Thomas Bowles · Wednesday April 7, 2010
Did You Notice? … What a difference a decade makes? In this slow off week, I figured we’d do something a little different to show how much NASCAR has changed in the past ten years. So I figured, with so much worry over Jimmie Johnson’s seemingly limitless success as of late, why not take a look at the top 10 in points through six races of 2000 and see where all those drivers are now?
2000 Point Leader: Bobby Labonte. Driving for Joe Gibbs that year, Labonte would go on to win his only championship on the heels of four wins, 19 top 5s, and 24 top 10 finishes. At 36, he looked to be on the precipice of a long, extended run challenging Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and others for several titles.
2010: Turns out, that would be the peak of Labonte’s career. He hasn’t finished the year inside the top 5 in points since, leaving JGR in 2005 for Petty Enterprises and several other failed ventures. Now, the 45-year-old is struggling to keep his career afloat, running for a single-car operation (TRG Motorsports) that has a best ever finish of 10th and has been forced to start-and-park several times due to lack of funding.
2000 Second Place: Ward Burton. Driving for Bill Davis Racing, he’d go on to a 10th place finish in the standings that year on the heels of a win and 17 top 10 finishes.
2010: Jeff’s older brother has been “retired” from the sport for three years. He scored his last top 10 in 2004 (at 42 years old), and despite winning the 2002 Daytona 500 was never a serious factor in the title chase again. Neither was Davis, who’s been out of the sport for two years after losing sponsor Caterpillar to multi-car giant Richard Childress Racing.
2000 Third Place: Mark Martin. He’d actually struggle a bit at the turn of the century, dropping to eighth in the standings by November (on the strength of just one win) for his first finish outside the top 5 in points since 1992.
2010: You know the story; now 51, Martin’s the lone example of a veteran bucking the trend of the “young gun” movement. With eight wins and ten poles in the last ten years, he went through a semi-retirement for a few seasons but is currently enjoying a Harry Gant-like career renaissance with Hendrick.
2000 Fourth Place: Dale Jarrett. The defending series champ started off the year by winning the Daytona 500 a third time. How good was Jarrett during this stretch? He ended the year fourth in points, his lowest finish in the standings since taking over the then-No. 88 Robert Yates Ford in 1996.
2010: Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing are both legends of the past – at least on the race track. Jarrett never contended for a title again, struggling for several seasons along with Yates until a failed move to Michael Waltrip’s Toyota team in 2007. Retiring a year later at 51, he moved to the broadcast booth to follow in father Ned’s footsteps as an ESPN analyst. As for Yates, his team never expanded and fell victim to the engineering and technology-driven strategies from rivals Hendrick and Roush. Selling to his son Doug in 2008, the remnants of his team have since been sold again, now merged with Richard Petty Motorsports.
2000 Fifth Place: Dale Earnhardt. After a few lean years, the 49-year-old was enjoying the start of a turn-of-the century resurgence; by the end of the season, 24 top 10 finishes left him second in points and the primary challenger to Labonte down the stretch.
2010: The biggest NASCAR tragedy of our lifetime, it’s hard to believe the Intimidator’s been gone for over nine years after his untimely death in a last-lap crash during 2001’s Daytona 500. Former car owner Richard Childress, winner of six Cup titles with Earnhardt at the helm, hasn’t won another since.
2000 Sixth Place: Rusty Wallace. Wallace would go on to win four times that season, the first time he reached the multiple win plateau since 1995 while sweeping the races at Bristol. Add in the bounce-back of Earnhardt, and many thought the two rivals (Wallace 44, Earnhardt 49) would be battling for titles for years to come.
2010: Known for his Bristol dominance, Wallace never won at the half-mile bullring again. He also never won more than one race a season, failing to finish in the top 5 in points after Earnhardt’s death and through his retirement in 2005. To newer fans, you now know Wallace as a full-time ESPN analyst and the owner of a two-car Nationwide Series team: His cars are driven by Brendan Gaughan and son Steven. Still a consultant for former car owner Roger Penske, Wallace has seen his former organization win the Daytona 500 in 2008 (with the No. 12 of Ryan Newman), but never take home the championship they coveted.
