Did You Notice? In a story I first broke last April to many doubters, ESPN.com confirmed Tuesday night Tony Stewart will indeed leave Joe Gibbs Racing after a decade and jump ship to Haas CNC. Things remained on track almost exactly as I reported — Stewart will own a 50% share in the organization, with the driver of the second car almost universally expected to be Ryan Newman.
While the move at this point isn’t a surprise, it’s clearly a sad day for JGR, who — even with young talents Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — is losing what’s been the lifeblood of their organization for the better part of a decade. Yes, Logano will rip things up on the circuit whenever he moves to Cup, and Busch is in contention for his first career title; but no one can replace the uniqueness, the toughness, and the quality performances Stewart provided to this team since 1999. In the past decade, Stewart has never finished lower than 11th in points; that type of underappreciated consistency is what’s going to be missed for a program that’s now going to have to coddle three young talents and bring them along at exactly the right pace.
Did You Notice? The scowl on Martin Truex Jr.’s face throughout the Sprint Cup weekend at Daytona? Certainly, he has reason to be upset, as a 150-point penalty for a violation of the Car of Tomorrow template will almost certainly cost him a second straight Chase for the Championship bid. The way I see it, if this were an organization you’re planning to have a long-term future with, wouldn’t you be just a tad more supportive of your team instead of throwing them under the bus?
But that’s because it seems there may not be a long-term future for Truex with the No. 1. The young man’s reaction reminded me of the way Newman addressed the media just a few short weeks ago. Back then, Newman told SI.com colleague Brent James his team needed to pick up the pace for him to remain a part of Penske Racing (whether Newman should be saying such a thing is a whole other story – there is no “I” in “team,” but I digress). Instead, the truth increasingly appears to be that Newman had been busy aligning himself with another opportunity – i.e., Stewart’s new two-car organization — and by going public with his “criticisms” of Penske, Newman gave himself an opportunity to look sympathetic, not traitorous, by coming up with this storyline that the team just wasn’t performing to the standards needed for a viable contract extension.
Returning to the present day, despite all the talk about Truex being “close” on a deal with DEI, it seems that the 28-year-old free agent to be is on the verge of doing the same thing. Yes, mistakes shouldn’t be made, but this is not the first team to come to the track with a CoT rules violation. And for all his talk about doing right by the rules, you wonder if a guy that’s won a total of one Sprint Cup race in his career has the right to talk tough like that. Here’s the irony of the whole situation, though; with the breaking news that Stewart is leaving JGR — and Logano expected to replace him — the open rides are few and far between for Truex to choose from. Where is he going to go — Penske Racing? There’s not a whole lot of grass that’s greener on the other side…
Did You Notice? That during this week’s rumors DEI is for sale, Teresa Earnhardt never came out and publicly denied them? Sure, you can speak for Max Siegel all you want, but if I’m the owner of a race team and I’m implicated in a sale I’m not involved in, I’d sure come out with guns a-blazing trying to find the reporter who broke the story. The fact that she didn’t seems a little suspicious to me… even though she’s never been one to speak through the press.
Did You Notice? That halfway through the season, Carl Edwards has finished second in a Sprint Cup race three times – and all three of them have been to Kyle Busch. Edwards likes to play this up as a rivalry, but right now, Busch is putting on a good ol’ fashioned butt whooping — whether you want to admit it or not. Right now, Edwards trails Busch in wins (six to three), points (149), top fives (11 to seven), and laps led (900 to 396). Only in top 10s does Edwards have a razor-thin edge – 13 to 12 – but that’s not going to be enough if he wants to overtake the No. 18 when it really counts in November.
Still, for those who despise Busch’s dominance during the first half of the Cup circuit, there’s hope Edwards can bounce back. So far this season, he’s won twice on tracks 1.5 miles in length – that’s one more than Busch, who paced the field at Atlanta but finished well behind the No. 99 at both Texas and Las Vegas. Since five 1.5-mile racetracks make up the 10-race Chase, that should give Edwards a bit of a leg up on his closest competition.
But with that said, the Roush Fenway Racing driver does gives away a large portion of that edge when you look at the some of the other tracks we’ll visit from September through November. Take Dover, for example. Edwards led 64 laps and finished second… to Kyle Busch. How about Talladega? Edwards failed to lead a lap and finished 40th… while Busch celebrated in Victory Lane. You get the picture; it looks like if the No. 99 is going to be a formidable threat come playoff time, they’re going to have to show they can beat their biggest rival mano e mano during a race in the regular season. With a Chase bid all but firmly secured, there’s no question that should be their focus over the next eight weeks.
Did You Notice? That behind Busch and Edwards, just one other driver has won more than one race so far this season – the No. 9 car of Kasey Kahne, who cashed in on races in Charlotte and Pocono in a three-week span. But with Kahne too inconsistent to be considered a legitimate title contender, it puts in perspective just how much Edwards and Busch have been head and shoulders above the rest of the field so far in 2008.
Did You Notice? That for all of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s restrictor-plate prowess, he hasn’t won a points-paying race at either Daytona or Talladega since the fall of 2004? The No. 88 car was the class of the field at times Saturday night, leading 51 of the first 132 laps before being freight trained on a crucial late-race restart. You can’t say you were surprised by all that, though; for when it comes to crunch time, it just seems that Junior never finds the dancing partner he needs anymore. Teamed with an organization in Hendrick Motorsports that won two of the last four Daytona 500s, you certainly expected more from Junior than just an eighth- and a ninth-place finish at both races there this season. He’s got one more restrictor-plate chance left to cash in – at Talladega this October – but if he doesn’t, it would be hard not to rate Junior’s plate performance with Hendrick slightly disappointing.
Did You Notice? In just five races driving the No. 45 Dodge, Terry Labonte has brought the car home with two top-20 finishes, including a surprising 17th at Daytona. When you consider the fact that’s two more than previous driver Kyle Petty had all season before Labonte stepped behind the wheel, you’ve got to give the two-time Cup Series champ a lot of credit – especially since he’d had all but a whopping two races worth of experience with the Car of Tomorrow heading into his six-race stint driving the No. 45.
Now, the question will be whether the newly reenergized team will continue to perform once Petty returns at Indianapolis, or if Labonte’s stint behind the wheel was the only short-term resurgence they’ll receive the rest of the season.
Did You Notice? Halfway through the year, there are a whopping zero drivers from single car teams within the top 25 in the championship standings. The highest of those is Robby Gordon in 30th, one of just two programs (Dave Blaney and Bill Davis Racing is the other) to own a spot in the coveted Top 35 in owner points.
But wait… there’s more. The best performance by any driver from a two-car team is Brian Vickers in 15th for Team Red Bull. With that in mind, there’s a realistic chance every car that makes the Chase this season will come from at least a three-car operation – the first time in the five-year history of the playoffs that’s happened.
So much for keeping things on a level playing field…