The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Mark Martin Abandoned, F-1/NASCAR Flavor, And Earnhardt Needs A New Crew Chief? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 7, 2009

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Did You Notice? … That despite leading the points for three straight weeks, no one’s jumping on the Mark Martin bandwagon quite yet? Despite opening a gap of 18 points over Jimmie Johnson and 51 over everyone else, the 50-year-old is still buried in the headlines this week while Johnson remains the prohibitive favorite.

Why are people so reluctant to jump on board? Simple: You can only cry wolf so many times before everyone stops paying attention. Sure, this year has been different for Martin, who carries an air of confidence and calm about him that we’ve never seen when fighting for a title. No question, he’s driving for the best team in the business right now in Hendrick Motorsports. But in all reality, no one – not even Martin himself – will jump on board this title fight until he makes it through Talladega (i.e., “the lotto”) unscathed. The poor man’s been through so much heartbreak that at this point, we don’t just worry about Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last second – we expect it.

The stats aren’t exactly in Martin’s favor over the next six weeks, either. Six of the next seven tracks left on the schedule are ones we’re visiting for the second time this season. Martin’s average finish at those six places this spring? A mediocre 19.0 … the worst average of any of the 12 Chasers. Here’s a full comparison if you’re interested:

As well as Mark Martin has been running over the last month, the numbers still point to him falling short of his first career Cup title.

Mark Martin – 19.0
Jimmie Johnson – 9.8
Juan Pablo Montoya – 13.7
Tony Stewart – 9.8
Kurt Busch – 12.3
Denny Hamlin – 9.8
Jeff Gordon – 13.8
Greg Biffle – 11.2
Ryan Newman – 11.7
Carl Edwards – 13.5
Kasey Kahne – 17.7
Brian Vickers – 15.2

As you can see, two of Martin’s closest three challengers (Johnson and Tony Stewart) have him badly beaten in this category. I know Martin’s poor performance was due to DNFs more than anything else, but that’s exactly the type of thing everyone’s so concerned about, isn’t it? After all, Martin’s gone no more than six races this season without a finish of 31st or worse. It’s a streak he actually tied Sunday at Kansas — which means to win the championship, he’s likely going to have to stretch that number to 13.

Can he do it? Of course he’s got a chance. But history is not on his side.

Did You Notice? … This sudden wave of Formula 1 drivers looking to try their hand at stock cars? One week after 42-year-old Mika Salo announced a test for Michael Waltrip Racing, F-1 driver Nelson Piquet, Jr. will join the IRL’s Vitor Meira in a two-truck test for Red Horse Racing next week. The goal: see where their times stack up and if an open-wheel to stock car conversion could be right for them.

You’d think after the mixed results of open-wheel superstars in NASCAR (Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Jacques Villeneuve, Sam Hornish, Jr. vs Dario Franchitti) combined with NASCAR’s shaky economics, drivers would think twice before making the switch. But when you think about it, this trio all shares something in common: They’ll never be in position to drive top equipment in open-wheel ever again. With Piquet’s role in the Renault cheating scandal (crashing his car in the Singapore Grand Prix intentionally last year to set up a win for teammate Fernando Alonso) chances are he’ll never land a top-notch ride in Formula 1. Salo’s age (42) makes him a dead duck even with the series expanding their grid in 2010, while Meira just went through a scary Indy 500 wreck that sidelined him for months and, at 32, left him an IRL driver most teams just don’t want to take a chance on.

So heck, if I were them why wouldn’t I try my hand in NASCAR? I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by a sport desperate for any type of new talent it can get right now. And when you take a look at the big picture, with the advent of technology this decade these stock cars are set up more like Formula 1 than ever before. The vehicles are so aero sensitive, finding the right adjustments to make have become increasingly difficult for drivers to figure out – so why not turn to those who’ve spent their career working with dozens of engineers before they even get to the track? If you’re still not convinced, look no further than Michael Waltrip Racing’s Vice President Steve Hallam – finishing up his first year in NASCAR after 27 years managing and engineering cars in Formula 1. You think Hallam would fit in with this sport in 1988 or even 2002?

Not a chance.

There’s a slippery slope here, though, for NASCAR in relying on drivers named Meira and Piquet and Salo to be their future talent. In a sport where fans are still struggling to accept a foreign manufacturer, an influx of foreign drivers isn’t exactly going to get fans running back to their seats. I don’t agree, but the facts speak for themselves: Look at how Champ Car fell apart amidst an inability to market anybody American on their roster. NASCAR would be better served working within Camping World East, USAR, and other minor-league divisions in ensuring successful talent there gets positioned for rides in the Truck and Nationwide Series.

Instead, the sport continues to go outside the box for its future instead of flourishing from within. And when you don’t water your own flowers … after awhile, the drought is just too much to overcome.

While Lance McGrew has seemingly changed the perception surrounding the No. 88 team, he hasn’t proven to be too much of a departure from Tony Eury, Jr.

