The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... How To Reconstruct A NASCAR Marriage, Money Mismanagement And Ageless Wonders by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 31, 2012

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Did You Notice?… The most predictable driver / crew chief failure has finally reached its miserable conclusion? Jeff Burton and Drew Blickensderfer, one of those couples destined for divorce the minute you knew they were walking down the aisle together, have finally parted ways. In Blick’s place comes the man Burton’s needed most all along, Luke Lambert, who will clearly define the future success of a 2013 program that, in Burton’s eyes at least, has become “make or break.”

The Lambert-Burton marriage, reconciled after a year apart, was one of the silliest breakups in NASCAR Sprint Cup history. OK, Jordan and Pippen they weren’t – not yet – but these two were clearly on the path towards long-term success. Their first stint together, spurred when Todd Berrier got the axe back in July of 2011, was a four-month clinic on how to turn a struggling veteran from has-been to head-turner. You had Lambert, a first-timer heading the crew whose youthful enthusiasm compelled him to get aggressive, taking risks and bringing back the edge in a forty-something Burton that needed to think outside the box. The duo took awhile to click, but when they did, there was almost nobody better: four top-10 finishes in the last five Chase races left them arguably the best-performing team not fighting for the championship. The only blip on the radar was Texas, where Burton led 24 laps before running out of gas while leading; otherwise, they would have scored more points during that stretch than anyone not named Stewart or Edwards. Even then, in failure lied the perfect example for why this marriage was working; both sides were willing, even excited to take that type of risk that would lead to victory or bust.

Jeff Burton has a reason to smile as he’ll be reunited with crew chief Luke Lambert in 2013, a pairing that brought Burton success a year ago.

“We’ve started changing how we are looking at things,” said Burton back in November, clearly injected with confidence. “I’ve gotten a little more involved in trying to understand exactly what is in the cars because that is really a departure for me not to be involved. We started working on things that just weren’t the right things to work on and now, we’re starting to work on stuff that is making a difference.”

So how did RCR respond to that? By taking a shotgun, pointing right at their foot and pulling the trigger. Why not end the marriage, they thought, then bring in someone from a completely different manufacturer who would look at things completely different again? Blickensderfer, who had spent all his time with Ford, had also experienced just middling success with Matt Kenseth and David Ragan on the Cup level. He’s also not a “rah rah” guy, the type of extrovert that works well with a veteran whose media friendliness earns him the role of NASCAR’s elder statesman. The only ironclad results from him as a crew chief have come on the restrictor plate level; Kenseth won the Daytona 500 under his watch, while Ragan’s lone Cup victory came at that racetrack’s July race. No less than three different sources that have worked with Blickensderfer, accumulated by another member of our staff, described his crew chief skills with one word: “awful.”

So what happened? To no one’s surprise, the No. 31 has struggled virtually everywhere as the team’s performance got so bad, some wondered whether Childress would take a one-year flyer on Kurt Busch instead. The only exception (also no shocker) was plate racing; four of Burton’s six top 10s this season came at Daytona and Talladega, along with his best performance (second at Daytona in July). But on the intermediate ovals, the sport’s bread and butter, Burton has finished no better than 12th, picked up two engine failures overall and has led fewer laps (38) in all of 2012 than the last five races of 2011. Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler earned himself a free lotto ticket; Lambert ended up there, named to head up a Nationwide team that to this point has won four times and retains a slight edge in the championship battle over Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Austin Dillon.

Clearly, at this point Lambert has proved his worth and deserves a promotion back to the Cup level. Burton, who was largely credited for RCR’s turnaround when brought on in 2004, has earned one last chance to prove himself with the right pieces. So Childress finally pulled the trigger in the right direction Monday, giving both a second shot at top-level success once the 2013 season begins.

It’s about freaking time. Although now Burton – 46 next season – has been put in a position where there are no more excuses.

Did You Notice?… The mystery of meshing with Marcos Ambrose? Blickensderfer’s divorce from RCR paved the way for a Ford return for the crew chief, who becomes the third head wrench for Ambrose this season effective with this weekend’s race at Texas. Never mind the difficulty the Tasmanian will have pronouncing that name; the only word he’ll be repeating, several times, with a sigh of relief is “engineer.” Blick brings with him plenty of Blue Oval experience, not only with aerodynamics but with the chassis RFR mints for Richard Petty Motorsports only for them to sit there, scratch their heads and struggle to have the same type of independent information-building Stewart-Haas Racing gives in their partnership with Hendrick Motorsports.

Clearly, Blick brings the “B” team closer together to the “A,” a crucial pickup with the impending competition of Penske Racing at the Ford camp in 2013. But one statistic not to be overlooked is the continued turnover on top of Ambrose’s pit box. For a driver who, in media circles, is perceived as easily accessible and one who’s also enjoyed the consistency of the driver / crew chief relationship prior to this season, these changes create a whole lot of disruption. One good friend of mine in the business on Tuesday suggested that RPM was making a big mistake, that Parrott had brought the best out of Ambrose on oval tracks. Statistically, that was true, at least in 2011 as he posted a career high three top-5 finishes on them. But my rebuttal to that is no one has done well with Ambrose on ovals because he hasn’t won. Seconds are nice, thirds are respectable, but last time I checked neither gives you a big trophy that etches a name in the record books.

