The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... Earnhardt's Financial Flaw, NASCAR Tire Testing For Two And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 24, 2012

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Did You Notice?… Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is coming back with no real incentive to do so? Yes, you can tell me all you want about how Earnhardt loves to race, there’s still four chances to win and an outside shot to sneak back inside the top 10 in points, an improvement that would give the driver a little extra TV time at the Las Vegas Championship banquet. At heart, these men are racers, the passion for their craft pushing them to get back in the driver’s seat as quickly as possible. But outside of Martinsville, the No. 88 hasn’t exactly had the history as of late to suggest wins will come at Texas, Phoenix, or Homestead. Momentum for 2013 is a moot point, both in setup notes and at-track finishes as a new car will wipe the slate clean come Daytona. And while Earnhardt could assist teammate Jimmie Johnson with setup information, their relationship being better than Johnson and Regan Smith’s, it’s arguable that Smith was producing better results, driving quickly into the top 10 at Charlotte before blowing the engine and slotting in seventh at Kansas, the team’s best all-around performance since Michigan in August.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is in a position he hasn’t seen much during his 14-year Sprint Cup career: courting a new primary sponsor to fill a number of open races on his No. 88 Chevrolet.

So why is Earnhardt back behind the wheel — and why didn’t someone at HMS say “stop” with a capable sub in Smith already hired? The answer may be in the form of this week’s big story, from the Sports Business Journal. PepsiCo is reducing their primary sponsorship on the No. 88 Chevy in 2013 to just a handful of races. While suspected for months, no replacement deal is formally signed to fill the void and the current lineup leaves 13 races open for “Hendrickcars.com” or a blank hood for the sport’s Most Popular Driver in 2013. It’s a situation Earnhardt has never been in throughout his career: trying to sign on the dotted line with a financial backer after September. Heck, whoever fills the void will be just the fourth full-time, primary sponsor in Earnhardt’s career at the Cup level.

If you’re thinking I’m insinuating the guy won’t get the funding… you’re wrong. HMS has been anticipating PepsiCo’s change for months and has a number of businesses lined up as replacements. But any good company, with this economy, is smart about the way they spend their money and will use any potential situation to gain an advantage. Let’s say Earnhardt didn’t come back, sat the rest of the season and said he’ll return in February, 2013. Company A will go, “What’s my guarantee Earnhardt will come back good as new? He didn’t prove it to me. I’m about to give $10 million for x races for a great unknown… sorry, I’m knocking $2 million off the final price. Take it or leave it. Or, you put out clause A in this deal I get to bail if Earnhardt doesn’t finish above xx position four times in the first five races…”

You get the point. Considering Earnhardt is the biggest moneymaker for this organization – at one point, primary sponsorship for the No. 88 was rumored to total $40 million over a 36-race schedule – those potential “discounts” could add up to a lot. I’m not saying it’s fair, but reality in a world where safety is preached yet the only clear sense of comfort, for all parties in sports is when there’s a few extra zeroes in that bank account. Hendrick needs to prove Earnhardt is healthy, period which is likely why he made that overzealous statement Sunday at Kansas only to take it back hours later in a bizarre mea culpa. People have caught on to the fact Earnhardt isn’t the gate attraction he once was – ratings declined just 1.5 percent during his absence – and the man has only won two races since the start of the 2007 season. At some point, that track record is going to catch up with him if major companies sniff he’s an injury risk on top of it. And so, the media onslaught will begin this week, like we saw on ESPN SportsCenter where you half expected the HMS janitor to come out with a quote celebrating the moment Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was spotted walking down the hall at HMS headquarters. The full court press is on, good business sense for all parties involved.

After all, the only place you don’t play it safe in the corporate world is when it comes to collecting cold, hard cash. Right?

Did You Notice?… Who’s on the roster for Goodyear’s Phoenix tire test this week? None other than our current point leader, Brad Keselowski along with third-place point man Denny Hamlin. Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Kasey Kahne are shut out of this two-day “practice” in the desert as the tire company’s exclusive invites didn’t arrive at their doorstep.

Yes, Hendrick-allied Tony Stewart is down at the test, feedback that you know will filter straight back into the hands of the No. 48. Johnson’s average finish at the track, a healthy series-best 5.3, suggests extra practice for J.J. would be like trying to have Michael Jordan practice shooting free throws in crunch time. Why go down and prep for a facility you’ve already mastered?

No, in the Johnson camp their anger should be directed more at the extra opportunity afforded Hamlin and Keselowski. The No. 11 car already won Phoenix in the spring; this extra test gives that camp another strong advantage heading into November’s penultimate Sprint Cup event. Keselowski, meanwhile, was fifth last time around, one spot behind Johnson, and now gets two full days to tweak a possible setup. With NASCAR’s current testing policy, banning unapproved practice at any Chase-sanctioned track, that in theory puts the No. 48 at an unfair disadvantage.

