The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Sponsor Discounts?, Trucking Along, And The One Finger Dilemma by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday November 10, 2010

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Did You Notice? … The underlying message that both Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports sent sponsors the last two weeks? In the past, I’ve been worried about one pit crew member being replaced during the Chase, non-playoff teams losing their best man all in the best interests of the “organization” as the top-performing car tries to win the title. Now, this year has seen top car owners go one step further, with RCR and HMS brass replacing entire crews from other Chase-contending teams in the interest of giving their top-tier car the best available personnel to win a championship.

It’s a sign of how NASCAR has changed; could you imagine what would have happened to the underdog, single-car Alan Kulwicki in 1992 if Junior Johnson handpicked the best men in his two-car operation, assigned them to Bill Elliott down the stretch and gathered up all the resources at his disposal to use against him? Johnson didn’t believe in that, the antithesis to the Hendrick model in which each team possessed so much competitive venom towards one other it was almost impossible for each to work together (remember Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett)? But that’s not the case in the new NASCAR, where three and four-car programs are trained to dispose of individuality as a championship for one driver is considered a title for everyone involved.

It’s a tough sell to men that were on Kevin Harvick’s and Jimmie Johnson’s crew, the bottom line being their swap is considered a demotion within an organization that no longer finds them “the best” at doing their jobs. It leads to a permanent ranking system, where Jeff Gordon’s and Clint Bowyer’s teams are considered “second string” with bad crews sent to purgatory and unable to collect on possible championships that they’re far more responsible for than the people who replaced them.

Should Kevin Harvick pull off the near impossible and score the Cup at Homestead, it would be Clint Bowyer’s pit crew celebrating in championship Victory Lane, not the old No. 29 crew. It’s all part of the theme of the 2010 Chase: individual race teams being used as interchangeable parts by multi-car Chase contenders.

Looking at it that way, you’ve got to wonder what execs at DuPont, Cheerios, and BB&T must be thinking – the latter two coming back to the RCR organization next year while Harvick’s backer, Pennzoil, is not. You can’t sell this move as a “change in chemistry” because it’s not just one guy that’s getting switched out. Instead, it’s an entire crew that was removed for one reason: their times aren’t good enough to be championship-caliber. So you’re telling me BB&T and Cheerios should pay full price when they’re publicly being told they’re “second tier?” If I were a marketing exec for either one of those programs, what I would do is call Richard Childress up and say, “OK, thanks for giving us what you label a second-rate crew since we’re no longer in championship contention. So how about we give you a second-rate check for the last five races of the year? After all, this move obviously shows you don’t care about us as much as one of your other cars contending to win the Chase.”

Could you have imagined, after years of worrying that missing the playoffs could cost teams millions in potential sponsorship money, we’re now talking about the risk of those involved in the postseason losing out on cash because of personnel moves? More than ever before, the dominance of multi-car teams is coming into play because this Chase has become not a three-man race but a three-_organization_ battle between Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick, and RCR. Sure, JGR hasn’t made any swaps as of yet, but what if Hamlin’s crew has a series of poor stops on Sunday? Precedent has now been set to use everyone within your organization’s disposal to win this title.

The more I think about it, I just don’t think that’s good for NASCAR any way you look at it. Chad Knaus and Childress will be lauded as geniuses if the moves pay off, but the long-term consequences here may be something haunting the sport for years to come – or until the Chase finally falls by the wayside.

Did You Notice? … That despite most fans’ cheering Kyle Busch’s in-race penalty on Sunday, the dangerous precedent those consequences set for the future? Certainly, Kyle’s middle finger is the equivalent of a technical foul in basketball or perhaps a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct in the NFL. But two laps? Really? To me, that doesn’t fit the crime, permanently eliminating Busch’s chance to get back in contention and win the race while what should have happened was a slap on the wrist to serve as a wakeup call to get the team’s driver back under control. When it comes to officials, you have to maintain a basic respect level between them and the competitors; how thick of a skin do you expect them to have?

