The Frontstretch: Time's Up: NASCAR Drivers Nearing The End of The Line by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday August 3, 2011

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Time's Up: NASCAR Drivers Nearing The End of The Line

Vito Pugliese · Wednesday August 3, 2011


There are few things as inspiring as the athlete who refuses to give up and keeps fighting under the most overwhelming of odds and circumstances. Willis Reed trotting out on a broken leg during the NBA Finals, Curt Schilling pitching through a bum ankle and bloody sock in the World Series, or Ronnie Lott choosing to cut off part of his finger to get back into a game against the Dallas Cowboys. You can stamp Man’s Game on all of the above.

Then there is the case of those who maybe stick around too long, or should step aside and give somebody else a crack at it. NASCAR is no exception; there are a few drivers who are tied in and have immunized themselves from outside competition, or are able to land rides by being able to provide sponsorship.

For every Junior Johnson there is a Buckshot Jones—a Casey Atwood for each Kasey Kahne.

Hey, whatever works—it’s a free country (for now) and it’s like Thunderdome in the upper echelons of auto racing. A few drivers whose careers have sputtered, stalled, or never really got off the ground came to mind, and one wonders just how much longer they will keep trying – or be allowed to.

Steven Wallace

At some point, Steven Wallace will need to produce. If not for the sake of his father’s company, for the sponsors who fund his efforts and are becoming increasingly difficult to source in NASCAR. There is a bit of irony here with Wallace, who has shared a bit of the same rap that was unfairly foisted upon Paul Menard; he has a ride because of his dad’s name and money. That isn’t to say that Wallace isn’t a talented driver who has shown flashes of brilliance during the course of his brief Nationwide Series career. In only his second career start at Bristol, a track that father Rusty ran roughshod over during his storied career, Steven started third, and by lap three had taken the lead – with a flat tire. He would eventually end up wadding it up three laps later, but he showed speed early, and like Junior Johnson used to say, it’s easier to slow a driver down than have to spur him along.

Steven Wallace is in his fifth full Nationwide Series season but isn’t showing the results that justify his continued presence in the field.

Unfortunately, five years after that inspiring start, the results have left a little to be desired. 0 wins, five top 5s, and a number of solid runs that have met with disaster late in the going. Wallace has had to overcome some challenges along the way; driving for a smaller team with little solid Cup affiliation, team cars that have not performed much better than his own (including when driven by former Truck Series champion Brendan Gaughn).

Not to completely throw Steven Wallace under the bus, he is having a decent year in 2011 from the outside looking in. He currently sits eighth in the Nationwide Points, 103 points behind Rickey Stenhouse, Jr. – a driver who had to overcome a case of the wreckers himself last season.

That is however 103 points under the new points system, which would probably equate to about 450 points under the traditional system. He’s led all of six laps this year, with three top-10 finishes, and an ugly accident that at Lucas Oil…O’Reillys…Indianapolis Racetrack Motordome (whatever they’re going to call it now) that happened about a half a lap in front of him, as well as another questionable incident at Loudon, NH a few weeks prior, both reminiscent of an ARCA accident at Daytona. He has yet to win a race in seven years and 158 starts of competition, and the promise that was shown in ARCA in 2005 and 2006 (four wins in 12 starts) has yet to translate into NASCAR success.

Casey Mears

While Paul Menard gets garbage for being the son of a father who made his billions selling home improvement supplies, Casey Mears has done a fair job of parlaying his uncles Brickyard heroics and father’s off-road laurels into a semi-successful Cup career. After nine years of competing at the highest level of motorsports in North America, Mears has made 292 starts, with one win, 11 more top 5’s, and three poles. He’s finished as high as 14th in points in 2006, and even nudged Clint Bowyer out of his own car in 2009. His win in 2007 was the result of a fuel mileage gamble, and a year after he vacated the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after a 20th-place points performance, Mark Martin won five races with the same crew and nearly won the Championship. Last year while subbing for the recovering Brian Vickers driving for Team Red Bull, Mears took out teammate Scott Speed at Michigan International Speedway leaving Speed to say, “Whenever you’re at Hendrick [Motorsports] and Richard Childress Racing and then you still don’t have a ride and haven’t done anything, there’s no real excuses after that.”

Ouch, quit it.

Mears’ performance in Nationwide has produced similar results. Nine years of racing, 93 starts, and one win at Chicagoland in 2006. For 2011, Mears is driving the No. 13 GEICO Toyota for Germain Racing. He has qualified for all but one race this season (the Daytona 500 – kind of important), and currently sits 32nd in points behind Dave Blaney (20 starts) and road racing ace Andy Lally (17 starts). The No. 13 car isn’t exactly a game changer, but it has kept him relevant in the sport, and he has helped elevate the performance of the small independent Toyota team.

Credit to Mears for hanging in there and enduring the whispers and questions as to why he has not produced like his uncle or father in their respective series. Like former Notre Dame and University of South Carolina coach Lou Holtz says, “90% of life is just showing up”, and doing so has helped Mears amass nearly $36 million in career winnings. That’s about $36 million more than I have made. I have the tax returns to prove it.