To be fair, Johnson has been on the other side of this whole testing debacle. Greg Biffle openly criticized him for participation in an extra tire test at Dover, one conducted shortly before the No. 48 came in and whooped the field a few years back. But in both cases, the rules that allow for Goodyear to tap a Chaser to help them is simply unfair. There’s plenty of teams with unlimited time on their hands this Fall: Furniture Row Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, and JTG-Daugherty Racing are just some of the cars with limited Chase connections and an ability to come down and help test. Why not give some of these underdogs more track time, giving them a leg up towards the end of 2012 while removing the accusations of bias and impropriety?

All it takes, sometimes is a little common sense.

Richard Petty is a big supporter of Marcos Ambrose, who is expected to re-sign with the car owner for 2013. But Aric Almirola? That’s a little less clear.

Did You Notice?… in the Richard Petty Motorsports renewal with Ford on Friday: “The driver lineup for 2013’s Sprint Cup cars is still being finalized.” Five minutes later, Marcos Ambrose was in front of a camera stating he was working on a deal but notice Aric Almirola was nowhere to be found. That “in limbo” status, a combination of sponsorship concerns and poor performance likely contributed to the youngster’s sense of urgency Sunday, a race he nearly ran away with during a 69 laps led performance cut short by multiple flat tires. It was the best race of Almirola’s career, but ultimately one he didn’t finish, another case of unfulfilled potential in his file that has gotten big enough to put him “on the bubble” for his return to the No. 43. Without a top-10 finish since Dover in June, he’s finished on the lead lap just once since Michigan in August and has dropped to a disappointing 21st in points. One thing working in Almirola’s favor, though: who is out there to pick up the slack? The top free agent remaining, Regan Smith seems set to sign over in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports while Trevor Bayne and Brian Vickers appear content with their part-time rides over this option. RPM’s owners are the type that are looking to make a splash; so unless some random open-wheel convert becomes available, ala Jacques Villeneuve you wonder if Almirola might not just earn a second chance by default. Longshot candidate that hasn’t talked to them, but who should be on the list: AJ Allmendinger. If this team was going gaga over Kurt Busch, why not take a second look at the man they should have never let go in the first place? It’s the one organization where they could probably collect enough sponsorship and private funding to overcome the stigma of a positive drug test.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off:

- It’s hard to believe that it’s now almost 25 years since a blue Stroh’s Light car with Mark Martin at the wheel debuted in the Daytona 500 with a fresh-eyed, focused owner named Jack Roush. Now the owner of a multi-car, two-time Cup Series champion organization, Roush will make his 3,000th Cup start as an owner on Sunday at Martinsville after those humble beginnings in 1988. The list of drivers behind the wheel for him include two Future Hall Of Famers (Martin, Matt Kenseth), three wannabes (Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch) and two current drivers with that type of upward potential (Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) But check out this list of other “Where Are They Now?” journeymen that have spent some time in a Roush car: Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Ted Musgrave, Chad Little, Johnny Benson, Jr., Kevin Lepage, Dave Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Kenny Wallace, Todd Kluever, and David Ragan. Interesting tidbit: of all those drivers, Blaney is the only one to just make a single start for the organization, filling in for the No. 99 ride during the Fall of 2004 at Charlotte.

- Can you believe we’re one year removed from Brian Vickers, the giant wrecking ball? It was in the Martinsville race one year ago “Vickers chose to bowl over Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and seemingly half the Martinsville field at will in his Red Bull(dozer) Toyota.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuegYl4DhRg After a second incident, with Kenseth at Phoenix a few weeks later some wondered if he would ever have a full-time ride in Sprint Cup again. And here were are, heading into this Fall’s edition and Vickers will not only be an automatic qualifier; he’s a darkhorse to win the race. In his eighth and final drive behind the No. 55 Toyota this season, Vickers is a candidate for Comeback Driver of The Year but will be an interesting driver to watch as the race unfolds. More than anyone, he has nothing to lose and is trying to impress perspective future sponsors he’s worth a fourth Michael Waltrip Racing car. With the past history here, combined with the excitement and aggression he’s one guy I’d tiptoe around if a Chase contender.

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Sally
10/24/2012 10:15 AM
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Let everybody test.

When nascar closed testing, people said it would help equal the field. But all it did was help the “rich” teams (Hendrick) who had the facilities and equipment to test on their own.

