The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Harvick's Plea To NASCAR, Martin's Right Turn Gone Wrong, And "Toasty" Bread by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday August 12, 2009

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Did You Notice? … Something during the rain-delayed ESPN broadcast that caught my attention? Kevin Harvick was being interviewed in the studio, and while the group was chatting the topic changed to driver development. All of a sudden, Harvick took a serious tone and started talking about defunct series like NASCAR’s Winter Heat, offseason racing televised on the major networks where drivers like himself, Greg Biffle, and others were “discovered” by owners in NASCAR’s top three series.

Of course, there isn’t any type of special series like that anymore that’s on a major TV network on a regular basis. So Harvick took the opportunity to preach his own homily, pleading with both television and the powers at be with NASCAR to change it.

Now, Harvick is the type of guy that spouts his mouth off about everything and anything he gets a chance to. But on this particular topic … he’s right. While it should be NASCAR’s responsibility, not the networks, to resuscitate those types of series, something needs to be done to get some independent driver development established so car owners can have some in-house talent to choose from rather than reaching from other forms of racing to replace aging veterans.

I hear you muttering to yourself over there … you say the Nationwide Series is the perfect proving ground? Not when Cup drivers jump over and win almost all the races in that division each year. And over on the Truck side, while the series continues to gain popularity, it’s looked at as more of a Senior Tour in which former Cup drivers Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine, and Ron Hornaday, Jr. do battle with a couple of guys in Rick Crawford and Matt Crafton who just were never in the right place at the right time to get there. It’s a unique mix that continues to gain traction with a stock car audience, but with the exception of a few guys (Brian Scott, Taylor Malsam, Colin Braun) that’s no longer the Truck Series’ bread and butter.

A look at the past three NASCAR rookie classes shows you how bad the “farm system” has gotten. Here’s a list of rookies from 2007, 2008, and this year:

2007 – A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, David Ragan, David Reutimann
2008 – Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, Jr., Michael McDowell, Regan Smith, Jacques Villeneuve
2009 – Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Max Papis, Scott Speed
(open wheelers in BOLD)

That’s a roughly 50/50 mix of drivers from stock car backgrounds versus those who came up through NASCAR’s “minor league” system. But check this out: of the seven drivers with a stock car background, only THREE (Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and David Reutimann) had a full season or more under the belt in NASCAR’s Nationwide or Truck Series before making the switch. In essence, the other five were “thrown into the fire” with just a handful of starts.

Cup regulars like Greg Biffle have their careers in NASCAR thanks to opportunities they got in development series… opportunities that have dramatically dried up in recent years.

Since these drivers aren’t being given much time to prove their worth, it makes their jump up to Cup a total crapshoot … which is why it’s not surprising that for every Joey Logano, there’s been a McDowell who clearly needed more development time in a Nationwide or Truck before being given a top-level opportunity. But if there was a stable farm system with owners having both the patience and money to keep these guys for a couple of years before moving up to Cup, then there wouldn’t be as much pressure for them to make a move so quickly before it’s too late …

How do you fix it? I think the Nationwide Series is the answer, but the sport must do more to both cut costs and kick out Cup drivers who are absolutely running roughshod over the competition. A CoT that looks nothing like the Cup design is a step in the right direction, as the Cup guys are discovering already what they learn on Saturday doesn’t translate so well to Sunday when the cars are totally different. But as I’ve said before in this space, encouraging diversity in ownership would also help. The more separation there is between Cup and Nationwide, the more owners there are looking for drivers outside their current sphere of influence to move up to at least a second-tier level. Right now, if you don’t sign with Roush, Hendrick, or Gibbs as a development driver you’re dead in the water … and if you do sign with them, how are you going to get anywhere? As we are seeing with Mr. Keselowski at the Cup level, these owners are so filled up with drivers on their own roster they don’t have any room at the inn.

New owners and their new blood are the answer to that problem. Having successful Nationwide owners whose primary responsibility is success in that series, with drivers dedicated to that series alone, can provide a place for these young drivers to nestle and develop. But of course, Harvick already knows about that division … he’s busy running his own team with himself as the driver in a majority of races. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black …

As for a resumption of the Winter Heat Series, again it’s a great idea that would lead to plenty of other drivers being “discovered” at a stock car racing level. But once again, you need to entice new ownership to enter the sport and cut costs associated with running the cars under this economy. I ask again … where are the new owners? Do you see them? Because I don’t.

Did You Notice? … How Joey Logano’s personality finally showed signs of growth this weekend? I knew we were keeping Robby Gordon in NASCAR for something.

