Last week, the circle-track world was up in arms about the goings-on at Ginn Racing. The former MB2 Motorsports team that shocked the world and showed so much promise by nearly winning the Daytona 500 in February, then going on to lead the points earlier in the year, was suddenly in dire straits.
After dismissing longtime veterans and fan-friendly drivers Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek due to lack of sponsorship dollars, Ginn found himself having to go on Sirius NASCAR Radio to explain himself. It was a bit of damage control, with Ginn not wanting to appear to be this era’s JD Stacy (unscrupulous early 1980s car owner), after being touted as potentially the next Rick Hendrick of the sport.
Word has it that the DEI/Ginn Racing Merger is well underway, and may be announced as early as today. It is rumored that Mark Martin will drive this weekend under the DEI banner; an irony of sorts, as Earnhardt and Martin staged some epic battles during the late 1980s through the 1990s. The No. 13 owner points look to be transferred to the No. 15 of DEI rookie Paul Menard, who has shown flashes of brilliance in his short Cup career.
While many were ready to light a candle for the Ginn Racing operation a couple of weeks ago, this should turn out to be a move that benefits nearly everyone involved.
Regan Smith had been quite a surprise this year in NASCAR. Not so much in the Cup Series (bringing the car home in one piece at his first two starts at Bristol and Martinsville in April went largely unnoticed), but for his performance in the Busch Series. Being one of the few true Busch Grand National teams on the circuit rather than a Nextel Cup extended-Happy Hour team, Smith had moved to as high as fifth in the points.
But his Busch team suspended operations two weeks ago, leaving him without a ride on that series. Not to worry; with Marlin’s departure, Smith now suddenly had his very own Cup car, an early present that he wasn’t supposed to receive until 2008. Although it is unclear as to what his status is at this time, earlier reports have him in the No. 14 for the remainder of year.
At the AT&T 250 Busch race at Milwaukee this past June, Aric Almirola was pulled from the car he was driving for Denny Hamlin, who showed up late to the party. Even though he had put the car on the pole and was running solidly in the top three, the sponsor made the call to yank Almirola and replace him with Hamlin. Although Hamlin went on to win the race (with Almirola being credited with first), Almirola was visibly upset. He said nothing to the media upon his exit, but by doing so said everything he needed to.
Two weeks later, it would be announced that he was to team with Martin, splitting time to run the remainder of Martin’s part-time schedule for 2007 and 2008.
JD Gibbs has since said of his release that they didn’t see any room for Almirola at JGR. With Almirola finding himself on the short end of the Gibbs-stick yet again, he’s suddenly been thrust to the pinnacle of motorsports, getting his Cup start driving the car that led the points during the first third of the season, a legitimate top-10 threat each week it takes to the track. Should Kyle Busch take over the reins of the No. 8, he, too, will be teamed with the one driver who he seems to listen to, respect, and learn from in Martin.
Meanwhile, Marlin had made it clear that he wanted no part of a full-time schedule next year. While Marlin did offer that the “classy” thing to do would be to let him finish the year out at Ginn as his contract stated, he doesn’t have an issue with moving to another team in a few months.
Let’s be honest. Sterling and the No. 14 car haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire, and he hasn’t been a contender to win since Jimmy Spencer used Kurt Busch‘s face as a speed bag. The potential arrangement for 2008 has he and his No. 14 owner points going to Furniture Row Racing, so he can run a part-time gig and still attend Mule Day next year. It’s win-win.
Part of making your company attractive as a merger involves cutting out the fat, and with the No. 13 and No. 14 teams running consistently in the back, and for the most part, out of Bobby Ginn’s back pocket, he had little option but to deal away his drivers, close up the Busch Series shop and lay off over 30 employees. While it is unfortunate, it is part of the business. The only other option would be for him to continue to fund EVERYTHING himself, while the entire operation would eventually fold up and even more people would be out of a job.
It was a lesser-of-two evils proposition that by most accounts will benefit everyone, with the exception of the team members that were laid off. Then again, this is Mooresville, not Detroit. When you get laid off here, it’s not going to take long to find another job going around in a circle. In North Carolina, hope springs eternal. In Michigan, hope goes to die.
And what of Ginn Racing’s flagship driver Martin? When Martin drove for Roush Racing, there was a Valvoline television commercial showing then crew chief Steve Hmiel stating, “I’m sure that in a previous life, Mark and I were twin brothers.” Reincarnation rears its head now, as Martin would be reunited with Hmiel in at least some capacity; Hmiel currently serves as Technical Director of DEI.
Unbeknownst to many fans today, Martin and Hmiel were the backbone of Roush Racing from its inception in late 1987 to Hmiel’s departure following the 1998 campaign. Hmiel originally left Roush Racing for Hendrick Motorsports following the 1993 season, but after two days, felt he made “the biggest mistake of my life,” and returned to Roush Racing with Martin. Together, the duo won 23 races and came agonizingly close to winning the Winston Cup in 1989, 1990 and 1997.
If there’s anyone who’s feeling left out in the cold, it’s probably Nemechek, and understandably so. Having been bounced from his ride in the No. 01 in favor of Martin, Nemechek accepted the challenge of starting a new team on short notice driving the No. 13 Chevrolet. While the car has looked decent at times, it still for the most part has been a backmarker, mirroring its 34th-place points position.
While I’m sure Joe would have preferred a different set of circumstances, he does find himself in the position of at least being able to try and find a ride for 2008, perhaps even yet this year. Last season it was mid-October when Nemechek learned that he would not be back in the Army car for his new owner. At least now he has a few months to make plans for 2008.
Nemechek has been philosophical about the situation; being a car owner himself in the Busch Series, he recognizes that this was purely a business decision. For some reason, sponsors want young guys with a mop haircut and no experience, as opposed to veterans with stable leadership, proven performance, and rapport with the fans.
And lest you shed a tear for Front Row Joe, take heart; he has earned over $1.6 million so far this year. It isn’t like the guy is living in a cardboard box under a highway overpass. A man with his talent, integrity and recognition will surely land on his feet, as with almost everyone involved in what looks to be an attractive merger. What at first looked like the tide capsizing an organization instead appears to be a rising sea that will float most boats.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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