It’d be kind of ironic – given that I wrote a column on driver marketability a few weeks ago – if the topic had been shot to the forefront of the sport, wrapped around what is probably close to the last of the major teams’ driver signings. Yet, that’s exactly what happened when Penske Racing South made David Stremme the official driver of the No. 12 Dodge for 2009 and beyond, a move that might at least score them the award for Worst Kept Secret of the Year. And, despite being long rumored, the move still surprises me – because Penske could have done better.
Don’t get me wrong; Stremme is a decent Nationwide Series driver and a heck of a nice guy. He’s also young and good-looking – marketability in a nutshell. The problem is, Stremme’s done nothing to show he’s a Sprint Cup-caliber driver, his underwhelming success paling in comparison to better drivers that were overlooked. In 75 career Cup starts, Stremme has just three top-10 finishes to his name driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. You can argue that some of the issue was equipment – but the No. 40 was once the flagship of Ganassi’s fledgling fleet with Sterling Marlin, a contender for the 2002 series title. It went downhill statistically since Stremme took the seat and this was a car that had full sponsorship for the two full seasons he drove it. Stremme just flat didn’t perform to the potential of the car, even if that potential was somewhat limited.
Even in the Nationwide Series, Stremme’s numbers are just OK. Despite winning Rookie of the Year in that division in 2003, he’s never won a race at NASCAR’s second level, and has 20 top-five finishes in 125 career starts. In fact, Stremme has nary a win in any of NASCAR’s top-three series. Again, you can almost – but not quite convincingly – argue equipment. Stremme drove early in his career for Braun Racing and Terry Bradshaw’s team, both of whom were independent operations without the benefit of Cup support. The cars weren’t all bad, though, especially at Braun – an organization with two cars currently in the top 15 in Nationwide Series points.
It’s not that Stremme is a bad driver – there are just better ones without Cup rides. Just look at Mike Wallace. Not only is Wallace one of the best restrictor-plate drivers in all of NASCAR, but a short stint in the very No. 12 Cup car Stremme will now drive produced some very impressive results several years ago. Wallace finished second at Phoenix in 2001 in just his fourth start for Penske Racing, despite knowing he was basically warming the seat for Ryan Newman and nothing more. Wallace had two top 10 runs in his first four races with Penske, and three top 15s in his eight-race employment. Yes, Wallace is in his late 40s, but he can still drive a racecar and would be an excellent driver to put in the seat for a year or two while Penske develops someone – maybe even Stremme – in a lower series.
If not Mike Wallace, why not his younger brother Kenny? In addition to three second-place finishes in the Cup series, two of which were in lower-tier equipment, Kenny Wallace has nine Nationwide Series wins and has finished in the top 10 in more than a third of his starts – a slightly higher percentage than Stremme has in significantly more races. Or what about Johnny Benson? Benson has a Cup win to go with three Nationwide Series wins – and the 1995 series title. He also has 13 victories in 116 Craftsman Truck Series Races these last few years; Benson’s top-10 percentage in that division is an impressive 65%.
So, it’s not that Stremme is a bad driver – he’s just not the best driver available. But he is the most marketable driver available, and the argument can be made that such viability is important in this day and age, especially considering that Penske’s other driver is the less-than-popular Kurt Busch. Busch has the added disadvantage of resembling a chipmunk on camera, so having the affable and good-looking Stremme on board doesn’t hurt the team in curb appeal.
Still, it’s a bit of a disappointment to see marketability trump talent on a more and more consistent basis in the Sprint Cup Series. Sure, the sponsors are getting what they want. They get a nice looking guy to hock their product in commercials, someone who gives a good soundbite and smiles at the right times. They might not get the best driver, but they get their money’s worth in pre-made ads, and forego the on-track performance for a great smile on camera.
But that’s certainly a change from an era when it didn’t matter if your driver looked like Cale Yarborough if he won races like Cale Yarborough. I’m not sure it’s a welcome one – though it looks as though it’s a trend fans will have to get used to more and more.
All in all, Penske probably gets what they pay for: a decent, marketable driver who can score a few top 10s here and there. If they aren’t expecting a repeat of Ryan Newman’s success, it’s not a bad choice… and it appears that’s exactly what they’re willing to settle for.
I just wonder if they could have done better.