NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Will the Real Gillett Evernham Motorsports Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up…

If you were starting a new three-car team in NASCAR next season – and let’s just set aside the financial burden and inevitable sponsorship woes that come with a startup outfit for a minute – you could do a lot worse than to assemble your own trio of wheelmen from the sort of stable of drivers you see at Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Just a quick glance at the roster shows you just how good you’ve already got it. You have the young-ish, successful hot shot and sponsor’s dream in Kasey Kahne; the affable, (mostly) talented, good ol’ boy veteran in Elliott Sadler; and the exotic (in NASCAR terms) open-wheeler looking to become a crossover star in Patrick Carpentier. OK, you’re almost certainly saying, “Well, I’d pick Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or NASCAR’s newest arch-villain himself, Kyle Busch…” but I’m sure you get the point: it’s not exactly a bad set of drivers to start with.

And yet, in the last season and a third, the results of the three GEM drivers quite simply have not lived up to expectations. Kahne went from winning six races, grabbing six poles and 19 top 10s en route to an eighth-place points finish in 2006 to running mid-to-late pack and a number of laps down just one year later. The Enumclaw, Wash. native finished last season 19th in points with just one top-five finish – a polar opposite of the success he enjoyed the previous year.

Sadler, much to his chagrin, didn’t run much better, managing only two top 10s with a season best sixth-place run in the Daytona 500. For the loquacious and affable No. 19 pilot it was his worst season, statistically speaking, in seven years. You have to go all the way back to 2000 to see a replicable effort – and that was only his second full year in Sprint Cup. To top it all off – with all due respect – the less we say about Scott Riggs’s one top 10 and 36th-place points finish in 2007, the better.

It isn’t just GEM that has been suffering, though. Based on results from the past season and a third, Dodge has slipped into the unwanted role of fourth-best manufacturer, a hole from which they have yet to fully recover. In 2007, Dodge won only three races; including the two they’ve got this year, they’re five for their last 50. Toyota may have finished a distant fourth in the standings last year, but the terrible trio at JGR is making the Japanese automaker a genuine championship threat in 2008… tire issues notwithstanding. Ford has had a solid start to the season with three wins, which matches Chevy’s total; but given that Chevy’s flag-bearer, Hendrick Motorsports, has but one of those, excitement is somewhat subdued – although far more than Dodge has been able to muster.

Poor performance has been reflected across all the Dodge teams to date. Other than the Daytona 500 1-2 finish, Penske Racing has been unremarkable at best. Ryan Newman has four additional top 10s, but Busch the Elder hasn’t finished in the top 10 since that February run.

And all is not well at Chip Ganassi Racing, either. Juan Pablo Montoya is on his third crew chief, plummeting fast from a high-water mark of second at Talladega. Dario Franchitti has been out of the No. 40 car due to injury, and will have to qualify on speed the rest of the season when he returns – while Reed Sorenson has not exactly set the world alight.

Bobby Labonte is soldiering on at Petty Enterprises, but what is clear is that the problems afflicting GEM – namely, a lack of overall performance – are common across the other teams serviced by Dodge.

It was in August of 2007 that the biggest transition for GEM occurred. After years of fighting an uphill battle against the ever-increasing costs of the game – not to mention the trouble snagging sponsors – Evernham decided to sell his majority stake in the company. “I sold 80% of the company, and I will continue to own 20% of the company until George and I decide we’re not going to be partners or whatever,” Evernham said. “But basically, I have 20% ownership, and I have a five-year work agreement to stay in my position. I sit on the board. I have a voice in running the company, and I have a job in the shop.”

So, is a return to a more hands-on role in his future? “Those days are gone,” Evernham remarks. “This sport grew, and I had a choice.” But regardless of what is said publicly, there has to be some effect internally when the guy whose name on the marquee essentially transitions into a part-time role. You can understand why it’s not something that GEM would broadcast; but unintended or not, Evernham’s stepping aside has to have created some kind of vacuum. When you go from the epicenter of a company to the outskirts, regardless of the talent you bring in, there has to be a knock on effect.

The evidence would suggest this to be the case, judging by the results through the first 11 races of the season. Until the All-Star Race, 2008 was beginning to look an awful lot like 2007 for GEM; that is, of course, until Kahne picked up the big All-Star check (despite being voted into the show by the fans) and followed that up with a win in the Coca-Cola 600 – thanks in no small part to Tony Stewart‘s tire failure. Sadler also managed his best finish since Daytona that weekend, bringing home an eighth-place run for just his second top 10 of the season overall.

Now, was this a sign of movement in the right direction, or just a temporary blip of good form? Dover – a completely different track and surface – was going to be a barometer, a key indicator of the overall health of GEM. Qualifying went well with Sadler timing in the top 10 (ninth) while Kahne clocked in 15th. Carpentier, who has qualified on time for every race since Martinsville – an impressive standalone effort – also survived the go-or-go-home battle again, starting 36th.

But all the uphill progress faded away on lap 19 at the Monster Mile when Sadler tangled with David Gilliland, triggering an 11-car wreck that collected a number of contenders. That list included Kahne, who looked to have made it through in one piece before the spinning car of Denny Hamlin intervened. By day’s end, Carpentier was the “best” GEM finisher, seven laps down in 29th. That was just two spots ahead of Kahne; Sadler finished 42nd. Talk about a momentum killer.

In the title to this piece, the musically astute would have noticed I paraphrased an Eminem line; and after these Monster Mile shenanigans, that title remains a valid question. Is GEM going to struggle like it did in 2007, or was the Coke 600 a sign that better times are around the corner? You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Kahne had scooted through the wreck and finished, say, 10th; he’d been well in the field of 12 for the Chase right now rather than right on the bubble halfway through the regular season. But as they say, that’s racin’, and right now Kahne’s the one holding on to that all-important final spot.

Whether he will be there at the end of the season, and whether GEM can scale the heights of 2006, remains to be seen. But following another disappointing weekend in Dover, the signs are not looking especially promising.

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