2000 Seventh Place: Ricky Rudd. In his first season replacing Kenny Irwin in a Robert Yates Ford, Rudd didn’t win, but his consistency (19 top 10s) left him fifth in points. At 44, Yates appeared to find the perfect veteran to pair with Jarrett far into the future.
2010: In 2001, Rudd gave perhaps his strongest title bid, challenging Jeff Gordon throughout before fading to fourth down the stretch. But he was a virtual afterthought beyond that year, released by Yates at the end of 2002 and suffering through several lean years with the single-car Wood Brothers before retiring once (2005) then for good in 2007 after a reunion with Yates never produced the desired results. At least there’s one streak that still endures: he started 788 straight races from 1981 through 2005, leaving him with the nickname “NASCAR’s Iron Man.”
2000 Eighth Place: Jeff Burton. Driving for car owner Jack Roush, Burton enjoyed his finest season to date in 2000, winning four times en route to a fourth straight top 5 finish in points. At 33, Burton was considered the second “young gun” contending for titles (along with Jeff Gordon) and was a trendy favorite to take the championship the following year.
2010: Instead, that season’s remained the top of a mountain Burton’s struggled to climb in recent years. He won just twice more with Roush, the chemistry fizzling and gradually forcing a move to Richard Childress Racing. With Childress, he’s enjoyed modest success but at 43, retirement is nearing without a title or a top 5 finish in points since that 2000 season.
2000 Ninth Place: Terry Labonte. Coming off a disappointing 12th place finish in points, the 1984 and ’96 champ had his worst year ever with Hendrick Motorsports. Missing two races after injuries suffered in a July Daytona wreck, he went winless and led just 34 laps, his worst total since 1990.
2010: The exception to the rule thus far, Labonte’s continued decline was expected. He led no laps the following year, only won once more with Hendrick (the 2003 Southern 500, the last Darlington race held on Labor Day) and has been running part-time since the end of 2004. Now 53, Labonte is looking to start his own team this season with former Cup Series car owner Bill Stavola.
2000 Tenth Place: Jeff Gordon. One year removed from the departure of former crew chief Ray Evernham, Gordon struggled to adjust to new head wrench Robbie Loomis. Just 22 top 10 finishes throughout left him ninth in the standings, his worst performance since his rookie year of 1993.
2010: Despite the crew chief change, Gordon was still expected to threaten Richard Petty’s record of seven Cup titles. He hasn’t. Winning just one more championship (2001), he’s also tasted victory just 30 times in the last ten years, as opposed to a 52-win clip from 1994-2000.
Time to make all this information make sense. Out of those ten drivers, just three remain title contenders today (Gordon, Burton, and Martin) while just one more (Bobby Labonte) drives the circuit full-time. It just goes to show you how much things can change and how hard it is, especially in this current “era of impatience” we live in, to have a long-term successful career as a driver.
Now, let’s compare to 2010’s current top 10 list. Which wheelmen (Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) do you think will still be contending for titles in 2020? My answer is Kenseth, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Bowyer … and that’s it. Everyone else will either be retired or running a part-time schedule by then.
Where will the new challengers come from? It’s a topic for another day, considering the current struggles in driver development. But rest assured that no matter how much things appear to be stagnant (Jimmie Johnson in points lead, cough) sports always find a way to undergo a changing of the guard. It’s in the ownership ranks where that’ll be far more difficult: Of the seven owners represented in that 2000 list (Gibbs, Hendrick, Roush, Penske, Childress, Yates, and Bill Davis) five of them still not only exist, but contend for championships on a yearly basis today. So the Colin Brauns and Landon Cassills of the world? They’re in a better position to one day be inside the Cup top 10 than you might think, with the men they drive for still firmly in control at the top of the Sprint Cup heap.
Did You Notice? … The price tag to sponsor a small Sprint Cup team? On the heels of Bobby Labonte’s announcement Governor Rick Perry would be the primary backer of his Cup car at Texas came a price tag for the event – courtesy The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Turns out the one-time sponsorship effort will cost the campaign $225,000.
