The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Who's The Short Track King?, Quick Hits, And Sliced Dreams by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 27, 2011

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Did You Notice? … That when it comes to short tracks, there’s a trio of drivers who clearly stand out over everyone else? Let’s take a look at who’s collected wins at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond – the short track swing which makes up six events on the sport’s 36-race schedule – since the start of the 2008 season:

Wins
Denny Hamlin – 6
Kyle Busch – 6
Jimmie Johnson – 4
Jeff Burton – 1
Kevin Harvick – 1
Clint Bowyer – 1
Carl Edwards – 1

Denny Hamlin’s taken plenty of checkered flags in his career on short tracks. But does he have enough consistency to outlast Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson for the current title of NASCAR short track king?

So I guess we know whom to label as the favorites for Saturday night, right? It’s clearly a different atmosphere for NASCAR than in the past, where first Darrell Waltrip, then Rusty Wallace, even Kurt Busch a few years ago were in a league of their own when it came to these three places on the schedule.

Considering the recent history of the No. 11, you would think Saturday night’s duel would come down to a battle of Johnson and Busch. There’s reasons for both to be smiling heading into the weekend: the No. 48 is our most recent Cup winner while Busch cleaned house at Nashville – again – with a Truck Series victory to go along with a top-5 finish in the Nationwide race. But when you look a little deeper into their recent history, it’s Hamlin, not those two, who ekes out the title of “Short Track King:”

Top 10 Finishes At Short Tracks Since 2008
Kyle Busch – 14
Denny Hamlin – 13
Jimmie Johnson – 13
(Ryan Newman, surprisingly is fourth with 12)

Laps Led At Short Tracks Since 2008
Denny Hamlin – 2,073
Kyle Busch – 1,791
Jimmie Johnson – 1,416

Looking at those numbers, despite Busch’s recent success you’d have to give Hamlin the edge. After all, the No. 11 has been snakebit by bad luck at short tracks far more than Busch; who can forget one of his all-time greatest performances, at Richmond in the Spring of 2008 where he led 381 of 382 laps before blowing a tire? That would have given Hamlin a 14th top-10, tying him with the No. 18 to go along with the slight edge in laps led.

So what does it all mean? Expect the winner Saturday to come from one of these three guys but for Hamlin, clearly the pressure’s on (as it’s been for oh, about the better part of two months now). Coming off a bye week, with his Chase chances all out of whack it’s essential for the Virginian to come out and whoop these boys at what he’s always considered a home track, positioning the No. 11 for a “wild-card” spot they could contend for with victories at some of their stronger speedways (here, plus a win or two at Pocono this summer). Martinsville, a track where they’re typically at or near the front all day ended with a disappointing 12th-place finish, a car ill-handling for the majority of the second half of that race. For them to bomb here, losing their short track title to a guy like Busch no less would really show how unbalanced things are at Joe Gibbs Racing right now.

Did You Notice? … Speaking of Joe Gibbs Racing, Sliced Bread hasn’t exactly become the “next generation” superstar Mark Martin proclaimed of the youngster at age 15? Considering those lofty expectations, it’s fair to put the 21-year-old’s first 83 starts up against those of his peers:

Logano’s numbers: One win, ten top-5s, 24 top-10s.
—-
Tony Stewart (the man he replaced): 10 wins, 29 top-5s, 52 top-10s.
Ryan Newman: Nine wins, 33 top-5s, 47 top-10s.
Jimmie Johnson: Seven wins, 24 top-5s, 46 top-10s.
Denny Hamlin: Three wins, 20 top-5s, 42 top-10s.
Jeff Gordon: Seven wins, 27 top-5s, 41 top-10s.
Carl Edwards: Four wins, 23 top-5s, 41 top-10s.
Jamie McMurray: One win, 16 top-5s, 39 top-10s.
Clint Bowyer: Two wins, 12 top-5s, 35 top-10s.
Kyle Busch: Four wins, 20 top-5s, 34 top-10s.
Kurt Busch: Four wins, eighteen top-5s, 29 top-10s.
Kevin Harvick: Three wins, 13 top-5s, 28 top-10s.
Matt Kenseth: Three wins, 12 top-5s, 27 top-10s.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Five wins, 16 top-5s, 25 top-10s.
Mark Martin: Zero wins, seven top-5s, 23 top-10s.
Greg Biffle: Four wins, nine top-5s, 18 top-10s.
Jeff Burton: Zero wins, seven top-5s, 14 top-10s.

