The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Charlotte Indy Double Duty, A Boring 600, & Retiring w/Dignity by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday May 26, 2010

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Did You Notice? … Bruton Smith’s $20 million offer for 2011 and beyond to any driver who wins both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day? That’s opened up a whole other can of worms and stirred the pot for a handful of drivers anxious to get their hands on that money.

In what would likely be a public relations boon for both series, you’d like to think all parties involved would work together to make this happen. But which drivers would actually bite at the chance to make history? Considering the difficulty the IndyCar guys have had jumping into the stock car level, you’d have to think the NASCAR boys would have a better shot of pulling it off. Here’s five I’d love to see in double duty next year:

1) Kyle Busch. Remember the old U.S. Formula 1 team? They had themselves a little man-crush on Busch, thinking he’d be the perfect choice to bring that international series its first true American contender in decades.

“I’ve watched him a lot and have massive respect for him,” former US F1 sports director Peter Windsor said. “I believe Kyle can win a world championship in Formula One. I think he’s got exactly the right talent, the right approach.”

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch added back when the courtship heated up in ‘09. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years, then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back.”

Considering the potential interest there, you’d have to assume the Indy 500 is high on the list of things for Busch to try, too. Getting a ride there compared to the country club F-1 series is a piece of cake; the question is, would no experience behind the wheel doom him, even on an oval? Personally, I don’t think that hurts him too much, and the years of handling double-duty with Nationwide and Trucks will only help condition the veteran for 1,100 miles in a day.

Potential roadblock: Joe Gibbs. He never was all that warm and fuzzy with Tony Stewart running the 500, with contract language blocking Stewart’s last attempt behind the wheel of an A.J. Foyt car in ’04. JGR lets Busch do whatever he wants now … but that’s behind the wheel of either cars they control in Nationwide or a Truck Series that likely won’t leave him hurt.

Juan Pablo Montoya has the open-wheel pedigree, combined with a quality NASCAR / IndyCar connection in Chip Ganassi to be a driver to watch should Bruton Smith follow through with his $20 million Indy 500 / Coca-Cola 600 challenge.

2) Juan Pablo Montoya. Already an Indy 500 winner, Montoya has yet to win his first oval race on the NASCAR side. In fact, he hasn’t even led a lap at Charlotte in his Cup career. So you’d think stock cars would be the hardest place for him to break through; but at the same time, teammate Jamie McMurray’s past success at CMS (he earned his first Cup victory there in 2002) combined with an improving Earnhardt Ganassi program make a strong double-duty effort more possible than you think.

Potential roadblock: Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Sure, Montoya holds a big advantage in driving for a NASCAR team that doubles as an IndyCar juggernaut. But will Ganassi’s two teammates be all that thrilled about playing second fiddle to a guy that’s only coming in for one race? They’ve got a championship to win, and well-established crews that will serve to be Montoya’s biggest challengers on race day. Being the third-best car out there within the same stable defeats the purpose, and you wonder if Montoya would ever be the number one priority if he took the chance.

3) A.J. Allmendinger. I know it’s a bit of an oddball choice, but the ‘Dinger has run well at Charlotte and could be a darkhorse pick for the 600 under the right circumstances. In the meantime, haven’t you just been the least bit curious as to how the former Champ Car star would do in a merged IndyCar world? This was a guy who looked poised for open-wheel stardom until a series of circumstances left him Red Bull’s protégé. Considering his car owner has already partnered to form an Indy effort twice, you’d have to assume a two-car operation with him and John Andretti isn’t out of the question … right? It’d be a challenge worthy of the King.

Potential roadblock: Open-wheel experience on ovals. Remember, when the ‘Dinger landed in Champ Car it had made the move to almost exclusively road and street courses. None of his five career wins came on the bullrings, and it’s unknown how quickly he’d be able to adapt to the 2.5-mile behemoth of Indy in open-wheel.

4) Tony Stewart. The former IRL champ claims he’s done running Indy. But now approaching his 40th birthday, the two-time NASCAR champ has won just about everything in stock cars and doesn’t have anything left to prove. How great would it be to see him make a “no guts, no glory” attempt at a race he’s always dreamed of winning? No one’s ever captured both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400, and you better believe with Montoya knocking on that door … Stewart would love to open it first.

Potential roadblock: Team ownership. You’d think that would make it easy for Stewart, since there’s no official contract prohibiting the challenge. But with two cars, potentially three on the horizon for 2011, he’s become so entrenched in the ownership role, running Eldora, and other off-track endeavors his schedule is stretched to the max. One of those guys where you’d have to think he’d need to take the whole month of May off stock cars (sans Charlotte) to give it a fair shot.

