Thomas Bowles · Thursday February 10, 2011
Did You Notice? … There’s a reason why people think that entering this season, Denny Hamlin’s experiencing a 2011 hangover? It’s because for the last five years, everyone who nearly toppled five-time champ Jimmie Johnson wound up forgetting to drink a little water before hitting the sack.
Here’s a quick list of how the last five years have gone:
2006: Johnson over Matt Kenseth, who had four wins (second-most in his career), 21 top-10 finishes and led the points with three races left only to fall 56 markers short
2007: Kenseth wins the second race at Fontana but struggles afterwards, slumping to four straight finishes of 26th or worse in the Chase that knocks him out of the title hunt by halfway. A victory in the Homestead season finale leaves him fourth, but it’s the last time he and longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser ever worked together: the latter was promoted to Roush Fenway Racing GM and got off the road the following year. Kenseth’s record since: four crew chiefs, two victories, one pole, zero titles.
2007: Johnson wins again, this time over teammate Jeff Gordon who would have clinched the regular season title with ease after six victories, a NASCAR modern-era record 30 top-10 finishes and 1,300 laps led. Never running worse than 11th all postseason, Gordon still falls victim to four Johnson victories in the last five races to lose the title by 77 points.
2008: A disaster for Gordon in every sense of the word. Going winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993, he leads only 447 laps – his worst total since the first full year after crew chief Ray Evernham left (2000) – is never a factor inside the Chase and fails to finish six times. Since ’07, he’s scored a total of one victory (Texas, April ’09) and has increasingly looked more like Johnson’s personal assistant on the track instead of someone capable of beating him.
2008: Gordon’s fall meant Johnson’s main foe became Carl Edwards, winning a season-high nine races including three of the last four to lose to the No. 48 team by 68. If not for a Talladega “Big One” he started, a mess which led to a post-race UFC round with Kevin Harvick the following week (part of a 1-2 disaster at Charlotte) the Missouri native might be sitting at home holding a championship trophy.
2009: Edwards suffers through his worst full season on the Cup level, leading just 164 laps within a winless season that includes just seven top-5 finishes in 36 starts. Squeaking into the Chase, he leads just five laps over the final ten races, scores zero top-5s and wrecks out of the November race at Texas. It took until November, 2010 – when Edwards ended the year with two straight wins – for the newly-minted AFLAC Duck car to “quack” out some momentum. (Hey, the Packers won the Super Bowl … Cheezy jokes are a dime a dozen these days).
2009: For a fourth straight title, the man Johnson dethroned was none other than NASCAR’s perennial Charlie Brown: Mark Martin. Winning by a comfortable 118 points, the No. 5 team could have made it a race if not for Martin’s ill-fated “Lucy pulled the football” luck causing a last-lap Talladega flip. But with five victories and a career-high seven poles, both of which at 50 years of age hopes were high for this “Harry Gant miracle” to continue right into 2010.
2010: Martin won the pole at the Daytona 500 … and promptly fell off the face of the earth. Going nearly five months in between top-5 finishes, he missed the Chase, ended up the year winless and struggled to simply reach 13th in points. For 2011, he lost friend and crew chief Alan Gustafson only to nab the man responsible for leading Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to “such great heights:” Lance McGrew. Whoop-ti-do!
2010: Johnson undergoes his closest title challenge yet, Denny Hamlin and Co. coming within two agonizing races of a title before faulty fuel, frenetic driving and frazzled nerves gave it back to the No. 48. Losing by just 39 points, Hamlin still doubled his career high in victories (eight), scored 29 lead-lap finishes in 36 starts and did it despite having ACL surgery midseason that could have taken him out of the car a good month.
Alright, so looking at history it’s clear Hamlin’s got a tough pattern to break. Quick case for and against his 2011 title dreams:
For: The team returns virtually intact, without the pit crew drama both adversaries (Johnson and Kevin Harvick) faced at the end of 2010. Teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano seem to be clicking, not quite in the Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3 points fashion to finish ’09 but enough that’s there no 20-ton weight dragging the organization down. Winning on every type of track sans road course, his No. 11 team showcased a consistency never mustered before in this format and has the experience of a whisker-close battle with Johnson under their belt. For a new point system that looks unfavorably on DNFs, he’s toe-to-toe with Johnson in that category (they both have 11 in the last five years) and has learned to handle the emotional roller-coaster of racing…
Against: Or has he? Anger boiled over in the press after a faulty decision by crew chief Mike Ford to pit for fuel at Phoenix, leaving Johnson with the upper hand and Hamlin seemingly frazzled enough that you could blame his Homestead spin on nerves. The Ford-Hamlin relationship won’t be settled by some “milk and cookies” meeting (think Hendrick-Chad Knaus, 2005); the two are very different, have an age gap and could struggle to fully reconcile. Busch and Logano’s improvements within JGR may lead to an internal title rivalry; the team got off to an awful start last year (no top-10s in the first five races) except this time, there won’t be any type of physical ACL injury to blame it on.
