The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... One For The Underdogs, Zero For The Free Agents by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 20, 2011

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Did You Notice?… The new trend in NASCAR’s Silly Season? It’s called “sticking with the status quo.” That’s a dramatic change from the last few years, when around this point in the season we’ve had at least one major announcement a driver was switching rides:

2010: Kasey Kahne announces he’s leaving Richard Petty Motorsports for Hendrick in 2012. (April 14th)
2009: Martin Truex, Jr. rumors start flying he’ll replace a retiring Michael Waltrip in the NAPA car (early May).
2008: Tony Stewart sources reveal he’ll be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to buy into his own team (April 23rd).
2007: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announces he’ll leave DEI and become a free agent (May 10th).
2006: Dale Jarrett reveals he’ll leave Ford for Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing (May 13th).

So here we are, April 20th and heading into the heart of Silly Season. And what do we have to report? Two veterans re-signing with their current programs: Greg Biffle with Roush Fenway Racing while Jeff Burton re-upped with Richard Childress. In Biffle’s case, we know he accepted a pay cut while Burton jumped at his extension considering a year’s worth of struggles in the No. 31 (zero top-10 finishes through eight events). There’s still plenty of room for movement – Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, and Ryan Newman remain among those unsigned for 2012 – but at this point it’s impossible to ignore the growing trend.

Jeff Burton became a part of the newest trend in NASCAR’s “Silly Season” when the re-signed with RCR on Monday.

Sure, the two newly-signed drivers in question are fortysomething veterans, comfortable with their own teams and probably one, two contracts at most away from retirement. But the ugly truth all the free agents are discovering is simple: it’s tough to start a bidding war for your services when there’s no one out there in need of them. That’s what we’re seeing now in this market, the consequences of new Sprint Cup ownership drying up like the Sahara desert. Right now, just eleven people control the top 28 teams in the point standings; that’s a miniscule number of options for each of those drivers to consider. Add in the strong ties between several of those programs – Stewart-Haas and Hendrick, for example – along with four-team limits and options for an expiring contract guy like Carl Edwards are narrowed even further.

In the past, the entrance of a manufacturer like, say Toyota into the fold would expand the possibilities for drivers looking for a better option over the long-term. In fact, that’s what a guy like Vickers chose in 2006, giving up a year or two of running up front by leaving Hendrick Motorsports to build a team from scratch. But there are no such construction projects going on in a market where the price is so high, it’s impossible for any Davids to even bother building themselves to challenge Goliath. So what’s a free agent to do?

Easy; they re-sign with their current team, if they know what’s good for them. And if NASCAR knows what’s good for them, they’ll find a way to loosen up this country club so a variety of driver changes can occur on a yearly basis once again. Shaking things up has become an impossible option as of late; that has to change.

Did You Notice?… Speaking of the status quo, let’s take a look at both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Rookie of the Year races through eight events.

Cup: Andy Lally 77, Brian Keselowski 12. Best Finish for either: Lally, 18th at Talladega (after using the Lucky Dog to get his lap back).

Nationwide: Timmy Hill 58, Blake Koch 47, Ryan Truex 44, Jennifer Jo Cobb 43, Charles Lewandoski 28. Best Finish: Hill, 14th at Talladega and Truex, 14th at Phoenix. No top-10 finishes for any of the freshman candidates.

Not exactly a banner crop of candidates now, is it? Only Lally and Hill are running full-time schedules at the moment, and no sponsorship could easily leave both on the sidelines within the next few months. Just one year after the “Kevin Conway” debacle, it’s clear the Sprint Cup side – due to Trevor Bayne’s ineligibility (he chose not to enter the ROTY competition because of a part-time schedule) – will end up with another freshman winner who goes the entire year without sniffing the front of the field in both series.

Even Bayne, whose Daytona 500 victory sparked hope for the underdogs has cooled off significantly since that maiden effort; he hasn’t finished higher than 17th in Sprint Cup since. It’s all added up to a dearth of rookie performers… leading to that dreaded “same old, same old.” And while the Nationwide Series continues to post strong ratings, pulling a 2.1 at Talladega this past weekend the lack of new talent to throw in front of the cameras is proving troubling.

Did You Notice?… That, love or hate Talladega’s new rules the competition is critical for NASCAR’s underdogs. Just a few days after nearly pulling off the upset, Tommy Baldwin Racing announced they had enough sponsorship for the No. 36 of Dave Blaney to go through Kansas in June without start-and-parking. After plenty of exposure for one-time sponsor Golden Corral Sunday, they’re hoping more backers will allow them to run the distance every race the rest of the season.

