Thomas Bowles · Wednesday February 29, 2012
Did You Notice?… The alliteration for 2012 Daytona Speedweeks was Demolition Derby? From the drop of the green in the exhibition Bud Shootout, an 82-lap race that saw roughly half of its 25-car field fail to finish the return of pack racing brought with it a propensity to wreck. Here were the official DNF counts due to crashes for the four biggest events:
Shootout – 12 of 25 cars (48%)
Truck Series – 18 of 36 cars (50%)
Nationwide – 14 of 43 cars (33%) … plus several others which straggled across the finish line after a vicious, last-lap wreck that handed the win to the 11th-place runner coming off Turn 4, James Buescher
Sprint Cup – 8 of 43 cars (19%) … plus about a half-dozen others running with serious, car-is-totaled damage at the finish
Such carnage can kill momentum for teams, along with putting them in an early financial hole. But which ones will be hurt the most, long-term by the way their dreams of success turned into superspeedway scrap metal? Here’s an overview of the organizations leaving Daytona in pieces – literally…
Top-10 Finishes At Daytona: 1 of 4 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr, 2nd)
Cars Destroyed: 6 (4 of 4 in Bud Shootout)
Estimated Damage: $1.5 million
Daytona DNFs: 3 of 4 (Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson)
Season Impact: Low
If anyone can withstand the strain of Daytona disaster, it’s NASCAR’s Most Valuable Team, estimated by Forbes to be worth $350 million entering 2012. Johnson, for one is no stranger to restrictor plate setbacks: since winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, he has just one top-5 finish at the 2.5-mile oval. Perhaps the biggest thing to watch here, then, isn’t rebuilding confidence but crankshafts: Jeff Gordon was absolutely perplexed over a motor failure that happened despite extensive reliability tests during the offseason. As it is, HMS came to Speedweeks and got whipped, speed-wise from Ford’s FR9 engines in qualifying; each of which then lasted the race distance despite overheating concerns. That disparity will hurt this team slightly heading to their bread and butter, intermediates like Las Vegas and California where horsepower, as much as handling remains the key.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Top-10 Finishes At Daytona: 0 of 2
Cars Destroyed: 4
Estimated Damage: $1 million
Daytona DNFs: 2 of 2 (Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray)
Season Impact: Medium
One year removed from a nightmarish season, the EGR organization entered 2012 with a clean slate. Now, they’re leaving Daytona fueled with bizarre endings, a freakish part failure causing vicious wrecks for both McMurray and Montoya while making the Colombian Jet Dryer Enemy number one (we’ll explore that more shortly). For a team with so much offseason turnover – virtually their entire executive staff on the mechanical side was cleaned out – wrecking so many chassis that incorporate ideas from the new regime could be costly. With just two cars, not four there’s half the information to go around and Phoenix won’t exactly be a momentum-builder for either program: they averaged a 16th-place finish in November. Will the volatile Montoya let a slow start get to his head?
Front Row Motorsports
Top-10 Finishes At Daytona: 0 of 3
Cars Destroyed: 3
Estimated Damage: $600,000+
Daytona DNFs: 1 (David Ragan)
Season Impact: High
FRM’s three-car outfit does so much with so little; but after Speedweeks, they simply have little to no margin for error. Typically, the 500 has been an opportunity for the underdog team to gain points on the rest of the field, capitalizing on a rare moment of parity to seize momentum and secure spots within NASCAR’s top 35 in owner points. Instead? David Ragan leaves dead last in the standings (43rd), the victim of a first-lap melee not of his making after winning the July race at the very same track. Then Gilliland, who placed third last February in the same car Ragan was driving socked the wall hard in a late-race wreck that left him limping to the finish.
Only Tony Raines, signed for a one-race deal brought the team’s typical start-and-park third car, the No. 26, home in one piece with a 19th-place result. The organization would love to run that car more races with proper sponsorship; instead, they’ll be forced to park it, playing it safe while running conservative with the other two mainstays to recover financially. And for Ragan, it’s a confidence hit, going from the multi-million dollar UPS deal to an ugly start at his best track – with little chance of a top-20 finish ahead until Bristol.
Top-10 Finishes At Daytona: 0 of 1
Cars Destroyed: 3
Estimated Damage: $700,000+
Daytona DNFs: 0
Season Impact: Extreme
For Kurt Busch, the first month of 2012 may prove a tougher test than even last November’s meltdown. Armed with A-level cars in the Budweiser Shootout, Saturday’s Nationwide race and Monday’s Daytona 500 Busch left the speedway having wrecked them all. Clearly, not every crash was his fault but the damages, combined with an engine failure after hitting a bird would have left plenty of drivers flipping the bird to anyone who crossed them leaving the speedway. In public, Busch was the consummate professional, showing dedication and focus while thanking his team for handling adversity well. But the amount of cars left sitting inside Phoenix Racing’s shop is now seriously depleted. What happens after another wreck at, say, Las Vegas, where Busch is now forced to run C-level equipment while struggling to keep the car inside the top 35 in owner points? With perfection now the only option – media is tracking his every move – it’ll be difficult to impossible to keep this temper in check forever. And when it boils over… uh oh.