5) Mark Martin. Would it happen? Probably not. But this man has accomplished so much for the gray-haired crowd, wouldn’t it be great to see him go part-time in NASCAR, be an owner/driver and attempt a Hendrick-supported Indy 500 effort on the side? It’s so crazy I’d call it impossible; but then again, no one ever thought Martin would still be driving, either.

Potential roadblock: Age. Not that it’s ever stopped Martin before, but the oldest 500 winner was Al Unser at 47 years, 360 days. Martin would be 52 in 2011.

Did You Notice? … That in the wake of teams coming out of the woodwork for the Indy 500, we don’t have the same rush of random car owners going after one of the sport’s crown jewels in Charlotte. Years ago, the 600 used to attract one of the biggest entry lists of the year, with unsponsored teams able to use their “home base” to cut costs and take a chance at making the race. Old promoter Humpy Wheeler used to concoct outrageous deals that would put anyone from female racer Janet Guthrie – who was busy wheeling Indy before Danica was even born – to short track ace Dick Trickle, to former IndyCar star Johnny Rutherford in rides for the big race. Those huge fields made qualifying as nerve-wracking as bubble day itself, with full-time teams missing the show while battling against these part-time programs attracting fan interest.

But the decaying economic conditions for NASCAR have made part-timers all but extinct. Charlotte is now just another race on the calendar, with 47 teams on the entry list and only Bill Elliott’s Wood Brothers Ford the intriguing part-time competitor in the field. Gone are any hardscrabble, part-time efforts capable of putting together rides to service the IndyCar superstars who might be interested in Bruton Smith’s $20 million challenge next year, and heavyweight promoter Wheeler left the speedway long ago.

Meanwhile, across the way at Indy bubble day was the most meaningful one we’ve seen this decade. Big names like Tony Kanaan nearly missed the field, while ones like Paul Tracy actually did. Add in a little Danica drama, and momentum for that race remains at an all-time high, although it remains to be seen whether the ratings will actually match it.

Compare that to the sleepiness surrounding Charlotte, and it’s just the latest wake-up call that NASCAR needs to do something to raise the importance of its “crown jewel” races once again. We’ve talked about restarting the former Winston Million program; what about offering a 100-point bonus to winners at the Daytona 500, Coke 600, Darlington, and Indianapolis? Something, anything would be better than the way in which the former World 600 is now little more than just another Cup race.

It’s a tale of two careers: Rusty Wallace retired on top of his game in 2005, making the Chase and briefly contending for the championship. In contrast, Kyle Petty hung on to the point he never won a race during the last 13 years of his driving career.

Did You Notice? … That in the midst of Bobby Labonte’s recent struggles with TRG, one of several legends fumbling to the end of long, distinguished careers, I’m coming to appreciate one particular driver more and more…

Rusty Wallace.

Think about it. Of all the great drivers who have officially retired the past decade (Mark Martin doesn’t count: seriously, did he ever really retire?) Wallace is the only one to not only stick to his guns but end his career with a truly noteworthy season, making the Chase while finishing inside the top 10 in Cup points. Let’s compare that to the rough endings of the some of the sport’s other major stars:

Ward Burton: Went the final five years of his career without a top-5 finish.

Bill Elliott: Seemed to do the right thing after semi-retiring on the heels of a ninth-place points finish in 2003, complete with a win and 12 top-10s. But after seven years of part-time work, he’s begun to enter the “hanging around too long” pantheon after 80 starts have yielded just a single top 10.

Dale Jarrett: Retired in 2008 after failing to qualify a dozen times and not scoring a top-10 finish in 41 attempts with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Terry Labonte: Since scaling back to a part-time career after 2004, he’s got just one top-5 and two top-10 finishes in 50 starts. Also, went winless, with no top-5s and slipped to 26th in points during that final full-time year.

Sterling Marlin: Never scored a top-5 finish again after losing his ride in the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge at the end of the 2005 season. By 2009, he was running a seven-race schedule of start-and-parks for James Finch just to make some extra cash.

Ricky Rudd: Retired the first time in 2005, then came back only to get hurt, fail to finish in the top 5, and end up 33rd in the standings for Yates Racing in ’07.

Darrell Waltrip: Retired in 2000 after two years without a top-10 finish, failing to qualify a dozen times during that stretch.

The list can go on and on. That means for me, Wallace’s already vaunted Cup career resume earns a new level of respect. He understood the right time to cut and run, unlike 90 percent of the veterans whose passion overwhelms their decisionmaking in the wake of declining performance.

Now, the trick is for he and Bobby Labonte to sit down and have a good talk. Maybe during the ESPN portion of the schedule?

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Kevin from PA
05/26/2010 08:41 AM
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Wow – good point about Rusty. Was never a fan but I give credit where credit is due.

As for as single car teams showing up for Charlotte – how can they? Between the top 35 rule; the ever changing body templates; the fact that you need 50 engineers just to be slightly competitive; any open slots are being taken by start-and-park teams – why would I, a local driver / team owner, even waste my time or money.

