Did You Notice? That for all the Joey Logano hype, not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon quite yet? Certainly, Sunday’s race was a bonified step in the right direction for establishing the 19-year-old as a national superstar. But while Logano shattered the record for being the youngest race winner in NASCAR history, what we’ve yet to see from him – and what I’m excited to see develop – is his personality. What we’re witnessing, folks, for better or for worse is a driver who could very well turn out to be the dominant Sprint Cup force over the next decade. And because of that, it’s critically important that a sport more and more people are referring to as “vanilla” gets its next superstar packaged with a little extra spice of personality.
That’s not to say Logano’s a bad kid, by any means. Everything that we’ve seen so far has been positive, from his refusal to get caught up completely in Kyle Busch’s “Bad Boy” antics to his heartfelt emotion towards his parents in victory lane Sunday night. But for this kid to really shine over the long-term, he needs to differentiate himself from the cookie-cutter, sponsor-spouting generic driver cutouts we’ve seen develop into superstars as of late. Instead, he’s got to have that little extra “something” people latch onto, a personality unique enough that fans gravitate to him the way they do the sport’s other superstars. That niceness needs to come complete with a full slate of emotional characteristics: frustration, excitement, charisma, aggression (at the right times, of course)… traits that will help him relate to people that may not even know what NASCAR is yet. If Logano is the future, he needs to be able to make those connections; those empty seats in the stands depend on it.
Of course, as an optimist I have faith that personality growth will come… although right now, I just don’t see it yet. Instead, I see a 19-year-old still adjusting to his surroundings, in shock he already has victory in the Cup Series and not quite at the confidence level yet where he’ll come out of his shell and be Joey Logano, not the Joey Logano he was programmed to be from an early age. There’s too much “say what I think I should say” and not “say what I really mean…” but maybe it’s just me. And hopefully, a year from now we’re talking about how he’s becoming one of the most popular drivers in the garage, with a marketability and talent level that’s capable of reaching heights seen only by the best of the best. Because after seeing the same 10 drivers week in, week out, dominate the top of the standings for several years, it’s clear this sport is ready for a new contender to enter the fold.
Did You Notice? Money can’t always buy you success? Paul Menard is in his third year in the Cup Series on the strength of a multi-million dollar sponsorship that just happens to be connected to his dad. But as this season has painfully shown, he just doesn’t seem to have the basic talent capable of keeping him racing at NASCAR’s top level. Menard’s one of just two drivers (David Stremme is the other) to qualify for every race without scoring a top-10 finish this season – in his 17 starts, the best he could come up with is a pair of 13th-place performances at Texas and Talladega. Rookies Max Papis, Scott Speed and the perpetually underfunded Robby Gordon all have better top finishes so far this season.
However, the real disappointment in Menard’s case is that the much-needed cash infusion his sponsor was supposed to give Yates Racing hasn’t resulted in a competitive boost. At the moment, the team has neither of its two vehicles in the top 25 in owner points (Bobby Labonte sits 28th) and has led a grand total of 17 laps all year. Compare that with this point a year ago, when Travis Kvapil already had three top-10 finishes in Yates’s primary car and was sitting 19th in the standings, and you’ll see why Menard’s move proved to be such a downer.
With that type of track record, you’d expect at the end of this year Menard would be thinking retirement a la Michael Waltrip or at least stepping back into the Nationwide Series – a place he was far more competitive. But in this dog-eat-dog world, there are teams right now that would kill for the kind of cash he brings to the table. Money talks these days, and the men who produce lifelines of cash are going to be the ones sitting in the driver’s seat. It was a catch-22 for Yates Racing to pick up Menard during the offseason, knowing his talent level was below that of both drivers already in the fold. But it was a choice teams hope they’ll never have to make: take the cash and ensure their survival, regardless of the finishes, or build on their recent improvement while taking a gigantic risk both Kvapil and David Gilliland would be able to bring in sponsorship to keep them from going broke.
Five months later, it does appear Yates made the right move on that front as Kvapil sits on the sidelines without sponsorship at the same time Gilliland is driving the near-equivalent of a start and park. But don’t you wish their hard work actually paid off? Instead, Yates Racing took the survivor’s way out… in the end, they just wanted to get paid. And as long as Menard gets to keep racing, everyone on the team will be assured of that … it’s just an ominous look into the sport’s future should sponsorship money and cost of competition continue to keep going up.
Did You Notice? The nickname “double-file restarts, SHOOTOUT STYLE!” seems to be dying a slow, painful death? It’s taken a couple of weeks to start fading a bit, and I think if we cross our fingers and don’t mention it anymore beyond this column… maybe it will actually disappear for good. And thank God, because I think that replaced “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity!” as the most annoying NASCAR catch phrase for both fans and garage members alike. Whenever I heard it, it made me think of a wrestling ring, not a racetrack….
“DOUBLE-FILE RESTARTS, SHOOTOUT STYLE!! HERE COMES JEFF GORDON, TAKING THE CHAIR AND SMASHING IT OVER DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S HEAD! BUT HOLD ON, FOLKS… OH MY, IT’S BRIAN VICKERS WITH THE BODYSLAM!! CAN YOU SMELL… WHAT THE BUSCH IS COOKING!”
Seriously, all we needed was Ric Flair going “WOOOO!” and the transition from NASCAR to wrestling would have been complete.
Did You Notice? Earnhardt Ganassi Racing kept the wrong guy? Let me explain: after seven races, their struggling No. 8 car driven by Aric Almirola was shut down due to a combination of poor performance and a lack of sponsorship money. Almirola was initially supposed to return to the Cup Series this weekend at Daytona, as well as the rest of the 2009 season. Now, EGR President Steve Lauletta says the earliest he expects to bring back the team would be mid-August… pending sponsorship (there’s that ugly word again).
Sounds more and more to me like a whole lot of hype with no substance behind it. The problem with Almirola is, although he’s such a great guy off the track the results just don’t back him up to potential sponsors. In just 25 career starts, he’s got just one top 10 to go along with six DNFs and a pitiful average finish of 29.4. Considering the performances of some of the rookies or “almost” rookies this season, Almirola’s lackluster results clearly indicate he needs about a year to two years of time in a development series before moving up.
Here’s the issue for EGR, though; they already had a proven driver that could have stepped behind the No. 8 car this season, and that man was Regan Smith. Let’s take a look at the results of second-year driver Smith, who EGR promptly let go at the end of last season in favor of keeping Almirola. As a result, he ended up landing with the small, single-car outfit of Furniture Row Racing, a team with maybe a third of the budget big-time organizations like EGR, Roush, Hendrick and others have in their arsenal. But not only has Smith finished each and every one of the races he’s run all year, but collected five finishes of 22nd or better in nine starts. In fact, Smith has finished all 50 races he started – remember, 41 of those were for DEI – and shown a remarkable knack for keeping his car out of trouble.
At the moment, Smith and FRR look to be in serious talks to gain sponsorship to run a full season in 2010. But with a ride open at EGR and Bass Pro Shops available to team up with somebody, EGR would be prudent to take a good look at Smith – especially considering the small number of actual free agents available. Giving the kid a second chance might not be a bad thing.