The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Admirable NASCAR Underdogs, The Power Of Motivation, And Chase Boredom ... Already by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday February 11, 2010

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Did You Notice? … The stars of Speedweeks so far (with the exception of Mark Martin) have been drivers with something to prove?

After a miserable 2009 that ended with an all-but-public pronouncement he’s leaving RCR after 2010, Kevin Harvick won the Bud Shootout, with fellow free-agent-to-be Kasey Kahne right behind him in second. Jamie McMurray, who was dumped by Roush and signed a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi that’s “make or break” for his career – finished third. That followed a pole qualifying session where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. began his “Recovery 2010” tour by putting himself on the outside of the front row.

Get the picture? As Denny Hamlin told us today, “Daytona means nothing as far as the season is concerned. We’ve seen that in years past. The top 5 typically finishing [there] are not your typical top 5 week-in and week-out.”

Why is there such a disconnect? Because of the parity combined with the uniqueness of restrictor plate racing, today’s “championship first” mentality for the big teams has diluted the value of a 500 win. But while guys like Denny Hamlin or Jimmie Johnson are taking more of a “big picture” approach, there are longshots and others with a chip on their shoulder for whom a 500 win would clearly be the highlight of their season.

With that in mind, keep an eye on teams that might not necessarily contend for the championship. All the RCR cars, for example, have been lightning quick this week according to garage observers – all of them looking to make a statement one year after missing the Chase. Kahne’s also been consistently quick, and I observed Ray Evernham debriefing with him in the garage area in between television work for ESPN. Is a little tip or two from Kahne’s former mentor what he needs for Sunday success? We’ll wait and see … but one thing I don’t see right now is your typical Jeff Gordon-type 500 winner.

Did You Notice? … Speaking of Gordon, the Hendrick cars aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire in the draft? By the time you read this piece, success in the Duels may have snuffed out these concerns before they begin. But in two practices Wednesday, the fastest Hendrick-supported car was Ryan Newman in 11th (Practice #1). As far as strictly Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson bested all comers at 17th – before his primary car was wiped out in a four-car crash. Add in some subpar runs in the Shootout, where all six Hendrick cars failed to finish in the top 5, and questions remain on whether the pure qualifying speed will translate into race setup once those Goodyear tires start to wear.

While his wreck in practice Wednesday wasn’t nearly this severe, Chad Knaus has seized upon the opportunity to start over on a blank page with a backup car amidst uncharacteristic struggles for the Henrick camp.

You’d like to think a team that finished 1-2-3 in the points last year would get this thing figured out – but remember what Denny said about Daytona above? Maybe it applies to Hendrick here. Considering I actually got a chance to look at Johnson’s car in the garage area, and the damage was 0.5 on a scale from 1 to 10, you wonder if Chad Knaus almost wanted to go to the backup car to try something different. It’s that type of outside-the-box thinking that puts the No. 48 in constant position to contend – so it wouldn’t surprise me if they throw the book at this new car during the Duels just to see what happens.

Did You Notice? … All these second cars for underfunded teams entered in the Gatorade Duels today? A lot of people are scratching their heads, wondering why these guys with junk equipment would even try and squeeze in one of the seven open spots on the grid.

There’s certainly an emotional side to it all, as we’ll investigate throughout the Duels. But for the owners pushing their crews to work overtime, there’s a financial incentive as well.

Just follow me here. Over a 60-lap, 150-mile race, the tires will hold up the full distance. That means you only need one crew to pit two cars – especially if they’re in two separate races – with a pit stop for fuel with car #2. Add in a minimal cost for running an engine just one-quarter of its usual distance, and it’s a no brainer to trot that second car out.

Yes, both cars could wreck – even if the second one stays at the tail end of the draft, not trying to make the field unless there’s carnage in front of them – but with minimal risk comes great reward. Last place in the Duel gives the team an extra $19,000, and if they somehow get two cars in the race, the final payday could be over $400K if they get it right. It’s the type of profit that could put you in position to run a few races the distance with a primary car, just to see if you could sneak in the top 35 – and for all these aspiring full-time owners, that’s a heck of a gamble worth taking.

