The Frontstretch: Don't Jump, It's Not Worth It! NASCAR's Biggest Names Stumbling Along The Ledge On Off Weekend by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday March 11, 2009

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The Sprint Cup Series is off this week, giving some teams a much-needed break. Not so much from the cross-country grind that is the first month of the season… but rather, to the stop the bleeding instead. For some teams, the first few races have gone like Rocky’s first few rounds with Clubber Lang: taking a beating is admirable, but after awhile, you wish for somebody to intervene and throw in the towel on your behalf. Mercifully, one of the few off weekends has come at just the right time to put a stop to the brutality for some of the biggest names in the sport.

Heading into Atlanta this past Sunday, David Reutimann, Bobby Labonte, and Michael Waltrip were the apple of everyone’s eye – faces and names we haven’t seen atop the standings in awhile. Or ever.

Well, a quick check of the points this week reveals the harsh reality of racing, as Reutimann is now desperately clinging onto 12th in points with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Burton closing fast. Michael Waltrip stumbled again at Atlanta, while Labonte had one of those days you’d rather just forget; he spun out all by himself, and then his Roush-Yates power plant digested itself on lap 103, dropping him all the way to 23rd in the point standings.

Nature’s way can be cruel.

Last week, we profiled some of those feel good stories of the 2009 season. This week, we take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. If they want to cry, we’ll cry with them…

Mark Martin: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Lured out of semi-retirement by the most successful car owner in the sport’s history (and a used car salesman), 2009 was supposed to be the year that would produce a script so perfect for Martin, it might actually green light production of Days of Thunder 2. Instead, it’s turned out to be the script for A Nightmare on Batesville Street for NASCAR’s 50-year-old talent.

Two years ago at this time, Martin was leading the points and off to the best start of his career before taking off to go play with his son Matt at a Florida dirt track. It’s a stark contrast to today, being aligned with the Hendrick dynasty and mired 35th in owner points. Truth be told, it is not the fault of Martin or crew chief Alan Gustafson. Rain, two engines that are now expensive boat anchors, and a blown tire at nearly 200 mph have taken cars capable of winning races and nearly reduced them to competing with Jeremy Mayfield as go-or-go-home entrants.

While Jeff Gordon has had every reason to smile, it’s been hard for Mark Martin and his fans to do the same four races into 2009.

To the casual observer, one might expect the No. 5 team to be clad in purple jump suits and black tennies, preparing a special batch of Kool-Aid while waiting for the Mothership to deliver them from this alternate reality.

However, anyone who has followed the sport since they used to hand out free smokes at the track has shrugged this off as little more than typical Mark Martin luck, and is simply waiting for the summer stretch to get here so he can truly be comfortable with things again. That means settling back into obsessive/compulsive mode, fretting over every position and bonus point, and trimming that buzz-cut extra tight, all while that Clint Eastwood-like temporal vein swells up and he finally reaches Def-Con: 2. This laid-back, laugh-it-off, part-timer stuff has been little more than a charade for Martin and has gone on for far too long, suppressing what really lies beneath the surface.

He is going to go off like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Just watch.

Verdict: The first few races have allowed Martin and his team to get comfortable with each other and know what he likes and needs in a race car. Prediction? He will challenge for wins at Phoenix, Lowe’s, and Dover. Yes folks, he’s that good… and so is this team. They’ll be in the Chase come September. Bank on it.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: “Misery loves company,” the old axiom goes, and nowhere is that more personified than at Hendrick Motorsports. Last year at this time, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the top-ranked driver at HMS, sitting sixth in points with three top 10 finishes. This year, he is bogged down in 24th place in the point standings, and has but a lone top 10 finish to his credit.

Daytona was a story in and of itself, but then the following week he suffered engine failure a few laps after teammate Mark Martin at California. An encouraging 10th at Vegas gave way to an 11th at Atlanta with a car that looked like it could wreck every lap. Afterwards, he deemed the CoT “a hell of an excuse for a race car,” which is a nice way of paraphrasing what Kyle Busch said after the initial CoT race at Bristol nearly two years ago: “It sucks.”

And Kyle won that race.

Many still openly question what could be wrong at Hendrick Motorsports, and the same questions keep coming up repeatedly: Has Dale Earnhardt Jr. been exposed for being little more than a name rather than a true talent? Can he not adjust to “The Hendrick Way?” Has the bicker-fest between him and cousin Tony Eury, Jr. come to a head?

Much ado about nothing, I say.

