The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... The Power Of Motivation, Danica Drama, And How To Shoot Yourself In The Foot by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 9, 2009

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Did You Notice? … How the simple threat of future job security in NASCAR can motivate drivers sitting in midpack? Every year about this time, there can be so many that enter an ugly routine of just going through the motions. They’re not bad enough to have to fight to stay within the top 35, but not good enough to contend for a spot in the Chase, leaving them lost in delivering the equivalent of a C/C- performance on paper each week. With a 36-race schedule becoming a daily grind, it gets to the point where these teams simply collect their weekly paycheck and muddle on through a year defined by complacency. It’s like the guy in Office Space before he realizes the job has started boring him out of his mind; the most exciting thing in his life is finishing up at the end of the day and going to watch kung fu.

Alright, so maybe Bobby Labonte does a little something different in his spare time. But I think we can all agree his year was pretty uneventful until the rug was pulled out from under him at Hall of Fame / Yates Racing. Replaced by Erik Darnell for seven of the last 12 races, the only ride Labonte could find on short notice (considering he hasn’t won since 2003) was with a small-time team that occasionally start-and-parks due to a lack of funding (TRG). The No. 71 car lacks half the resources of a team he left … yet what does the former champ go out and do? Finish in the top 20 for his best finish since the end of May and the team’s best since Las Vegas all the way back in March. At the end, you see the 45-year-old showing more fire than he has since getting sold some faulty info by Petty Enterprises at the end of 2008.

“See, David, it’s easy to turn your season around. All you have to do is go to your boss and have him threaten to take your job away!”

As impressive as that underdog performance is, it begs the question, “Where was this surge in performance when he drove the No. 96?” But Labonte’s not the first to feel a sudden twinge of motivation behind the wheel after getting the pink slip. David Stremme’s another example, who had perhaps his strongest run of the year Sunday in Roger Penske’s No. 12 car (14th) just days after being told he won’t be brought back for 2010. It was his second top 15 in the last three weeks, the perfect audition as he looks to keep himself full-time in the Cup Series next year.

Even the threat of breaking up can sometimes lift a midpack team during the “summer doldrums.” At Indy the end of July, Kevin Harvick threatened to leave RCR to the point where it seemed Stewart-Haas was already setting up a third car with his name on the door. Childress fought back, having a private meeting in which he promised the team’s flagship driver a fresh start. In the six races since, Harvick has four top 15s, one less than he had over the first five months of the season.

Now, compare that to what happens once the sudden adrenaline boost fades away. For example, A.J. Allmendinger started the year with no guarantee of a ride beyond Texas in April in the No. 44. Desperately fighting to keep his job, he scored four top 20 finishes in the first six races before Richard Petty Motorsports signed him to a two-year deal in mid-April. With his future intact, you’d think there’d be a movement onwards and upwards; instead, he’s got just one top 10 ever since and has plummeted to 25th in points. Want another case in point? Just check out Michael Waltrip’s stat line as of late, who’s looking forward to retirement and a limited schedule in 2010. Since going public with the change in July, he’s got just one finish inside the top 25 to go along with two DNFs in six starts.

I think these all just go to show you what athletes try and make their fans understand all the time: they’re human beings just like the rest of us, capable of going through the same type of ruts we all face as working professionals over the course of our lives. Because of that, I think that’s for these middling teams, the crew chiefs, GMs, and overall management hold the key to their success over the next 11 races. With the Chase one week away, these cars are facing next to no TV time combined with a dearth of media coverage unless they run up front; and with nothing to look forward to, it’s so easy to throw in the towel and do just that. But without a kick in the pants or an extra push to break out of the slump, how is 2010 going to be any different for anyone in this category?

Certainly, I don’t recommend holding a job over someone’s head to fix a problem. Yet for “mediocre” drivers like Elliott Sadler, David Ragan, Reed Sorenson, etc. you wonder if they’re in need of a similar jolt. I mean, what would happen if Richard Petty Motorsports said they’ll scale down to three teams for 2010: Kasey Kahne’s No. 9, and the two cars who have the best average finish over the final 10 races of the season? Talk about adding a little extra drama to the schedule … you wouldn’t see those cars pulling over for Chase contenders, that’s for darn sure.

Did You Notice? … In the midst of Kevin Harvick’s dominant performance late in the race at Atlanta, his pit crew almost blew the race for him? With less than 100 laps to go, the No. 29 dropped from the lead to fourth after a poor pit stop under caution let Kasey Kahne get out in front.

What’s the cruel irony here? As we reported a few weeks ago, the team didn’t have all its “A” crew members in place because a few of them were on loan to Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 – just because the car was in playoff contention. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot … it’s the perfect example of how this type of strategy backfires, especially for a team that needs a win at any level from whoever can give it to them at this point.