Did You Notice? … Speaking of small-time owners looking to live the dream, these Duels have a history of producing at least one darkhorse for the 500. Last year, we had Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs, the year before Kenny Wallace in a second Furniture Row car … the list could go on and on.

Who’s the best chance to assume the role this year? Let’s quickly break down both Duels to see:

Duel #1: Reed Sorenson. Not exactly with a small-time team (Nationwide powerhouse Braun Racing is starting up a limited Cup program), Sorenson fits the profile of a man with something to prove. He’s got a strong Toyota engine under the hood, and is typically known for being a good plate racer (his lone top 10 finish last year occurred in the Daytona 500). Add in a weak field – just three or four drivers stand a chance of competing for two spots – and I could easily see him sneaking in over former Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip.

Duel #2: Casey Mears and Aric Almirola. Talk about two guys fighting for their Cup careers. Mears has gone from the cushiness of Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing to running with unsponsored, underfunded Keyed Up Motorsports for the first five races of 2010. As for race six and beyond … if they don’t find some money, there won’t be a race six. For a guy who knows how to work the draft (remember, he was runner-up in the 2006 500), that’s more than enough motivation to succeed.

For Aric Almirola, Thursday’s Duel marks a must-qualify event for both himself and the entire Phoenix Racing organization.

As for Almirola, his team (Phoenix Racing) is fighting for their lives after an Indian election of all things cost owner James Finch primary sponsorship of his Cup and Nationwide cars. Almirola has a fallback – he’s running the No. 51 truck full-time for Billy Ballew and sponsor Graceway Pharmaceuticals – but he’d certainly like to keep his Cup gig on the side as well. To do that, they’ll need to make the 500 and woo potential sponsors, something Almirola’s more than capable of doing – after all, he made the race through the Duels last season.

Scott Speed and Bobby Labonte are the “cars to beat” in this race, but like Duel #1 there’s issues for both. Labonte has the past champion’s provisional and can fall back on speed, while Speed has a habit of speeding into the outside wall on occasion.

So where does that leave us with these predictions? Your eight guys making the field are Nemechek, Elliott, Speed, Labonte, Sorenson, Mears, Almirola, and … Michael Waltrip. Yup, you can’t get rid of him no matter how hard you try …

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s “Boys Be Boys” philosophy has absolutely no effect on the championship Chase? Wednesday, I asked Denny Hamlin how important it was to make a statement the first few races, to back up claims he’s the best bet to unseat Jimmie Johnson come Homestead in November.

His response?

“I don’t think anyone should look at us until September, to be honest with you. We’re going to have somewhat of a judgment on where we’re at five or six races in, but it’s not going to define who we are until we get to August and September when we start turning the heat up.”

Hmm … I feel like I’ve heard that philosophy before. I’ll give you a hint: common synonyms to describe him range from “boring” to “dominant” to “formulaic.”
Did you say Jimmie Johnson! And you’re still reading? Good for you! But like it or not, four straight titles has everyone willing to copycat his formula of virtual indifference until mid-July. If you win a race, great, but otherwise it’s all about putting yourself in position to make the playoffs, the regular season a mere blip on the radar screen compared to the final ten races nobody’s watching.

It’s a systemic problem you can’t correct through a simple lecture from NASCAR to loosen up and relax. And that’s why I’m beginning to think if they really want to listen to the fans, the Chase might wind up on the chopping block here before we’re all said and done.

Contact Tom Bowles

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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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02/11/2010 07:18 AM

Tom – you end your article discussing the “formulaic” approach that Jimmie Johnson has to winning 4-straight. Yet earlier you question the Hendrick Motorsports lack of dominance in 500 practice sessions.

To quote Alan Iverson “Practice?!?!?… Practice! We’re talking about Practice!”

Rest assured, like the Chase, Jimmie, Mark and Jeff are saving their best stuff for when it counts.