Robby Gordon

When the going gets tough, quit. While Robby Gordon has done an admirable job of keeping his head up and making an effort to get his team to the races, one would not fault him if he just s-canned everything, pulled up the railroad ties, and scuttled the entire NASCAR operation for Robby Gordon Motorsports. I’ve often written how his decline and fall from grace in NASCAR is one of the most unfortunate that I can remember, simply due to the amount of talent and effort that Gordon has expended in recent years.

After winning three races in the No. 31 RCR Chevrolets – something that had not been done in a points-paying race since the counterpart to the flagship No. 3 debuted full-time in 1997, Gordon decided to go his own way, moving his Busch Grand National team up to Cup. The effort was strong, but the engines were week, and Gordon floundered. Performance picked up in 2006 with a switch to DEI powerplants, however then Gordon began playing manufacturer roulette, moving to Ford for 2007, Dodge to 2009, and Toyota in 2009. Gordon is running Dodges again, one of three in the series along with the Penske duo of Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

With sponsorship a constant struggle, Gordon has had to fill out the season with a number of backers from Jim Beam, Harrah’s, Menard’s, and Monster to name a few, as well as forming his own company – Speed Energy Drink – to help fund his racing efforts. Ever the entrepreneur, Gordon is soldiering on in the spirit of drivers such as Dave Marcis and the late J.D. McDuffie. He’s started 15 races this season, and has resisted the temptation to become a start-and-parker, but has failed to finish a third of them. His best run was a 16th in the Daytona 500, and the road course race at Infineon – one he normally is in contention to win no matter how bad things are going – was an 18th place run, never a factor in the race or during qualifying.

For a driver of Gordon’s pedigree – wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, Baja 1000, seven SCORE Off-Road championships, a pair of wins in Indy Car, three Cup wins, and coming within a lap and about a half gallon of fuel of winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1999 – it is a bit depressing to see him struggle and not be able to compete at the level he once did in NASCAR. Ryan Newman may have once deemed him Reckless Robby, but you’d be hard pressed to find another driver with the will, determination, and pure driving ability of Robby Gordon.

Which makes his continued floundering and folly in Sprint Cup that much harder to witness – and understand.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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08/03/2011 09:02 AM

Gaughan isn’t a Truck Series champion.

Valid point though.

08/03/2011 09:51 AM

Pretty safe choices there, Vito. Why not stir things up a bit on a quiet Wednesday?

Mark Martin.
He’s had a distinguished and dignified career that should end before any of that changes. It would be a shame to see him riding around at the end of his racing career like so many who chase one last good season or one last win… Basically demoted to the #4 car at Hendrick, he’s managed to run into Harvick early this season, his own teammate more recently, and cause a giant wreck at Daytona (that the press hung on Logano). This wouldn’t be so big a deal if he weren’t known as one of the cleanest drivers in the garage, the one who would gladly move over for you if your car was faster with the expectation that later in the race, he’d have the car to beat and would be coming back up through the field. He’d make a great driving coach for a team of young drivers… it’s just that there aren’t very many of those these days.

08/03/2011 01:32 PM

RamblinWreck—Right on the money about MM.

Carl D.
08/03/2011 04:14 PM

Because I’ve been such a huge Bobby Labonte fan, it’s painful to watch the former champ run at the back of the pack for the last few years… never a threat, never a serious contender. Like his brother, he’s just collecting paychecks.

sylvia richardson
08/03/2011 07:32 PM

R WRECK great name. But your post about my one and only does not sat well with me or Marks great fans. 25 yrs for me. I just want Mark to do what he wants. Mark knows what hes doing. And kevin to me is just one [jurk] i would run over him if i was in nascar.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
08/03/2011 07:58 PM

Gaughn….Champion, Winner….potato/potatoe…

As far as Mark Martin, unacceptable. He has been involved in more incidents that normal this year, but I believe it has more to do with what he is driving rather than how. There’s a reason why Dale Earnhardt, Jr. looked like he wanted to hang himself the last two years. The No. 5 was back up to speed by the end of 2010 before the team swap at HMS.

Daytona, Logano could have gave him a few inches, let him in line, and have somebody to draft with – he chose not to, and likely won’t be driving the big orange car next season.

I think a lot of times guys think Mark’s just going to let them go because he doesn’t push the issue constantly.

As far as Harvick is concerned, he should be mad at Kasey Kahne, not Martin for the bump at Bristol.

08/03/2011 11:28 PM

Finally someone recognizes the talents of Robby Gordon. Yes he’s had trouble finding sponsorship. Then a few years back he grabs a big one, Motorola, only to have NASCAR say no. One has to wonder how his fortunes might have changed had they not put the kibash on that. Plus he’s the type of owner/driver that NASCAR needs. Instead they fight him every chance they get. Too bad as he’s probably one of the most talented drivers in the world.

Andy D
08/04/2011 01:07 AM

In defense of the Labontes, as champions they provide more information to a struggling team than they’ll get with rookie or a veteran who hasn’t made good in ten years of trying.

if Terry & Bobby want to run, and aren’t causing traffic jams, then let ‘em go.

Agreed that Mark should get out of the car. Unless he ends up at Roush for one year he’ll never have a championship-capable car again. He’s got the wins, the only reason to stick around is for a championship.

One more who should bail. Junior. Nice try, thanks for playing the game.

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