The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Busch Spotter Silliness, Martin v. Evernham, Labonte Love, And Sources by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday July 28, 2010

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Did You Notice? … Bobby Labonte gets a second chance (or is it more like his fourth)? Hours after Marcos Ambrose announced his departure from JTG Daugherty Racing (we’ll get to his status later), Labonte’s been handed the keys to the No. 47 Toyota for 2011.

After disastrous tenures with Petty Enterprises, Hall of Fame Racing, TRG Motorsports, and several others Bobby Labonte will get another chance at success in 2011 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

It’s easily the best-case scenario for the former Cup champ, landing with a program in JTG Daugherty that is solid financially, has chassis support from Michael Waltrip Racing, and placed in a stable with two upward-trending teammates: Martin Truex, Jr. and David Reutimann. No, chances are MWR won’t make the Chase this year. But in a season where just eight men and seven teams have won a race – remember, Roush Fenway isn’t even on that list – their Chicagoland victory with David Reutimann, combined with a career year for the No. 56 car itself showcases they’re one of the few middle-class NASCAR operations weathering the storm.

This signing also makes MWR/JTG the “safe haven” of sorts for older talent, with the 40-year-old Reutimann recently signed to a three-year contract extension. Now, the 46-year-old Labonte joins the group and an organization that finished 17th in the standings with Ambrose last year.

I understand many will question this move, considering Labonte has gone the entire season without a top-15 finish, albeit in underfunded equipment. But who else was out there for the taking on short notice? By all accounts, this was not a premeditated departure from Ambrose, who signed an extension with the team last year that ran through 2011. The list of available drivers at the moment isn’t long, and the accomplishments of Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish, Jr. pale in comparison to a man who’s held the title of Cup Series champion.

JTG also needed someone who wasn’t going to tear up equipment. Ambrose had five DNFs for wrecks this year, ending a handful of others with a car simply held up by duct tape. The clean, capable Labonte should be the opposite; I think the bigger question is whether he’s lost confidence after years of being in cars that came straight from your local junkyard. There’s no question this opportunity is his best since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005; but with no tangible results driving the new Car of Tomorrow, it’s fair to ask whether Labonte’s in a Dale Earnhardt, Jr.-like swoon or simply been dealt a bad hand ever since.

That question is overshadowed, though, by a long list of prayers that have been answered in the Labonte camp. Let’s quickly review the long line of missteps he’s taken the last five years:

  • Leaving Joe Gibbs Racing for perpetual underdog and underfunded Petty Enterprises in 2006.
  • Staying loyal to Petty when a group of investors came in to “save” the company, spurning an offer from Richard Childress in the process.
  • Aligning with struggling Yates/Hall of Fame Racing and sponsor Ask.com after the Petty merger fell apart at the end of 2008.

Labonte must be credited for his loyalty, but every time he’s had a critical career choice to make, it was wrong. So considering his faltering future, seemingly destined towards retirement in this environment, his sudden pickup becomes the most shocking announcement of Silly Season this year – even more so than Kasey Kahne moving over to Hendrick.

Did You Notice? … Speaking of Kahne, if you listen to what everyone says his options for 2011 are just about zero. Let’s review: Stewart-Haas Racing, Red Bull Racing, JR Motorsports, and now Phoenix Racing (who my normally trusty sources in the garage had pegged) have all said there’s no plans to put Kahne in one of their cars for 2011. If taken at face value, that leaves the following full-time Chevrolet operations with no comment:

Tommy Baldwin Racing, TRG Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing (single-car teams)
Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing (multi-car)

TBR and TRG are struggling to survive, while TRG and the third single-car organization – Furniture Row – are running chassis from a Hendrick rival, Richard Childress. And if there’s any sense of competition left in the sport, Childress and Chip Ganassi won’t sit there and babysit someone else’s driver for one season just so he could kick their butt somewhere else. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face …

Rick Hendrick says he doesn’t know where Kasey Kahne will end up yet in 2011 … or does he?

So that leaves us with four options: Kahne stays with Ford, Kahne goes in the No. 5 car for 2011, Kahne gets housed by another manufacturer … or somebody’s lying. And at the heart of all this mess lies a running theme: money talks. Let’s not forget Jeff Gordon still doesn’t have a full-time sponsor for 2011, and Mark Martin has Hendrickcars.com running for at least half-a-dozen races on the No. 5 Chevy this year. So you’re talking about finding sponsorship for all those guys, plus Kahne: and as much as Martin is a beloved figure in and outside the NASCAR garage, the corporate boardroom is, well, a different story. It’s pure common sense that it’s easier to market a 30-year-old “heartthrob” for the ladies than a 51-year-old who’s entering his final full-time season in Cup.

