Matt’s stuck at home with a nasty case of the flu this week, so I’ve been pressed into service as a last-minute replacement for his column. Usually, I try my best to match his sarcasm when I sub in (although in reality, no one can even come close). But this week, in terms of Mouthing Off… I’ve pretty much already done it on a variety of subjects in my weekly version of Did You Notice? on Wednesday. So, I thought that instead of spewing more venom at the NASCAR powers that be this week, I’m going to play around with the term “Mouthing Off” in a different way.
All too often, the drivers at both extremes in NASCAR are the ones who make the news these days. It’s kind of like the evaporating middle class in this country… if they’re not making it big or losing their jobs (and recently, we’ve seen far more of the latter), they’re basically getting completely ignored. We’ve got the rich and famous – the Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s, Jeff Gordons and Carl Edwardses – sharing space in print these days with men like David Gilliland and Jeremy Mayfield, the sport’s version of the underdog looking to resurrect their careers with the underfunded.
But hidden amongst the early season media scrutiny of upper and lower class, the modest success of a few in the middle has ultimately been lost in the shuffle. Too good to play the role of the underdog but without the top-tier equipment to find themselves running up front, these drivers toil under the guise of 10th-place finishes each week but never get the credit for keeping their organizations in contention… until now.
With the off week upon us, it’s a good time to take a breath and stop to look at a few of these men making waves. Here’s five drivers who have quietly put themselves in decent position so far in 2009, making the best of what they have to work with:
Martin Truex Jr.: Under the auspicious finish of the Daytona 500 – one that’s angered so many fans – it’s easy to forget one of Speedweeks’ biggest surprises was the No. 1 car of Truex taking the pole. An 11th-place finish was a bit of a Daytona disappointment at the end, but who knows what would have happened if the race ran its full 500-mile distance – the car very well might have been capable of contending for the win.
Since then, Truex has had two disappointing runs at Fontana and Vegas before making news at Atlanta that no one would have ever expected. Rushed to the hospital for kidney stones, Truex passed one on Saturday night before rallying Sunday to post his first top 10 finish of the season. That’s left him 19th in points and within striking distance of the top 12, heading towards the short track swing that’s capable of giving teams like his a major boost. Avoiding the engine DNF that once was DEI’s Achilles’ Heel, mechanical reliability for the new Earnhardt Ganassi organization has got to be a major shot in the arm for Truex – bit all too often by issues not of his own making these last few years. Certainly, stability within his own team has helped during the offseason transition, as crew chief “Bono” Manion continues to run his own ship within the greater fleet of the fledgling three-car organization. But as EGR continues to sort itself out following the merger, both Truex and Manion will only benefit from all cars figuring out how to work together and share information. With that comes a great deal of upward potential… the question is whether “up” is enough for them to make the Chase. At the moment, though, there’s a solid foundation to build on for this group moving forward.
Jamie McMurray: Roush Fenway’s fifth option has long been the runt of the Roush Fenway organization, never seeming to run consistently enough to challenge for a spot in the top 12. But when McMurray’s old crew chief, Donnie Wingo, came on board this offseason, the former Chip Ganassi teammates seem to have brought a renewed focus and energy to their job manning the No. 26. So far this season, McMurray has earned himself three finishes of 16th or better, and would occupy a position in the coveted top 12 if not for becoming an innocent victim of the Earnhardt/Brian Vickers wreck down Daytona’s back straightaway.
Yet even with that near-DNF (McMurray wound up 37th in the 500), the IRWIN/Crown Royal Ford team stands 18th through the first four races of the season. And with tracks like Martinsville and Texas coming up soon on the slate – both places which play to McMurray’s forte – there’s a bit of an opportunity for this team to get themselves off the schnide at RFR.
Michael McDowell: For most, the name McDowell is linked forever to that terrifying crash at Texas last year, the one where the former Cup rookie flipped his No. 00 Toyota into a pile of parts and pieces – but still made it through with nothing but a scratch. Apparently born with a flair for the dramatic, the 23-year-old followed up with Act II at Fontana this year, when a hard crash caused his No. 47 Nationwide Series Toyota to catch fire in a frightening explosion that forced him to bail out of the car.
It’s highlights like those which make you scratch your head and wonder if the kid’s good enough to make it in this business. But after stepping back to the Nationwide Series full-time – recognizing a need to develop after jumping from ARCA to Cup last season – McDowell has quietly but effectively been taking small steps towards respectability in 2009. 14th amidst a field of Cup regulars at Daytona, he followed that up with a third-best qualifying effort at Fontana (ruined by the wreck), then scored a career-high sixth-place finish at Vegas to jump all the way up to 10th in the overall season standings. Still searching for sponsors to support him for all 35 events, McDowell doesn’t quite have the high-level funding necessary to challenge for a championship. But he’s with an organization in JTG that took Marcos Ambrose to victory lane last year; and based on McDowell’s early season performances, he could be a man to contend with at the series’ standalone races at Nashville, Kentucky, and elsewhere later in the spring.
Kenny Wallace: Tucked right behind McDowell in those Nationwide Series standings, Wallace has to be secretly satisfied to be sitting 11th, giving Jay Robinson Racing their best ever start in NASCAR’s second-tier division. The No. 28 hasn’t been flashy, but it’s gone the distance, earning them two finishes of 16th or better in three races to date this season. With continued support from primary sponsor U.S. Border Patrol, the team has been gradually able to upgrade its equipment and put itself in position to become a top-15 car each week – even when the Cup regulars show up. A source also tells me the team’s become far more comfortable as they settle into their second season together, allowing for Wallace’s feedback in making necessary adjustments to be far more effective on race day. Personally, I think the third-place run at Memphis last October gave this team a momentum boost they’ve never had before; for the first time ever, one of their drivers proved that on a good day, JRR can compete with the Big Boys of Roush, Hendrick and others that infiltrate this series. And once that seed of confidence gets implanted in your head… well, you suddenly find yourself capable of achieving bigger and better things out on the racetrack.
Chad McCumbee: Just three months ago, it looked like McCumbee would emerge on the scene as a full-time Sprint Cup driver running for Rookie of the Year. But when Petty Enterprises was forced to merge, McCumbee was suddenly dropped from the radar screen of newly-formed Richard Petty Motorsports – leaving him without a full-time ride as late as early January.
Such tough luck could have left the 24-year-old with every reason to complain. Instead, he took a deep breath, reevaluated, and went home to the Truck Series team that gave him a shot at a full-time ride in the first place – the No. 07 Chevy owned and operated by Green Light Racing and Bobby Dotter. A borderline “underdog” organization in their own right – the team starts and parks a second truck each week to gain additional funding to compete – Green Light’s not exactly a truck you think of that’s capable of winning races and contending for the season championship.
Yet here we are, three races into the Truck Series season, and McCumbee has finished 19th, third and sixth to surge to fifth in the standings, just 15 points behind third-place Mike Skinner following Atlanta. The speed out of this truck at the intermediates has opened up a lot of eyes, and with a solid history of performing well at Martinsville in their back pocket, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them up front contending for their first win. It was some short-term pain for McCumbee to take a step back, I’m sure; but in the end, it could lead to the long-term gain of a much stronger Cup organization coming ‘round and giving this kid a second look.
Well, there you have it – five guys no one’s talking about yet until we “Mouthed Off” about them. And speaking of that Matt reminder, I hope you’ll all join me in wishing him a quick and speedy recovery! Look for the sarcasm to return next week… much to Brian France’s chagrin.