Clearly, for Joey Logano his development is going slower than expected. But is this bad year turning into one too many this early in his career?

So there you have it; compared to arguably the top 16 Cup drivers in the past decade, Logano falls flat in a comparison with virtually all of them. His numbers only put him ahead of Burton and Martin, and that’s not exactly something to crow about; both veterans struggled in a different era, having to man underfunded equipment for a couple of seasons before getting a much better opportunity at success.

Some may say we’re being too hard on the youngster, who’s spent two-plus seasons in a Cup car but still isn’t old enough to drink. There’s some truth to that; but at the same time, when you arrive on the scene with Tiger Woods-like expectations you’re expected to, well, act like Tiger. The famous golfer didn’t go and putz around after turning pro; at the ripe old age of 21, he won the Masters, arguably his sport’s biggest event by 12 strokes.

Perhaps that’s where Logano has failed the most, his lone trip to Victory Lane coming on an improbable, ten-crazy-things-had-to-happen-for-this-to-work ending at New Hampshire. Leading a total of 91 laps his entire career, even when finishing towards the front he hasn’t been at the front enough to be considered a serious contender late in races. Being the quiet, consistent guy collecting top-10 finishes isn’t exactly how he was billed to the masses, right? That makes things especially difficult for Home Depot, whose rival Lowe’s is working on a sixth straight championship for Jimmie Johnson while Logano continues to go through growing pains: just ask Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, or Juan Pablo Montoya whom have all taken potshots at him in the last 12 months. It seems like we’re entering into a similar situation UPS has with David Ragan, where a top-notch, multi-million dollar sponsor has to ponder a serious marketing decision: how long can you wait for lightning to strike?

It seems improbable, so early in his career Logano would be let go by a team that’s groomed him since he was a pimply teenager. At the same time, historical reference leads us to Target, whose Reed Sorenson experiment – similar age, slightly lower expectations – lasted three full years before they decided to give their driver the axe and go for someone like Montoya. What were Sorenson’s numbers through 83 starts, though? No wins, five top-5s and 12 top-10s… statistics substantially lower than Logano’s. That makes the decision tougher… but, like Montoya in 2009, there’s an “A-level” free agent out there that’s supposedly met with JGR, a man who’s already an established rival to Johnson – Carl Edwards.

What to do, what to do if you’re in that struggling camp, right? One thing Logano does have going for him is it’s not exactly like other guys are knocking on the door to take his place as the top “young gun.” Brian Scott, inserted into the best ride in the Nationwide Series at JGR is acting like he’s been paired with a snail. Trevor Bayne, this year’s 500 winner has looked very much like a 20-year old work in progress ever since. Even Austin Dillon, for all his pomp and circumstance tied to being Richard Childress’ grandson is still two years away from being Cup ready. Logano’s closest rookie competitor in ’09, Scott Speed is currently sitting on the sidelines, embroiled in a contract dispute with Red Bull Racing. Brad Keselowski, driving the Blue Deuce and on the same career path as Logano is doing worse (if that’s possible) in Cup over at Penske Racing. Heck, in the last year-plus the only rookie/new Cup driver to score a top-10 finish is Bayne with his gargantuan Daytona 500 upset.

So yeah, Logano’s still NASCAR’s best hope for future success. But, like the product the sport puts out these days his sales pitch is getting increasingly stale. That needs to be fixed.

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

- There’s been a ton of complaining about Cup drivers monopolizing the Nationwide Series this week. But in the midst of dwindling crowds, it is important to show the other side and look at the TV ratings: Saturday’s race set a record for Nashville viewership since ESPN started covering the April event in 2007. Overall, the ratings for the Nationwide Series are up 14.2 percent on television through eight events, and that’s with a catastrophic drop at Daytona (33 percent) year-to-year since Danica Patrick was entering year 2, not year 1 of this stock car experiment she’s attempting (her 2010 debut race set records for this series that will take years to equal, if ever).

For all the talk about how Carl Edwards and his Cup brethren are ruining the Nationwide Series, a whole lot more people are watching on TV in 2011.

NASCAR’s always been a place where the critics shout louder than those happy with the racing, so for those proclaiming the death of the Nationwide Series is imminent… let’s walk before we run for a moment. Crowds are definitely an issue at Nashville, but in the love/hate relationship with the new point system and continued dominance of Cup drivers we’re certainly seeing some mixed messages so far from the fan base.

