The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... A Chaser In Trouble, Business Propositions And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 13, 2011

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Did You Notice?… This week’s 2010 Chase driver on life support happens to be Jeff Burton? While Denny Hamlin remains in crisis, Talladega returns the focus to the driver of the No. 31, whose fiery wreck last fall with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has precipitated the current slump that’s perhaps his most serious since first signing with RCR in 2004. The veteran remains without a top-10 finish in his last 11 races while sitting 25th in points, 57 out of a postseason spot and lacking the type of victory cache someone like Hamlin can use to earn a wild card position. That leaves his team with their proverbial backs against the wall, no room for error while reflecting on what’s put them in this spot.

“The way we ended last year, you know, we started pushing too hard,” he said on a Tuesday teleconference with reporters. “We started trying to make stuff happen and got behind in the Chase.”

“So, we took that action and said, OK, to make it happen, we have got to really, really start pushing hard and that didn’t work out for us. And then to come into this year, the kind of start we have had this year, it’s really frustrating. It’s hard to put into words. I can tell you this, though: I’m extremely confident that we can dig ourselves out of the hole and get ourselves in the position we need to be in.”

Certainly, Burton’s had some bad luck, an engine problem with a top-5 car at Daytona causing a hangover that hasn’t yet worn off. Last year, he led 539 laps while this season the number sits at five through seven events. What’s confusing is that new teammate Paul Menard has had few issues, contending for a Chase spot while Clint Bowyer sits tied for 12th and Kevin Harvick has just won two out of the last three Cup events.

Could RCR, expanding to four cars for just the second time be struggling to keep each one of them ahead of the curve? It looks like the veteran’s fourth out of four on the depth chart right now; that’s why for Burton, Talladega is critical as it’s a rare opportunity for him to earn a chunk of points back in one race. With an average of six top-5 finishes the last three seasons, this veteran’s made the Chase with consistency, not victories… and already, he’s in a position where those numbers might not prove to be enough. Gaining three points per race on his competitors from this point on would still leave the No. 31 on the outside looking in come Homestead, so 14th place after 14th place won’t do much for him. If there’s a guy in need of his ECR engine to last 499 miles – a question mark considering the motor woes that encapsulated the program back at Daytona – it’s him.

If Burton fails to make the Chase, it’s a more important failure than people might think. Turning 44 in June, he’s working on an extension with RCR with an expiring contract this November. But the team’s sponsorship situation is uncertain (keep reading for more on that) and with Austin Dillon coming up through the ranks, Childress will eventually need someplace for him to land if companies want to pay the money they won’t for a fortysomething. It’s hard to imagine this duo ever parting ways, considering the strong leadership role Burton’s played behind the scenes. But no one ever thought Roush and Burton would separate, or Roush and Mark Martin for that matter. It’s something to watch going forward, especially if poor performance forces Childress’ hand and leads to a shorter-term contract offer than his driver would like.

Pairing up on Sunday at Talladega will leave one driver the odd man out in a 43-car field…. but could that strategy translate into a way to play Chase catch-up with the point leader come this fall?

Did You Notice?… How this current plate package at Talladega could affect the Chase? The thought occurred to me when thinking back to last fall, where Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 lost the draft and nearly fell a lap down before half a green-flag pit cycle was complete.

And suddenly, the light bulb went off: if, say, Jimmie Johnson has a 30-point lead heading into the October weekend why wouldn’t people leave him out of the two-car draft the second the green flag falls? Without a partner, someone willing to work with him the No. 48 would fall a lap down in a hurry, and with a 43-car field there’s always going to be at least one odd man out.

Freezing the point leader would be the ultimate strategy ploy, the perfect way to automatically ensure yourself a points gain as long as you don’t get thrown into the Big One. Could it happen in this era of teammates, especially during the final few laps when it’s every man for himself? Absolutely, adding a highly debatable element to a championship that could be decided, in part because other people don’t want to be your “friend.”

Did You Notice?… How Ford’s fantastic season hasn’t translated to Front Row Motorsports? In thirteen starts with their two primary cars, the No. 34 and No. 38 the team has crashed out four times. That 30.8% accident rate is easily the highest amongst the full-timers and doesn’t include other, smaller wrecks for both David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil where they limped home to the finish after extended stints on pit road for repairs.

With an accident rate equivalent to nearly one-third of their Sprint Cup starts in 2011, how long can Front Row Motorsports keep up their frenetic pace of rebuilding equipment?

