The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Championship Collusion, Poor Media Manners, And Salvaging 2009 by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday November 11, 2009

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Did You Notice? … That during Jimmie Johnson’s marathon “Fix It” job inside the Cup garage Sunday, it was not just his own team but crew members from one of his main championship rivals helping out? Mechanics from both Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 and, yes, Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 were among Hendrick’s King’s Horses and Hendrick’s King’s Men who helped put Humpty Dumpty Johnson’s car together again.

Now Earnhardt’s crew helping out is one thing … but Gordon’s? The same guy who actually stands to gain in the standings if Johnson’s car was deemed unfixable? That’s a really hard concept for me to stomach. Sure, it’s not the first time other teams have chipped in to help a championship rival at a crucial moment. In the final race of 1973, Benny Parsons’ car crashed on Lap 11, limping to the garage a mangled heap of sheet metal with a title hanging in the balance. What transpired afterwards was an incredible outpouring of support, as team members from other organizations came around and helped in whatever way they could to ensure Parsons’ No. 72 made it back on track. In the end, he toughed it out for enough laps to jump from a 43rd-place finish to 28th, assuring him the title over Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Jimmie Johnson’s rebuilt No. 48 was on track late in the going Sunday to make up valuable title points…thanks in no small part to one of his strongest competitors.

But I’m sure you can realize the differences between then and now. Despite the overwhelming support that day, no one from Junior Johnson’s (Yarborough) or Petty’s team came to help Parsons fix their car. After all, why would you help someone when it would cost you the championship yourself? Certainly, there’s a philosophy that you don’t want to win based on someone else’s misfortune. But that type of stuff happens in sports all the time! A few years back, my alma mater, Colgate, played Delaware for the Division I-AA championship. On the first series, our star quarterback injured himself and was all but knocked out of the game. Did Delaware take out their star quarterback to make things fair?

Of course not. We went on to lose 40-0 … and no one was blaming Delaware for capitalizing on someone else’s misfortune (although I’m sure we were calling them plenty of names on the way out). The beauty of sports is good ol’ fashioned competition, and there would be no such thing as bad luck if someone else didn’t wind up benefiting from it.

So that’s why using any member of Gordon’s crew rubbed me the wrong way … and then some. Even if it was just the catch can man, it’s an element of favoritism one team shouldn’t have over another. And to add insult to injury, let’s not forget how badly Gordon struggled on the race track all day long. When your car is dropping like a rock, wouldn’t you want your car chief by your side instead of busy consulting on how to put your biggest rival’s car back together from scratch?

I’ve been worried for years that team orders are one day going to take center stage in the battle for the championship. And that’s why I’m sure for people who aren’t Hendrick fans, it’s very hard to get amped up for a championship battle between three cars that all depend on the same organization to put them together. If Johnson’s in trouble at Homestead, what happens then? What script will HMS write?

After running 13th, Gordon referred to Sunday’s race as a missed opportunity. But after the way things played out behind the scenes, you wonder if it’s one he was simply choreographed not to have.

Did You Notice? … Some questions from my media brethren that made me blush this week? I’ve gotten several comments from readers complaining about some columnists “packing it in” with the ’09 title Chase turning into a Jimmie Johnson runaway. I think that was at the heart of Ramsey Poston’s comments last week, too. I have too many friends, too many connections from a life in TV to make my thoughts on the matter public as it’ll be tinged with too much bias. But one thing I will say that sticks with me always with anything I do in NASCAR — be it TV, writing, or on-air work — is the willingness to focus on all 43 drivers, all 43 stories over the course of a race instead of just one.

In my experience as a fan for 20 years, eight of which with a driver long faded from title contention, my top priority when watching was always to see how my particular driver was doing. Sure, maybe you want to know every once in awhile how the championship Chase is shaking out, but if you’re a Clint Bowyer fan for example you’re always looking to know how his race is going, where he is on the track, and what news items happened during the week that impacted his team directly.

So too often lately with the media in general, I think we’ve been losing this basic concept based on the Chase overtaking our lives – and Texas was a perfect example of that. Once Johnson wrecked on Lap 3, yes, that allowed for two, maybe three drivers to get back in the title race depending on how Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Juan Pablo Montoya did. But with everyone else at least 279 points behind Johnson with three races left, there was no way anyone else could work their way back into title contention. Remember the record for the largest deficit overcome to win a championship? Alan Kulwicki was 278 points behind with six races to go in 1992 before coming back and squeaking by Bill Elliott to take the title. So what in the world would make anyone think guys like Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, etc. could make that deficit up in three?

