The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Big Brother Gets To Keselowski, Marlin's "Sterling" Career, And No Championship Talk (Promise!) by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday November 18, 2009

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Did You Notice? … That with only one week left to go in the season, there’s plenty more to focus on than just the championship. Continuing the theme I had last week, let’s look at some small knickknacks people might have forgotten about with Jimmie Johnson mania on overload. That’s right, it’s time to actually adhere to the meaning of the words of this column …

So Did You Notice? that while Joey Logano has locked up this year’s Rookie of the Year title, it’s first-year driver Marcos Ambrose who has the edge in top 5s (4 to 3), points (3,767 to 3,700), and average start (19.7 to 20.1)? Despite Logano’s upset win at New Hampshire earlier this year, the two would be running neck-and-neck … except Ambrose isn’t eligible for the award. Running 11 of 36 races last season, he was well over the limit of no more than seven per year in order to run for the rookie title.

Did You Notice? Carl Edwards has fewer top 5s this season (seven) than he had wins in 2008 (nine). And should he fall short of Victory Lane again this Sunday, Edwards would set a modern-era record as the first driver to win nine times or more and then go winless the following year. In case you’re wondering, the all-time record was set back in 1965-66, when both Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson got shut out one season after leading the Cup Series with 13 wins apiece. However, in each of their cases both men had scaled back to a part-time schedule the following year, before retiring from driving cold turkey after 1966.

Despite scoring a Cup Series leading nine wins in 2008, Carl Edwards is currently alongside Ryan Newman as a Chase contender without a victory to show for it in 2009.

Did You Notice? That if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. falls out of the top 25 in owner points, it would be the first time in five years a Hendrick-owned car has finished the season that badly. In 2004, the No. 5 and No. 25 cars were 26th and 27th, respectively, with Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers at the controls. However, there were extenuating circumstances in each of those cases: Labonte was in his final year of full-time driving, while Vickers was just a 21-year-old rookie on the Cup level.

Did You Notice? Junior is also the lowest-ranked driver in points of anyone who made the Chase last season. But the biggest dropoff actually goes to Kevin Harvick … from fourth in the 2008 standings to a mediocre 21st in 2009.

Did You Notice? Mark Martin will easily have the biggest improvement in the points, for obvious reasons: from 28th on a part-time schedule last year to second in ’09. Montoya’s the best of the full-time drivers, jumping from 25th in points last year to as high as third depending on what happens at Homestead this Sunday.

Did You Notice? Paul Menard is the only driver to run every race this season without a top-10 finish. That means in his last 101 starts in the Cup Series, the only time he’s run 10th or better is a second-place finish in the 2008 fall race at Talladega.

Did You Notice? A.J. Allmendinger is 25th in points, but has yet to lead a lap. That’s the first time someone’s run every race, not led a lap, and finished that high in points since Terry Labonte back in 2001.

Did You Notice? That since winning at Kansas in October, Tony Stewart has been just the fourth-best Hendrick-supported car in four of the last six races. But of course, that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact he gets “the same” chassis and equipment they’re dishing out to Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon … right?

OK, so there you have it: a handful of hodgepodge stats from this season to get you off the “Jimmie’s going to win a fourth!” bandwagon for the week.

Did You Notice? … Sterling Marlin was still racing competitively? Seriously, the poor guy hasn’t run the full distance in a Cup show since Homestead in November, 2008. So that’s why, at 52, it’s no surprise to see one of the sport’s unique characters finally sit back and call it a career, all but announcing his retirement to Larry Woody of Racin’ Today this week. He’s spent this year failing to finish all seven of his starts, starting and parking in six while DNQing in five others with James Finch’s No. 09 team.

Sterling Marlin’s final races have been far from his best, but also have done nothing to take away from the impact he’s had on the sport.

Can Marlin still do it? Probably, if he had enough experience with the new car to adjust. But in a sport where technology and sponsor savvy trumps driver talent every time, the good ol’ Southern twang rings hollow in a sport Marlin claims “isn’t fun anymore.” That’s a shame, because there should always be a place for men whose lives were built around blue-collar speed – not white-collar sales.