Both cars have suffered from a disturbing number of tire failures, destroying a fleet of retooled Fords they hoped would make them consistent top-20 performers this season. Instead, Kvapil sits 31 points outside the top 35 and, at this point might be better served leaving to fully concentrate on winning the Truck Series championship. Gilliland, while running better has only escaped the same fate through February’s third-place finish at the Daytona 500. With limited sponsorship and hundreds of thousands in damage to their equipment, you’ve got to wonder what owner Bob Jenkins is thinking about the outfit’s long-term future in Sprint Cup. It’s his seventh year in the sport, but that podium finish at Daytona – about as high as he can get without funding – remains the only top-10 performance for the program he’s spent millions on in 208 career starts.

You may be sitting there thinking, why so much ink on FRM? Because in a field where we’re struggling to bring 43 cars to the track each week, two underfunded cars that actually come to race, improve, and work their way up the ladder are found with increasing rarity these days. To lose FRM, or even see them forced to scale back would be devastating to a grid that’ll be flirting with seven or eight start-and-park efforts once again later this summer.

Did You Notice?… Some quick hits before taking off:

- Richard Childress Racing announced a new partnership involving their marketing and business development staff. Typically, this type of announcement does little more than incite a yawn from the general public, but pay attention to this one. Why? Clint Bowyer let slip on Saturday night that despite a second-place finish (and a multiple-win, Chase appearance in 2010) he’s still in need of primary sponsorship to fill several unsold races later on this season. Add that to Jeff Burton’s need of more money in 2012 – current primary Caterpillar is expected to cut back at the end of their contract, circa DuPont in 2010 – and, well, let’s say the Menard family can’t fund the entire Childress organization. Heck, there’s even seven races for Kevin Harvick where primary sponsorship has yet to be announced.

It’s a disturbing trend, this marketing malaise that shows better ratings aren’t the automatic fix-all to the sponsorship dilemma. Even Trevor Bayne, whose financial roadblocks have been well-documented following the post-Daytona 500 dream had to reach out to the Truck Series primary sponsor, Camping World, just to get a little extra money to race this weekend. The sport has some energy for the first time in years; now, it’s about convincing the business world of the value that still exists. Easier said than done…

- So is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. still the Most Popular Driver or what? For all the attention he’s been getting lately, FOX has assigned Jeff Gordon as that “Pizza Hut Fan Favorite” virtually every week. Sure, the original Four-Time’s no slouch but he’s done nothing really to warrant a changing of the guard, right? It just goes to show you the problem with these “popularity contests;” one group of well-organized fans can monopolize the competition and make their driver a winner… even if he’s far from it in reality.

- From the “wow” department, rookie Andy Lally has led one lap this season (Phoenix) and thus has one more bonus point than Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, and Joey Logano. Kasey Kahne is tied with him in that category, meaning all of Red Bull Racing has been out front just once, for one lap all year.

- In the last four races at Talladega, there are only two cars that have finished in the top 10 three times: Joe Gibbs Racing (No. 20 – Joey Logano) and Phoenix Racing (No. 09 – Brad Keselowski and Mike Bliss). Need any further proof on the whole crapshoot theory?

- Among those who started following me on Twitter this week: The Bail Hotline? Do I look like a guy who’s about to go to prison? Geez. I guess this clapping thing has stirred up the watchful eyes of the police…

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Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
Full Throttle: Sometimes, It Doesn’t Pay To Be Fast
Three Teams on The Verge of Victory and Utter Panic
Mirror Driving: Ford’s Fight, Two-Car ‘Dega Drafts And Dale Jr. To Victory Lane?
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 Post-Texas
Top 10 Reasons Why Michael Waltrip Won’t Retire
The Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Texas, April 2011

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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Stephen HOOD
04/13/2011 07:55 AM

The conventional wisdom is Talladega is a crapshoot, but looking at the winners over the past 15 years suggests differently. Other than Keselowski’s win, none of the winning drivers suggests a crapshoot, and even Keselowski is expected to be among the NASCAR elite.

A crapshoot could not be won by the same driver four times in a row, and there wouldn’t be five or six drivers with multiple wins. Additionally, the sports best drivers usually win the race. If crapshoot means having a higher percentage chance of getting caught up in something not of your own doing, I still wonder if that is true. This past weekend Mark Martin was driving along minding his own business when Truex slid up the track in front of him ruining Mark’s (and Martin’s) day.