Yet to the media and questioners assembled, the word “championship” just couldn’t get out of their minds. Now I wasn’t present for these interviews this weekend, so all I can go through is the post-race transcripts. But why in the world would you ask Carl Edwards or Denny Hamlin if they’re upset about Jimmie wrecking? Here’s an actual question posed to Edwards…

“Is it frustrating to not be able to make up ground on Jimmie when he’s having problems?”

Now, Mr. Edwards is the epitomy of positivity, one of the most optimistic people I know. But at 437 points behind after Talladega, he was well aware his bid for the championship this season was over. Done. He’s just thinking about winning races and building momentum for next year. What the heck does catching Johnson have to do with that?

Bottom line, the only people that should be concerned with Johnson are Martin, Gordon, and Montoya (who blew his shot by wrecking himself later in the day). That’s it. So what do you ask the other guys? How a bad run effects their momentum for 2010, the track conditions, what things they experimented with … anything but questions about the freaking championship.

We just need to be careful not to forget that in the midst of the playoffs, an actual race breaks out each week. That’s what so many of the fans are looking to see … and that should be at least a small part of what we analyze.

RCR drivers Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer have quietly started to show signs of righting their team’s ship for 2010.

Did You Notice? … I better practice what I preach, considering I started this column with a championship note. So I wanted to point out a few teams that have picked it up during the playoffs you might not have recognized. They’re sitting on the margins, simply trying to build momentum for a Chase bid in 2010. But as we’ve seen so many times before, making the right changes now can pay dividends later and can lead to a strong start come Daytona in February. So here’s a quick look at who’s stepped up:

Jeff Burton: Has four straight top 15 finishes for the first time since April and early May. Considering this is a driver who had fifteen straight top 15 finishes to start 2008, it looks like he’s headed back in the right direction for what could be a critical year for him in 2010. Honorable mentions go to the entire RCR organization, which has collected 10 of its 35 top 10 finishes this season in just the last eight weeks.

Matt Kenseth: More top 5 finishes by a non-Chaser than any other driver out there (three). If only Roush had the next generation chassis ready to use in August, this team might have made the Chase after all. But it’s crew chief Drew Blickensderfer breathing the biggest sigh of relief, because this late season surge is probably enough for him to keep his job.

Bobby Labonte: Scored the first ever top 10 finish for fledgling TRG Motorsports as part of a sudden late season surge to stay relevant again. Add in a 13th place at Martinsville in his final start for Hall of Fame Racing, and you realize what adrenaline can do for a champ desperate to secure a ride for 2010.

Joey Logano: Yeah, he won at New Hampshire in June, but this past month is the best we’ve seen him run all year. Two top 5s in the last four weeks – coming after the worst crash of his career at Dover – remind us the Chase will have a new driver looking to break out come 2010.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before I take off for the week…

- Denny Hamlin has now hit the wall twice in the last three November Texas races. Each time, it cost him a shot at a possible victory, although in a touch of irony Hamlin’s nursing of the FedEx Toyota got him better fuel mileage and a second-place finish on Sunday. But Hamlin still has yet to win a race in his career at any track 1.5 to 2 miles in length, which make up five of the ten Chase races for the championship. Mistakes like that are the reason why … and he’s got to get them corrected.

- The four-driver audition for Phoenix Racing’s seat in 2010 tells me two things: Number one, how desperate is the free agent pool this year that the only quality ride they’re going after is a single-car team that isn’t even assured Hendrick Motorsports support in 2010? And number two, there’s no guarantee this car is even going to go the distance for all 36 races in 2010. Which means … drivers are fighting over the right to start and park for a handful of events. Yuk.

- Seeing the ratings for the Texas race Sunday, one number popped out at me. NASCAR scored just a 1.6 share for males 18-49 during the final half-hour of the broadcast, dead last in the timeslot compared to FOX, NBC, and CBS. NASCAR is looking to bring in a new generation of fans and draw them into the sport … yet the very demographic they need is the one that’s lagging.

