Thomas Bowles · Sunday August 14, 2005
Truth be told, this was not the greatest of weeks for the NASCAR faithful. No need to go over Kurt Busch’s shocking announcement to move from Roush to Penske in 2007; it’s been well documented. On the heels of Jamie McMurray’s 2007 departure to Roush, the two signings have started a disturbing trend of drivers attempting to sign with other teams well before their contracts are up. Drivers and owners must now beware, as 2009 or 2010 may no longer mean a thing when a team goes through a bad season in 2006.
But what’s been even more surprising, and borderline immature, is the uncanny ability of grown men to take hurt feelings and hide them behind simple pieces of paper. Suddenly, signatures that took two seconds to sign are being used by hurt owners to pin their drivers in situations they clearly don’t want, when they’ve already asked to leave. It’s almost as if owners are giving their drivers the only punishment they can give for breaking their hearts and tearing their teams in two. Make no mistake, in this age of twentysomething drivers that go a dime a dozen, middle-aged owners are taking their backstabbing “sons” and giving them a harsh lesson in who increased their value from a 10-cent coin to a million-dollar prospect. The question is, whose lives and what teams are they costing with their hurt feelings and broken hearts?
On some level, I’m sure Ganassi himself was a bit surprised some reporters were turning his 2006 driver lineup into some sort of shocking announcement. Ganassi’s been saying for weeks that he was going to pick up Jamie McMurray’s option for next year, and sure enough, he stuck to his word. Jamie’s silent protest was perhaps a futile effort to get Chip to see what he thinks is an awful decision, but those words (or lack of them) fell on deaf ears. The cold reality appeared to have set in by the end of the weekend; it appears more than ever that Mark Martin is resigned to taking over the 6 for one more year, and an emotionally drained Jamie is beginning to wish he looked at those final option years back when he signed that contract as an unknown youngster back in 2002.
And it’s because of who he was when he signed with Ganassi that I understand, on some level, Chip’s resistance to letting Jamie go. Ganassi mortgaged the farm on Jamie when he signed the driver for 2003, turning down experienced veterans like Bobby Hamilton and Ricky Rudd while convincing Texaco a green Busch Series driver with no wins at the time was ready and able to take their Cup program to the next level. Of course, Ganassi was immediately rewarded with that Charlotte victory in October of 2002, with McMurray wheeling Sterling Marlin’s car to the winner’s circle in only his second Cup start. It was Chip who put Jamie on the map, and with his 3 teams struggling all around him, Chip may feel it’s not a wish but an obligation for his best young talent to help him turn things around instead of jumping ship.
And so Roush, on the heels of Chip Ganassi denying him his driver for 2006, has turned around and done the same thing to Roger Penske with Kurt Busch, holding him to his contract for 2007. And on some level, I don’t blame him, either. Roush also takes Busch’s decision as a bit of a slap in the face, and with all the success Busch has enjoyed under the Roush banner, in some sense it certainly is. Roush is the only team Kurt Busch ever drove for in NASCAR’s top three levels, a career that blossomed only half-a-dozen years ago when Jack plucked him from the Southwest and groomed him into a star. Certainly, Jack didn’t create Busch’s talent, but he put up with his at times immature personality, and took great care in putting Kurt with the right people that would ensure the boy would eventually grow into a man, a sometimes reckless racer into an honorable champion. Who knows what would have happened if Roush hadn’t come calling for Busch all those years ago? Chances are both Kurt AND Kyle might still be working to make it big, racing around at local tracks in Vegas.
Still, at some level these owners have to put their egos aside. Yes, Kurt and Jamie shouldn’t be negotiating for 2007 when they should be focusing on 2006. Certainly, what they’ve done can clearly been construed as a backstabbing of the highest order to the teams that made them who they are today. But the bottom line is, keeping them in a “lame duck” situation doesn’t just punish them, it punishes the dozens of cast and crew who work on these cars day in, day out. How can a team rally around a driver they know is leaving for a whole season, especially when the driver’s clearly stated he thinks he can do better somewhere else? How can you put 50 people in a position of catering to a driver when he’s clearly going to be pretending to care? Cause if I was in Jamie or Kurt’s shoes, I wouldn’t give 110%; why should I? Fair or not, I believe I’m being held against my will, and people who are backed into a corner don’t usually perform for those who put them in that position.
I guess part of this whole deal revolves around there being no “stepping stone” teams for young drivers to move through on their way to a top-level team. In the past, there were independent outfits like Junie Donlavey and Bud Moore’s old cars that took young drivers like Schrader, Rudd, Bodine, and others and turned them into contenders worthy for driving for Penske, Hendrick, and Roush. But now we’re in a new age, where the independents are gone and no sponsor can afford to be labeled second-rate. Everyone’s gunning for the top, and as such there is no “stepping stone” for young drivers to get their feet wet in Cup. They’re thrown into the deep end with a top-level team, and if they don’t like it…well they can sign with another “top-level” team, or work their way back into the Busch Series. And because every team has to pretend to be the best nowadays, owners like Ganassi will feel like they’re stabbed in the back by those moves even though their teams have struggled to remain competitive with everyone else’s.
But the battle lines have been drawn, and no compromise appears to be in sight. So what we’re left with is drivers pretending to care. McMurray and Busch spent all weekend trying hard to remind people how much they love their current teams, how much they’re gearing towards future success even though that future is ticking down by the day. But look behind the tired lines on Jamie McMurray’s face and you can clearly see he’s not as motivated. Finally in position to sneak into the Chase, he’s handling it with a subtle type of ho-hum attitude that, to me, states he clearly wants to be somewhere else. And Busch’s first week as a “lame duck” Roush driver ended with a disastrous finish, one that throws him into more of a scramble to make the Chase rather than be comfortably in control of his own destiny. Even Mark Martin, thrown into a position of ultimate loyalty, has begun to spread a reminder of how much he would prefer not to be back full-time, in the face of a cold reality I’m sure on some level he never thought would happen.
No matter what happens the rest of this year and next, it’s certainly a shame it had to come to this with some of NASCAR’s top teams. But hurt feelings and bruised egos shouldn’t put in people in positions where they have to pretend to care. The crews, the media, and most importantly, the fans…will see through it. It’s because of that, most of all, that I hope everyone will come to their senses.
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