Thomas Bowles · Wednesday April 18, 2012
Did You Notice?… The difference Mark Martin makes with a new team? Yes, Michael Waltrip Racing went through an extensive personnel overhaul and expansion this offseason. But perhaps the best asset they’ve had, in this age of engineering parity is a driver who brings experience, enthusiasm, and that all-important confidence to the table.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the last two times Mark Martin made a move and his first year with a different organization.
2007: Sliding into a limited schedule with new owner Bobby Ginn, Martin came within a whisker (and a caution flag) of taking his first Daytona 500. Four races in, he had four top-10 results, was leading the points by eight over Jeff Gordon and was pushed heavily to bump back up to full-time before ultimately stepping aside at Bristol. Considering this No. 01 car the year before had totaled just two top-10 finishes all year while driven by Joe Nemechek, the turnaround was one of the more impressive we’ve seen in Cup over the last decade.
But it didn’t stop there. Martin ran in the top 20 in every race he started through Pocono in June, a total of eleven races; if not for a team firesale in mid-July, a transaction that ended with a Dale Earnhardt, Inc. merger the No. 01 may have very well made the owner points Chase. In all, he ended the year with five top-5 finishes, eleven top 10s and overall numbers just a hair off what he totaled in his last full-time season with Roush. Ending the year 27th in driver points, he equaled Nemechek’s standing from the year before despite running in a dozen fewer races.
2009: In his first year driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Martin inherited a team that had finished 20th in 2008, totaling just one top-5 finish with Casey Mears as driver. It took just eight races for Martin to equal that when he was victorious at Phoenix after leading more laps (157) in one race alone than the No. 5 did throughout all of 2008. Martin didn’t stop there, winning five times and collecting seven poles as part of an overall Hendrick resurgence that saw Jimmie Johnson, Martin, and Jeff Gordon finish 1-2-3 in the overall standings.
So here we are in 2012. Once again, the team Martin had inherited, renumbered the No. 55 from No. 00, was an absolute disaster a year ago. David Reutimann, its longtime driver, collected only one top-5 result in 36 starts, led just eight laps and stumbled to 28th in the standings. So what has the 53-year-old replacement done, in only five starts? Equaled those numbers exactly, sits 20th and may even have an outside shot of making the championship as a “wild card.” Altogether, the three Michael Waltrip Racing cars sit inside the top 11 in owner points, the highest they’ve ever been during the team’s five-plus year existence.
Some might say that’s just coincidence. But when you look at the focus Martin brings to the table, his unbridled enthusiasm, and the way he thrives when a team leans on him, you have to feel like it’s made a difference across the board. Now, the trick is for MWR to do everything possible and reassure their driver he’s a part of their plans for the long-term. Both stints at DEI and Hendrick ended when the focus was taken off Martin and placed elsewhere, either through trying to keep other drivers happy or simply looking ahead past the veteran and the next, young replacement to slip in the seat (Kasey Kahne, anyone?) Sponsorship concerns, in both cases had something to do with it but as long as Michael Waltrip can keep Aaron’s happy? There’s no reason Martin should be feeling pressure, and they need to make sure that team knows it. For the longer they keep building around the veteran, despite his age… the better off that whole organization is going to be.
Did You Notice?… The Rock’s attendance was not as earth-shattering as everyone thinks? Don’t get me wrong; fans stepped up in a big way to watch racing at the 1.017-mile oval. 27,500 in total showed up, nearly 37.5 percent more fans than came to Martinsville the end of last month. But those looking for a combination Nationwide / Camping World Truck Series race next season may wind up disappointed. That total is still far below even the worst-attended Nationwide race this year (Phoenix), and NASCAR’s recent schedule changes reflect a desire to keep the “AAA”-baseball like series attached to the major leagues whenever possible. Creating a standalone weekend, at a track that didn’t even sell out for the Truck side and whose maximum attendance, at 31,000+ would still fall right at the bottom of the list numbers-wise isn’t exactly a top priority.
For me, the fact there wasn’t a sellout is more significant than people are giving it credit for, also making me wary they’ll get there in 2013. Keep in mind this race was advertised, heavily, for well over six months as a historical event; it’s not often the sport returns to a racetrack eight years after ditching it. The track also had picture perfect weather conditions, a cushy place on the calendar and special appearances by drivers like Kasey Kahne and David Reutimann. All of that could potentially disappear next season, along with The Rock’s “newness” on the Truck Series slate, which makes it potentially harder to promote.
The racing itself, while generally entertaining wasn’t a ten out of ten in terms of a photo finish either. I’m not saying it was bad, but Piquet had a dominating lead at one point and the expected favorite, Kahne, wound up in Victory Lane. So the real trick, in my view, is to avoid the sophomore slump in 2013 and the fate of North Wilkesboro, which returned to racing in general with great fanfare but disappeared quietly before earning NASCAR’s major attention within one year. There’s a lot more going for the racetrack in this case, including its top-notch owner, Andy Hillenburg so I’m much more optimistic about its future. Let’s just be careful; one race does not a dramatic “we’re on top of the world!” ending make.