Will Danica help fix that? Possibly. But I think there’s a bigger problem here.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)

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Bad Wolf
11/11/2009 01:15 AM
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Welcome to F-Nascar. (No, not that F, but as in Formula One)

Robert Eastman
11/11/2009 04:48 AM
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I’m positive that Jeff Gordon is still listed as “owner” of the #48, SO… Why wouldn’t an owner send his “excess crew” to help repair “his car?” Even though many “owners” in NASCAR are listed as such for “technical rules and reasons,” the reports that Jeff Gordon actually put up “half the money” when the #48 team was first started are likely true. With a “HMS Lifetime Contract” in his pocket and 4 NASCAR Cup Championships of his own, Jeff Gordon’s status as an “elder statesman” of the sport is further enhanced when “his guys” help “his protege.”
The one concern I have IS… Did the #48 REALLY and TRULY pass “post race inspection” to the same “exacting standards” that was required of the #1 EGR car? It does seem “beyond ludicrous” that a “1 hour body/frame/suspension rebuild” can be “dead-on” specifications when it comes to ride height plus all the other exact standards that NASCAR requires. It’s these kinds of “suspect rulings” that leave NASCAR fans shaking their heads in disbelief, wonderment and doubt, thus fueling the speculation that NASCAR is just… “The WWE… ON STEROIDS!”

Robert Eastman
11/11/2009 05:29 AM
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My previous post should have included “the logic”… If the #48 is allowed back on the track in order to gain positions and points, then it should have to meet the same “specification rules” that the other cars have to, and if it doesn’t, then it should be penalized the same as the other teams are. If the EGR #1 team is penalized 50 points and $50,000 dollars, then the #48 team should also be penalized the same amount if the car doesn’t meet the same criteria required of the #1 car!
Consistent rules enforcement builds credibility. Anything less smacks of favoritism loudly proclaiming that “the fix is in!”

Bill B
11/11/2009 07:46 AM
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Well said about following all drivers in the race. That is one of the hidden costs to the sport of the chase. Before the chase the championship was almost an after thought during the broadcast (except for maybe the last 2-3 races of the season). Now it’s the center of attention from week 23 to week 36 at the expense of the actual races. No wonder it hasn’t captured the hearts and minds of hardcore or casual fans. It drags on for over 3 months. There is no way anyone can keep the level of excitement high for that long. By the time Homestead hits the whole thing has been beat into the ground.

Melissa
11/11/2009 07:51 AM
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Sorry Robert. There is no conspiracy with the 48 team. Chad could have tried any trickery he wanted to on Sunday, as long as they passed a visual inspection. The car didn’t go back under the claw before getting back out on track. Repaired cars never do.

Cars more than 100 laps down aren’t going to be called for post-race inspection. It’s usually the top 5 plus 1 random usually in the top 20.

What competitive advantage did Jimmie gain by being on the track? He lost a minimum of 12 more laps after he returned. He was what a lot of people like to refer to as a rolling road block.

Of course NASCAR should have black flagged him for not maintaining minimum speed.

Sure, he gained 15 points by being allowed back out and being allowed to stay out. But this is a 10 race sprint for the championship. Not a 1 race effort. While in other years it may have come down to 15 points or less, I don’t see it happening this year.

Julie
11/11/2009 08:45 AM
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I have a memory of a road course race not too long ago where members of the 48 team rushed to help the 24 team despite the fact that they were in a tight points battle that year. Anyone who has seen the 24/48 shop knows those two cars operate as one. To stop that because it’s the Chase would be a violation of the entire team, make that Hendrick, philosophy. It’s about more than racing, it’s about family and accomplishing things together. If they stop that for even a single race they might as well throw the entire philosophy out the window – a philosophy that has netted the company eight championships… and counting.