Perception is often reality, and I concede that perception is Talladega is a crapshoot. But, I look at Talladega as more of a chess game at 199 mph. A well played game will find a driver holding up the “king” in victory lane, whereas an ill timed move can result in being taken out by a “pawn”.

Plus, Talladega rarely takes anyone out of contention for a championship. Usually, the championship contenders make their way to the front. Last fall, the three championship contenders all finished in the top 10. A wreck at Talladega might be the nail in the coffin for some in the chase, but it hasn’t been the end for a frontrunner.

I probably don’t know what I’m writing about, but I don’t see how a race that is typically won by the best in the business can be called a crapshoot. I know that Michael Waltrip has won there, but DEI was winning a lot at plate tracks at the time, and that somewhat reinforces my premise that its not a crapshoot. Horsepower, aerodynamics, strategy, and tenacity all come into play. Crapshoot implies anything goes. If Travis Kvapil and Trevor Bayne are contending for the win, than I’ll eat my words. but my guess is five of the current top ten will finish in the top ten. Talladega is not a crapshoot at least in my mind.

04/13/2011 11:06 AM

Yes, the “Pizza Hut Fan Favorite” is F I X E D. We voted Jr the fav, and he was immediately removed from the list of drivers you could vote for. JG has now been the fav for several races only because we can’t vote for Dale Jr. Pizza Hut has and will continue to be off limits to many households because of this.

04/13/2011 12:36 PM

Nothing against Jeff G.but we had wondered about that poll. In fact,most polls.

04/13/2011 12:43 PM

i think burton is one of those guys who has gotten too comfortable with racing as a career business, in other words yeah sure he “Wants” to win but i still think he’s lost “the fire” that say a kyle bush or kevin harvick has.

as far as johnson being frozen out of the draft, i’m sure chad has already thought of that and has a plan.

you look at front row and you see a team that wants too badly to run well and it appears the quality of their equipment isn’t up to it forcing drivers into errors or running set ups that are too aggressive for any consistency. (god forbid good year build a tire that can last 100 miles….

that gets me to thinking about NASCAR going “green” with ethanol. Let me get this straight, they’re using a food commodity for fuel but yet produce mountains of spent tires that don’t decompose and call themselves green. huh? pah.. maybe that’s the biggest problem. this monster needs good marketing more than it needs good racing.

04/13/2011 12:59 PM

All of those fan deals are bogus. I assumed as long as Jr was on the list, he’d always be the fan favorite. I was surprised when his name disappeared, but I can’t say I’m sorry.

Hey, I’m a Gordon fan and I make it a point to vote for him in whatever contest there is. You may think Gordon is washed up, but he has a huge fan base. I’ll be among them until he retires.

You don’t think that the Most Popular Driver award voting has issues too? I certainly do.

the sponsorship woes hitting the teams are a result of several years of bad decision making from the management of NASCAR. There have been a lot of fans, including myself, who have been very vocal regarding their dislike of the “chase”, the ugly car, the cookie cutter tracks AND the way the TV partners broadcast the races on TV. All of that has played a role in the loss of sponsors for the cars. Plus you’ve had NASCAR with their greedy hands in the mix taking whatever sponsors for the “official whatever of NASCAR” instead of those companies sponsoring teams and you have a disaster.

A few good finishes this year won’t immediately make up for the lack of interest from the fans. Let’s face it, NASCAR is no longer a sure thing for corporations. Fans used to buy everything as long as it had their driver’s number on it, but that has become a thing of the past for most fans as well.

04/13/2011 02:16 PM

The sponsorship issue can be directed at one place – NASCAR itself.

They monopolize sponsorships as, “The official” something of the sport instead of letting teams use their 200 mph billboards as the promotion.

BZF wants more money in his pocket, not a sport that can thrive against others. That is why RCR cannot find sponsors.

Budweiser really screwed up with Harvick, since he is the best chance they have had at a title since DEJ in 03-04.

Burton is going to be done in three years, then Austin Dillon will be taking that spot.

Front Row’s problem is they spend more time DNQ’ing or hitting the wall with tire problems then actually racing. They were slow last year and over their heads, but they would run the distance.

Robert McIntire
04/13/2011 02:19 PM

I have always been a fan of Jeff Gordon but when he was moved to the R&D shop next door we knew that would be the end of him having a good ride.

04/13/2011 07:14 PM

To GinaV24 & Phil, I agree with your posts. Saved me from typing. :)

Maybe it would’ve happened anyway but, have you noticed how far nascar has fallen since brian france has been in charge? I blame his greed for the downfall.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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