And by the way, did anyone else notice the cruel irony of Bowyer himself bringing out the final caution after Harvick had finally fought his way back to the front and started pulling away? When it’s not your year, man, it’s not your year … Mr. Childress better fix that mirror he broke, because this slump is bordering on out of control.

Did You Notice? … David Gilliland is the hottest Silly Season driver on the market right now? Running three races for a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing team, the No. 02, Gilliland will also run the No. 7 for Robby Gordon at Richmond one week after filling in for the Wood Brothers in their No. 21 Ford. And that’s all in addition to his regular ride at the No. 71 for TRG Motorsports (although he’ll now share time with Bobby Labonte after his recent “semi-release” from Hall of Fame Racing).

Now, you’ve got to admit Gilliland has done a respectable job this year in keeping an underfunded TRG afloat. But when a driver with four top 10 finishes in 110 career starts is the best free agent prospect out there … you know you’ve got a driver development problem. In my opinion, that’s likely the biggest reason why Joe Gibbs Racing isn’t willing to expand to four cars full-time yet. As RCR has shown us already this season, why bother to make the switch unless you have the right people and funding in place so you don’t skip a beat? While Gilliland is a good driver, he’s not nearly at the talent level of a Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, or Denny Hamlin … so you’re better off building a team around a young talent. But as we saw in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night – where the top 13 drivers will all be full-time in Cup in 2010 – there’s just no new blood to be found.

Danica, where are you? You can’t get here soon enough. And speaking of racing’s number one gal …

Did You Notice? … That Danica’s signing could turn into the ultimate Rick Hendrick vs Jack Roush battle – disguised as two other teams? With a new contract at Andretti Green on the table, IRL rival Chip Ganassi falls out of the bidding war, leaving NASCAR’s Ford and Chevy top dawgs as the likely suitors for her services, respectively.

Here’s the problem for both those organizations right now; there’s no room at the inn on their “A” teams, nor will there be for the foreseeable future. So, instead you’ll see news stories like Danica visiting Stewart-Haas Racing (the equivalent to Hendrick “B”) in between conversations I know she’s had with Roush Fenway (who would put her on their “B” team, Yates Racing). It’s got the potential to be the most blatant violation yet of the four-team rule that wasn’t … you just wait and see.

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Fred
09/09/2009 06:16 AM
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I’m definitely biased towards Gilliland… having hung out with his Winston West pit crew and living only a 1/4 mile from the dyno shop he used to use.

But according to what they said during the last race, he has completed 94% of the laps of the races he has been in. Granted, he has been by no means a front runner, but then again, when has he had the equipment behind him to be a contender? I think that 94% speaks volumes when it comes to keeping a car owner in the top 35 in points. So that easily pushes him ahead in my book for being a driver to keep your eye on. Granted, only time will tell.

glenn
09/09/2009 10:45 AM
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sorry but I have no confidence in Gilliland. He won a NNS race on a fluke and somehow got a cup ride. And Danica? While that will bring a few temporary viewers, if she were male we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Over-rated.

Bill B
09/09/2009 12:23 PM
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Glenn is right. All this hype around Danica only exists because of her gender. She has done next to nothing in IRL to warrant all this attention.

HankZ
09/09/2009 12:58 PM
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Your first DYN is not suprising at all. I’ve noticed this trend for the last decade. Even from some of the big names. Once the new contract or deal is made, complacency creeps (back) in.

Also, Bobby LaBonte is a hothead, a nice guy in interviews, but a hothead! IMO, his 18th place finish at Atlanta was nothing more than a show-them-up (96 team) run. We’ll see where he finishes the next 11 races. Oh, he does have talent mind you, just very little fire (only shown in short bursts). Combine that attitude with the complacency attitude and you’ve got partial ingredients for the current mediocre stockcar racing state of affairs. Makes me wonder if the drivers attitude in the garage parallels, or is related to, the majority of the fans disgust from the last half dozen years.

Jimbo
09/09/2009 04:59 PM
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When Danica makes the switch to NASCAR will her name become Danica Patrick Jr.?

KeithM
09/09/2009 11:11 PM
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lets not be too hard on Bobby. hall of Fame racing and yates haven’t exactly been powerhouses the last several years. It seems to me that since leaving Gibbs, Bobby has taken mediocre rides (petty, hall of fame/yates, TRG) and gotten the occasional decent finish.

Popo
09/10/2009 12:43 AM
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Bobby Labonte is a hothead? That’s one for the ages right there. HankZ is one funny dude!

Danica
09/10/2009 12:44 AM
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Bill B,
What do you mean I’ve done nothing to warrant all this attention? Haven’t you seen my SI Swimsuit Edition and my GoDaddy stuff? When I’m done I’ll have all of NA$CAR wrapped around me just like Tony Stewart. Who cares if I can’t drive those big, ugly things as long as I bring the looks. And when they do figure it out, I’ll just stomp off to the bank with all the suckers money. Go Daddy!

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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