Did You Notice?… One of the sport’s few remaining driver/owners has faded quietly into the background? After a year of trying to make a go of it, starting and parking in most Sprint Cup events Robby Gordon just isn’t even bringing the No. 7 Dodge to the track anymore. So much for the new Charger jumpstarting his program in 2013; at this rate, there isn’t even going to be one to even associate with. Roger Penske refusing to give him an engine, resulting in a catastrophic failure during the Daytona 500 was apparently the final straw. DNQs soon followed, along with slinking back into obscurity as debt and disastrous equipment has finally caught up with him.
I’ve always felt that Gordon, while known as difficult to work with (he goes through crew chiefs faster than you can eat a row of Girl Scout Thin Mints) has suffered from a case of bad timing. Back in 2000, when he formed a self-owned team for the first time the garage was overloaded with fully-funded cars and he just didn’t have enough stock car experience. At less than 20 career starts, it was easy to get buried, especially when fighting the well-funded efforts of fresh rookies like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Luckily, Richard Childress was watching, picked up on the raw talent and that was enough to eventually land Gordon the best Cup ride he’ll ever have for four seasons, from 2001-04.
But then, the second driver/owner time around, when Gordon formed a team in 2005 NASCAR came up with its ridiculous top-35 rule. No one was hurt by that early more than Robby, who failed to qualify at Daytona despite a seventh-place run in his Duel and was instantaneously resigned to a full season of having to qualify on speed. All of a sudden, the financial burden became overwhelming, especially when faced with unlimited spending of teams around him that suddenly jumped from two to three to four cars in many cases. Robby tried jumping manufacturers, he tried alliances, he revamped his personnel several times but none of those “catchup strategies” worked. Losing Jim Beam for good, at the conclusion of 2009 killed off any dream of a much-needed second team, and from there it’s not been a matter of “if” but “when” Gordon’s Alan Kulwicki-like dream would die on the vine.
Long-term, the Californian will be fine as he continues to build both a successful off road career and a strong financial off-track venture (his SPEED Energy Drink). But in a season filled with too much drudgery and too little drama, it’s drivers like the colorful Gordon who are missed. After all, this man is the same one who once threw a helmet at Michael Waltrip’s car, wrecked Jeff Gordon in the midst of winning his first Cup race (New Hampshire, 2001) and once had a road course victory ruined by a black box fire in the cockpit. When Gordon had equipment, there was never a dull moment and the sport would be better off with him in it.
Sadly, the business model doesn’t have room for people like that. So when are we going to rethink the model?
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
- Travis Pastrana and Michael Waltrip made a great decision to pair with RAB Racing. But there are a number of variables stacking up against the pairing: not quite “A” level equipment, Pastrana’s time recovering from injury (and out of racing altogether), a disturbingly small schedule (seven events). Danica Patrick had the advantage in all these categories, and you know how much she struggled her first season. I’m not optimistic it’s going to be any better over in this camp.
- My colleague Garrett Horton did a good job expanding on the mysterious slump of Kyle Busch this season. I think he’ll get it together in Cup, eventually; my concerns lies more with his actual team. Let me tell you, for all this extra time on his hands the car owner is struggling more than ever to create the right chemistry at KBM. Three races in, Jason Leffler already has more DNFs (two) than top 10s (one), including a disastrous engine failure at Rockingham. And Busch’s Nationwide Series problems are well documented; he’s crashed twice, failed to finish higher than eighth and brother Kurt blew a motor on Friday night. For the money Monster Energy is pouring in, along with high-profile sponsor Dollar General you have to expect more from this group. Yet people think KBM is going Cup racing in 2013? Not if they keep up this type of track record.
- NASCAR visited the White House Tuesday with all 12 Chasers from last season in attendance. Best quip of the day: Barack Obama asking Tony Stewart how to deal with the media. Seriously, though, it was nice to see the respect from all involved after the controversy of some missing the yearly trip last summer.
- Big weekend for Jimmie Johnson heading to Kansas; but how about Edwards? Hometown track, winless in 2012, both teammates have already won… a good run this weekend is a necessity to relieve some of that pressure.
- Speaking of pressure, here’s a quick look at the Chase: it looks like Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, and Brad Keselowski have already cinched up bids through a ton of points and/or Victory Lane. You’ve got to believe Jimmie Johnson, along with Kevin Harvick gets a spot and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is tied for second in points: no one has been that high, this early and then missed the playoffs. Martin Truex, Jr. also looks like a bid stealer based on the way Michael Waltrip Racing is running (fourth, 38 points ahead of 11th-place Carl Edwards).
I just named ten of twelve spots right there. Big names I didn’t call: Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne. Only two of those names have a chance to sneak in, if the above theory holds… which could lead to some shocking omissions once the postseason starts come September.
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