The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... New Teams "Drive" Pressure, Know Your Judges & Quirky Stats by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 14, 2012

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Did You Notice? … The pressure to perform is getting to drivers, not crew chiefs early this season? Take a look at the top 3 in the series standings. Each driver: Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, and Denny Hamlin have been working with their head wrench for less than one year. With Biffle and Matt Puccia, their marriage was formed in Loudon last July; the other two have well-publicized new partnerships with Shane Wilson and Darian Grubb, respectively, that started at the beginning of 2012. Add in Steve Addington, whose 12-Step Recovery Program from the Busch Brothers took just three races with Smoke and there’s a clear case to be made that changing chemistry on top of the pit box can work.

Now compare that to drivers switching to new teams. Just one man, Mark Martin, has a top-10 position in points with only one full-timer (Clint Bowyer) inside the top 20. Combined, they’ve led a grand total of 11 laps and collected zero of a potential fifteen top-5 finishes. Not exactly what new Cup sponsors like 5-Hour Energy, Farmers Insurance, and Tag Heuer were bargaining for early on, right?

While several drivers have struggled with new teams this year, crew chiefs like Darian Grubb have already found their stride in new stables.

In some cases, I think the difference boils down to a support system. Addington, along with Wilson, entered into situations where a strong shop foundation was already in place. Sure, they had their own ideas but when it comes to weekly setup, they’re the head of a well-oiled plug ‘n’ play operation. Kurt Busch, by comparison doesn’t exactly have the same type of warm and fuzzy feeling after leaving the equivalent of swanky British Airways for JetBlue.

But there’s also a second component here, one that links the lives of Busch, Kasey Kahne, and A.J. Allmendinger together. When the chips have been down early, I’ve noticed them getting overly aggressive, almost like they’re trying too hard to justify their positions within each program. For Kahne, keep in mind he’s waited two years for an opportunity to validate his signing by the equivalent of baseball’s New York Yankees. Even the casual fan knows that for Allmendinger, the opportunity of a lifetime at Penske was giftwrapped at the eleventh hour, and in return one of the most passionate, emotional drivers on the circuit is putting every ounce of effort into this opportunity. Then there’s the man who opened the door for him, Busch, who must prove in 2012 that he can do the most with low-level equipment in order to attract a top-level opportunity for 2013.

When you let yourself feel the pressure, whether through the case of bad crew chief decisions, track position or otherwise, it’s easy to overdrive a race car. What did we see at Phoenix? Kahne lost it on his own, along with Clint Bowyer. Then, the following week at Las Vegas, Allmendinger overshot his pit box. Meanwhile, Busch has already wrecked as many cars this year as in all of 2011 combined.

Mark Martin has made it look easy on-track, 10th in points after hopping into a once-mediocre Michael Waltrip Racing ride this offseason.

It looks like all these men would do well to take a deep breath, relax, and refocus this week. Too bad Bristol – even the new, benevolent one – is next up on the NASCAR agenda. Or maybe they can take a lesson from Mark Martin? Even at 53, he’s made his fourth team change within the last seven years seamless through calm, consistent leadership behind the wheel. His rare Twitter outburst at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after Vegas, one he quickly apologized for, is the exception to a calm, consistent demeanor that rubs off on everyone around him.

Did You Notice? … Kyle Petty’s comments about how the NASCAR appeals process needs a drastic revamp? Amy Henderson will have a large-scale column with both criticisms and solutions this Friday; but in the meantime, why don’t we let you judge for yourself. Here is some backgrounds on the three voting members, presented without bias or commentary; all of them were charged with reviewing a penalty that could, in worst-case circumstances determine the playoff fate of the No. 48. That’s a decision that costs a team millions, both in possible future sponsorship and postseason exposure; keep that in mind when reviewing these bios.

Leo Mehl was Goodyear’s director of racing between 1974 and 1996. Armed with extensive, old school engineering experience the hands-on leader was successful on the track, winning 80 percent of the races he entered. He was also influential in helping form a long-lasting, permanent marriage between NASCAR and Goodyear that’s gone virtually unchallenged since the mid-1990s.

Following his retirement, in early 1996 the Indy Racing League successfully asked Mehl to run their program. He did so until early 2000, and still occasionally helps with Race Control at the Indy 500. Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007, Mehl is well-respected but also has had zero “official” involvement in NASCAR racing for the last sixteen years.