Lydia
10/24/2012 10:34 AM
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Well I didn’t miss Junior the last couple races…and I enjoyed watching Smith go up through the field. I guess we’ll be over saturated with Earnhardt..the media has two weeks of catching up with how many times he’s mentioned and shown during a race! Oh well..I truly wish him well..but it was great to have Smith, Allmendinger, and others spotlighted during the races. I am very happy The Dinger is back for a couple more races and hope a team and sponsor see the light and give him another opportunity. I still find it strange NASCAR gave him a big Scarlett letter as a druggie..but managed to cure him in two months! Hollywood needs to get signed up with NASCAR’s “road to recovery”! Something is not quite right there! I also hope Smith finds a good ride next season..he’s a gem a team would be lucky to have!

Tom Dalfonzo
10/24/2012 11:15 AM
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I think that Regan Smith should be given the keys to the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevy for Stewart Haas Racing. He deserves that ride more than Danica Patrick EVER will. Smith would put that car in Victory Lane and in the Top 10 every week, whereas Patrick would only put it in the wall every week.

GinaV24
10/24/2012 11:38 AM
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let everyone test the tires. The other option is no one involved in the chase is allowed to test. This way does give advantage to whoever tests. Although Goodyear is known for bringing a totally different tire – really stupid the mess at Kansas – partly ISC/NASCAR’s fault and partly Goodyear’s. They shouldn’t have repaved until after the season was over.

I thought Smith did a great job in the car. I like the option – put him in the 10 car next year. He could do more with it than Danica.

I can understand why Jr is getting back in the car even though I think it is a dumb idea from a health perspective. I’m glad I’ll be at the race then I won’t have to watch the media frenzy from ESPN’s coverage about him. I have nothing against the guy, I just think that ESPN goes overboard – especially since according to the tweet I received from one of the announcers – the only IMPORTANT people are Kez, Johnson & Hamlin. Well, gee, I guess in that case, I can find something else to do with my Sunday.

Yet attendance and ratings are down – gee, I wonder why?

JD in NC
10/24/2012 12:41 PM
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I completely agree with Tom Dalfonzo and GinaV24. Reward Regan Smith’s impressive relief driving effort for Jr. by putting him in the SHR #10. Leaving Danica in the #7 Nationwide car would actually be doing her a favor. It would give her a chance to gain more experience and maybe salvage her stock car career. Otherwise she is moving up to the cup series way too fast and will most likely crash and burn (pun partially intended).

Rb
10/24/2012 01:58 PM
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Ppl would have a fit if JJ got invited to a test and the other 2 didnt.Tired of JR but they will beat us with him for missing the last 2 weeks..

Earner
10/24/2012 03:11 PM
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Ya gotta let ALL the chasers test or NONE..Simple… I Agree the testing ban didn’t equalize anything & did seem to only assist the wealthy (Multi car) teams so time to adjust that…Smith while driving over his head the last two weeks was additioning & I’m pretty sure he had a great chance with Rousch & didn’t keep up…Suddenly after 1.45 races he’s the latest superstar…not for my 20 mil…& could we cut the dull D’s by a third?

djones
10/24/2012 03:38 PM
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I think Jr should sit out the rest of the season. He has nothing to lose at this point, he’s not sitting at the head table at the banquet anyway.

So he’s cleared to drive. What happens if he wrecks again? Since he already had a recent concussion, will another hit to the head do more harm? I’m sure he doesn’t want Kelley to have to wipe drool off his chin for the rest of his life if something goes wrong.

Bravo to James Finch for sharing Smith and Dinger for the rest of the season.

I don’t know what to do about tire testing. I do think it gives teams an advantage when they get extra time on the track. If you notice, KyB hasn’t won this year since he cut back racing in the NW series. I think it’s because of less time on the track. Maybe they could choose a driver from each team lowest in points. Example, Carl Edwards for RFR, Menard for RCR, et al.

Bill B
10/24/2012 10:29 PM
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I feel the restricted testing since 2008(?)combined with the strict rules stifling innovation has put NASCAR in a state of arrested developement. The racing can’t get better because teams haven’t been allowed to make it better. No wonder Johnson won 5 championships in a row. On top of being damn good, the music stopped on testing when he was the car to beat. I say let everyone test as much as they want. However, sanctioned tire testing should exclude chase drivers. Right now it’s easy to say Kes, JJ and Hamlin should all be included but what about tire tests early in the chase when there are 10 guys in the hunt. Should all 10 be invited? It’s easier to just exclude the chase guys.

As for Smith in the 10 car, since when does someone get a ride because they deserve it? If Go Daddy wants to waste their money on a spokesmodel who also drives (average at best) then it’s their rite. Besides, there are several drivers that could be argued as deserving of a ride.

Steve K
10/25/2012 11:32 PM
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MWR has the be the best story this year. From jet fuel to making the chase with both full time drivers. It is fun to have something new is a sport that can be very much the same every year. Here is hoping Vickers fills out a fourth full-time car in ’13. .

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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