I think a one-lap penalty, at most, would have been justified for a gesture that clearly crosses the line in any type of sporting event no matter how much people try and defend it. Although to be honest, I’m fairly content with the $25,000 fine and probation until December 31st that NASCAR threw out as an additional set of consequences Tuesday afternoon. We see this type of misbehavior punished in other sports all the time, and why should this sanctioning body be any different? This move isn’t a rejection of the “Boys, Have At It” policy that’s sorely needed in this age of political correctness. I compare this punishment to when your 10-year-old son walks in the middle of the mall and throws out the middle finger at someone. What would you do? Would you just ignore it, let your kid get by with the gesture by sending a subconscious message that, “It’s OK to do it?”

Kyle Busch may not be happy about it, but throwing out some kind of penalty should be a necessary evil when the basic respect of NASCAR officials gets threatened.

Of course you wouldn’t. So don’t give me this free speech garbage and saying we’re killing NASCAR with political correctness. It’s one thing to show aggression towards another competitor, but there’s also a line you don’t cross – especially when it’s revolving around unbiased officials whose sole purpose is to keep the playing field fair for everyone. And unlike in previous incidences – like when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. swore on camera at Talladega – NASCAR rightfully decided not to take any points away. The championship standings should be earned based on how you drive, not any sort of mental misbehavior that does nothing to affect the outcome of the race.

So at least the sport is making some progress. In a perfect world, Busch would have gotten a one-lap penalty, still been in contention to come from behind at two laps back (wave around plus Lucky Dog, we’ve seen it done in the age of Wacky Rules that virtually eliminate mistakes) and Busch would have learned his lesson in having to work much harder to compete. Instead, a middle finger pretty much ended his day, and that’s not what those penalties should be intended to do.

Did You Notice?… That while the Cup and Nationwide circuits worry about the start-and-park count for 2011, ever-so-quietly it’s becoming less and less of an issue over in Trucks? A quick look at next season shows an infusion of new small-time owners, like Johanna Long’s program and Eddie Sharp Racing combined with the possible return of Roush Fenway, a second truck for RCR and an additional third Truck fielded by Turner Motorsports. KHI is likely to return two trucks, Germain is bringing Max Papis into the fold and you’ve got a handful of new people at least taking a look at the series.

Max Papis and the No. 9 Germain Racing Toyota is just one of many examples of new Truck teams planning to run a full 2011 schedule in a series whose health appears to be improving.

That all begs the question : why not? Sure, the purses are far weaker than Cup or even Nationwide, but the ratings for seven of the last 11 events have posted an increase. At a cost of maybe $4 million to run a top-tier team as opposed to double that for Nationwide or six times that for Cup, it’s a bargain where you can dip your feet into ownership and see what happens. Look at all the start-and-park operations that have never gained any traction on the Cup side. How is that an attractive investment for car owners who presumably want to enter this sport to win, not just make some cash?

The Trucks are the one place where the multi-car giants aren’t dominating; a quick look at the standings shows a single-truck team with a part-time second truck on top of the standings (Todd Bodine, Germain) with another single-truck operation (Austin Dillon, RCR) in fifth place. Further back, Turner Motorsports has entered the series full-time this year and been competitive right off the bat, their drivers 11th and 12th in the standings (Ricky Carmichael and James Buescher, respectively) while contending for wins.

It just goes to show that despite the economy, all the attendance and ratings problems combined with ugly-looking cars, some rich people’s passion for success in this sport has never died. Hopefully, these smaller teams can eventually sustain an ownership model that can bring them up to the Cup Series at the right price in a couple of years, if the top-tier car owners are forced to reduce cost, their fleet, and overall personnel to negate the inherent advantages they already have. But as we’ve talked about too many times, getting men like Jack Roush, Hendrick, Childress, and Roger Penske to do that is far easier said than done.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we take off:

- As I mentioned in my SI.com mailbag I think it’s ridiculous people are emailing me to call the Jeff Gordon – Jeff Burton incident a “sissy fight.” What more do you want? An old-fashioned brawl? It’s really bothering me that fans weren’t satisfied enough; I’d much rather we get a little pushing and shoving instead of someone landing a punch and getting a black eye and having to sit for a week. Let’s not get carried away with too much testosterone …

- Man, is there some type of PR war going on when it comes to “RPM Deathwatch! Week 3.” On the one hand, you’ve got Bob Dillner on NASCAR RaceHub reporting their haulers can’t even start heading to Arizona until a check clears in the middle of this week. My sources have told me all employees have been told to bring personal items home, because if they come to work one day and the doors are locked it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve their stuff. Ford just made a powerful bid for Chip Ganassi’s operation, one it arguably didn’t need as badly if RPM was coming back at least partially intact. Even A.J. Allmendinger has come out in public and said he’s nervous about keeping his job.

Yet you’ve got everyone from Richard Petty, to Robbie Loomis, to Ray Evernham saying that not only is this team in position to finish 2010 but they’re going to be full steam ahead into 2011 as well. And through it all, George Gillett hasn’t even really commented or issued a statement, one of many signs to me that the bank has now taken control of this operation in the interim until someone steps up with the money to pay the bills. See that, to me, is where the key to the future of this story lies. Will the bank accept new investors that will try to revitalize the program?

Or will they do what my sources had told me a month ago; come to the conclusion it’s impossible to make their money back, fold up this operation, retrieve what they can through an auction and just wash their hands of the whole thing? Keep in mind that behind the scenes, NASCAR knows the negative publicity losing the King’s name off a racing program would cause. But would an organization that’s still collecting its own sponsors at the expense of dying teams be willing to put up silent money to keep Petty alive and well in the sport? A lot more questions than answers here.

- Sorry, Kevin; you’re a nice guy, but my 2010 Rookie of the Year Award in Sprint Cup goes to … Trevor Bayne, with only one actual start to his credit. That alone should tell you the type of season for freshmen we just endured.

- OK, so Terry Labonte fields a team at Texas with brother Bobby, says he hopes to run 14 or 15 races minimum in 2011 but admits the team doesn’t have sponsorship to run them. Now, he’s coming out of “retirement” to start and park a second car for Whitney Motorsports this week. Boy, that deal looks healthy … isn’t it sad to see he and Bill Elliott reduced to taking some of these low-end operations (Awesome Bill is in the No. 26 this week, so God knows if he’ll even get a check for services rendered) to scrounge up whatever extra cash they can find?

- I wonder if Martin Truex, Jr. ever looks at the No. 1 ride and says “what if,”
especially after days like Sunday?

- As many fans have pointed out to me through email in recent weeks, how must Dale Earnhardt, Jr. feel that Hendrick is willing to move mountains for either the No. 48 or the No. 24 but he can’t even get a new crew chief? At least, not yet …

- This Chase has gotten so wacky, I’m wild enough to think Kevin Harvick might surprise everyone, win Phoenix and tighten things up even further. He used to have a great track record there … how much would you have bet just one week ago that Homestead would be a battle between Harvick and Hamlin for the title, with Johnson a distant third and fading?

Now, it’s certainly possible.

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Contact Tom Bowles

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
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Back to the Future: Pit Crew Swap For No. 48 Team Foreshadows A Monumental Meltdown
Beyond the Cockpit: Travis Kvapil on Addition by Subtraction At Front Row
Mirror Driving: Who’s Your Chase Favorite? And Changing The Points… For Nationwide
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Texas-2
Top Ten Ways the AAA Texas 500 Could Have Been Even Better
The Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Texas, November 2010
Carey and Coffey: NASCAR Fights in Mainstream Media

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RamblinWreck
11/10/2010 12:19 AM
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Kevin Conway’s best finish of the year is better than Trevor Bayne’s best finish… but point taken.