When I look back at Marlin’s career, I always remember him as the early ‘90s Michael Waltrip, the driver who came so close so many times only to come up short of Victory Lane. Like Waltrip, when Marlin broke through it was on the sport’s biggest stage, winning the 1994 Daytona 500 in his 269th Cup start after a heated, late-race battle with Ernie Irvan. Yet, like ol’ Mikey, he struggled after that, going winless while slumping to 14th in the final standings – in many ways, the worst season for the Morgan-McClure team since 1989.

But the next year is when Marlin broke through and shed the future “Waltrip” label as a one-track wonder. His second straight Daytona 500 victory tied a record set by two of the sport’s greats – Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough – and he did it on old tires, too, holding off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt in a frantic final few laps. He’d add wins at both Darlington and Talladega, leading the Cup Series standings for a time, before eventually finishing third behind Earnhardt and newly-crowned champion Jeff Gordon.

From that point on, Marlin’s presence as an underrated superstar in the sport was secure. Leaving MMM for Felix Sabates (and what would later be Chip Ganassi) in 1998, he went through a down cycle until the team aligned with Dodge prior to their 2001 return to the series. Collecting the first win for the Intrepid at the Cup level, Marlin nearly won their first title the next year before a freak neck injury at Kansas ended his chances. It was a heartbreaking loss, especially when paired with a team so good that sub Jamie McMurray won just two weeks later at Charlotte in only his second career Cup start.

But perhaps another story from that year defined Marlin’s character as much as anything else. In that year’s Daytona 500, the No. 40 car spun out Jeff Gordon on a late-race restart to take the lead. But when the field was black flagged for cleanup just a few laps later, Marlin took the unprecedented step of climbing out of his car in order to pull out a right front fender. Fearing it would cut down a tire, the move cost him what would have been a third Daytona 500 win. It’s the type of stuff that might have caused sponsors to balk today; but back then, it was simply just Sterling being Sterling.

“I got the fender on the tire,” he said matter-of-factly. “I saw Dale do it at Richmond one time. I figured I could still get out and do it, but they must have changed the rule in between.”

Looking back, that September crash at Kansas effectively marked the end of him competing for wins and championships. Sometimes, those types of wrecks are harder to overcome than they seem, and Marlin never appeared to be close to the same driver after that. With just four top-5 finishes in the last six years of his career, the downfall was as swift as it is painful to watch for so many veteran legends. But while it’s a shame to see Marlin go out so quietly, no one will ever forget how much he meant to the sport.

Did You Notice? … How NASCAR called Brad Keselowski into the NASCAR hauler for a talking-to, while Denny Hamlin was the one who claimed he’d be retaliating against the driver on the race track this Sunday? And call me crazy, but wasn’t Hamlin the one who nudged Keselowski first on the race track at Phoenix?

Some may say that Hamlin deserves an eye for an eye after all the incidents Keselowski’s been involved in this season. But what I find so interesting is Hamlin had an opportunity to pay Jimmie Johnson back at Martinsville for contact that cost him the race there that Spring … and he didn’t do it. So just ‘cause Keselowski’s a rookie, that means Hamlin can go out there and take care of business?

It just goes to show how drivers can play favorites with respect sometimes. But what disturbed me most is this comment Kes made to summarize his meeting with NASCAR:

“It was (about) just to trying to pick and choose who you want to be your friends and enemies in this sport, and making sure I understood that process and what it takes to make it to this level.”

Oooo, so Denny Hamlin doesn’t like you, Brad. I guess since the Big Boys think you’re mean, you’re not going to be able to play on their playground! If I were NASCAR, I’d say kudos to a guy in Keselowski who is worried about winning the race instead of who he’s going to have beers with when it’s over. Who said racing was about holding hands with the other 42 drivers on the race track and singing Kumbaya? Personally, I’m getting rather sick of this “all the drivers have to be friends” crap on the track. A “rivalry” isn’t a “rivalry” if two people play nice and hold hands in the middle of the game.

So Kes has a lot of enemies on the track. So does Kyle Busch, and so did Dale Earnhardt, Sr. … and they’ve both had some pretty decent track records to speak of in this sport. Neutering Kes’ aggressive style just to make him as cookie cutter as everyone else isn’t the way to go here.

Did You Notice? … A few quick hits before we go …

- Robby Gordon having only eight races of sponsorship in 2010? Color me surprised; everybody and their mother knew he was in deep trouble the second Jim Beam said “see ya later” for 2010. So why did he bother to boast a few months ago he had plenty of funding to fill the gaps? I’d have been out there begging with my Folgers can from Day 1 … especially since November’s really late in the game to publicize your problems.