Gina
11/11/2009 08:46 AM
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As a Jeff Gordon fan, I felt the same way as you did. It really rubbed me the wrong way to see everyone “helping” to get the 48 car fixed. Unfortunately, that is the way that HMS runs their deal though. A few years ago at Homestead, when Johnson was having trouble and Gordon was leading — he was going to lap Johnson (this was with the 48 in contention for the championship) and Jeff keyed the radio and asked “what do you want me to do here?”. I’m still ticked off to this day about that — I can’t say I like the multi-car team effect in NASCAR – after all we all watched the Roush cars take turns leading a lap so they could get the 5 bonus points. I read somewhere the other day that there isn’t any limit to how many chases in a row Johnson could win. I have to say that idea turns me off big time. If Johnson continues to win chase after chase, how many more fans will drop out?

midasmicah
11/11/2009 11:10 AM
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Not to change the subject, but in reference to the start and park drivers, I have this to say. I wish I could have had the opportunity to start and park at some of the jobs I’ve had. This is an embarrasment to racing in general. It’s now happening in all three divisions of nas$crap. It’s just taken in stride. I hope it’s not just me that’s disgusted by this issue.

Carl D.
11/11/2009 11:21 AM
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At a time when securing sponsorship is so difficult, for the media to focus only on the chase contenders may actually be hurting the sport as well. All that exposure over the last ten races for chase contenders means less exposure for Penzoil, Dewalt, etc. Rest assured that some marketing guys somewhere are keeping up with this stuff and suggesting that maybe their companies’ advertising dollars should be spent elsewhere.

Kimmie
11/11/2009 12:35 PM
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As a Gordon fan myself, I am not suprised to know Jeff’s team helped out the 48. No biggie to me. It has been done that way for years. Jeff gets the exact same help when he has a problem, so no need to get upset over nothing.

Dans Mom
11/11/2009 12:41 PM
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AS for focusing on all 43 drivers in a race. I run a nascar fantasy league where you have to pick a one driver each week – and you can’t pick the same driver twice in a season. You recieve the points that driver gets for the race – and having to pick 36 drivers a year, that makes it pretty tough. Sure you get weeks with Jimmie, Jeff, Tony, and Mark. But this time of year you’re looking at the JOey Logano’s and guys like JEff Burton you’ve avoided hoping their season would turn around. It’s a trough strategy game that forces you to look at ALL the drivers and ALL the races in the season. And even now, with the “championship” locked up. I’m still worried about who’s going to get the best finish out of Paul Menard, and who’s saved Greg Biffle for the Finale at Homestead. I’ve got 5 bucks and a CRAP LOAD of pride riding on this!!!!

If you’re interested, check it out at dansmomfantasynascar.com and join us next february!!!!

Mack
11/11/2009 01:53 PM
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Oh just wait until Mark loses the championship by a few points. We’ll hear about it for the rest of our lives.

Not to mention all the new 48 fans who SWEAR they’ve always been 48 fans. (just like the new Steelers fans)

John
11/11/2009 01:56 PM
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“Will Danica help fix that?”

Only if she does a full spread in Playboy with the GoDaddy girls. That’s the only Danica merchandise I’ll buy. Who cares about her on the track?

Keith
11/11/2009 03:54 PM
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All the team work with teammates and crews working on each others cars should not be allowed at all. This is very unfair to single car teams. You come to the track with 8 or 10 guys and only they can touch your car. You can’t police sharing setups and notes or what they do away from the track so why try but this should never be allowed to happen.

Robert Eastman
11/11/2009 05:40 PM
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Melissa, the meaning of the words “fix” and “conspiracy” are not always the same. Even you said that the #48 should have been “black flagged” for not maintaining minimum speed, thus proving that “the fix is in.” “The Fix” (from my view-point) means “the rules are enforced differently” depending on the team/driver/circumstances involved. The examples of inconsistency and favoritism in NASCAR will fill an entire book.
NASCAR and the racing media wonders why fan interest is “dropping like a rock.” Because “NASCAR racing” is being “manipulated as entertainment” instead of being “administrated and enforced as a competition/sport,” NASCAR’s credibility is tanking. Everyone hates unfairness, dishonesty, and “ever-changing” rules application. “Manufactured excitement” is driving away more fans than it is attracting. As a “fifty year” racing fan and competitor, I’m saddened as I contemplate NASCAR’s future. (By the way, I am a JJ and JG fan {& YES, I knew that a yellow flag situation would magically appear for JG}… but Mark Martin is my #1 guy! I’m sure that NASCAR would be just as happy to have MM as Champion as they would JJ.) It’s NASCAR’s loss of credibility that bothers me most! A universal principle applies… “When you loose TRUST, you’ve lost everything!” NASCAR #1 problem: they’ve lost TRUST!

