NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? A Sorenson of Discontent, Brickyard Blues & The Wood Brothers Crumbling?

Did You Notice? One of the differences between the Brickyard 400 now versus when it began in 1994 is the absence of open-wheel drivers and other various one-off teams trying to take a chance at making the race. With the advent of the Top-35 rule – combined with the rising costs of doing business – it just doesn’t make sense for part-time teams to take a stab at cracking the starting field at this legendary track. Heck, just look at the entry list this year, and you’ll see more than a few prominent part-time teams notably absent – the No. 09 Chevy of Phoenix Racing and driven by Sterling Marlin, as well as the No. 60 Ford run by road-racing veteran turned stock car hopeful Boris Said.

But what NASCAR’s missing for one of its biggest races runs deeper than that. Back in the mid-1990s, we had open-wheel crossovers like AJ Foyt and Danny Sullivan trying their hand at making the field, one-race deals to pull off what’s so far been impossible: win both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 throughout the course of a career. Such a crossover adds prestige and additional attention to the race in the same way Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and John Andretti helped prop up the Indy 500 during its leanest years, pulling the 1,100-mile “Double Dip” by running that race and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

But those times have long since passed us by. If the open-wheelers are coming over to stock cars, it’s for a full-time ride, not a one-shot grasp at glory; and the prestige of making this race in qualifying has gotten lost amongst the rigors of guaranteed spots and the battle of who gets the past champion’s provisional. Well, I’ll tell you what: Al Unser Jr. didn’t get the past champion’s provisional when he failed to make the Indy 500 the year after winning it. This track wasn’t built on guarantees; and it’s a shame 35 of them has made it near impossible for a man with a car and a dream to even envision running on one of the greatest racetracks ever built.

Did You Notice? The ho-hum response from Reed Sorenson when asked about his contract extension with Chip Ganassi? “I’m working on it,” was his response to reporters – and even a questioning David Reutimann – at Gateway over the weekend. And as for Ganassi himself, he’s hardly shown the enthusiasm publicly over the concept of re-signing Reed, seeming to speak out only to criticize the performance of the No. 41 team during various points of what’s been an incredibly disappointing year. Of course, the irony is that lack of enthusiasm comes just one year after Sorenson posted his first career pole at none other than the Brickyard 400 itself.

But despite the lack of love, it appears the union will continue if only for the fact the two of them have realized they have no choice but to stay with one another. For while Sorenson’s name has come up in the rumor mill for a few open rides, it’s clear at this point that better-performing drivers who’ve hit the unemployment line are going to have the inside track on all the teams he covets. As one driver told me this week, “There’s not many options. It used to be that if you wanted to leave a team, you could jump without a problem. But not right now.”

Add to that the fact Sorenson’s resume on paper hasn’t lived up to his potential, and you can see how the hole he’s in won’t be dug out of anytime soon. Surprise, Reed! When you miss a major sponsor appearance and pull off a grand total of one top five in your third season on tour, turns out you’re not the first person in line people are going to take a chance on anymore.

So, that leaves Sorenson with Ganassi as his only viable option; and for Ganassi, the feeling is mutual. After IRL driver Dan Wheldon reconfirmed his commitment to Indy cars, Ganassi had no more open-wheel converts left to turn to in order to fill the seat of the No. 41 car. And with the way his team has underperformed this season – actually downsizing from three cars to two after the failed Dario Franchitti experiment – what top-level driver is going to want to sign on board? The ugly truth is that CGR has failed to make the Chase for all five years it’s existed, winning a grand total of one race since Marlin’s near-championship season of 2002. That leaves far more attractive opportunities out there for prospective free agents – forcing Ganassi and Sorenson to come to terms and keep this bad marriage hanging by a thread.

Did You Notice? The ascension of JTG Racing to the Cup Series – with sponsorship from Little Debbie – immediately gives the impression the Wood Brothers could be in serious jeopardy. In one fell swoop, not only is a major sponsor taken away from them, but their best hope for development – Marcos Ambrose – has become JTG’s primary driver on the Cup tour. With Brad Daugherty taking a partial ownership role in the company, a merger with the No. 47 team is highly unlikely, which now means the Woods are between a rock and a hard place. 52-year-old Bill Elliott is retiring at the end of the season, and should the Air Force leave, it would be entirely up to Ford Motor Company to keep the team afloat – in the midst of them propping up two unsponsored Yates Racing entries and during an unprecedented period of economic struggle for the company.

With that in mind – and I hate to say it – I just don’t see the Blue Oval shelling out $10 million of sponsorship support to keep the No. 21 team at the track each week. For tradition’s sake, you hope they survive, but we’ve been losing an average of about one legendary team each year this decade – and right now, the Woods look to be the next on the block.

Did You Notice? 13 races into the season, the top three drivers in the Truck Series championship – Johnny Benson, Matt Crafton and Ron Hornaday – are separated by just five points. And they didn’t even need the Chase to do it! Sure, you could say this division’s having “one of those years,” where every title contender has experienced the same amount of trouble, untimely wrecks, and engine failures which have kept any one team from running away from the pack. But don’t we say that about this series every year?

Hmmm… the trucks have the shortest schedule, the least aerodynamic racecar, and the highest variety of teams in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions – and most people say their racing is the best out there. So, fill in the blank: The Sprint Cup Series isn’t learning lessons from this series because _____.

Did You Notice? That despite NASCAR’s insistence they’ll continue with plans to roll out a Nationwide Series Car of Tomorrow, there’s no one left to run the Car of Today in their second-tier division. At Gateway this past weekend, no fewer than 11 cars could be classified as start and parks. 11! That’s got to set a new record – and to put that in perspective, it’s over one-quarter of a 43-car field. That’s right… one out of every four entries’ sole purpose at the racetrack was to show up, qualify, and then park before the first pit stop to collect a check. Absolutely disgraceful… the sport can do all the research and development it wants, but what I want to know is who’s going to have the cash to pay for it when things are all said and done? Because right now, that number continues to dwindle by the day.

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