- Oh my God, Rick Hendrick says there’s no deal with Danica! He also said he wasn’t talking to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in ’07, and that Casey Mears had a long-term future with his team after he’d already privately shoved him out the door. Translation: all the big time car owners lie until there’s actually a deal out there to publicize. Can you imagine the egg on NASCAR’s face if this whole Danica deal didn’t get done right now? If she doesn’t make it official by January 1st, I’d be shocked … and if she’s not in a car at Daytona, I’m deathly concerned for this sport’s future.

- It was obvious to all that the Todd Berrier – Kevin Harvick partnership had reached an end by early April. You just wonder what might have happened for Jeff Burton if owner Richard Childress pulled the trigger then and put the Berrier – Burton partnership together. Three top 10s in three straight races bodes well for the veteran to rebound in ’10.

- Bobby Labonte made the right move to join TRG Motorsports in 2010. But it also looks like the only option he had. How far the 40-somethings have fallen …

- For one of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s own buddies (Tony Stewart) to call him out on his driving speaks volumes about how much his stock has fallen. I still don’t understand what it’s going to take for this team to get blown up and start from scratch … ‘cause that’s really what needs to happen at this point.

There, I made it through a whole column without talking about the championship this week! I hope in this era of Chase overload, I made more than a few people happy.

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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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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Kevin from PA
11/18/2009 10:00 AM

Thanks for the mentioning Ol’ Sterling. He was always my favorite driver because he had something that is sadly missing these days: A Personality.

The best thing when Sterling won was listening to his post-win speeches. My wife and I still repeat my favorite Sterling post-win speech “Give me a swig of that there beer” (said by SM after winning a race while driving the Coors light car – hey, the guy was thirsty after driving a car for a few hours.)

I bet very few will remember any of the 2009 post win speeches.

11/18/2009 10:19 AM

Sterling,A class act on and off the track.

Dans Mom
11/18/2009 10:56 AM

Denny Hamlin sure wanted an eye for an eye with Kyle Petty. Ever notice the drivers that Hamlin picks a fight with and NO WHERE NEAR contention to win on the top level.

For me, Hamlin is still crass and immature. In fact I openly called out a columnist on this website this year who ranked Denny Hamlin in the top 5 current drivers in NASCAR. Until he matures and sees the big picture he’ll never be top 5 or championship worthy.

Next year there will be a whole bunch of folks who pick DH as a “Dark Horse” to unseat Jimmie Johnson, but the saying goes you have to lose one to win one. Denny is so worried about these non-factors he hasn’t seen that he’s actually had a shot to lose a championship (by a much closer margin)for the past few years.

1) I will laugh UNCONTROLLABLY if Kesolowski wrecks Denny first on Saturday. and

2) Let’s see how well Hamlin runs after he tears up his stuff trying to get payback on someone who is clearly beneath him.

Take a cue from your sponsor, and DELIVER results.

11/18/2009 11:29 AM

Why keep hacking about Ambrose vs. Logano re. rookie of the year points?

Since Ambrose ran too many races last year to qualify for YOTR honors, he’s not a rookie this year—end of story.

Quit whining about it and write about something that might be meaningful.

Joe W.
11/18/2009 11:56 AM

Overall a good read Tom. I would like to ask jaymatt one question. If Ambrose is not a rookie, then why does his back bumber carry a yellow stripe? I know the Nascar answer, but just saying. Also Dans Mom, I agree with almost everything you said about Hamlin. I disagree on only one thing. I do not think he is clearly above Brad K. Other than that you have him described to a T.

11/18/2009 12:00 PM

So what are you trying to say Tom? That Junior is driving like someone whose best days are behind him and about to (semi)retire? Or perhaps he is driving like a rookie that is somewhat clueless about racing at the highest level? Just asking.

Kevin in SoCal
11/18/2009 12:32 PM

I’ll always remember Sterling Marlin as the guy who turned Dale Earnhardt into the wall.

Iowa Guy
11/18/2009 01:10 PM

Kevin in So Cal – it seems that I remember Dale Earnhardt “running” all over people but that was OK.

11/18/2009 01:36 PM

Sterling “fixing” his fender didn’t cost him the win, it kept him out of the wall and finishing on the lead lap. Daytona is a bad place for a tire rub.