I agree it is sad that this part of NASCAR is gone (for now at least). There was a local short track ace that lived near my house that used to take his car to some key Winston Cup events back in the ’70s; I don’t think he was ever competitive but I believe he did make the field a few times. Today? – I doubt any local ace can even afford the entry fees charged by NASCAR.

John Potts
05/26/2010 10:52 AM
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I recall Rusty asking his wife, Patty, while he was still driving, “You realize that I’m doing this for us, don’t you?”
He proved he meant it by getting out of the seat at the right time, with his family’s future assured.

don
05/26/2010 10:53 AM
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I always respected Rusty for sticking to his guns and fighting whatever urges he might have had to come back. Too bad Mark Martin had to horn in on Rusty’s retirement tour when he had NO serious intentions of retiring. He may be a respected driver in the garage, but IMHO, that was a classless move.

On the Indy car front, Kyle Busch will need to mature greatly before he moves to F1…I’m sure no one wants another Danica in the IRL. However, Kyle needs to realize this and work towards behavioral correction. Talent or not, his immaturity is nothing to be ignored as it could manifest in his using his car as a weapon in a fit of anger……

Indy Bump day…..Paul Tracy and one other driver, can’t remember his name, took themselves out voluntarily…..why? I understand Paul Tracy may have thought he could get a better time, but the other driver was in when Tracy dropped his first time….huge mistake to try again…IMHO.

On the double duty front, I understand these are racers and that they live to race. However, they have a responsibility to their PRIMARY sponsor in the CUP series to race the car they pay for. What happens if they wreck in the 500 and are incapable of racing the car? Granted a standby could be found, but that’s taking a chance on the alternate driving the car in a competitive manner……if the driver fails to represent satisfactorily, this may result in a drop on the sponsor’s part and a removal of their money from the sport all together.

As far as the “sleepiness” of Charlotte and races like it, why not lower the mileage on the types of races? There would be less “riding around” and more battles. I understand these races may have been an endurance test in the beginning, but nowadays, the only real racing I see is when the green flag drops, especially after cautions and during the last 50 miles of a race.
In the interim, the race is nothing more than a series of bathroom and concession stand visits broken only by cautions/restarts. Another possibility is to have series of heat races culminating in the big race, or make it like Daytona qualifying. I really have no idea what the solution would be, but I think we all agree something must be done.

Thank you for your time.

Don

John Potts
05/26/2010 10:55 AM
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On another subject, I’ve followed the Indy Car scene for decades. Juan Pablo doesn’t just have a 500 win, he was THE BOSS. He continually surprised even Chip Ganassi.

KyCupFan
05/26/2010 12:04 PM
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Why is shortening the races becoming the standardized solution to BORING races? If the races are so boring they need to be shortened, then the problem is obviously not the length of the race! If I am going to go to a race, I dont want it shortened, I just want it to be more exciting. COT cars make for boring races. You never heard anyone crying shorten the races back when they were exciting. The racing sucks plain and simple, if NA$CAR would fix the product on the track everyone would shut the hell up about shortening races!

JerseyGirl
05/26/2010 01:39 PM
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KyCupFan – you are SO right. Like you when I pay for a ticket, plus whatever it costs me to travel, I don’t want to see a shorter race, but I do want to see a good one. But NASCAR can’t pull their head out of their you know what and admit that the brick on wheels is a disaster. Put the safety features back in the OLD car and quit working toward the IROC series — we all know how that turned out, don’t we?

Steve
05/26/2010 02:14 PM
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I agree with KyCupfan’s previous post. Its not the length of the races that’s the issue (although I could live with some of them being shorter), its the product on the track. Nascar seems to have their head in the sand regarding this.

I have to disagree with the last part about Bobby Labonte. As far as I’m concerned a driver can race as long as he wants. Its a good living regardless of how well you are doing on the track. Who are we to judge how long someone sticks with it. Personally Bill Elliott is doing it right. He runs a set number of races and not the whole schedule. He’s not racing for a championship anyway but I’m sure is enjoying himself out there when he is competing. No long season, plenty of time for family, and scratching that racing itch every once in a while bringing home a little bacon to boot. Doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

Richard in N.C.
05/26/2010 05:59 PM
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Ever notice that the people who talk the most about shortening races are the writers?

Overra88ted
05/26/2010 10:12 PM
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With the stats given in this article for drivers who hung around too long, maybe a certain Over-Rated, Over-Hyped has been, who never was should get a clue. RETIRE JR!

IronEagle
05/26/2010 11:53 PM
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Peter Windsor said. “I believe Kyle can win a world championship in Formula One. I think he’s got exactly the right talent, the right approach.”

Translation:

“He has MARS/M&M’s money do wannnnnt”.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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