Earlier this week in the Frontstretch newsletter, I wrote a brief commentary asking readers to understand the harsh reality of Bobby Ginn’s decision to cut loose the popular veterans Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek into the world of NASCAR free agency. While everyone has their varying opinions about what’s gone down in the last week or so, I felt it was necessary for fans to take a step back and consider the difficult position the rookie car owner was placed in. In essence, I made a move to protect Bobby Ginn, protect a man who I felt was painted into a corner and forced to make some difficult decisions. But 24 hours after my plea to the NASCAR community, everything that most people, including myself, thought was true about Ginn’s “restructuring plan” was proved false… with even members of the team itself still digesting a thought process proven to be nothing more than a bad sequence of broken promises.
The news of the merger between DEI and Ginn Racing is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and only the bare minimum of details has been released. In NASCAR-speak, that’s plain English for “let the speculation begin!” Don’t mind if I do. I haven’t the slightest idea of how strapped Mr. Ginn is for cash, nor do I claim to have insight on whether this merger was this race team’s only chance to avoid shutting its doors for the second time in a year; there’s already plenty of other speculation out there which address those issues, including some fine columns written by my colleagues Vito Pugliese and Tommy Thompson. What is evident instead, however, is that several former Ginn Racing employees, beyond the obvious victims of Marlin and Nemechek, face being left by the wayside due to the past week’s activities, a surprising change of course that’s neither fair nor easy to swallow.
Last October, Mark Martin was pondering post-retirement life, second guessing his decision to step completely away from the Nextel Cup series that he had devoted so much of his life to. Racing 200 mph or not, doing the same thing week in and week out for the same employer for 20 years can become rather tedious. Martin needed a change of pace, and it just so happened that such an opportunity fell into the Arkansas native’s lap in the form of an offer to drive for MB2 Motorsports and new owner Bobby Ginn. Martin negotiated with his future boss, eventually settling on a deal that would allow him to run a part-time, flexible schedule for an enthusiastic new owner and serve as a mentor to a crop of young talent.
The team soon changed its name to Ginn Racing, and Martin was very much an integral part of its new identity and Bobby Ginn’s five-year plan. The situation was perfect, and it showed in Martin’s unusually positive disposition during the first half of 2007. He was able to run when he wanted, drive competitive racecars and spend time with his family, all while teaching new drivers the ropes of NASCAR, something the veteran always enjoyed doing. This dream, however, is now in jeopardy. DEI now has four solid race teams heading into 2008. and one needs to question whether or not Teresa Earnhardt, Max Siegel and company will want to sacrifice one of those rides as a part-time development car, especially if they get the chance to sign two top veterans (the second being for the No. 8 machine). The initial press release had Martin earmarked for “at least” 22 races in 2008, but that’s what the team says now; a lot can change between now and February. Remember, this organization is capped at four teams and now has their future solidly wrapped up in Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard. Furthermore, the team founded by the late Dale Earnhardt has a wealth of talent and resources, meaning that even if Martin’s services are retained, he will be one expert voice among many; not one of the prime team architects, a role he relished during his short but productive time at Ginn. The perfect situation that Martin earned through two decades of racing may turn out to be only an illusion after six short months.
There are many moving parts involved with signing one of the sport’s premier talents, and Regan Smith was an integral piece of Martin’s new gig at Ginn. As the 2006 season came to a close, Smith’s Busch Series career appeared to be in neutral, only scoring one top 10 throughout five years of mostly sporadic starts. Despite these less than flattering statistics, however, many felt that the New York native possessed the talent to succeed given the right situation, including Bobby Ginn and team CEO Jay Frye. The mild-mannered kid was quickly picked up and assigned the task of running a full-time Busch schedule while sharing the flagship No. 01 Nextel Cup entry with 35-time Cup winner Martin for 2007.
Once again, Ginn Racing provided another driver with a situation that could not have been scripted any better. Smith would be the envy of many in the garage area, as he was mentored by one of the best in the business while gaining valuable seat time in preparation for 2008. In fact, when the company’s financial problems became evident, it was Smith who stood to benefit the most. He was tapped to become the full-time driver of the No. 14 car, becoming the face of the organization that was expected to attract sponsors that the team so desperately needed. It was a flattering position… one that Smith enjoyed for all of eight days. Now, the rookie wins the award of Odd Man Out in the Ginn/DEI merger, as his team’s points went to Menard’s No. 15 entry while his car, well, disappeared. Cast aside to run a Truck Series race this Friday night, Smith now can only watch helplessly on the sidelines, as both his Busch and Cup rides have vanished in the matter of a month.
There appears to be only one scenario where Smith could go from the biggest loser to the chief benefactor of this most recent transaction, and that is if he is chosen to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his new employer next season. However, with Kyle Busch leading the list of sought after free agents and other more experienced drivers bound to land on that list as the Silly Season continues, this is probably an unlikely outcome for Smith. Over the course of the past six months, Smith ran competitively in the Busch Series, bringing home three top fives and five top 10s, graciously giving up Cup races when Martin requested additions to his schedule, and bringing home the car in one piece during the events he did run in the U.S. Army Chevy. For a guy who appears to have done everything right, the treatment he has received could not have been more wrong.
The final piece to this puzzle, involving Aric Almirola, is perhaps the most perplexing. At the same time Smith was taking over for Marlin, Almirola decided to join Ginn as its next brightest star to work with Martin, co-driving the No. 01 machine. Frustrated with his situation at Joe Gibbs Racing, the 23-year-old saw Ginn Racing as his best opportunity to run competitively and earn a full-time Nextel Cup ride over time. Well, let’s hope that Almirola’s new boss explained the uncertainty of the team’s future before he signed, or else he may have just fallen victim to one of the biggest NASCAR scams in recent years. On paper, the plan to run part-time with Martin for a year and a half, leading up to a full-time ride in 2009, seems like a sound one. But this was Ginn’s plan, not Teresa Earnhardt’s; with the merger acquisition, Almirola now becomes just a cog in the DEI wheel. Should Teresa and Mr. Siegel decide that Almirola does not fit into their future plans, he will once again be posting in NASCAR’s “Help Wanted” ads sooner rather than later.
Let’s hope that Mr. Ginn thought through every outcome of scrapping his so called five-year plan before making the decision to change courses. The impact of Wednesday’s announcement will be felt by drivers and team members who put their faith, dreams, and in some cases, careers in the hands of Bobby Ginn. After a mere 12 months of trying, the real-estate guru has handed over those aspirations to another source, and the worst part of it was that he strung those who were counting on him along to the very last day before jumping ship. Ginn’s resistance to come clean with his plans led to my flawed reasoning earlier this week when I evaluated the driver reshuffling at Ginn Racing. I only hope that I’m just as far off with my post-merger predictions for the sake of those aforementioned drivers… they deserve better.
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