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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Kevin Harvick’s Drought, Dario Franchitti on the Outs & DEI Losing Its Clout?

Did You Notice? That in expanding my short and sweet column from Monday, Kevin Harvick’s winless streak in Cup racing – as Danny Peters so dutifully pointed out is up to 51 races, with his last points-paying win occurring at the 2007 Daytona 500?

Wait a minute… isn’t that the disputed Daytona 500 for the ages, in which Harvick’s opportunity at the win came when NASCAR chose not to throw a caution once cars wrecked off turn 4 in the final lap of the race? Just think of where this man’s career would be right now if he didn’t have that victory in hand; or, if Mark Martin had just enough to hold off his last-lap charge. Last season, the No. 29 barely made the Chase despite that win, and struggled to a 10th-place finish in the final standings. But there’s more: in Harvick’s last 52 starts, he has just six top-five finishes. Among the drivers who have as many – or more – during that span are outgoing Hendrick Motorsports driver Casey Mears, part-timer Martin, and 2008 Daytona 500 winner-turned mediocre performer Ryan Newman.

The problem I have with Harvick in the Cup Series right now is I still look at the No. 29 car as the premier ride within the Richard Childress Racing stable. Yes, it’s been seven years, but technically that’s the same car the Intimidator drove – to six Cup championships and over 65 victories under the RCR label. When you know what success that car has had and you see Harvick drop to number three on the totem pole, it just makes you shake your head and remember the days from 2001, when Harvick was hailed as the next great successor to Dale Earnhardt. Now, it’s Burton who’s the best chance for an RCR title, while Harvick is busy winning championships with teams he owns in the Truck Series and building up his fleet of Nationwide Series cars. That’s not unlike what Earnhardt did towards the end of his career… but at least he nearly won an eighth title while doing it (finishing runner-up in 2000).

I just think if we’re busy in the media criticizing Kyle Busch for attempting the title chase in all three series, why aren’t we busy chastising Harvick for his side projects while he struggles in Sprint Cup? Unlike Busch, he’s not posting results in the ride he’s supposed to concentrate on; and after falling to 13th in points, he’s in a terrible position when it comes to making the playoffs.

We talk a great deal about this in Mirror Driving today, and Amy Henderson makes a good point that communication between Harvick and Todd Berrier seems to be at an impasse. I’ve advocated since February (except for a brief period in March) that the Harvick-Berrier duo has run its course, and you wonder how much more slumping Childress will take before pulling the trigger.

Did You Notice? One whole thing about the Tony Stewart post-race interview in which he refused to be baited into blaming Harvick for their three-car wreck? When you’re on Stewart’s bad side, he has no problem calling you out; but when you’re on his good side, he appears to protect you like a long lost son. That’s not unlike real life; but at the same time, you’ve got to wonder if that’s really fair to all the others he’s thrown under the bus through the years.

Did You Notice? The underreported story in this whole Martin to Hendrick saga is the burgeoning crisis over at DEI. With Martin leaving and no sponsorship for rookie Regan Smith, Vice President John Story said over the weekend it was a realistic possibility the company will cut back to three teams in 2009.

If that happens, the cuts will come at a time when the four-car operation looks to be a necessity, not a luxury. And that’s all before we’ve figured out what Martin Truex Jr. is going to do with his option to stay in the No. 1 car. You can’t imagine Truex is happy to lose veteran Martin to other teams, and to cut down to three cars with only sophomore Paul Menard and unproven Aric Almirola left in the stable is something he’s probably not too thrilled with. And if the driver of the No. 1 bolts, this entire operation is suddenly without a No. 1 talent, and without the resources or the wherewithal to hire a top-name driver to swoop in as Truex’s replacement. They’d basically be down to crossing their fingers and hoping Almirola’s a boon… not a bust.

Man, how quickly things can change in this sport. Remember at Phoenix, when Martin was one fuel-mileage gamble away from throwing the first punch in the post-Dale Jr./DEI relationship? Now, Junior’s win at Michigan has vindicated his move, and DEI is one critical misstep away from being dealt a knockout-type blow. They need to re-sign Truex… and they need to do it now.

Did You Notice? That heading into Infineon, we were watching with mouth-watering anticipation to see if this was the weekend the open-wheel rookies finally broke through with solid finishes. After all, this was a road course, and our open-wheel converts got brought up on these types of tracks. A Juan Pablo Montoya-like upset might have been a bit much for this crowd, but a top-10 finish was certainly not out of the question…

Right?

Well, it turns out our expectations were a little bit overinflated. No open-wheeler qualified in the top 15, and the best finish anyone could muster was Patrick Carpentier in… 23rd? Things were so bad that 2007 Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti failed to qualify, a shocker that sent rumors flying through the garage on Saturday the Scotsman was about to be fired. Turns out that didn’t happen, but you’ve got to believe the guy is on thin ice after his teammate, Montoya, came home sixth with a similar type of open-wheel background.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty. After all, Franchitti doesn’t have a road-course win on his resume from IRL – and keep in mind that he’s run just a handful of road courses the last four years with a series that concentrates on oval tracks. Ditto for Sam Hornish Jr., who went winless with two top-five finishes in that series at places like St. Petersburg, Infineon, Watkins Glen, Belle Isle and Mid-Ohio.

“Where were the road-course guys? I didn’t see one of them up front, I’ll tell you that,” laughed Carpentier when asked about this after the race. “[The myths of road racers dominating] is not true anymore. It’s something that used to be true 10-15 years ago, but it’s not like it used to be. They’re all racers and they can drive anything, basically. They can drive road course, ovals, whatever it is. Take Kyle Busch and put him in a good Formula 1 car and he’s going to up at the front, I’ll tell you that. A good racer is a good racer and you’ve got to have a good car; and, you’ve got to have good equipment to do it.”

It appears Carpentier’s statements ring true, so here’s my next question: if the open-wheel converts can’t succeed on a road course, just where, in fact, are they going to succeed at all this year? This has all the signs of an experiment gone awry.

Did You Notice? That the race at New Hampshire this weekend is lengthened to 301 laps instead of 300? The track is billing this as going “the extra mile,” the first time a race has been scheduled to run 301 laps in NASCAR history.

On the last point, the track is spot on; but you know the race isn’t 301 miles, right? The track is actually 1.058 miles in length, not 1.000; so, if you want to get technical about it, the track is simply lengthening the distance from 317.4 to 318.5. That’s kind of random and misleading, don’t you think? I get the gimmick, but I hope the track understands that extra lap won’t change the perception from many fans that their events produce the most boring racing on the circuit. I can see you readers now… thousands of fans smacking their forehead and going, “You mean we have to see them race another mile?”

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