NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Jeff Gordon’s Sudden Slide, What NASCAR’s Schedule Hides, & Hamlin’s Bad Side

A lot of shorter observations than usual, so I’m calling this the Odds ‘N’ Ends edition of Did You Notice this week…

Did You Notice? That California Speedway’s date realignment on the 2009 Sprint Cup schedule did nothing to address the quality of racing at that facility? I will say the Labor Day date was always a horrible weekend for them. Not only did people in L.A. have other things to do, but the heat is pretty unbearable that time of year. I worked the race in 2007, and it was agonizingly hot during the entire four days we were out there. With temperatures reaching upwards of 105-110 degrees, there was little if anything air conditioning could do for fans, media, and drivers alike.

But moving its date from September to October won’t bring people back if the racing remains well, as crappy as it was. I’m really intrigued to see what the attendance in September’s going to be after the “weepers” in February turned a 12-hour rain delay into a debacle of a Sunday half-show. It’s clear the track needs to be torn up and rebuilt, with graduated banking the perfect solution if ISC would only fork out the money to pay for it. For now, Gillian Zucker’s certainly got her work cut out for her, and let’s put it this way: nobody goes to a concert if they don’t like the music – no matter how convenient it is for them or nice a day it is outside.

Did You Notice? The additional “off-week” on the 2009 schedule still doesn’t separate the 10 Chase playoff races from the other 26. It’s definitely a help – preparing for 12 straight weeks on the road is certainly better than 17 – but still, why wouldn’t you separate the playoffs to the point you can build up the hype for nearly two straight weeks? It seems the schedule realignment was done more to intensify the participation of Cup drivers during the Nationwide Series race in Montreal; you’ll notice the road-course race in Canada now slips right in during the off week on Sunday, August 30th. So much for the Nationwide Series continuing to build its own identity away from the Cup stars – although awarding them a race at Iowa was a great idea, and it’ll definitely be one of the better races of the year for that division.

Did You Notice? Two more things on the 2009 Cup schedule: no race date for Kentucky Speedway despite rumors to the contrary. What are the chances Bruton Smith still remains in control of that facility? I’d have to say they’re getting lower by the day… and while Martinsville kept its two race dates this year, expect 2009 to be the final season that track will keep its current place on the schedule. With Kansas Speedway on the verge of building an ISC-sponsored casino, the short track’s all but assured to drop from two dates to one in 2010 to compensate for a second date in the Midwest – and with Las Vegas and the aforementioned Kentucky in the mix, there’s no question small town Virginia stands out as the most vulnerable facility right now.

Did You Notice? Denny Hamlin has a clear pattern of never being afraid to call out his crew – or other drivers – when things aren’t going his way. Sunday’s frustration was just the latest incident in the last 18 months in which Hamlin’s comments have been directed squarely at the people who prepare his racecar. But calling the crew out is always a double-edged sword; if you’re the person preparing that vehicle, how hard would you work if your driver is busy throwing you under the bus on national television? It’s a fine line to follow… and while you love the injection of personality Hamlin brings to the series, you wonder how many more times he can whine to the media before his crew begins to turn against him.

Did You Notice? That every year, Jamie McMurray goes through a short stretch at Roush where you think he’s on the verge of making some noise with the No. 26 car. Then, just when he’s got you fooled, he turns around and slumps all over again. With three top-10 finishes in his last four races, McMurray’s up to 18th in points – just one spot below where he finished 2007 with this team. But in his third full season at the helm of that car, you’ve got to wonder if it’s too little, too late…

Did You Notice? The clear separation between Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field? Tony Stewart still seems in perfect position to play Chase spoiler, but other than that it’s hard to argue a case for any of the other eight drivers to challenge for the title. Among the ones looking completely lost right now: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon. And doesn’t Gordon’s recent slide eerily represent what happened in 2005, when he fell like a rock during the summer and missed the Chase? It’s hard to imagine it happening three years later with the cushion he’d built up in the standings… entering Indy, Gordon was nearly 200 points ahead of 13th place. But then again, it was hard to imagine Gordon dropping out when he was second in points 10 races into the ’05 Cup season… and it happened anyways. I can tell you this much: what’s got to be troubling for Steve Letarte is that the last collapse coincided with Robbie Loomis getting the ax and him getting the job as crew chief. Could the same thing happen to him three years later?

PUGLIESE: CHASE OUTLOOK FOR THE “BIG 3”

Did You Notice? At Michigan, how badly was Earnhardt Jr.’s car was handling before it hit the wall? If that team didn’t have the track position, it was hardly a top-10 car by the ¾-point of the race. You wonder how the relationship with Tony Eury Jr. is working behind the scenes; and as we mentioned last week, Junior’s already in that phase where he’s acting as depressed as his buddy Matt Kenseth. This is definitely the worst the No. 88 has looked all year.

Did You Notice? That the U.S. Army – another former full-time sponsor – is likely reduced to part-time status in 2009 due to their inability to keep up with rising costs. What was once a decent sponsorship for a mid-level team – around $8-$10 million – now isn’t enough to get you through more than a third of a season on Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 99. With organizations like Chip Ganassi Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, and others looking for funding, that inevitable question remains – where are they going to find those companies to sign on the dotted line? And why the heck did AFLAC sign a deal for $26 million if they were going to sell off inventory anyways? That just doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re going to pony up for 18 races, pony up for 18 races… not 36.

Did You Notice? That with Michael McDowell’s “temporary” removal from the No. 00 Toyota, there’s just one rookie guaranteed to finish out the season – Sam Hornish Jr. in the No. 77 Dodge. And in February of 2009, he’s looking like the only pledged candidate left who’ll be sitting in the driver’s seat. Patrick Carpentier is still awaiting word on renewal of his contract from Gillett Evernham Motorsports, and there’s no news on sponsorship that’s needed for Regan Smith to continue on with DEI. So, it’s all up to Hornish. If he changes his tune and decides to bolt back to the IRL at the end of this year, that could mean none of the candidates will return for a full-time sophomore season (Aric Almirola is signed to drive the No. 8, but remember, he isn’t competing for the award).

Wondering when the last time was so many rookies’ careers went so far south? You’d have to go back to 1992, when none of the candidates (including ROTY Jimmy Hensley) started the following season with a full-time ride. Only Hensley ended up surviving, taking over the No. 7 car for part of 1993 following the death of Alan Kulwicki.

And even if some of the current rookies survive the cut and make it into 2009, one thing is clear at this point: the open-wheel experiment is officially over.

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