Mike In NH
02/11/2010 08:41 AM

I dunno about MW getting into the 500 this year. Whether his fault or not, his 51 car has been wearing a big target on it since he got to Daytona. Didn’t he get into a scrum yesterday as well?

02/11/2010 10:57 AM

Michael Waltrip crashed his primary pretty bad. Leaving Shelmerdine’s #27 of Todd Bodine with a blistering practice lap of 191.184 in the draft … Im going with Bodine’s KSI ride.

02/11/2010 11:11 AM

the best thing that NASCAR could do to get the fans excited about EACH race is to dump the chase. Right now.

02/11/2010 11:24 AM

The year end Championship is TOO important nowadays. It used to be drivers wanted the trophy and the check from each race with specific ones, 500, Southern 500 (LABOR DAY), World 600, and Bristol. Now it seems as the drivers have “big” contracts and less to actually strive for in each race the racing itself is suffering. the overall champion for the season is a good thing but it should be emphasized less and the money be cut if half and placed into the race pots during the year. The race purses also need to changed to reward those that run the entire race and end up back in the field. Much of the same expenses are incurred by the Tommy Baldwin’s of NASCAR as RCR or Hendrick. Of course to be fair the back of the field finishers would also need to either end up there due to a wreck or a legit reason such as obvious engine failure to collect the money. This would eliminate the S&P phenomona and actually have a race.

02/11/2010 12:34 PM

As someone who used to like M. Waltrip it’s ironic to be saying this. His on air act has worn out it’s welcome with me so I personally can’t stand him anymore.Now I have found a way to focus my negative energy towards him, merely by rooting against him, which is easy because of his many spins,crashes, and poor performance.Now I laugh at his failures, which by the way are many, so when you talk about his chances of making the 500, no chance unless he can resurrect those dominant, almost unbeatable DEI cars of old. He has no victorys today without those cars which were totally dominant.As Clint Boyer has said, a monkey could have won in those cars.

02/11/2010 12:42 PM

Folks. I was trying to watch nationwide practice on espu, but I finallyh gave up. It’s the Danica Patrick show. I know she’s there, but it’s to the point where she seems to be the only car on the track. espu does this. They take a story and run it into the ground.

02/11/2010 12:57 PM

The sad thing is nas$car’s “super bowl” is meaningless. Winning Daytona doesn’t mean diddly squat. Hamlin just said what everybody knows already. “Boring” and “bland” seem to be requirements for a cup driver. And the chase has just made things worse. Winning takes a backseat to playing it safe so you can make the chase. I want real racing to come back, but it won’t happen as long as we have the chase.

02/11/2010 12:59 PM

Atta boy Tom . Don’t let a single paragraph go by without promoting Jimmy Johnson .
Heres a suggestion . Save some time for us all and just blog one time per year . Repeat Jimmy Johnsons’ name 100 times with hugs and kisses signs and be done with it for the year . Or you could stop getting all of your NASCAR info from the AP and tv , and actually go to the races . You might get some perspective .

02/11/2010 10:49 PM

And also Tom, since when has Denny Hamlin/Eyore become such an expert on NA$CAR? He’s barely out of having his NA$CAR diapers changed and now he knows sumptin’. One staged rivalry with Brad and suddenly he’s no longer the whiner we all came to know? Kool Aid, Kool Aid, tastes great…

Kevin in SoCal
02/12/2010 12:43 PM

Oh sure, because before, without the Chase, we already knew in September who was going to win the Championship based on their huge points lead.
Now, with the Chase, come September its a wide-open shot for 12 drivers to win it all. Yeah, I can see how the old way was so much better. Was last years truck runaway by Hornaday or the Nationwide runaway by Busch so much better than the Cup Chase? I dont think so.

02/13/2010 12:35 PM

did you notice all the changes nascar is making to make 4 plate races a little more exciting but have done nothing to make any of the other potential snoozefest races watchable… califonia, chicago, michigan etc…


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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