So, harsh as it is, the advertising writing on the wall is there; and considering the difficulties of Kahne running for a different manufacturer under contract, you’d have to think there’s a ghost of a chance Hendrick can make it work. That means #2 or #4 remain the most likely options … but considering Mark (very adamantly) wants to be held to his contract, well, somebody’s lying here. Don’t you think?

Did You Notice? … Ray Evernham speaking out on Saturday, claiming Martin will eventually step aside and let Kahne take over the No. 5 car next season. Those remarks made Martin privately furious, and Rick Hendrick himself issued a statement on Sunday denying he’d asked Evernham to send a message through the media:

“I don’t need anybody to do any dirty work for me,” he said. “If I have anything I want done, I’ll go to the people. I won’t have anybody else do it or speaking for me.”

Here’s where I think Evernham stepped out of line; guess who’s rumored to be Kahne’s new race strategist once he gets hired? Yep, the same guy who hired him in the first place back at Evernham Motorsports, the one who’s been rumored to head back to Hendrick for years and would love to dip his feet back inside the Cup Series garage.

Sure, we don’t know for certain yet Evernham’s going to go straight to HMS once Kahne jumps on board. But the fact he’s seriously in the rumor mill should be enough to pose a direct conflict of interest, making it unprofessional to comment on a situation that basically could earn him a role in the company if it goes a certain way. I’m shocked there’s not a bigger uproar over this one, because if I’m Martin this report is the one that absolutely pisses me off the most.

Did You Notice? … Kyle Busch has a spotter that’s also his rival on the racetrack? That’s right; Eddie D’Hondt replaced former Busch agent Jeff Dickerson on the spotter’s stand last weekend, hired on an interim basis while Busch figures out if he’s a good fit long-term.

Sounds like a simple enough hire on the surface, right? There’s just one weird quirk: in the Nationwide race, D’Hondt has his own cars competing against Busch. In case you’ve forgotten, D’Hondt co-owns the Nos. 90 and 91 Nationwide machines – the former MSRP outfit – with Randy Humphrey. The two have combined to run just one full race this season, picking up the MSRP mantra of starting-and-parking for cash somewhere within the first 50 laps of their other starts.

Considering that philosophy, I understand why D’Hondt’s not needed over the course of the race: his teams aren’t there to actually compete. But when you stop and think about it, him working for Busch during a Nationwide race is equivalent to Roger Penske coming over to spot for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It makes no sense! We see the conflict of interest thing in this sport all the time – the TV broadcasters are one such example – but at least when you’re calling a race, you’re not actually working for someone that’s a direct rival in the actual competition itself. For D’Hondt to collect an extra paycheck for someone else, at the same time his other cars are competing is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.

Did You Notice? … Some “not so” quick hits before we go:

- There’s been a lot of talk about the use of the word “sources” lately. Between the Mark Martin fiasco, Kevin Harvick calling out the media, and now Jenna Fryer’s latest story in which she initially claimed “sources told her” two drivers had been fined $50,000, it’s a hot button issue pretty much everywhere you turn.

I do find it comical the names of both drivers have yet to be officially released, even though one, (initials DH), is as easy to figure out as first grade math. When the cat’s out of the bag, why bother trying to shove it back in? At this point, NASCAR needs to run damage control by releasing those names to the public; instead, they’re trying to hide behind the curtain even though Dorothy clearly sees the Wizard is nothing to be afraid of.

But I digress. Reporters are getting hammered for using the “source” word, and as someone who’s doing this full-time for a living, it’s getting rather silly. Whenever we see breaking news from the White House, for example, do you ever see Obama’s Chief of Staff confirm certain changes to Afghanistan war strategy? Very rarely! Instead, you see the word “sources,” “sources,” “sources.”

Kevin Harvick is among those drivers who’ve been critical of the way the media’s handled NASCAR reporting this season.