Marybeth
11/11/2009 06:01 PM
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“To stop that because it’s the Chase would be a violation of the entire team, make that Hendrick, philosophy. Julie 9:45am”

Throughout the race, the 88 was one of the first cars called to the pits. At the end for the last green pitstop, he radioed in 10 laps before he finally was that he wanted to pit then. The 5 pitted, later the 24 pitted. Finally the 88 was called to the pit. He ran out of gas on pit road before he got to his pit. He took off and the car stalled. He was left out there out alone. He radioed “Isn’t anyone going to help me?” No one did. No one showed up with a can of ether, or whatever it is they spray in the top, no one came to push him. He ended up 3 laps down and 25th. Where was this “Hendrick philosophy of family” for Junior…? On Nascar Now, Boris Said asked ‘why they ran him out of gas’? He got thrown out the window? No one answered him. Marybeth

Richard in N.C.
11/11/2009 06:49 PM
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Having been a NASCAR fan for over 40 years I’ve learned that NASCAR has much more credibility than the bulk of the media, especially that part that is or was newspaper based.

Wingcars6970
11/11/2009 09:35 PM
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I have to agree with Robert Eastman. That car was re-clipped front and a lot of the rear without any frame jig equipment. No way it passes not even close. And poor Truex and his team get pasted with fines after a so-so run.

Bob Durnell
11/11/2009 10:37 PM
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Whenever I read comments posted by readers at these various racing sites, it usually only takes a second to start cringing at the lack of knowledge so many posters have about the topics they expound on. When I can’t take it any longer, I can’t help but respond.

Item one: Other than the crew chief, virtually nobody is assigned to just one car in the shop at Hendrick Motorsports. The crewmen in the 24/48 shop and the 5/88 shop work on both cars every day, and rightfully see both of those cars as “theirs”. Once the race starts the crew chief and the seven guys that go over the wall are really the only people assigned to a specific car. While many more crewmen wear a DuPont or Lowe’s uniform, they are really just floaters who will go wherever they are needed. This big fuss about other crewman helping rebuild the 48 is a total non-story and any supposed journalist or serious race fan that thinks it is should be embarrassed of themselves. You’re getting fooled by the uniform the guy puts on, not what his job assignment is.

Item two: Once Jimmie Johnson returned to the track, he had to meet a mandated minimum speed that is given to the teams in the driver’s meeting every week. This has been the case for a very long time, and unless anyone can show evidence that the 48 ran slower than that minimum at any time other than on in and out laps from the pits, I suggest you come forward with the proof.

Item Three: Cars that are heavily damaged during a race have only two requirements to return to the track. The safety features (roll cage structure around driver, sheet metal around driver, spoiler, roof flaps, seat , seat belts, windows, fire extinguisher etc.) are in place and functional, and the car can meet the mandated minimum speed. These cars are basically exempt from any body template and height adjustment inspections, although items like the engine, transmission, and safety equipment may well be inspected. This is nothing new. I remember Dale Earnhardt running laps about as fast as the leaders at Bristol years ago with no body work forward of the firewall at all. Obviously, this car could not have passed a body template inspection, but it was perfectly legal to run the car that way.

Item Four: Any car that is inspected after a race that has a body template or ride height problem will be excused if it can be proven that the problem is the result on track accident damage and not wear, parts failure or mis-adjustment. Since there was no crash damage that could explain the 1 car being too low, it was penalized. This is nothing new; it’s been that way forever.

In closing, nobody has any more complaints about NASCAR than I do, but the conspiracy theorists need to pay more attention and come back to reality.

mkrcr
11/11/2009 11:56 PM
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There’s always going to be a “team effort”. Every effort will be made to see to it that Mr. Hendrick wins. Yum, gotta love those tasty paychecks.

Keith
11/12/2009 10:59 AM
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BoB Durnell explain the fairness of having 4 pit crews working on a car when single car teams only have 1 crew. If you ask me the 48 took some of their purse money.This is an unfair advantage that should be eliminated if Na$car is supposed to have a level playing field then all cars should only be allowed to have the same amount of available team members at the track.

Hal Raimey
11/12/2009 03:53 PM
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The low TV ratings for the male demo doesn’t concern me since we’re in the middle of the NFL season. (You have heard of the NFL, right?)

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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