John Capels is a former race car driver (sprint cars), crew chief, and Indianapolis 500 car owner who chaired the United States Auto Club for six years in the mid-2000s. He never has had an integral role within NASCAR.

Dale Pinilis is the operator and promoter of NASCAR’s Bowman-Gray Stadium, a track hosts the Whelen All-American Series, K&N East and other minor league-level divisions. The short track operator has been a part of the family-owned facility for decades, but is not privy to the day-to-day operations and technical details surrounding the current Cup race car.

So there you have it: a retiree with no NASCAR involvement in 15 years, a racer who has had little, if any direct involvement with Sprint Cup racing and a track operator whose concerns deal mostly with the sport’s lower levels. Is that the type of appeals board you want reviewing major decisions that will impact the sport?

You tell me.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off… although this week, it’s more like “Inside The Numbers” …

- Trevor Bayne has one win in his last 20 Sprint Cup starts (the Daytona 500). Carl Edwards has one in in his last 37. Mr. Bayne is 21 years old; Edwards is 32. Guess which one has ten primary sponsors and which one isn’t racing in Cup this weekend.

Does that mean Edwards is a slouch? Far from it. But it’s a point to be made in the midst of the sponsor desert infiltrating Roush Fenway Racing, made at the same time Edwards has a double-digit, award-winning list of Fortune 500 companies. Can’t one of them be persuaded to back Matt Kenseth or even Bayne? And if not, what does that say about the state of NASCAR sponsorship today?

- In case you’re wondering who to watch this weekend, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick paced NASCAR’s short track season last year with two victories apiece. Brad Keselowski (Bristol in August) and Tony Stewart (Martinsville in Fall) rounded out your list of winners. But you also want to keep an eye on Jeff Gordon. He led 206 laps in the fall race, has had an awful start to 2012 (including the blown engine at Daytona) and has a strategy of maximizing victory opportunities in order to sew up a Chase bid.

And on the other side of the coin? Last season, Greg Biffle had just one short track top-10 finish in six starts. If he really wants to call himself a title contender, let’s see him make it through Bristol and Martinsville.

- As I mentioned Monday the tiff between former teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin appears to have come more out of frustration over Junior’s victory drought. But you wonder, after a series of crashes in 2011 where Martin was at the scene of the crime, if Junior isn’t the only one who fails to give this aging vet the benefit of the doubt.

- Enough has been said already about Kurt Busch’s “we’re not sure what happened” incident at Las Vegas. But while he brought it on himself, it’s a sign that this year his every move will be tracked. It’s a new term to the meaning “no margin for error,” an extra level of pressure for a guy who’s already running underfunded equipment. Starting the weekend two steps behind? And doing that from now until November, while being asked to make zero mistakes, period during that stretch?

If Busch is able to keep his head through all that, he deserves our respect.

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Carl D.
03/14/2012 10:04 AM
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“If Busch is able to keep his head through all that, he deserves our respect.”

I agree, but that’s a BIG “If”.

RamblinWreck
03/14/2012 01:04 PM
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I would prefer the appeals board to not have NASCAR involvement. For one reason, a board made up of NASCAR-connected members, whether current or former officials or team owners or sponsors etc. would seem more likely to uphold NASCAR’s penalties (although the current board certainly does that most of the time anyway). For another, if the reviewers on the board have zero vested interest in NASCAR or any of the teams, it avoids the appearance of a conflict of interest. Even if the judges aren’t biased, it helps nobody if they appear to have some incentive to pronounce a biased decision.

Moe Foe
03/16/2012 03:44 AM
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Your little vote thingy is askewed, The choices don’t consider the processes, only the personnel. The guy from Goodyear doesn’t need to know how to make tires to run a tire factory, he has raced and obliviously has succeeded. The others, also, don’t need to know NASCAR to judge the validity of the call, they only need to judge whether the call was made correctly.

The process is flawed because they didn’t use objective evidence to determine the issue. It was an ‘Eye-ball’ guess. Not exactly accurate, is it?

This penalty wasn’t because the car was out of, or nearly so, spec…it was because Chad brought another bent wiener in for inspection for the fourth year in a row. That was the true issue. And the fact that the #48 was, as Bill France Sr was wont to say, “Stinkin’ up my show, son”

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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