- On the flip side, if Rensi Motorsports is shut down, that’s a major blow to a second-tier division hoping to keep its independent owners alive. By my count, the entry list this week stands at 42 cars, with seven of those start-and-parking. The other 35 are broken down as follows:

Ten are from Cup Series organizations directly (Joe Gibbs Racing – 3, Roush Fenway Racing – 3, Penske Racing – 2, Diamond Waltrip Racing (close enough) – 1, NEMCO Motorsports – 1)

Eight have strong ties to a Sprint Cup organization in terms of engine and chassis development (Turner Motorsports – 4, Kevin Harvick, Inc. – 2, JR Motorsports – 2)

That leaves just seventeen teams driving the full distance for independents, two of whom are aligned with Nationwide giant Rusty Wallace, Inc. (Michael Annett, Steven Wallace). Among those in that category: Mike Wallace (Johnny Davis), Kenny Wallace (RAB), Jennifer Jo Cobb (driver/owner), Eric McClure and Mike Bliss (TriStar), Timmy Hill (Rick Ware), Robert Richardson (R3), Derrike Cope (Jay Robinson), Charles Lewandoski (Go Green), Scott Wimmer (Key Motorsports), Jeremy Clements (driver/owner), Kevin LePage (Means Motorsports), David Stremme (ML Motorsports), Blake Koch (MacDonald Motorsports), and Morgan Shepherd (driver/owner).

Trust me, that’s not a long list for a series that was once filled with independents capable of winning on any given week. All the guys I mentioned in that category now? They’ll be lucky to sniff the top 15 on Friday night.

With his other RCR teammates re-signed to multi-year deals, will Clint Bowyer become the Silly Season wild card to make way for Austin Dillon?

- Things that make you go Hmmm. So Jeff Burton is now signed to a multi-year deal, as is Paul Menard (with his father as the sponsor) and Kevin Harvick just got re-signed in 2010. Austin Dillon needs a place to go for Sprint Cup in 2013, and Clint Bowyer’s contract is up with RCR at the end of this year along with sponsorship at the No. 33. Something’s gotta give… right? You know Childress’ grandson isn’t going to run for some sort of satellite organization when he’s ready for Cup.

That makes Bowyer the wild card in this whole Silly Season deal; he’s not going to want to be some sort of one-year placeholder ala Kasey Kahne. But on the flip side, could the RCR/KHI convergence in the Nationwide Series be some sort of setup for a satellite Cup team over the long-term… headed by Harvick? It’s hard to fathom letting a guy 10th in points (Bowyer), arguably your second-best driver this season walk.

The plot thickens…

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Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
Up In Smoke: Yunick’s Hall of Fame Legacy Burns in Daytona Beach
Mirror Driving: Carl’s Contract, All-Star Racers And A Solution to Nationwide Interlopers?
Denny Hamlin’s Curse and Why Richmond Should Help
Top 15 NASCAR Power Rankings: Up-And-Coming Drivers
Top 10 Excuses For Spinning Someone Out On A Short Track
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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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Carl D.
04/27/2011 09:16 AM
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The Nationwide ratings are up 14.2% over what? Last year? There are other factors that could have contributed to that; I don’t think you can just attribute it to the Cup drivers running in the series. I won’t say that’s not a factor, but even if it is, the series is still in trouble. Come back and talk to me in a couple of years.

Craig
04/27/2011 09:49 AM
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When it comes to the Nationwide Series, my theory is that it’s the diehard racing fans watching it. Contrary to popular belief I think the ratings will be even better if the Nationwide only guys run better and win. Maybe the new Nationwide cars (Mustangs and Challengers) have something to do with it. They might not be “street stock” but you can easily tell the difference between makes when watching. I enjoy Nationwide racing because I don’t really have a dog in that fight, and can enjoy the race without worrying if my driver will wreck or something.

wcfan
04/27/2011 11:23 AM
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Sliced Bread is more like the heel, He was placed on a winning top-tier team and has struggled, while most of the other drivers listed above either helped build new teams or improve struggling teams.

If not for all the Pre-Cup hype I believe Joey might be looking for a new ride.

Who says Austin is two years from being Cup ready? His Grandfather has put him on the schedule that allows him to gain the experience to handle the Cup series. This is what many more of the younger Cup drivers need, more experience with longer races and pit stops. There is alot of difference between the local short tracks and nascar’s touring divisons.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s there were many quality touring series ASA, ARCA, All-Pro among many others that ran 300-400 lap races with pit stops that allowed these young drivers to get much needed experience.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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