The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Pressing The Panic Button, NASCAR "Independents" And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 21, 2011

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Did You Notice? … The Chaser pressing the panic button this week should be Jeff Gordon? Sure, Denny Hamlin sits 41 points back but I don’t think anyone realistically expected that operation to be a contender. Heck, the Fed Ex team is already running 2012, TRD developmental engines knowing they come with a horsepower-or-hand grenade without warning warranty! That’s hardly playing it safe, the Chase mantra even with this new points system as the team realized making some gambles was the only way they’d realistically have a shot.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have been neck-and-neck as title favorites all season long. But did Four-Time blow his chance with an ugly 400-mile performance at Chicagoland?

You can’t say the same for Gordon this season, the 40-year old acting like a man on a mission while establishing himself as Johnson’s main title rival. Winning three times, at Phoenix, Pocono, and Atlanta Gordon flashed the consistency as well as the versatility to challenge the No. 48 crew. During the final 11 regular season races, he ran no worse than 13th, led a whopping 470+ laps and produced a 3rd-1st-3rd sequence to close with the best three-race stretch he’s seen since 2007. Despite some awful wrecks, hitting seemingly every place left without a SAFER barrier Gordon entered this postseason healthy (no back issues), happy (family’s great), and rejuvenated (not stuck in Johnson’s shop) under new crew chief Alan Gustafson. Add in a subtle sense of urgency, knowing that with five years or so left the chances to win a championship won’t come around much more and you’d think this team would have all their ducks in a row.

But they didn’t. Gordon’s car was simply junk from the start, lapped at one point and in another time zone compared to the rest of the Hendrick / Stewart-Haas stable. While those cars finished 1st, 3rd, 8th, 9th, and 10th, respectively Gordon was simply a distant 17th before an “insult to injury” moment, running out of gas to leave him 24th.

“I don’t think the setup was as far off as just the track position,” said Gordon, who blamed his 23rd starting spot for the problems because, well, he didn’t know what more to say. “Between the handling as well as track position as well as the problem with the right front [Gordon did have a tire issue], it didn’t do us any favors. We got back on the lead lap and drove back up there and I thought we were decent right then. We have to get a little bit better. We have to qualify better; we can’t have days like we had today. That’s for sure.”

Certainly, Gordon’s theory seems feasible on a track where drivers always find it difficult to pass. But Tony Stewart? Kevin Harvick? This race’s 1-2 finishers qualified an ugly 26th and 30th, respectively. If the handling on the racecar was right, well, Gordon would have found a way to somehow become an exception to the rule.

Instead, it seems upon closer inspection that us prognosticators ignored a small but important Achilles’ Heel for Gordon: some inconsistency on intermediates. Sure, he won Atlanta just two weeks back, pacing the field for 146 circuits and looking nearly unbeatable at times. But three of Gordon’s five finishes of 20th or worse this season, heading into Chicagoland came at tracks 1.5 miles in length. And guess what? Two of those tracks are still left on the Sprint Cup schedule: Charlotte (20th) and Texas (23rd). Add in Gordon’s finishes at the next two Chase tracks, New Hampshire and Dover, were both outside the top 10 in the Spring (11th and 17th, in case you’re wondering) and suddenly the “favorite” label gets replaced by “underdog.” It’s a sobering schedule ahead for Gordon, who now is faced with zero margin for error: a 25-point deficit, with ten drivers to jump over makes top 5s a virtual necessity the next few weeks.

It’s unfortunate the Chase seems to work against Four-Time, who never really was a solid closer to begin with. But the final ten races is how the title is won, for better or for worse and this program needs to start adapting around those specific tracks on the schedule. Teammate Johnson doesn’t seem to have a problem turning the regular season into a test session… so why should Gordon be any different?

Did You Notice? … The disgust from multiple levels over Monday’s fuel mileage finish? We’ve already hashed this issue to death in this space; I still maintain part of the problem comes from a troubling inability to pass. When drivers figure out they can’t win the easy way, saving fuel serves as a convenient consolation prize, a last-ditch effort to gain track position a much as possible.

Fans have recently said another option is to alter the tire compound. If Goodyears don’t last over the course of a full fuel run, then there’s no need to worry over fuel, right? But I think the same thing fans complain about with “fuel mileage finishes” would apply here. The rate of attrition goes up, drivers dealing with finicky cars and you never know whether a blown piece of rubber would unfairly knock someone out.

A better solution, one we’d all have to grin and bear would be NASCAR throwing the “mystery debris” caution with 40 to go – leaving everyone to go the distance with plenty of gas. Yet officials, who appeared to be downright manipulating the race early on chose to let the Cup event play out without one Monday. So is there a true “solution,” one Kenseth was asking for after that ugly last-lap assist left him 21st? Sadly, the jury’s still out.

Did You Notice? … The way in which the Wood Brothers are selecting their driver for 2012? There’s no need for an interview process, weeding out resumes, or simply rubber-stamping the deal of Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Nope, there’s no need for them to really do much of anything when this “independent” operation is serving as Roush-Fenway’s %^* (here’s a clue: it rhymes with witch).

“We’ll probably have a conversation about [a 2012 driver] with (RFR President) Steve Newmark in the next couple of weeks,” said Len Wood, explaining it’s either Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. or Bayne that will get the seat. Wood went on to explain Ford Motor Company and Roush will make the final choice on who gets to be a part of the program.

Hmm. Last I checked, weren’t independent, single-car operations capable of choosing their own course of action? But that’s the funny part about it, you know, that the Woods are about as independent as Richard Petty Motorsports across the way these days. Roush Fenway gives engine, chassis and information-sharing support, keeping them in line while the car’s sponsor is also the main manufacturer for all those teams. It seems so contradictory: one of the legendary organizations in the sport, winner of multiple Daytona 500s has to lean on everyone else to help them survive.