And while Trevor Bayne’s sponsorship search ultimately wasn’t helped by the 500 win – another ominous sign from the business world – his slump since has shown how difficult it is for these “lower class” teams to compete with their “upper class” brethren at virtually every other type of track. Only with the plates tacked on will single-car, start-and-park cars transform into a force to be reckoned with, capable of winning with the right strategy in a way their competitors take for granted every week.

Even Mike Wallace, whose Davis Motorsports No. 01 Chevy went upside down after leading late in Saturday’s Nationwide race can appreciate the ability to run up front. Isn’t it nice to not see some of these guys start-and-parking for a change? For them, these plate weekends are filled with hope… and without ‘em, you wonder how many would find it worth it enough to stick around and go the distance every once in awhile.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before the Easter holiday:

- The weak entry list, weaker crowds and bad location – nearly an hour outside the city with traffic have me thinking Nashville’s the next track on the chopping block. This weekend’s attendance plus competition will prove critical to its future survival in 2012 and beyond.

- So far this season, we’ve seen Michael Waltrip launch the “Big One” at Daytona, then get left out to dry at Talladega with no drafting partner – leaving him unable to get out of his own way. Tell me again why he’s still trying to compete?

- Speaking of Waltrip, his Michael Waltrip Racing team has zero drivers inside the top 18 in points. Martin Truex, Jr. sits a disappointing 19th, victimized by bad luck while the hybrid JTG Daugherty car driven by Bobby Labonte is helping nurse their driver to 24th in the standings. Add in Reutimann, who’s 26th and without a top-10 result and it’s clear his trio of Toyotas have plenty of work to do.

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Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
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Mirror Driving: Playing By The Rules, Speed Dating, And Silliness
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Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Talladega
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Bill B
04/20/2011 07:25 AM
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Yes until the economy gets more robust people are more willing to stick with the status quo. The same thing is happening in the larger workforce. People aren’t changing jobs because there aren’t as many jobs available. Kind of common sense there.

Russ
04/20/2011 10:09 AM
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The Top 35 rule was the final nail in the coffin for hope of new ownership. Nobody will be able to convince sponsors to commit the millions required when the odds are you wont make the field. There are other, more effective ways to spend advertising dollars. So get used to seeing the same old faces.

Carl D.
04/20/2011 10:24 AM
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I’m disappointed that Bobby Labonte hasn’t been more competitive in the #47 car. I didn’t expect him to make the chase or compete for wins on a weekly basis, but I hoped the team would perform better than it has. Labonte has one finish inside the top 10 so far this year, and that was his 4th place finish at Daytona. I hope things improve for the #47 team, but I’m lowering my expectations a bit.

high plains drifter
04/20/2011 12:42 PM
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carl d in all honesty bobby labonte has been pretty dam stout in that car. he drove a torn up race car to a 22nd at phoenix, had a top ten car at worst when vickers and kurt busch wrecked him at martinsville, and got dumped by truex and allmeddinger last week to take away another great finish. california has been the only race this year where he was poor.

Carl D.
04/20/2011 03:31 PM
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HPD… I remember the issue at Martinsville w/ Busch and of course the wreck this week at Talladega. I’m a Labonte fan, and I hope his luck changes. Also, if he could qualify a little better and manage to run up front more, he’d miss some of these wrecks.

high plains drifter
04/20/2011 05:18 PM
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carl he didn’t get wrecked last week at dega, i meant that being dumped by truex and dinger was that they hung him out to dry late in the race and he was done. at martinsville i believed he started in the top 10 but on a restart he was on the outside and it took forever to get to the inside but he was coming back to the front when those two put him in the fence. for the life of me i can’t figure out why drivers won’t go with him or cut him a break. he’s the cleanest driver out there. you ar e bang on about starting better, qualifying hasn’t been great although compared to the last couple of years a guy shouldn’t complain that much.

Popo
04/20/2011 10:13 PM
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HPD is right about Bobby losing his dancing partner costing him a better finish at Dega. I listened to his scanner all day and he was working great with Truex until Ruet jumped in there and stole his date. Bobby actually wanted to dump the Dinger cause he wasn’t too happy with how he was pushin which was only compounded by no radio communication between the two. They tried hard to pair him up with someone on the last run but it wasn’t until the pack up and left him that he found another. Kept hoping for that one last caution to catch him back up, but it never came. Ahh the new Dega, much like the old Dega, just different!

 

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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