Ambrose, then, will have to hope that better engineering behind the scenes is the key to putting him over the top, with strong leadership from the cockpit making up for a lack of aggressiveness on pit road (see: first DYN point). There’s only one thing we know for sure here: mark Ambrose as a darkhorse pick for the 2013 Daytona 500. He’s got the Blickensderfer plate race halo of protection now around him.

Did You Notice?… NASCAR earned itself a new partner Tuesday, an “official xx of xx” that’s little more than a catchy title to bring money into the bank account? The latest to take the bait was Green Earth Technologies, now an “Official Green Partner With NASCAR.” As a result, GET’s G-CLEAN logo will be featured on-track with a decal on each entry in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour and NASCAR K&N Pro Series. The company, little-known before today will also have their logos plastered in many Home Track racetracks across the country.

What’s wrong with this picture? The company, despite supporting the sport isn’t choosing to align their money with a particular team. It’s a pattern that’s nothing new, a rule and not the exception within a list of NASCAR partners that’s reached well over 40. Note among them are DuPont, Old Spice, and UPS, companies that have scaled back involvement on a car in recent years but still are finding exceptional value in their relationships through pairing with the parent company of stock car racing. It’s a safe bet, right? You don’t have to worry about whether someone will finish fifth or 25th; instead, the contract is a conservative deal where you know signage and appearances are guaranteed at stock car tracks and events throughout a full nine-month schedule.

NASCAR signed on another sponsor this week, but with cars like this one parking early every race, due to lack of funding, is the sport’s “sponsor hogging” a sound business model?

These types of relationships are not uncommon; the NFL, MLB, every major sport has sponsors that connect to them rather than individual teams. The difference here is that money is guaranteed to make it down to the team level because all franchises are connected to the sanctioning body, ensuring some sort of equitable financial stake. That doesn’t occur in racing, where every owner is a private contractor and not guaranteed to see a dime directly from a deal like this one. It’s a relationship NASCAR has prided itself on for decades, avoiding the franchise-like structure that could conceivably prevent a Joe Schmo off the street from obtaining a NASCAR vehicle, then entering a race with little more than a license and a dream.

But in this modern stock car world, sponsorship for these individual owners is getting harder to come by. None other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has 13 races left to fill next season, Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth survived with patchwork sponsorship and the series hasn’t had 43 full-time teams willing to run the distance since 2008. Why wouldn’t NASCAR, when an interested sponsor comes in, at least try and redirect them in some way? Don’t they realize the money means nothing if not enough cars can be competitive on the racetrack? Just imagine if half these “partners” became sponsors on Sprint Cup Series cars. We’d have a 43-car field … and then some.

What’s stopping someone from trying to make a connection? When will NASCAR realize that helping others helps themselves in the long run?

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

- How cruel the fall from grace can be in this sport. Two years ago, Mike Ford headed to Texas thinking he was on the verge of a championship with Denny Hamlin. Two years later, the only job offer he’s got is to work with the mediocre “C” team of BK Racing, an organization who has a grand total of one top-10 finish to its name. Note to Paul Wolfe: enjoy the success while you’ve got it…

- There’s been a lot of talk about Brian Vickers having to share a ride with Mark Martin this season. Yes, Vickers should race more… in a separate car. How is it when an athlete gets a certain age everyone is desperate to put them out to pasture? Martin, age 53, has four top-5 finishes this season in a limited schedule – as many as Chaser Kevin Harvick – to go along with nine top 10s and 195 laps led. He came within one nudge, courtesy Joey Logano at Pocono, from being the oldest winner in Sprint Cup history. I think this guy deserves to pick and choose his schedule one more time.

- Everything about the race at Texas screams Jimmie Johnson in a runaway. He has one career win there, was second while leading the most laps in the Spring and has been dialed in on 1.5-mile ovals this season. Brad Keselowski, in comparison, doesn’t even have a top-10 finish at the track in eight career starts. But every time we’ve visited these places where J.J. has a clear advantage, in this Chase Kes finds a way to even the score. As I wrote Monday, most fans consider this title race over but this No. 2 team is tough to count out at this point.

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russ
10/31/2012 02:27 PM
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Thank you for mentioning the issue of “the official xxx of xxx”.
In my opinion that is one of the critical issues in the business(nee’ sport) today. Regardless of the decline that is obvious for all to see, the sanctioning body is doing very well. Thus less incentive to change things at the fundamental level. While I do not predict the demise of the sport, its inability to appeal to the youth will ultimately do it severe harm.
How to get it so that the sanctioning body has a real stake, other than collecting money for the use of their name, I dont know. I do know that the list of companies willing to pony up the money to associate with the business is not infinite.

Guest
10/31/2012 06:06 PM
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I agree russ. It seems like NASCAR likes to rack up the sponsors for itself and leave the teams floundering. But as long as the company is making money, and it apparently is, there will be no changes. Attendance will continue to fall as will TV ratings, but hey you just sign up another “The Official xxxx of NASCAR” and the execs can recoup that money. All the better if it’s a brand already associated with the “sport” ie: a car sponsor.

ginav24
10/31/2012 06:44 PM
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I have never understood NASCAR’s total disregard for taking sponsorship money instead of applying it to the race cars. Let’s face it, ISC/NASCAR is all about feathering their own nest.

They seem to miss the point that if there are NO sponsors for the cars, there will be no race cars on the track and then the business is OVER!!

DoninAjax
10/31/2012 09:00 PM
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Why would a company sponsor a car when there are overwhelming odds that they will never be mentioned during a telecast?

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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