Thomas Bowles · Wednesday September 29, 2010
Did You Notice? … The substantial, yet not surprising shift in Chase strategy towards “playing not to lose?” From Denny Hamlin on through the field at Dover, the philosophy turned towards simply gaining as many points as possible at a place where Jimmie Johnson could have the track renamed in his honor.
“I think there’s too much to lose within this Chase for anyone to really do anything that’s out of the ordinary,” Hamlin said Sunday. “Or make a dumb move. It’s just not worth it. There’s too much at stake for these race teams.”
That follows up a Friday conversation I had with Hamlin in the media center, one where he claimed “it wasn’t what fans liked to hear” but that he would spend the weekend attempting to minimize a bad day instead of going for the kill. To a certain extent, I understand that, with his track record here colored with the ugly red pen of DNFs while Johnson can’t even see his stats underneath all the Dover trophies on his mantle.
But you better believe Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton’s deflating endings in Loudon, while heart-stopping for fans, proved a cold reminder this system is based on passive consistency, not aggressive risk. Don’t think there wasn’t a conversation in the No. 31 shop this week about how if Burton’s fuel had made it to the checkers last Sunday, he’d be sitting runner-up in the standings to Hamlin instead of seventh, 80 points off the pace. And Stewart, well, losing that gamble was like blowing your thousand in Vegas in 10 minutes, meaning it’s only 9:10 PM but you’re supposed to stay out to your friends ‘till two, leaving you broke, frustrated, and watching a whole bunch of people win money you’ll never have. No wonder he was cranky after an ugly race on Sunday, finishing 21st and then refusing to comment publicly while punching himself in private over the mistake that’s destroyed his Chase.
Such conservatism suggests how much a mulligan of sorts would work wonders to invigorate this playoff system — if we keep it. Or even a separate point system among the Chasers themselves would help, done in a way where wins and running up front encourage you to take gambles, not shy away from them. Whatever the answer, the status quo just doesn’t work; for in the closing laps of a single-file parade, with five Chasers sitting inside the top 6, what I saw at Dover was a whole bunch of people sliding around and simply happy to make it to the next race with what they’ve got. That’s fine, I guess, but fans don’t get to travel to Kansas and see their Chase plans play out; they get three hours with their heroes on a Sunday, once a year, and they expect people to be focused on the race they’re paying to see.
Right now, our point system is not set up for drivers to do that … yet another reason attendance and viewership in these early playoff races continues to drop.
Did You Notice? … The troubling downhill slide for aspiring owners, men who now can’t find their footing in a sport that used to welcome them with open arms? On Sunday, that spotlight was shining darkly on TRG Motorsports, in their second year of operation since being built from scratch by sports car success story Kevin Buckler. Last season, as a rookie owner on tour he tried to do everything the right way, hiring an underdog driver (David Gilliland), a crew chief with something to prove (“Slugger” Labbe) and a small, dedicated group of individuals with the right chemistry to believe that underdog story could play out for them. In an era where owners saw the open spaces on the 43-car grid and had visions of dollar signs dancing through their head, Buckler believed he could do the unthinkable: Post consistent top-10 finishes right along with Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, and Penske under the right circumstances.
Their first few races started off strong, making even the biggest doubters believe in the ultimate upset. Gilliland was hired after a Daytona DNQ and scored a shocking 15th-place finish at Las Vegas, just his second start behind the wheel of the No. 71 Chevy. By Bristol, they were the only one of the upstart programs to sneak inside the top 35 in owner points, with hopes of a sponsor and dreams of cementing themselves on the Sprint Cup circuit dancing in their heads.
“I think the economy opened up a door,” he said in a story I did for SI.com last April. “I saw it as a little bit of an opportunity, because I think some of the big teams are actually throttling back a little bit on some of the expenses that they could afford to do. And we had parts, pieces, available people, really good personnel available.”
But they also were running out of money rather quickly, as doing things the right way was far more expensive as others parked around them. What Buckler wouldn’t say was how much engines and chassis from Richard Childress Racing were costing, deals set up that were just expensive enough to drain an unsponsored operation and keep them from running the distance. A $75,000 engine rental was more than the purse sometimes, but without it, you don’t qualify for the race; that’s where the start-and-park comes in, running 20 percent of the laps saving you $60,000 of that cost while neatly ensuring you’ll never end the day running in front of the lessee.
Once the team fell outside the top 35, a sponsorship deal went sour and soon there was no choice for TRG but to rent the top-level equipment and pull the dreaded S & P whenever possible that spring. Even then, Buckler had hopes of remaining in a “locked in” spot, circling target races where the team could be successful while parking in others just to maintain that Cinderella chance. When Gilliland’s hope soured, he left the team for a shot at Joe Gibbs Racing that ultimately proved unsuccessful; yet his foundation along with Labbe’s led the way for recently unemployed 2000 champion Bobby Labonte to come calling. It was a dream come true for the little team that could, signing a 15-race sponsor in TaxSlayer.com for the start of 2010 and hoping the reputation of a former superstar would be enough to fill the financial gaps.