And Kyle Busch did effectively get fined points for the gesture, as the penalty destroyed any chance at a good finish. I can imagine Kyle being somewhat upset at ESPN: if the technical director hadn’t gone to Kyle’s in-car camera, he wouldn’t have received the fine or penalty or anything. Of course, Kyle should have held himself to a slightly higher standard, so I’m not exactly sympathetic.

wcfan
11/10/2010 01:27 AM
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Thomas

While you are correct Todd Bodine is leading the truck drivers standing.

It is I believe another single truck team with a part-time second team that is also a first year team that is leading the owner championship. And that is KBM

Kyle Bush Motorsports.

JimBob
11/10/2010 03:19 AM
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“But would an organization that’s still collecting its own sponsors at the expense of dying teams be willing to put up silent money to keep Petty alive and well in the sport?”

I have been wondering if thats been going on and not just with RPM either.

Gordon82Wins
11/10/2010 06:46 AM
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. DID get a new crew chief…he also reportedly got some of Mark Martin’s engineers, hurting Martin’s performance while Junior still runs like crap.

If anything, Hendrick ought to be finding a new driver for the 88 car. Junior just isn’t that good, period. No other driver would get so many different iterations of a team to get him to run better. If his last name were Higgins (or even Labonte, for that matter) he’d be driving start-and-parks to stay in the sport.

Otherwise good points though.

Johnboy60
11/10/2010 08:14 AM
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Tom, no matter how you spin it, Jeff and Jeff were just shoving each other. To call that a fight is a joke. And again, they are BOTH “sissy men” or it would have been a full on fight!! I do wonder why you object to the “sissy man” remarks anyway, they are, and why are you defending that. Go back and look at Daytona ’79. Now THAT was a fight!!

Jacob
11/10/2010 08:43 AM
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  • To begin with, the 24 and the 33 are not in contention for the championship, and neither of them ever really were. Sure Bowyer won Loudon, but even if you give him back the 150 points, he’s not contending for anything.
    What message would not changing Harvick’s crew send to Pennzoil? “You’re not coming back next year, so we shouldn’t really try to win you a championship.” What message would that send to a future prospective sponsor?
    The same goes for the 48. If you think your pit crew is a weak link, don’t you need to make adjustments? Or do you just tell Loewes that 4 straight championships are enough, so it’s cool if the team doesn’t give 110% all the time?
    As for JR, Rick Hendrick is probably worried that if he swapped drivers with the 48 and 88 that the 48 would suddenly start finishing in the 30s every week, and the 88 would be contending for championships. Then JR nation would have to face the facts, and merchandise sales would plummet.
  • You wouldn’t want to see a driver miss a race because of a black eye? What kind of a pansy-ass would miss a race because he got punched? Do you remember Ken Schrader getting part of his finger cut off at Phoenix, and telling the doctor to throw it away because having it reattached would keep him from driving? How about Ricky Rudd duct taping his eyes open and winning at Richmond after his wild flip at Daytona? How far has na$car fallen?
  • I wonder how many of the diehard “we’ve got to have The King and the 43 in na$car” crowd will find love and respect for Toyota, should Petty take his name and number to Little Mikey’s operation.
  • Any sympathy for Awesome Bill, and the Labontes should be tempered by the fact that they can all retire!!! There is a choice beyond doing the start-n-park for any team that offers them $50 and a 40 oz of malt liquor.
Sherri T
11/10/2010 09:12 AM
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I don’t like the crew switches for a few other reasons: 1)crew chiefs interact with their crews differently, look at Knaus v. LeTarte. Very different styles. Who’s to say that the 24 crew will work as well for Knaus as they do for Letarte? Sure, short term last Sunday they did okay, but there’s more to a team than just what each member does individually.

2)It is not only important in the sport to finish ONE team in the best position possible. For sponsorship in years to come, it’s important that EVERY team finish as well as possible! Get that 24 team as high in the top 12 at the banquet as possible. Get that 33 team up there as well. Granted they aren’t going to win, but how they finish this year, affects how they start next year right? So don’t tie their hands behind their backs now on an off chance that the change will make that big of a difference in the last 3 races!