Did You Notice? … Despite Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s insistence he’d like Lance McGrew back as crew chief, Hendrick is reluctant to award him the job for good in 2010? The official statement says it’ll be a “couple of weeks” before a decision is reached … and for good reason. That’s because even though the No. 88 has shown some promise in recent weeks, it still has yet to finish what it’s started. Let’s check in quickly with Junior’s numbers under McGrew vs Tony Eury, Jr. earlier this season:

Eury (12 races): 0 Wins, 1 Top 5, 3 Top 10s, 90 Laps Led, 4 Races Led, 1 DNF, Average Finish: 21.3.
McGrew (17 races): 0 Wins, 1 Top 5, 2 Top 10s, 47 Laps Led, 4 DNFs, 2 Races Led, Average Finish: 22.9.

Just going by stats alone, you’d have to say that things aren’t exactly peachy over at the No. 88; instead, they’ve gotten worse. And let’s give credit to Eury where credit’s due: not only did he get too much blame for the team’s sudden collapse, he’s working wonders with the No. 25 and Brad Keselowski, giving his rookie what could have been a winning car Sunday at Kansas if an untimely caution didn’t cost them too much track position.

Yes, I understand that Earnhardt likes the way McGrew does things and the team is “making progress.” But the bottom line is they’re still not at their best in the race’s final quarter, and hasn’t that been the problem over there for almost two years now? Add to that a driver still acting like he’s out in left field (how can you not know a missed lugnut is a pit road violation? Come on!) and my recommendation for a hard-line crew chief for 2010 still stands. Because let’s face it, folks, McGrew may be the type of guy Junior trusts … but he’s not going to light a fire. Of course he’s going to “trust” a guy who doesn’t put pressure on him. It makes things so easy!

I really did think Greg Zipadelli was the answer here, but he’s not going anywhere it seems, so Hendrick has two options: 1) Look within and see if there’s someone like Steve Letarte that has the talent and the guts to deal with this pressure-packed job the right way. 2) Go spend big money on some big name crew chief at another team, dangling a carrot in front of them to see if they bite and break contract. But again, I don’t see a big-time, fiery head wrench out there … unless they can make a one-time, desperate plea for Ray Evernham to come back.

Did You Notice? … A few quick things before I go, similar to a little segment I like to call “Bowles Bits” over at Sports Illustrated …

  • To put the final touches on Junior: In 29 races this season, he has as many DNFs (5) than the rest of Hendrick Motorsports combined. And that includes the No. 25 car driven by Brad Keselowski.

  • Michael Waltrip Racing pursuing Danica Patrick? That’s like Oklahoma City trying to woo LeBron James in the offseason. You’re telling me the IRL’s leading diva would spurn the sport’s top team (and her current sponsor) for an organization that’s never even made the Chase? Nice try, Michael … but fat chance. Realize she’s using you to drive up the asking price before it’s too late.

  • The start and park phenomenon is spreading to include more and more multi-car teams? (As our own Bryan Davis Keith pointed out, SK Motorsports in the Nationwide Series is the latest addition). My take on this one is surprise, surprise: after all, when you’ve got a successful business model, it’s only a matter of time before you expand. How many more will sprout up before NASCAR addresses this problem? Does half the field need to park? Where’s someone like Michael Moore when we need a national video expose to make this damned thing stop?

  • The name Eric McClure probably makes you laugh, but I have a whole different take on the guy after reading Tuesday’s interview on this site with Bryan Davis Keith. Easily one of the top 10 Q & A’s I’ve read in NASCAR all year … totally changed my opinion on the man. Sometimes, you look at these drivers simply buying a ride (Kevin Conway, Robert Richardson, McClure, etc.) and you forget there’s an actual human being with goals and aspirations behind him. Give McClure this much credit: in an era where small teams are giving up and parking even with sponsorship, he’s giving 110% and trying to race each week.

  • When somebody finds out the latest on the RPM – Yates merger, would they do us a favor and actually tell their own employees? The Gilletts spoke out this weekend and still — to no one’s surprise – real important people don’t know what the hell is going on. Trust me on that.

  • Great job on raising the catchfences, Daytona and Talladega. Now, can you move the stands back just a few rows? No amount of height in the world will keep some debris from spilling into the stands the way some of these crashes turn out.

  • Speaking of Brad, aren’t you foaming at the mouth for when he and Kyle Busch have an on-track confrontation next season? I used to think that Kyle could wind up being the closest thing we had to Dale Earnhardt. Now, it’s Brad.

So no wonder why NASCAR warned Keselowski about racing hard around the Chasers: he’s shown that if someone else races him hard, the kid won’t automatically come ‘round and let them go just because they’re battling for a championship. And why should he? The sport telling drivers to stop racing hard around the Chasers is an insult to the other 31 cars on the track. Look, I don’t think Brian Vickers stopped racing hard when he turned his own teammate on the last lap at Talladega in 2006. And guess what? Jimmie Johnson still came back to win the championship. The lesson we learned there is that title-winning drivers can overcome many obstacles put up in their path. Don’t remove the hurdles, because winning that trophy is all about how well you’re able to jump.