It didn’t. In an era where engineering, not excellent feedback, makes the difference the team ultimately fell a step behind those with better personnel, the money for simulations, and equipment that ultimately proved a step above what they were being leased. Labbe left, off to a better opportunity with a team whose future was funded by some of daddy’s money (Paul Menard) — the perfect match as opposed to living on the edge, week-to-week with worries running the distance wasn’t enough to get a sponsor. Labonte never clicked with the crew chief replacements, went the whole season without a top-15 finish and openly griped about the lack of horsepower and handling.
Yet despite all the obstacles and money issues, they kept trucking on when other teams around them showed up clearly to collect a paycheck, drive a handful of laps and head home. Buckler ran the team into the ground, and then some, until the money ran dry, finally forced to use the dreaded S & P when TaxSlayer was the only part-time sponsor who’d keep ponying up. Three times in four races they pulled in during May and June, embarrassing for one of the sport’s former stars to the point he finally couldn’t handle it by the start of the summer. In a flash, Labonte was gone, only returning when the team has money — and when it doesn’t, suddenly the lucrative world of starting and parking has begun to creep into the picture even though they’ve won the fight to sneak in the top 35.
And why not? PRISM, NEMCO, and so many organizations around Buckler are making a quick buck, earning $100 less per race while his team puts in twice the effort and gets nowhere against the ironclad, country club operations forever positioned in front of him. So in six of the dozen races since Labonte’s semi-departure, that’s exactly what he’s done, using rookie Landon Cassill as a test session and not a talented future driver like he once was for Hendrick Motorsports in Nationwide. These are tough times in a weary world, my friends, which brings us finally to the dark side exposed after the team pulled in after 126 laps with “clutch” problems on Sunday:
“Switch over to channel 2, please.” The scanner chatter was the luck of the draw, and I perked up while quickly switching to the alternate one in a crowded media center. Whatever was said, they didn’t want anyone to hear – which meant you knew it was eavesdropping material.
“They’re going to pull some bullshit,” said the crewman on the radio to his boss, referring to NASCAR questioning the team pulling in early – one of those “stern lecture” type of things that does no more to stop the practice than blinking your eyes, putting on a puppy dog look and saying please. “We may have to think about running longer.”
“****!” was the response on the other end of the radio, worried not about winning but of the thought they would have to – God – keep racing in general. “That’s ridiculous. They can’t do that.”
The conversation that followed surrounded “fake diagnosing” the problem, and whatever discussion they had with NASCAR paid dividends – the car was never forced back on the track. But it’s moments like those that make me cringe, as the transformation of determined underdog to throwing in the towel, starting and parking to collect a paycheck had officially become complete. This organization had done everything it was supposed to that in a different time would have sparked a long-term future in the sport.
Now? They’re getting beaten down by others, rivals whose goal it is to keep them from not making it past halfway. And you know what? After awhile, it’s like the old saying goes: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Ladies and gentlemen, your NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2010.
Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we go:
- An unintended victim of this whole Clint Bowyer saga continues to be Ryan Newman. While the Chase has been reduced to virtually 11 candidates, pending an all-but-likely denial of the No. 33’s appeal Newman sits 13th in points, with the consistency of five top-11 finishes and the knowledge he, not Bowyer, would be gunning for a title if that penalty had been handed down during a Richmond “warning” instead of that fateful Sunday at Loudon. If Newman was put in the Chase, the No. 39 would sit seventh, 74 points behind leader Hamlin and with as much of a shot as anyone considering his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, won Kansas last fall with driver/owner Tony Stewart.
Considering the man’s Stewart-like tendency to get in the news lately for all the wrong reasons – his Sunday scrape with David Reutimann is the latest in a long line of on-track incidents that have people pissed off – he’s done an incredible job of staying cool under the circumstances. But a top-5 finish at Kansas and another at Fontana, and it’s hard to believe he won’t be sitting up at night wondering, “What if?”
- Is it just me, or is it impossible for the sport to put two complete races together back-to-back? We start with a fantastic Daytona 500 (pothole excluded) and one week later, there’s Fontana (‘nuff said). The best finish of the year at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin’s pre-ACL win (albeit on a rain delay where no one is watching) gets followed up by an off week, then a Phoenix yawner, a weird finish where Newman, in a sense, lucked into his victory. Then we have the best start to the Chase in seven years at Loudon, followed by a soap opera-like atmosphere leading up to a Sunday race where fans anticipated a Hamlin-Harvick brawl on or off the track. Instead, they got a bunch of single-file racing, Jimmie Johnson domination at Dover that gave them every reason to say, “No thanks,” go back to their NFL package and finish off the season elsewhere.
I guess when it rains, it pours. The problem of it all, of course, is you can only hype things up so many times before transforming into the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
- So let me get this straight. Last year’s Kansas race was two hours, 55 minutes, 13 seconds, run from a little after 1 EST to 4. But the pre-race coverage leading up to it all runs for three hours: two hours of NASCAR RaceDay on SPEED followed by a little over an hour pre-race show on ESPN.
Yes, you read that right; the pre-race shows are longer than the actual event itself. Need any more proof our sport is suffering from a case of overexposure?
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