sponsorship in NASCAR, the company has just eight wins – six of which occurred in its first two seasons – and has never had a driver finish higher than fifth in points in its car.

Michael Waltrip
Daytona 500: 7th
Best Finish Since: 13th – Martinsville

You better believe Waltrip was going to make this list! Since his surprising performance in the Great American Race, the driver/owner’s watched both Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose push forward while his own No. 55 is stuck in reverse. Despite arguably the best crew chief within the whole organization – (“Bootie” Barker), the most money (NAPA), and the most experience, he’s yet to even score another top 10 while plummeting to 25th in points.

One thing about Waltrip you should know, though, is that whole theory he’s only good at plate tracks is actually a bit of a myth. Yeah, his four career wins all came at Daytona and Talladega. But since 2002, Waltrip has just eight of his 42 top 10 finishes at those two tracks, and he actually has run more consistently at Michigan and a handful of other speedways.

Oh, well … according to Robby Gordon, Waltrip’s strengths and weaknesses won’t really matter by February 2010, anyways. Forget about the jayski; I’m getting all my Silly Season news from Gordon from now on …

Reed Sorenson
Daytona 500: 9th
Best Finish Since: 12th – Phoenix

Is it just me, or is it appropriate considering how poorly the No. 43 has run in recent years the worst of RPM’s four driver fleet is assigned to that car? In the past year and a half, Sorenson has come up with just three top 10 finishes…and two of them have occurred at restrictor plate tracks. How running well at four races gives you a ride for all 36 is beyond me…but at this point, that’s the only consistent success the Georgia driver has on his resume. For his sake, let’s hope full-season sponsorship for Allmendinger comes through…because you gotta believe he’s the one most likely to get canned if it doesn’t.

So there you have it, folks: Six drivers who started the Daytona 500 with a bang that have fizzled ever since. Combined, they’ve scored just two other top 10 finishes in 42 starts this season – but the crapshoot that is restrictor plate racing gives them a chance to contend three more times this year.

Looks like they better make the most of it …

Contact Tom Bowles

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Bobb
04/22/2009 02:47 AM
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“Personally, I’m in the minority concerning the race at Phoenix, because I thought there was some pretty hefty competition between spots back in the pack.” TBowles.

Yeah, I agree… but there was also one heckuva hammer and tong, knock-down, drag-out between Martin, Stewart, and Kurt Busch all race long! Ask any of them; they’ll tell you! There were passes amongst them… and none never got far enough away from the others to quit wondering, “Where is he now?”

I say, “disregard the people that need passes for the lead to have a good race!
Make them watch any random ten races from ten years ago… and then they’ll learn how fictional their memories are!

I so appreciate your point how the perception of the race suddenly became good when “Sara Lee” (everbody likes Sara Lee) won the race. If the “quality of the racing” is a matter of the popularity of the winning driver, then we’ve abandoned racing and entered the popularity contest.

And the last time I checked, most popular wins the “Most congenial” while the winner of the race on the track is something far superior.

Dans Mom
04/22/2009 08:35 AM
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You think Robby Gordon sitting 35th in points is worried about a points deduction “putting him in position to lose a title.” Putting him out of the top 35 is more like it.

Gordon82Wins
04/22/2009 09:19 AM
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Michael Waltrip WAS good at plate tracks because DEI WAS good at plate tracks…he and Junior won something like seven out of eight at one point. At plate tracks it’s all about aero and has nothing to do with the driver.

Marc
04/22/2009 07:55 PM
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Gordon82Wins, the driver is very important at Talladega. He has to manuver a car drifting all over the place, not just off the car beside him, but to the front of the pack without causing a mass pileup. He is not just within sight of the leader in second place, but right up under the bumper, with 41 other cars breathing down his neck. So I’d say for the record it takes one helluva driver to win at Dega. And oh by the way, I have watched at least 20 races at Talladega from the seats, not in front of the tube, and it is a lots closer looking in person than on TV.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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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.

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