So how does that play out over a 36-race schedule? $225K times 36 = $9 million to run what’s been a single-car program capable of running in the top 15, maybe even the top 10 if all the breaks fall their way. It’s also a $17 million difference from the purported $26 million a year AFLAC pays Roush Fenway to sponsor the No. 99 of Carl Edwards.
That difference in sponsorship scale doesn’t seem so bad when you compare it to other programs (say, $264 million in revenue the Yankees take in versus $102 million for Minnesota). So how did Minnesota make the playoffs vs. the Yankees last year? By being smart, getting the right personnel at the right price, and simply willing to challenge their big market opponents.
That’s something TRG and others have been trying to do for years. They just suffer from two permanent handicaps: 1) The people they hire have little to no room to adjust the cars due to NASCAR’s strict rules on chassis with the Car of Tomorrow. That takes the edge out of a mechanic’s hands and into the ones of simulation and engineering experts – and smaller teams just can’t afford the SuperDorks. 2) These teams can’t afford to build their engines and chassis from scratch. That pushes them to partner with the big teams (see: Furniture Row Racing’s partnership with Richard Childress Racing, ditto TRG). That puts them in a tough spot; do you really think the same equipment underneath Jeff Burton, per se, is going to these single-car outfits?
The answer is, unfortunately, absolutely not, no matter what PR jibberish comes out of everyone’s mouth. That keeps the NASCAR hierarchy in place, the rich teams rich, and the poor teams, well … poor.
P.S. – Anybody know the significance of Labonte’s sponsorship with Rick Perry? This is the same guy who said Texas could secede from the union last year. I can see it now … “Look at Bobby go, taking the No. 71 Texas Is Its Own Country Chevrolet right along with him!”
Did You Notice? … A couple of quick hits before I take off:
- In doing research for this column, I figured out Jeff Gordon is on track to break Ricky Rudd’s streak of consecutive starts in the year 2015. The only question is whether he will race that long. He claims three to four more years … but if he stretched it one more, could you imagine Gordon bowing out with that record the same year as Johnson (whose current contract ends in 2015)? By that time, both might have nearly 100 wins, and one of them could have tied Petty and Earnhardt’s record of seven titles. Talk about a gangbuster Hall of Fame class of the future…
- I expect Scott Riggs to be a much better fit for the No. 90 Keyed-Up Motorsports program than Casey Mears. In talking to Mears, while he’s a nice guy I think he’s gotten too caught up in the equipment the underfunded program doesn’t have rather than working with what they’ve got. Riggs, who is used to subpar equipment and fighting desperately to save his career, is the type of driver I can see giving that car a true baseline to work from. A top 25 on Saturday from them wouldn’t surprise me.
- Could NASCAR have any worse luck this year? A Daytona 500 pothole kills the second-best race of the season, then a rain-delay means half the fan base never sees the best race of the year at Martinsville. Plus, any momentum that finish just generated gets buried after the Cup Series endured its second off week in a month. Instead of using the off weeks at the end of the year – to build up drama like the NFL’s Super Bowl – we’re burning them in the beginning when you try and generate momentum for the upcoming season ahead. I just don’t get it.
- Quick reaction to Jason Leffler getting three weeks probation for wrecking James Buescher: Thank God for consistency. I just hope revenge doesn’t wind up with somebody getting hurt.
- Don’t think the latest decision against Jeremy Mayfield (keeping the case in federal court) suddenly puts NASCAR in great position with its Motion To Dismiss. Remember, this judge is the same one (Graham Mullen) which initially gave Mayfield the right to race prior to the Pepsi 400 last July. It’s highly unlikely he’ll turn around and keep the case from going to court; should NASCAR’s motion get denied, the trial will begin sometime later this Fall.
- Finally, I feel bad for Scott Riggs, but I gotta love another Bowles working his way up into the Nationwide Series (Jason Bowles replaces him in the No. 09 this week). NASCAR Bowles’ unite!
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