Seriously, the sport’s biggest instigator finally instigated the largest display of emotion yet from a kid who’s still finding his way less than one year after entering NASCAR’s top series (as I wrote about last month.) After a series of beating and banging that lasted over a handful of laps, Gordon unceremoniously dumped Logano right into the wall in Turn 9 after the Cup rookie made inadvertent contact with Tony Raines to cause a caution. The resulting wreck left Logano’s No. 20 a pile of mush, leaving the 19-year-old scrambling to exit a car that caught fire while Gordon was left not just unscathed, but rewarded with the free pass that got him back on the lead lap.

Considering he once had a car capable of running in the top 5, you can imagine the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wasn’t exactly thrilled to be heading back early attached to a wrecker. So when questioned by an ESPN reporter shortly afterwards, suddenly the robotic, vanilla, nice-guy attitude programmed into him at an early age by sponsors, car owners, and so many others finally was replaced by a hint of flavor we hadn’t yet seen before.

“You can’t fix stupid,” he said. “It’s forever. You put that in your memory bank.”

To be fair, if NASCAR had any shred of consistency they would have penalized Gordon for making a move at a section of track that produced a handful of scary incidents this weekend, each of which jeopardized a driver’s safety. But while a penalty for that type of thing is a different argument altogether, it was refreshing to know that contrary to popular belief, NASCAR’s newest rookie actually can get mad. And as the sport’s newest star slowly gets more comfortable in his own skin, I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more than the generic sponsor drivel his generation is known for. At least, we can hope …

Did You Notice? … That while road courses may not be a part of the Chase, there’s a handful of drivers who can blame them for taking a right turn straight out of the playoffs? Here’s a look at the point totals from Infineon and Watkins Glen for our Chase bubble drivers (seventh through fifteenth in the standings) …

Kasey Kahne’s Chase chances were actually strengthened thanks to the season’s two road course races.

Juan Pablo Montoya – 300
Kasey Kahne – 307
Ryan Newman – 212
Greg Biffle – 234
Mark Martin – 152
Matt Kenseth – 230
Kyle Busch – 267
Brian Vickers – 250
Clint Bowyer – 280

Of course, the big surprise stands out as Kahne, who pulled a surprise victory at Infineon before being Sam Hornish, Jr.’s personal spinning partner at Watkins Glen. Montoya also used his specialty to solidify a spot in the top 12, not surprising despite the fact his aggression and hunger to go for the win has sometimes tripped him up in the past (see: Harvick-Montoya catfight, 2007).

An even bigger disappointment is Martin, who hadn’t run on a road course since 2006 in the Cup Series but is certainly no slouch (he once won three consecutive races at the Glen back in the mid-1990s). Too close for comfort when it comes to the Chase despite a series-leading four wins, Martin is giving up close to 100 points – if not more – to Busch, Bowyer, and Vickers behind him in these two races alone. Without that differential, he’d be nearly 200 points ahead of 13th and all but punching his playoff ticket at this point.

What was the problem with Martin’s cars? Well, turns out all of Hendrick Motorsports not named Jeff Gordon tends to struggle on road courses. Jimmie Johnson has never scored a road course win, and Junior has yet to even finish in the top 10 in four starts behind the wheel of the No. 88. Even Casey Mears and Brian Vickers – former Hendrick drivers – had just one top 5 finish between them in about a dozen road course attempts behind the wheel of HMS’ top-level equipment. Only Gordon has been the exception to the rule, but even he hasn’t figured out the intricacies of road racing in the CoT; his last win on that type of track came at Infineon way back in 2006.

Looks like we finally found a way to stop Hendrick’s dominance of the Cup Series, huh? Add Infineon or the Glen to the Chase in 2010 – or even a course like Mid-Ohio in place of the struggling Auto Club Speedway – and perhaps everyone else not named Johnson might stand a chance.

Did You Notice? … Ford’s new engine is rumored to pop up at Michigan this weekend? There’s no other perfect place for it to make its debut, as MIS has been Ford’s personal playground through the years. But in all seriousness, this is a critical weekend for the manufacturer more than any other. With short tracks like Bristol and Richmond not Roush Fenway’s forte, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and yes – even Carl Edwards – want to make sure they cash in with top 5 finishes to give them some breathing room in case they trip up a bit down the stretch.

By the way, it’s now been a stretch of 20 Cup races since a Ford last visited Victory Lane. Wanna guess the last time that happened?

You have to go all the way back to when Buicks dominated the sport for a brief time in the early 1980s. Winning just twice in 1982, Ford had a 33-race winless streak snapped by Buddy Baker at Daytona in July of 1983. Baker was behind the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, scoring what was his final Cup Series victory in a career that spanned parts of four decades.