Carl D.
11/18/2009 01:50 PM

I think it’s a shame that people remember Sterling for what happened to Earnhardt. Sterling was just racing for the lead late in the race. He didn’t do anything dirty or stupid. He cerainly didn’t have anything to do with Dale’s decision to block for the DEI teams. Unfortunately, there will always be those that place the blame on Sterling, but he sure doesn’t deserve it.

11/18/2009 01:54 PM

TB Thank you for the memories of Sterling Marlin. I could listen to him talk all day long.

Thank you for allowing me to say Denny Hamlin wouldn’t know the meaning of respect if it slapped him in the face.

Thank you for not mentioning the c**** or J***** J******.

Talking about respect, Tony just lost mine and many others as well. He also lost a lot of fans. He also doesn’t know the meaning of respect. From hero to zero in a very short time.

Carl D.
11/18/2009 02:00 PM

As for Keselowski, I hope he pays about as much attention to the Nascar honchos as they have paid to the fans. What Nascar needs are more Brad Keselowskis and less spoiled-brat drivers.

And all I noticed about Paul Menard is that he’s a mediocre talent spending his daddy’s money on worthless Yates cars.

The Turnip!
11/18/2009 02:14 PM

Hey Ginger, now I kinda like Tony, BUT if one thinks Tony is going to be “consistent” in whom he criticizes, week in, week out, your badly mistaken!

Tony has a habit, and probably not a bad habit at all, of simply speaking what’s on his mind, at any time!

Tony has an “equal opportunity” mouth!

But really, what in the heck is Jr. doing on the race track when his mind is not there! NA$CRAP wants to use Jeremy Mayfield as the example of “distracted driving”!

Time they focused on Jr.!

11/18/2009 02:21 PM

Kevin in SoCal … I hope you remember the incident pertaining to Sterling and Sr. as any person would who has been watching NASCAR for some time. With respect for each driver and not with guilt towards Sterling. What happened to Sr. was an accident, plain as that, and it just happened to have been Marlin who was part of it. So yes, remember Sterling for what happened that day, but remember him as a fellow racer, clean and respected by all others in the garage … nothing more than that.

Kevin in SoCal
11/18/2009 03:59 PM

Ginger said: “Talking about respect, Tony just lost mine and many others as well. He also lost a lot of fans. He also doesn’t know the meaning of respect. From hero to zero in a very short time.”

What’s the matter, cant handle the truth about your driver? Tony is just calling it the way he sees it. I bet if Tony said Kyle Busch is a snot-nosed little punk with no respect for his fellow racers, you’d be ok with that, right?

The Turnip!
11/18/2009 05:26 PM

I’m totally dissapointed that ANYONE would ever criticize a driver like Marlin for a racing accident!

I think it takes a very low mentality to even suggest Sterling was “at fault” that day!

11/18/2009 06:37 PM

The Turnip, who you like is none of my business. Who I like/respect is mine. Jr has taken up for Tony numerous times when Tony’s mouth overloaded his a**. Jr said, he’s my bud, and I’m not going to talk about him. Period.

I don’t deny Jr’s had a bad year. But I’m tired of the amateur psycholigists who THINK they know the details behind it. The ones who talk the most are the ones who know the least.

11/18/2009 06:55 PM

Is it really a rivalry if it’s always Denny getting the short end of the stick?

11/18/2009 09:28 PM

Quote “Kevin in SoCal
11/18/2009 01:32 PM
I’ll always remember Sterling Marlin as the guy who turned Dale Earnhardt into the wall. “

As Dale Jr. himself said about Sterling in his public address on his fathers death, “that is ridiculous”.

Kevin from PA
11/19/2009 08:39 AM

To the other Kevin: I really hope your comments on Sterling “killing” Sr was some form of bad humor.

I won’t go in details about that day but to blame anyone is ridiculous.

Most people would have crumbled under that pressure (don’t forget he was with a new owner and new sponsor) but Sterling kept on going – and for that I became even a bigger fan.

S.D. Grady
11/19/2009 12:30 PM

lol Great job, Tom! Well…two tiny mentions of JJ. But, I can live with that ;)

11/19/2009 11:45 PM

I love the way Brad is driving.It is a nice break from all the “cooperation” that Tony Stewart preaches to the other drivers. Keselowski has the potential to be the “Anti-Jimmie Johnson”.


Contact Tom Bowles

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