Did You Notice?… The furor surrounding Danica Patrick’s return to the racetrack? Only running a 10-race schedule, many fans were angered by her attempt to finish the race, which she did some 64 laps off the pace running with a heavily damaged car. With her virtually ineligible to make the Chase, along with declining to run for Rookie of the Year many thought her “comeback” was little more than a giant publicity stunt.
They thought wrong; in this case, fans’ anger over Danica coverage is clouding their ability to recognize racing common sense. As a rookie, the open-wheel convert needs as much seat time as possible, especially under superspeedway conditions while gaining the respect of her peers in the draft. It’s the same reason Trevor Bayne, running just 12 races this season was out there limping along in his Ford; and in his case, that car was struggling to simply keep up with the lead pack. Last I checked, no one was complaining about him…
The second reason, which some find silly is earning enough owner points to keep the No. 10 car “locked” inside the top 35. That guarantees Patrick a spot for each of her nine Cup starts, as opposed to having to qualify on speed at a tricky track for rookies like Darlington in May. A month ago, I would have laughed at the concept considering less than 35 cars had funding to go the full distance. But a recent boost in cars running full-time, like the two BK Racing entries mean it is possible for this car to drop out – especially considering the downgrade in TBR parts and equipment once Reutimann takes the wheel. By returning to the track, Patrick gained three points and, who knows? That may make the difference in keeping the GoDaddy ride from going home.
Did You Notice?… The long-term consequences that last beyond that bizarre jet dryer wreck? Look, the crash and resulting fire was hardly Juan Pablo Montoya’s fault. I was listening to his radio leading up to that freak accident, and it was clear a part inside his car was malfunctioning. Montoya complained about it, repeatedly, and teammate Jamie McMurray also suspected a similar parts failure, laps later caused his multi-car wreck. As we’ve seen in the past, like with Steve Park’s tragic Darlington disaster when your steering linkage breaks, the driver is simply along for the ride.
But rotten reputations don’t give you the benefit of the doubt amongst your peers. Already, one driver was on record swearing at Montoya over the radio and calling him an idiot for “delaying the Daytona 500.” And after the Ryan Newman fiasco last May, where the Colombian threatened to sue after a punch was thrown at him during a confrontation in the NASCAR hauler, acceptance from his peers dropped to an all-time low. Increasingly isolated by the end of 2011 inside the NASCAR garage, one key to Montoya’s 2012 season was to work on rebuilding those relationships. After all, how can you make the playoffs when every other week, you’re driving around a guy who has no issue “accidentally” running into your rear bumper as payback?
Now, the Colombian has taken one step back before there’s ever a chance to move forward. Already, in the minds of many his aggression will be blamed, unfairly for that two-hour red flag (he could have slowed down, people will say. Or was a part really broken?) Like the case of the boy who cried wolf, Montoya has fallen victim to his own past history of guilt.
Did You Notice?… Some quick hits before we take off…
- How bad was it for Hendrick Motorsports at Daytona? Their four-car team led a grand total of one lap during the 500 (Jeff Gordon), their lowest total since getting shut out altogether in 2000. Even more surprising was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., despite his second-place finish failing to lead a lap, extending his restrictor-plate winless streak to 29 (he’s 0-for-17 with Hendrick). Hard to believe, but the Earnhardt name once branded with being able to “see the air” at these historic tracks hasn’t gone to Victory Lane on the superspeedways in Cup since the Fall, 2004 race at Talladega.
- If Elliott Sadler had any hopes to return to Cup, anytime soon they were probably shelved with that Daytona 500 performance (27th). There’s nothing worse than sitting at the scene of the crime moments after wrecking a certain five-time champ, plus the series’ hand-picked Sprint Cup Princess in one full swoop – and on Lap 2. Did I mention, too, that Sadler was sponsored by the man who owned the car he bumped (Hendrickcars.com?) So much for the “Big Five” working together on cutting costs…
- Yeah, I know Robby Gordon was whining about getting a Penske Racing engine after making the 500. But he was right about his equipment not lasting – the one in his Dodge blew after 25 laps – and you wonder why that partnership never happened. Remember, Penske gave Brad’s brother Brian one last year (along with Discount Tire sponsorship) and while there are obvious family connections in that case, let’s not forget there were only three full-time Chargers in the field this Sunday. You would think that manufacturer, with as much work as they’ve done on their 2013 model, would have done a little arm-twisting behind the scenes to make sure this small team, financially on the ropes didn’t flame out.
- Biggest improvement of Speedweeks you never heard about: Joey Logano. Sliced Bread had his heart sliced to pieces by the end of 2011, but crew chief Jason Ratcliff quietly did an exceptional job of rebuilding confidence during Speedweeks. Ever so briefly, the Bud Shootout shattered that fragile psyche after wrecking out with a top-5 car. But a lead-lap, ninth-place finish was the No. 20 team’s best since Watkins Glen last August, leading to hope the youngster has one final shot to mold his Cup career with Joe Gibbs Racing before it’s too late.
- Biggest disappointment in the 500 you never heard about: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. I was expecting big things from the rookie, a longshot candidate like we talked about last week who had a top-10 effort in qualifying and jumped inside the top 5 for most of Thursday’s Duels.
That type of success never happened Sunday, though. Stenhouse struggled in the pack, looking lost at times during various portions of the race and wound up a disappointing 20th. For most, that would be a successful second Cup start but with the equipment given, plus Nationwide experience of Stenhouse? I expected more.
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