Well, guess who’s entered in Michigan this weekend? The winningest active driver at the track, Bill Elliott, behind the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. And at 53, the former champ is looking for one last win before he retires, leaving behind a career that’s spanned parts of four decades.

Would make one heck of a cool story, huh? Hey, a guy can dream …

Note: For more on Ford’s struggles this season, check out Vito Pugliese’s commentary over on our site today.

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Ryan
08/12/2009 10:08 AM
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Tom , you are the undisputed master of using words to fill empty pages . No thought , no insight , just the required number of words to fill the blank space . You might actually like stock car racing if you ever paid attention to it .
Did it ever occur to you that maybe Joeys’ personality comes from good parents and up bringing rather than programing from sponsors and car owners ? No , no story line there i guess .

Ed
08/12/2009 10:45 AM
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Amen. I don’t think anyone ever taught this guy the idea of “editing” his work. I gave up after the 7555577th word. But I did go back and read the point you talk about “Ryan.” You are on target. Maybe Logano is just a well-mannered young man doing his job. No, no story there, especially when you have loud mouth arrogant and narcissistic people like the Busch boys. You know people complain about JJ’s bland personality. I could care less about what he says after a race. He is one of the most tenacious drivers ever to strap in. That’s what I want to see. Who cares about their marketing skills? My advice to you Mr. Bowles would be to find a part-time editor to clean up your diatribes. You might have something interesting to say. Who knows? You have to read 10,000 words to get 600…

Carl D.
08/12/2009 11:20 AM
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Tom…

Personally, I enjoyed your column. I actually hadn’t noticed some things that you pointed out, especially how poorly Mark Martin has performed at the road courses compared to his rivals for the final chase spots. And I didn’t realize that the road races were races he’d skipped when he was on a limited schedule. Thanks for pointing that out.

And kudos for the comments about Logano. I’m sure he IS a nice guy who was brought up well by his parents yada yada yada… but it’s still nice to see that he’s capable of more emotion than “I’m just starting out and I’m kinda on a budget”.

HankZ
08/12/2009 12:57 PM
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Did You Notice? … Something during the rain-delayed ESPN broadcast that caught my attention. Tony Stewart was being interviewed in the studio and called Jeff Gordon a “teammate”? Twice?

Joe C.
08/12/2009 02:57 PM
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Nationwide is hardly a development series, it’s for a final polishing and check to see if they can be real professionals. It’s like AAA baseball, those who play there are either at the last step of making it, or aren’t quite good enough to be on top, but too good to let loose, whether they’re young or old.

wcfan
08/12/2009 05:53 PM
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Being a fan of the underdog, I’m going to defend Robby Gordon by saying he is tired of these young kids on “mega” teams beating and banging on his car. When he is involved in a wreck that comes out of his pocket not the owners like Gibbs and Penske the last two weeks. Like Robby or not he has had to drive some underfunded equipment unlike some of the “wonderkids” in the cup series today.

Douglas
08/12/2009 09:00 PM
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Hey wcfan, well stated about Robby Gordon!

We now have young punks coming into the series, and are becoming INSTANT millionaires, along with INSTANT fame, and think their crap “don’t stink”!

So they have this attitude that anyone not on a “well funded team”, is nothing!

I think Logano (in particular) needs an attitude adjustment!

mkrcr
08/12/2009 11:01 PM
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Having crewed for Garrett Evans #64 in ’94 Winter Heat series, I can attest first hand to the importance and excitement that “made for TV” series had. Ron Hornaday won that first race, Garrett won the second. And so that series would go, back and forth. In the end, Hornaday prevailed and moved on to the career we’ve seen. Garrett chose another path. He’s a four time Northwest Tour Champion and known in many racing series.
Bottom line, without that Winter Heat series, there are a lot of West Coast racers who may have never had those doors opened and enjoyed the success we see today. How many more untapped Saturday night racers are out there. Maybe in this economy NA$CAR will wise up and see where the real stars come from.

mkrcr
08/13/2009 12:31 AM
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Excuse the dbl dip. But in order to have those new owners in the Nationwide series, you must first have hungry, talented drivers who are willing to do what it takes to succeed. Where do they come from? Certainly not from the other series where drivers are used to and demand high dollar contracts. Provide a way for the Saturday night racers to get exposure and new owners will follow.

chris
08/13/2009 02:20 PM
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Heh…i thought, given the context: Logano in over his head, and “picking a fight” with Robby, then getting unsurprisingly dumped.

I thought the “can’t fix stupid, stupid is forever” was a comment of the self-deprecating sort. :)

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
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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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