As the Sprint Cup Series tackled the Infineon Raceway last weekend, four full-time teams pulled their regular drivers, installing substitutes that they felt would post a better result and score valuable points in the race to stay in the Top 35. DEI pulled Regan Smith for Ron Fellows, Chip Ganassi Racing pulled Reed Sorenson for Scott Pruett and Haas CNC Racing moved Scott Riggs into the No. 70 while putting Max Papis in the No. 66. As the race started, the No. 66 and the No. 70 found themselves outside the Top 35, while the No. 01 was 30th in owner points and the No. 41 was 32nd. And, despite the efforts of these road ringers, the No. 66 and No. 70 left Sonoma outside the Top 35 while the No. 01 fell to 31st and the No. 41 to a precarious 35th.
While the struggles of these four teams speak volumes as to how antiquated the practice of entering road-course specialists in Cup races has become, it speaks to a larger issue, and that is the need of Sprint Cup teams to be consistent with the drivers they put behind the wheel. There are numerous Cup teams this season that have attempted to improve their performance with substitute drivers and driver by committee, yet none of them have managed to find improved performance as a result.
Take a look, for example, at the No. 40 car at CGR. Now, granted, CGR had no choice but to find fill-ins for Dario Franchitti, who was injured while racing at Talladega, but after a five-race span which saw Sterling Marlin, Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader and David Stremme take turns behind the wheel, the No. 40 team had only one top 25 and a DNQ to show. Ironically, prior to his injury, Franchitti had posted one top 25 and one DNQ in his tenure in the No. 40. Now, since Franchitti has returned, his season has gone completely off the track, failing to qualify at Sonoma while posting an average finish of 42nd in his last two Cup races. Franchitti’s injury, and the driver by committee approach that resulted, set the already beleaguered No. 40 back further.
Franchitti’s team is not the only one who has struggled by using multiple drivers. Last year Kyle Petty elected to step out of his car for a stretch of summer races, handing the No. 45 over to John Andretti and Chad McCumbee. Neither driver did anything of note in the car, and once Petty returned his already struggling performance sagged further; it took him four races in the car before he even cracked the top 30.
Yet, for some odd reason, there are several Cup teams out there that have chosen to go this route, and none of them are the better for it. Petty’s No. 45 team, again using McCumbee as well as Terry Labonte, DNQ’d at Dover and has cracked the top 30 only once. Haas CNC Racing’s No. 70 team, after giving Mayfield the boot early in the season, looked to have fixed their driver situation when they put Johnny Sauter – the driver they fired after last season and who got the No. 70 into the Top 35 – back in the car. But, instead of keeping Sauter in the ride, Haas CNC has shot themselves in the foot, filling the seat as well with a displaced Riggs, Schrader and even perpetual Cup washout Jason Leffler. Mayfield’s subpar performance hasn’t been topped by any of the drivers who have since filled his seat.
Perhaps the most vivid example of this is the Wood Brothers Racing team. Because of their reluctance to commit to a driver, Bill Elliott has gone from a 2007 band-aid to a fixture in their driver lineup, Jon Wood has shown no improvement as a developing driver, and the team has been reduced to throwing race results out the window to ensure qualifying (see Talladega). Though Marcos Ambrose nearly stole a good finish for the No. 21 this past weekend at Sonoma, the still-developing Nationwide Series regular will be lucky to qualify this weekend at Loudon.
The only thing consistent about teams using substitute drivers is that their struggles continue rather than dissipate. The inability of team’s like the No. 21, No. 45 and No. 70 to improve as the season has progressed has all but proven the case that a team needs to stick with one driver and one crew chief to improve performance.
Not so fast, some will say. Look at what AJ Allmendinger has done in the No. 84 since Mike Skinner filled in for him for five races early in the 2008 season. It’s true, since Skinner pulled relief duty for the No. 84 team, Allmendinger has qualified for every Cup race he’s attempted and has scored three top-20 finishes. But can Allmendinger’s improvement be attributed to Skinner improving the No. 84?
Skinner’s input to the No. 84 team did not contribute new setups or findings, it merely confirmed to the crew that the more inexperienced Allmendinger was feeling the right things in his racecars. Further, Allmendinger, in the time he was sidelined, got more motivation not from losing his ride to Skinner, but from the prospects of losing his ride to Scott Speed. While Allmendinger was stuck on top of the pit box, Speed was running up front in both ARCA Re/Max and Truck Series competition. Speed’s ties to Red Bull run deeper than Allmendinger’s (he won the Red Bull Racing Challenge), and with Red Bull having stated since the time of their inception that any third car they field will require a sponsor other than Red Bull, there is no doubt that Allmendinger found himself feeling pressure. He has to drive for his job week in and week out. It is this that has improved the No. 84, not Skinner’s 31.0 average finish in his five races with the team.
While teams like the No. 20 of Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series and the No. 46 of Morgan Dollar Motorsports in the Truck Series are making the driver by committee thing work, the Sprint Cup Series is a far different animal. The cars are more difficult, the races longer and more handling dependent, the competition much fiercer. It’s the most competitive division in all of motorsports, and as such, the drivers have to be held to the highest standard. But, just as drivers need to demonstrate consistency to keep their rides, owners need to show some consistency in who they put behind the wheel. Sonoma was just the latest illustration of how driver by committee is not meant for the Sprint Cup Series.