It’s a bummer to watch Travis Kvapil be out of a ride because of the harsh realities of motorsports. As I write this, and as Tom Bowles explained so lucidly on Monday, a freak combination of owner points transfers and bad luck has resulted in Yates suspending operations of its famed No. 28 shop indefinitely.
Of course, there is some sentiment for Davey Allison, Havoline, or the glory days of Yates… not to mention Kvapil, a driver whom no one seems to dislike. It is to be expected. But hopefully people do not get too caught up in the sentimental aspect of this.
We can talk about how Kvapil’s situation reflects an ongoing problem NASCAR has – the difficulty of teams finding sponsorship in tough economic times. There is certainly truth to that. Drivers less worthy than Kvapil are on the track in Sprint Cup races every week because they’re more marketable, better looking, or have an easier name to spell, and so sponsors gravitate to them. Yes, that’s troubling, but as long as companies fund racecars, you’re going to have this.
Kvapil is caught up in a firestorm of unfortunate circumstances. Obviously Menards isn’t going to sponsor him over Paul Menard, and that isn’t really the travesty that it seems. Like Joey Logano, Menard is a better driver than his results in Cup have shown so far.
Meanwhile, if you are a decision maker at Ask.com, do you sponsor a former champion from a much lesser known series, or do you sponsor a former Cup champion with a good attitude and a marketable name? It’s not as if Bobby Labonte isn’t worthy of sponsorship either. Had Ask.com or whoever else may be on the No. 96 chosen to sponsor Kvapil instead, it would be Labonte’s loss of a ride we would be lamenting now.
That it ended up being Kvapil is unfortunate, but it had to be somebody at Yates/Hall of Fame Racing. They simply couldn’t afford to keep a third car going.
Every driver who is racing in a Sprint Cup car – and this includes Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson – was in the right place at the right time at some point in their lives. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in his 60 Minutes interview, there’s a Gordon on almost every short track around the country. The better ones tend to get to the big time… but they aren’t guaranteed to. Even with all kinds of talent, you still need lots of luck to get to the top. Go through every Sprint Cup driver’s life story and you can find a lucky break or two.
Jason Leffler is a good example of a tough break. Leffler was tapped by Joe Gibbs for a second attempt at Cup racing in 2005. That was the year NASCAR lowered the spoiler height (another move to “help struggling teams”) – and several teams, including his own at Joe Gibbs Racing, struggled to get the setup right at aero-dependent tracks. Leffler might have done better had JGR figured out the spoiler height right away as opposed to the middle of the season, when Stewart suddenly began notching top finishes at intermediate tracks en route to the Cup championship. By the time Denny Hamlin took over the ride late in the season, JGR had it figured out. Had NASCAR not messed with that, Leffler might be driving the No. 11 today instead of Hamlin. I don’t know all of the circumstances, but apparently Leffler was Gibbs’s first choice for the ride.
That’s the way this business is. Kvapil needn’t feel like he wasn’t good enough.
There is an important lesson to be learned here. The impressive history of Yates Racing did not keep the car on the track. The slick paint job the No. 28 once had didn’t do it. A newly mandated car with a universal template and stiff penalties for violating it didn’t do it. Eliminating testing didn’t do it. All of NASCAR’s best efforts to level the playing field came up short in helping Kvapil and the No. 28 team to keep racing. I would have liked to see Kvapil and the No. 28 at Martinsville and beyond this week. But sentiment doesn’t make racecars go fast.
One thing that NASCAR could have done that might have helped will never happen. Does anyone think that maybe Verizon Wireless, BP Gasoline or Hoosier Tires might have been interested in sponsoring the No. 28 if they could? NASCAR’s exclusivity agreements with Sprint, Sunoco and Goodyear prevent these and many others from being potential sponsors for struggling race teams. If NASCAR wants to help the little guy, they ought to consider letting go of contracts that deem a product the “official” brand of NASCAR (except me, of course).
NASCAR, and maybe rightly so, would respond that these companies pour a great deal of money into the sport in exchange for the exclusivity agreements. And this translates into larger amounts of prize money for teams, which will in turn help them to continue racing. That is a fair argument. But then why come down on Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick for pouring all the money they do into the sport? Isn’t that ultimately the same issue? Roush Fenway Racing is putting more competitive cars on the track than anyone, which makes for better races, more winners and more drivers’ fans watching. It can’t work both ways. NASCAR can’t say Jack Roush is hurting smaller teams and exclusivity agreements are not.
But that issue is for another time, gang. I’m not here to blame NASCAR. It’s not for me to understand why series sponsorship contracts are drawn up the way they are and not the way fans think they should be. They have a business to run and they do it the way they see fit.
As difficult as this has to be for Kvapil and for his team, and possibly for fans of Allison and Yates Racing, NASCAR must let these things happen. Taking a car away from Roush Fenway Racing’s stable won’t help. Nor will a rigidly spec racecar. Losing the exclusivity agreements might. But it doesn’t matter. Some teams are going to fail no matter what the rules, just as with qualifying every week. As difficult as it may be to believe right now, the Hendrick and Roush teams will someday be shadows of their former selves, too. All racing teams and drivers eventually decline. Imagine the idea of NASCAR, years from now, making rule changes to benefit Hendrick Motorsports when they are no longer winning races. Anti-Hendrick people would clog the blogs with lists of reasons why that would be unacceptable. And they would be right.
It’s OK to mourn the loss of the No. 28 car and to feel bad for Travis. But it’s important to resist the urge to say to NASCAR, “Do something!” That’s what people have been saying to the government about banks for a couple of years now. And the government listened. We’re seeing how that worked out.
The suspension of operations for the No. 28 is not what’s wrong with NASCAR. It is, in a way, what remains right with NASCAR. Teams must succeed or fail on their own.
As The Beatles’ posthumous hit sang after their breakup, let it be.
- Well, assuming there are no hindrances, Amy Henderson and I will be appearing with Vince Bonfigli on Garage Talk Live this Monday night. If you’re in the Philly area, you can listen in 8-9 p.m. Monday night on WNJC 1360 AM to hear the only people in Philly radio (that is only a slight exaggeration) who talk about NASCAR. Outside of Philly you can listen online at their website.
- Looks like we will have another full field for this weekend’s race, as we have had all year so far despite panicked predictions from the pundits. If you weren’t constantly being told that the economy in America is a disaster, would you even notice anything wrong watching NASCAR?
- Earnhardt Jr. recently came out to take some of the heat off his crew chief again, and repeated again something resembling a preference to lose with Eury than to win with someone else. While I think this has been blown out of proportion somewhat, Junior should be careful how he chooses his words, even though I’m sure it was “in context.” His statement doesn’t help Eury’s case.
- I’m not suggesting that Kyle Busch was too tired going into the Chase last season, but I was thinking about what this kid could achieve. He’s no doubt sent the message that he came to race; if he scales back on the extracurricular races and some of the unnecessary posturing, he is going to put up some unbelievable numbers. I haven’t been following the sport as long as some of you, but I’ve never seen anyone race like this guy. Then again, maybe all that stuff works for him.