He has not contended for wins like Jeff Gordon has this year – true – but Junior has also not wrecked himself like Jimmie Johnson (though they both have had their issues on pit road). He had a good enough car at Daytona, but went Charles Bronson on Brian Vickers trying to get his lap back — his pit road proclivities notwithstanding. There isn’t much you can do about getting bad engine parts from a vendor, and some days you just have to make the most of what you have, like the No. 88 did at both Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Truth be told, Earnhardt always has his stuff together on short tracks, and wouldn’t you know it, three of the next six races are all on shorts that he has won at (and Phoenix is basically a short track, too, what with its five turns in an ovular isoceles tri-angular format. Yes, that is an actual shape).

Oh, and let’s not forget about Talladega coming up the end of April. Junior seems to know what he’s doing at that place, too.

Verdict: This bunch should be able to regroup and tackle the bread and butter tracks that have been the staple of Dale and Tony Jr.’s careers. Much like their embattled teammate, look for them to move up quickly from the depths of despair. Joon-yer could break out and win any race in the next two months.

Joey Logano: There has not been more pomp and circumstance surrounding a rookie driver in NASCAR since some open-wheel kid from Pittsboro, Indiana, made his way south, sporting a mini-mullet and a mustache that any 14-year-old boy would be proud of. So, to say that Joey Logano had high expectations coming into his rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing would be a bit of an understatement.

Unfortunately for this rookie, also understated to this point has been the performance of the Home Depot Toyota he drives each week. Logano has had a difficult time acclimating himself to the Car of Tomorrow after showing so much promise early on last season in the Nationwide Series cars, where he won in just his third start after turning 18. It’s a far cry from this year, as the right side of the No. 20 car has been flattened so many times during practice and on race day you could frame a house with it. With one lap led and a best finish of 13th at Las Vegas, Logano responded with a 30th at Atlanta to dig himself a deeper hole — after Tony Stewart helped him into the wall.

One has to wonder how Greg Zipadelli hasn’t lost all of his hair yet or suffered a cardiac event of some sort. He spent the last decade trying to keep Stewart from running himself right out of the sport; now, he has been charged with helping to shape a rookie driver into a winner as well as an adult.

Who says these guys don’t earn their paycheck?

But those who are coming down on Logano are doing so much too soon, and with undue harshness. The poor kid is a few months removed from high school and can’t even buy a beer yet! Yet his job is to take over for one of the greatest racers of our generation — competing in a series that has competition unmatched anywhere in professional motorsports — and is doing so in a car that is unlike anything he’s ever driven.

If there’s any short side to Logano’s situation, it is the mentoring aspect of Joe Gibbs Racing. As in, there isn’t any.

Kyle Busch is all of 23 years old and is not exactly what one might consider “nurturing,” though he has gone out of his way to help Logano get accustomed to the unwieldy beast of a car he is driving. Denny Hamlin is the ripe old age of 28, and whilst he did come into Sprint Cup out of nowhere and has been deemed the senior driver for JGR – there is a sort of hollow beating to that drum.

That isn’t a knock on Hamlin; just because you’re the oldest doesn’t necessarily make you the patriarch of the family. Still two years away from his 30th birthday, Hamlin is hardly the age to be considered a longtime head of household.

Instead, Logano’s biggest ally will likely be The Coach: Joe Gibbs. The freshman clearly has the talent, desire and natural ability; what he really needs more than anything right now is support, self-confidence, and to remain focused and positive. If there is one guy who can do that, it’s the one with three Super Bowl rings and three Sprint Cups.

Verdict: What were you doing when you were 18 years old? Give this kid a break — he’s barely old enough to register for the draft, and probably has another growth spurt coming. When it’s all said and done, we’ll be marveling at Logano the same way we do of that kid from Pittsboro who tore the front clips off of 10 cars his rookie season.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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ginger
03/11/2009 02:25 PM
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Thank you for the kind words about Jr. We don’t hear many of those from the media, and those of us who care will always read your articles. We pass the others by.

marshall
03/11/2009 02:34 PM
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Logano is a very talented driver . But he’ll obviously need time to learn the tracks , the cars , the competitors , and his team .
The morons at NASCAR marketing decided to make the poor guy the center of attention , even filming tv commercials to welcome him to Cup racing . That set the bar way too high for a rookie no matter how good he is .

Johanna
03/17/2009 11:56 AM
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Of course you pass them by Ginger! Just once I would like to see Baby E’s Rabid little fans admit Jr is not the most perfect greatest driver in history like they say he is. NO! He is not! Nor is he a God like they say either. He is just a driver like the others out there. It is because of people like you ginger that there are people that dislike Jr. It is not Jr himself that turns people off, it is his rabid little fans who claim he perfect and nothing is ever his fault, that cause the problems. If they would act like the fans of the rest of the drivers, it would be fine, but they refuse too. IT IS BECAUSE OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU GINGER, THAT OTHERS DISLIKE JR SO MUCH.

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