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Michael
10/07/2009 09:47 AM
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Yea , those open wheel drivers have no chance to be competitive in NASCAR . Look what happened when Tony Stewart tried to go from open wheel to NASCAR .
Why would anyone but you laugh at the name Eric McClure ?
I think its pretty obvious where the Earnhardt Jr. teams problem really is . Very nice guy , fairly talented driver , just not a consistent winner . And everyone blamed Teresa….

Chris
10/07/2009 09:55 AM
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With regard to Earnhardt, you really need to dig a little deeper into the stats. Its obvious you’re not watching the races. This week, for example, he goes down with a DNF, but that doesn’t record the fact he started outside front row and led 40 laps until the missed lug nut. Then a caution during green flag stops cost them another lap. They were still one of the fastest cars on the track all day.

Lets also not forget Watkins glen, where Jr is running 9th before getting booted, or New Hampshire (another DNF) where Jr was 4th VERY late in the race before getting booted by the 00.

I’ve watched all the races this year, and I think it is less about the average finish than about the trends. Jr is faster off the truck and they are maintaining the car longer during the race. I don’t believe it was Eury’s “fault” any more than Dale’s, they just got into a communication rut and a siege mentality, and it took a personnel change to break the down spiral.

Is it a dramatic difference? No, but the team IS headed in the right direction and I believe it would be a mistake to make Jr start all over again with a new CC, it would create a disadvantage for next year.

yankeegranny
10/07/2009 10:24 AM
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You said it all Chris; they are better in the communication and the car is better all through the race. They are just having horribly bad luck. It was almost laughable at Kansas. If it could go wrong; it did go wrong. The lugnut, the lap down because of the caution, running at the front which kept him from getting the lucky dog because of so many cars behind him were put a lap down( wish they would change it to the car closest to the front gets the lucky dog)and the final insult; a slipped belt. Not one of these had a thing to do with the driver, or the crew chief. They just had nothing but BAD luck. I look for them to rebound this week and run up front again, Particularly, since the 5 and 48 got their hands slapped and are not the supercars any more.

ginger
10/07/2009 11:11 AM
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Chris and granny, both of you said what I was thinking. Thanks for writing so eloquently.

wgg
10/07/2009 12:18 PM
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Everybody has an opinion on this, but, the single thing I haven’t seen is, maybe, just maybe, Jr’s mindset needs tweaking a bit. What I see is that when there is a setback, doesn’t seem to matter what it is, they don’t come back from it. Instead they seem to just fall farther behind. Look at many of the other top teams, they recover the majority of the time, at least improve. That I think has to do with the spirit inside the driver more than the team. If the driver kind of gives up then so will the team. Something inside Jr’s head needs to be tweaked. The owners have changed, the crew chiefs have changed, the team members have changed, the sponsors have changed, the engineers have changed, that’s everything excluding one thing, the driver. It’s not that he can’t drive, but, he is the only thing left to adjust. It’s almost like he quits when adversity rears it’s ugly head, maybe we all just expect too much.

pete
10/07/2009 01:53 PM
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Jr = Kyle Petty. Life is good without competing, so why try? Plus, too much partying equals brain fade

Joe W.
10/07/2009 03:52 PM
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Pete, I have said this several times but it is worth repeating. Dale Jr. has won 18 cup races to only 8 for Kyle Petty. Dale Jr. also has two Busch championships to 0 for Kyle. I like Kyle Petty. He seems like a good guy, but Dale Jr. is a better driver and the numbers prove that. I think it is time people stop with that comparison. It is very old now.

ElectricPeterTork
10/07/2009 06:28 PM
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It’s a valid comparison. In both cases, without their last names, neither driver would have made it at the cup level as long as they did/have.

Len
10/07/2009 09:19 PM
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On the F1 guys – I might take notice if the names were Lewis Hamilton or Felipe Massa, otherwise S-O-S…

As for (team owner, bar owner, race car driver, etc.) Jr… “Racing is a sport that takes 100 percent concentration, 100 percent of the time.” A J Foyt

Dans Mom
10/08/2009 08:38 AM
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If NASCAR is so bad, why are all of these open wheel drivers looking to move to NASCAR?

People need to pit for a windsheild tear off and realize the sport isn’t that bad off, just their view of it.

Derek Chambers
10/08/2009 08:58 PM
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Thomas, why are you forgetting the fact that Jr has been wrecked or something’s always happened when he’s having a good run. Look at Indianapolis, Loudon, Kansas. Those 3 come to mind right away. He should’ve had good, solid finishes, but something happened.

M.B. Voelker
10/09/2009 09:00 AM
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IMO, Jr. needs a tough, hard-nosed veteran with a no-nonsense attitude who isn’t impressed by the last name or the t-shirt sales. Someone with the Voice of Authority that will have Jr. 6-feet in the air the instant he says, “Jump.”

Someone who will, with Rick Hendrick’s backing behind him, treat Jr. like a promising but wayward rookie who needs to have some discipline hammered into him via a sort of driver boot camp.

Zippadelli and Fennig are the only names that come to mind and I’m not really sure it would be effective even if they were available.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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