Why? It’s all a simple matter of common sense. Here’s an example: let’s say I have a highly-ranked source of mine that works in PR. If I reported Team A Motorsports was moving up to Cup, let’s say, and instead of using the word “sources,” I said “PR spokeperson John Smith says they’re moving up to Cup” before the team had put together an official release, what would happen next? Do you think the boss would invite Mr. Smith in, sit him down and say, “Job well done, man! You leaked a story we didn’t want to come out for another week. Here, sit with me, we’ll drink a beer, and talk promotion.”

Of course not! What would happen to these people would at best be a screaming match and a stern warning; at worst, they’d end up losing their jobs by being the leak. Keep in mind that we also live in an era of “instant gratification” – Twitter, Facebook, Weird Robot Suit That Plugs You Into Breaking News – where second place is really the first loser, regardless of whether the first story is right or wrong. This sport has always worked in the shadows, too, one where everybody wants to hide everything like it’s some sort of big high school secret. That all adds up to a difficult minefield to find the right sources, ones who are capable of providing the best information you need to confirm the facts of your story – all while balancing the delicate process of ensuring you don’t fall behind.

So where does that leave you, the fans? When news breaks, it’s up to you to figure out which reporters are trustworthy and which ones are not. Of course, all of us are never going to be perfect; if we were, there would be no such thing as a mistake. But we all go out there and do the job to the best of our ability, and the good ones – we’re right more often than not, know the ethics of responsibility, and none of us ever wake up in the morning and make up stories out of thin air. Over time, the cream rises to the top, and in this era you, more than any other time, become part of sorting out the best reporters from the crappy ones.

But to hammer us for using the word “sources?” Really? I guess we should all just sit here with our hands tied behind our back, never enterprise, and wait for the official press releases to come to our desks so we can regurgitate them, word for word. I don’t know how the rest of my peers feel, but that’s certainly not how I understand my job description …

- Speaking of options, the Marcos Ambrose departure from the No. 47 was a complete shock for me. I will freely admit I knew absolutely nothing about that one, and keep in mind he does a monthly diary for Frontstretch.com. Ambrose does have a strong relationship with Ford, giving him options, but remember this much: He really does love Australia. Their family spends the offseason Down Under, and they’ve got a five-year-old entering school age. If the funding isn’t there for him to be competitive, I’m telling you, Australia would be more of an option for this guy than people think.

- Godspeed to Jack Roush, who survived a second, serious plane crash while trying to land his plane in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Although Roush is OK, this story about the crash says it all. There are people who get looked over by guardian angels; Mr. Roush, my friends, must have two.

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
Is Rick Hendrick NBC-ing Mark Martin?
Top Ten Comments NASCAR Drivers Could Be Fined For
Ford Teetering On The Brink Of Success – And Irrelevancy – In NASCAR
Beyond The Cockpit: Talented New NASCAR Teen Makes Debut
Mirror Driving: Triple Crowns, Scheduling Snafus, And Censorship Central
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Indianapolis
Frontstretch Funnies! Indianapolis, July 2010

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Carl D.
07/28/2010 02:53 PM
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I’m going to wish Bobby Labonte the best in his new endeavor with JTG, but I’m also going to keep my expectations low. Despite the alliance with MWR, Labonte will still be driving for a one-car team, and these days that all but assures mediocrity. You were right, though… I never saw this one coming.

I really don’t care where Kasey Kahne drives next year. While I don’t dislike Kahne, I utterly despise the way Rick Hendrick does business. If you ask me, Mark Martin’s anger should be directed at Hendrick for allowing this mess to occur in the first place.

mkrcr
07/28/2010 04:55 PM
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Perhaps Mark’s recent outbursts of anger towards the media and others are actually sign of an underlying anger with Hendrick.
As far as tying the hands of the media, I have always listened/read initial media reports with a wait and see attitude. It’s always been an “I got it first” driven business and it’s up to the consumer to choose to buy in or opt out. These days, with so many more outlets, if it ain’t a natural disaster with visual proof I tend to be skeptical.
Godspeed Jack Roush. The Cat in the Hat certainly seems to be using up his nine lives.

Dave
07/28/2010 08:00 PM
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I am happy for Labonte. I hope this works out for him, and gets him back running up in the top 15. It would be a great story

This Martin issue is getting uglier by the week.

MSW
07/29/2010 03:36 PM
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The longer this goes on with Martin, the uglier it seems to get. I expect this is going to end with some hurt feelings. I believe Mark will be pushed out of the 5 car, and Hendrick will look like a slime ball.

 

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