In a way, the Woods become a marriage of convenience for RFR; it gives them a ride for whichever young driver they want to develop without abusing NASCAR’s four-car limit. But adding satellite teams, even ones with legends in their name isn’t in the spirit of the rule either.

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

- What a difference a year makes. Last September, at New Hampshire if Tony Stewart has his gas tank hold up he wins the race, moves to second in points and validates his status as a trendy sleeper pick for the title. Instead, the fuel tank runs dry, he’s emotionally drained in a post-race press conference and never fully recovers from it all.

Fast forward to Chicagoland, September 2011. Stewart starts the Chase without a Competition Director, an overlooked underdog and saddled with the history of failed fuel gambles past. Yet he and Darian Grubb still try and stretch it to the end, emerge the unlikely victor and suddenly have a race ahead where their team cars finished 1-2 as the dominant force this July.

Did I mention that happens to be Loudon? Coincidences, coincidences…

- How much of a difference can 1.5 miles make? Here’s a look at how many positions (and points) Chasers gained or lost from the moment drivers started running out of gas at Chicagoland. The first, Kyle Busch started dropping back with roughly one and one-half laps left.

Kurt Busch: +5
Brad Keselowski: +5
Carl Edwards: +5
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: +3
Denny Hamlin: +1
Tony Stewart: +/- 0
Kevin Harvick: +/- 0
Ryan Newman: -3
Jimmie Johnson: -7
Jeff Gordon: -7
Kyle Busch: -14
Matt Kenseth: -17

Note that if the final 2.25 miles never happened, Kyle Busch would be second in the standings, not Stewart and just five off Harvick’s lead. Matt Kenseth would then be
tied for third, hanging with Smoke while Johnson would sit fifth, just nine markers behind Harvick. That would mark a trend of the field tightening up overall; Jeff Gordon, 11th in points under this scenario would be just 18 points behind the leader.

- Doesn’t the Scott Miller firing seem a little hasty over at Richard Childress Racing? Yes, Pat Tryson and Kurt Busch had a frosty “lame duck” period at best in 2009, a natural reaction after the crew chief announced he was jumping ship following the season. But both men, staying professional made their relationship work at Penske Racing and actually finished a respectable fourth in points. Incidentally, the team Tryson bailed to also happened to be Michael Waltrip Racing, Miller’s future destination as well once former F-1 vet Steve Hallam departs after the season. But considering this team has no drivers in the Chase, simply racing out the string there’s little conceivable way to affect RCR’s championship bid with Kevin Harvick.

So why jettison Miller on out of there so quickly, upsetting the apple cart when you’ve got a guy who’s sitting pretty as the point leader? Yeah, it’s understandable to start building for 2012, especially with an RCR/KHI merger but these title opportunities haven’t come around all too often as of late in the Jimmie Johnson era. Don’t you have to buckle down, suck it up and make the most of what you have right now?

Part of me wonders if the Richard Childress temper got the best of the executive decision-making on this one. With MWR looking to poach Clint Bowyer, on the verge of signing away their top driver through a long-term deal that wasn’t exactly the best option for Miller to blurt out in his “Boss, we have to talk” conversation.

- What the heck is AdvoCare, and how does it suddenly have enough cash to sponsor two Sprint Cup drivers (David Starr and A.J. Allmendinger), a Nationwide Series team, a Truck Series team, sign to be the primary sponsor at Atlanta and negotiate with NASCAR to be their official Brian France Doctor’s Note provider? (Alright, I made the last one up.) Drew Brees is their national spokesperson, sure, and all research and reviews of the products seem to check out. But isn’t it always a little fishy when a company jumps in this sport and starts spending money all over the place? Big Daddy’s BBQ, anyone?

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Sue Rarick
09/21/2011 11:35 AM

I am beginning to wonder if Childress is having money issues. There seems to be a lot of consolidation and find it funny that when it was reported Boyer had sponsorship for maybe 8 races RCR wasn’t interested in him. Yet right after Rusty Wallace mentions it’s for 20 races all of a sudden RCR is back being interested. It just raises some questions.

09/21/2011 12:33 PM

an ejoyable read.
i agree on the gordon points and i don’t think he’ll contend. seems to me most of his wins are pre new car and all three of his wins this year are on “one off” tracks (yes, atlanta counts as a one off as it is worn out and doesn’t race like a cookie cutter.)

when i read the wood bros comment on jayski i nearly threw up. it’s one more fact to point to RFR as evil with RCR not that far behind. Neither organization seems to have much problem poaching sponsors from or picking drivers for the “satellite” teams… may they rot in h. e. double toothpicks. I wonder if RFR is gonna pay the bill for all the cars ricky is going to wreck.

09/21/2011 02:44 PM

babydufus, it’s funny how you call out Roush-Fenway (and Richard Childress), but you neglect to mention the likes of Rick Hendrick. A little bit of hatred toward Roush there? The Wood Brothers at least admit to getting their help from Roush. How many times have you heard Tony refer to Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as “Teammates”? It seems every time he’s interviewed, he’s calling at least one of them “teammate”. Let’s face it, Hendrick has 6 teams on the track, and NASCAR is turning a blind eye to whatever The Felon does. All I wonder is about how much The Felon contributes to Brian France’s benevolent fund on a weekly basis?

09/23/2011 08:47 AM

sorry. i thought hendrick was a given. but you may be right i don’t like RFR for many reasons mostly sponsor poaching and whining enough about not being competive to have been a large factor in determining what we have now with the “decal riddled new car” and i like RCR even less because he’s a jack-ass. one must remember that these guys are now actually car salesmen in real life and i can only think of one thing lower than a car salesman… a lawyer. :)


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Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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