The bottom line is we’re going to see Hamlin go one of two ways: overcome being oh-so-close only win the title this time (think: Johnson, crashing out to Stewart in ’05 before taking it in ’06) OR we’re going to see a one or two-win season, a borderline Chase appearance at best and the self-destruct button. My money’s on option #2 – history can be a powerful teaching tool – but we’ll see.
Did You Notice?… Speaking of history, a recent fan survey about football should remind us how easily NASCAR took its time to mess up a good thing. In a recent poll conducted by the AP, only 27 percent of fans were in support of the NFL’s schedule expansion from 16 to 18 games. That’s right; people who are falling in love with a sport in record numbers refused to accept the possibility of getting to a number that’s 50 percent of the 36 races NASCAR fans “enjoy” each year.
Certainly, that’s a sign that our current racing schedule may be a tad oversaturated by comparison. But I think there’s something deeper at play. Think about how over in the NFL, new rules enacted midseason for helmet-to-helmet hits – safety issues had doctors worried about concussions and other serious injuries – seemed to strike a nerve amongst the fan base nationwide. And that’s one change permanently enacted and another the number one sport in America is considering. Let’s juxtapose that with NASCAR, where in the last seven years…
- The playoff system has been changed three times (yes, I count this latest tweak)
- The Car of Tomorrow completely changed the design for all four manufacturers
- Lucky Dog, then wave-around rule implemented so cars can’t race back to the start/finish line
- Double-file restarts (eliminating tail end of lead lap confusion)
- Top 35 rule for qualifying – including locking starters into the Daytona 500
Those are five big ones, for starters, and there’s a long list of other tweaks that angered, confused, or downright turned off fans. Of course, during that same time span the NFL benefitted from six Super Bowl champions in seven seasons, exactly zero changes to their playoff format and only slight tweaks to overall style of play. What you see is what you get, from 2003 to 2010 and it’s the type of performances fans are interested in: the numbers back that up.
But this isn’t about football; it’s about what they’ve done NASCAR could have learned from, still digest before it’s too late to stop the bleeding. Back in 2003, what we had was a good product, something fans could relate to with a wide variety of teams, drivers, and different-looking cars wading in and out of the sport. No one needed to make a wide swath of changes to take it to the next level; it was already happening.
Not anymore. To get back to where we’ve started, you almost feel like at this point NASCAR needs to take a step back to move forward, regress to a mid-1990s schedule of about 30-31 races at most, ditch all the new rules and reform itself back into the package that was working in the first place. Sure, the risk remains that what you get is an old, smelly version that’s been sitting in the corner too long so people don’t go back and look. But at the very least, NASCAR needs to enter a mode where the only changes they’re willing to make are either nostalgic or eliminatory in nature (as in, getting rid of the things the fans don’t want in the first place). NFL fans are telling those in control not to mess with a good thing, and for years so did the NASCAR faithful.
So why did officials at the top disobey? I can’t wait for the book to come out 20 years from now with the answer…
Did You Notice? … Too many aging legends hanging on for the wrong reasons? The latest example is 54-year-old Terry Labonte, whose tenure with the newly-minted No. 32 Frankie Stoddard team will last as long as it takes 200 laps in Daytona to ride around in the back and collect a check. Chances are slim the single-car, underfunded team will have the speed for Labonte to make it in by any other way than the champion’s provisional, taking a “locked in” position from underdogs trying to make it while making casual observers scratch their heads and asking a simple question:
Why, after two championships, a consecutive starts streak that briefly set a record and 22 victories that include Darlington’s Southern 500 as bookends does the Iceman need to melt his legacy in the name of a six-figure payday? Why does 55-year-old Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, like Labonte well past his prime take an 18-race ride with a single-car team, Phoenix Racing, that’ll be lucky to slip him inside the top 20 more than once or twice? He’s the inaugural Winston Million winner, a 1988 Cup champion himself and the Most Popular Driver in NASCAR history.
Sure, it’s hard for these legends to keep hanging on when others are starting-and-parking for more money than they’d make winning back in the mid-‘80s. But don’t you have more respect for men like Rusty Wallace, who knew when and how to hang up his driving suit before Father Time and financial greed got the best of him? And then there are others, like Mark Martin at 51 who have the equipment needed to still run up front and contend for wins. There’s been no dropoff … why retire?
But Labonte and Elliott can’t say the same. Neither has had a top-5 finish since Labonte in 2006. Both were supposed to fade away years ago, Elliott at the end of 2003 with Evernham Motorsports (on the heels of nearly winning the season finale before a blown tire) while Labonte wound down with Hendrick during an ’06 limited schedule. Together, they’re the embodiment of NASCAR’s growth during a simpler time.
At least Elliott has the excuse of son Chase, whose seat Dad would like to keep warm as the talented teen works his way up through the lower levels. But Labonte? Son Justin, once a Nationwide Series winner is out of the sport. Stavola Labonte Racing, a venture he started last year lies without sponsorship and faces an uncertain ’11 future. There’s no need to keep running 35th in crappy rides every week. He’s got nothing, no reason to prove anything to anyone.
Well actually, I guess he is proving something in a sense. He’s proving that for athletes who’ve been there, done that, the prospect of money combined with the three words “you never know” make their careers impossible to let go.
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