3)It sends a message to the fans of those drivers that are losing their better crews, that the owner doesn’t care about those teams any more, so why should the fan? If the owner is throwing them out, why should the fan watch the rest of the season?

4)How well are those teams going to work in the future? I mean if the 48 team is thrown out after a bad day after all the things they’ve pulled out over the entire season, the morale for next year is not going to be the same. It sends a message to the teams that they’re only as good as the last race, which in the short term might motivate, but with that type of atmosphere on a day to day basis, futility becomes a real danger that may decrease the teams abilities more than increase them.

Michael in SoCal
11/10/2010 12:12 PM
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As my wife described it, Jeff Gordon resorted to his patented ‘Parrot Face Push’ on Jeff Burton, as previously demonstrated on Matt Kenseth. Not much more than that, but it was entertaining.

Buzz
11/10/2010 02:11 PM
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Bill isn’t out there trying to make a dime here and there. He just likes to race and, maybe he’s dusting off for a full run in 2011. Regardless, guys like Elliott and Labonte find it hard to quit NASCAR cold turkey….just like us fans who swear it off every year, but keep showing up (in lesser numbers every season). When will WE get smart and RETIRE as fans? You should pity us instead.

Overra88ted
11/10/2010 02:32 PM
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The #88 crew and crew chief would bail on Na$crap’s most Popular Loser, Dale Jr. in a heartbeat if they were given the chance to work on Championship winning teams like the #24 and #48. Instead of getting Crap week after week because of their underperforming driver riding around in circles to 20th somewhere finishes and collecting a sponsor check.

Steve
11/10/2010 03:56 PM
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Sorry but got to disagree about your assessement of the Busch situation.

The 1 finger salute was not the only thing he was penalized for. If you remember on Saturday he went nuts in a profanity laced tirade over his radio and to PRN, then did the same thing in his car before he gave the salute. Combining all that, I’m sure nascar said enough is enough. Thus the 2 lap penalty. If he wasn’t Kyle Busch or still in contention for a Cup title, it would have been a slap on the wrist.

Kyle Busch gets away with alot and fails to realize that. He should remember that when he goes off on a tirade about speeding penalties or someone jumping the start.

Marybeth
11/10/2010 06:05 PM
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Tom, I just read on Race Journal Online from someone who listens to Jr.’s radio, “JEERS to Lance…how does a team run out of tires with almost 25% of the race left? Let’s hope it was race dictated and not the pre-race plan. Glad Jr didnt have a flat and actually need a tire to avoid his first DNF this year. I’m pretty sure the 24 tires followed Jeff’s pit crew over to the 48 camp.” What…? I have NEVER heard of a team running out of tires in the Cup series, in the Truck or NW series, yes, but not Cup level. Why hasn’t anyone else reported it? Writers are always looking for stories about Jr. I wholeheartedly agree with overated 88, it is well past time for Rick to let Jr. go.

Overra88ted
11/10/2010 10:56 PM
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Marybeth…Just where is your head stuck up? NOBODY on the Cup level runs out of tires. Just another of your delusional BS excuses for Na$craps most Popular Loser Dale Jr.

Tandem
11/10/2010 11:13 PM
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Let’s not forget, Kyle flipped off an official, not another driver. I don’t care if it was on camera or not. Flip off an official in the NBA and it is a 3 game suspension, not just a technical foul.

Overra88ted
11/10/2010 11:16 PM
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Marybeth, are all your light bulbs on? No body’s reporting on your delusions, because THERE IS NO STORY TO REPORT! Please show us your intelligence and explain to the world how the #88 crew installed a 9” ford ring gear backwards, something YOU posted all over the web this summer.Marybeth … the crickets are chirpping!

Overra88ted
11/10/2010 11:30 PM
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Marybeth… I almost fell out of my chair when you said you agreeded with me about Rick benching Jr. for a few races to show delusional people like yourself and the rest of Jr. Nation the #88 team’s only problem is it’s driver. What driver would you want to prove this to you, Scot Speed? Danica Patrick? Or whoever? Really wouldn’t take alot of talent to do.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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