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Did You Notice? McGrew Not The Answer For Earnhardt… Yet, Midseason Trends & Mystery Cautions Revealed

Did You Notice? Two quickie midseason stats that tell us who’s on top and who’s fallen apart so far in 2009? They might not be the first ones you look at when you wake up in the morning… but sometimes, it’s the small things that tell the tale as to some of the trends shaping this season to date.

Let’s first look at the wins by manufacturer through 19 races:

Chevrolet: 10
Toyota: 5
Dodge: 2
Ford: 2

That tells you despite the cutbacks – some of which were announced today – it’s still GM’s world and everyone else just lives in it. Winning last year’s manufacturer title in a squeaker, it should be a cakewalk for them this year as Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing have combined for nine of their 10 wins, occupying five of the top 11 positions in the current Sprint Cup point standings. In contrast, their major American rival has struggled despite being in better financial shape and winning this year’s Daytona 500 with Matt Kenseth. They’ve been winless since Kenseth’s second straight triumph at California late in February, and have just one of their drivers sitting in the top 11 (Carl Edwards). It’s certainly possible that Ford and Roush could put just one of their drivers in the Chase for the first time in the six-year history of the playoff.

With Chevrolet having such an edge, the real question heading into this fall isn’t necessarily if Hendrick will win the title, but whether they’ll let Stewart-Haas compete alongside with them. Remember, all the engines and chassis for the No. 14 and No. 39 cars come straight from the HMS shop; and while Stewart-Haas should be commended for putting their own stamp on things, is what they’re getting from Hendrick going to stay top notch once they’re competing against those drivers for the championship? The house money says no, but it’ll be interesting to see.

So, if HMS keeps Tony Stewart from contending, who’s best positioned to be in good shape to win this year’s title? For that, we’ll move on to the next stat, races led through 19 events:

Jimmie Johnson: 15
Mark Martin: 12
Tony Stewart: 11
Jeff Gordon: 11
Kurt Busch: 11
Kyle Busch: 11
Ryan Newman: 10
Matt Kenseth: 8
Denny Hamlin: 8
Carl Edwards: 8

Even though this stat can sometimes be deceiving (after all, someone could lead one lap in a race 36 straight times) I tend to trust this one more than laps led. Take Kyle Busch as an example: he may be second in laps led overall with 809, but his inconsistency in several other races this year clearly makes him far less than the second-best driver right now in terms of momentum.

Looking at this list, it’s Johnson’s diverse performance on all types of tracks which appears to win out. He’s shown himself capable of running up front at every type of speedway the Cup Series has to offer at pretty much any time this season; and with three straight titles already underneath him, you know the No. 48 is already well prepared on how to handle the Chase. As for his biggest challenger, if Martin could simply make the final field of 12, not only would he be a likely top seed but his years of experience might finally balance out the No. 5 and give them needed consistency in the playoffs. Right now, though, I think it’s Johnson’s title to lose (despite Stewart’s recent dominance) while everyone else is just playing catch-up.

Did You Notice? That seven weeks into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s tenure with Lance McGrew, the No. 88 continues to struggle? Yes, I do understand it’s important in light of the change to give a grace period for this new partnership, especially considering the personal adjustment involved; Earnhardt not only lost his crew chief but his cousin. However, while the sport’s Most Popular Driver may be a little happier on the radio these days, it’s not necessarily translating into much on the racetrack.

Here’s a quick comparison between the first seven races with Tony Eury Jr. at the helm this season compared to the last seven with McGrew:

1st Seven Races (Eury): 0 Wins, 0 Top 5s, 2 Top 10s, 1 DNF
Average Finish: 18.4

Last Seven Races (McGrew): 0 Wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, 1 DNF
Average Finish: 20.9

Yes, it’s true that at times Earnhardt has been a top-10 car on the race track these past two months before fading during a series of late-race adjustments to the car. But isn’t that exactly what happened when Eury Jr. was at the helm? Considering those runs at the beginning of the year occurred under a barrage of constant criticism – where every time the No. 88 team turned around questions were asked about the driver/crew chief partnership – you could make the case they were far more impressive.

I guess you’re thinking I’m about to draw the conclusion that it’s all Junior’s fault. I’m not. It’s just worth pointing out that so far, the rebuilding process over at the No. 88 hasn’t necessarily caught fire, which means to me that unless McGrew picks it up over the summer and early fall, he’s not going to be the long-term answer to this problem. That means all the car owners with top-shelf crew chiefs better watch out – because if Hendrick needs a big name to put his Most Popular Driver back on track, I’m not thinking money will be an obstacle.

What do I think Junior needs? Honestly, one of those “take no prisoner” types of crew chiefs, someone who makes it clear who’s boss on the radio when he asks for an adjustment that’s just not going to work. But it’s got to be a man he can respect, able to put his money where his mouth is based on years of experience and success.

With that type of description, Greg Zipadelli continues to come to mind for me (as I’ve mentioned before). But could he ever be persuaded to make that type of radical move? Rumors continue of putting Ray Evernham on top of the pit box, but even a feisty old dog might be too out of practice when it comes to the new tricks you need for NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow. Whatever the answer may be, it’s quickly becoming apparent one’s needed beyond the in-house switching around of men like McGrew and Eury. Because whatever the Hendrick way of doing business is, it’s just not working out for Earnhardt – and it’s not like he’s the one that’s going to get kicked out of the driver’s seat.

By the way, before moving on it was nice to see Tony Eury Jr. – a man beaten to a pulp for the first part of the year – smiling and having fun guiding Brad Keselowski to a near-top 10 finish before the No. 25 smacked the wall and finished 32nd. Sometimes, a change of scenery is what’s needed to bring out the best in both parties; and while Junior’s still struggling, at least one of the pair is on the verge of getting his career back on track.

Did You Notice? The year of the “mystery debris” caution continues? No less than three yellow flags during the Chicagoland race were thrown for debris, one of which (according to Kyle Petty’s Twitter feed) was for a possible ice pack thrown onto the racetrack. Now certainly, there are times when throwing the caution for debris is a necessity due to obvious safety reasons. But through the years, the questions surrounding cautions thrown for pieces of metal that are neither shown on TV nor officially picked up on the racetrack has raised some cause for concern. But there’s a whole lot of conjecture and not a lot of factual data out there on this topic; so, I decided to stick my neck out and do a little analysis of my own.

Looking through the record books, I started a little tally of debris cautions through the first nineteen races this year as compared to 2000, the year before Dale Earnhardt’s death and concerns over safety rose to a new level. Before we begin, keep in mind I didn’t count instances where there was oil on the track or “competition cautions” NASCAR calls when rain leaves teams with limited practice time throughout the weekend. The cautions I counted were strictly for “debris,” corresponding exactly to the official results sheet for each race.

Let’s start with 2009. There’s a total of 39 debris cautions so far this year, with the only two races without them being California and Charlotte (races where rain was constant, causing so many stops and starts to the event there was really no time for these types of yellows to occur). If you’re looking for a little more detail, here’s a race-by-race breakdown of the yellow flags:

2009 Debris Cautions
Daytona: 1
California: 0
Las Vegas: 4
Atlanta: 3
Bristol: 1
Martinsville: 1
Texas: 1
Phoenix: 1
Talladega: 4
Richmond: 1
Darlington: 3
Charlotte: 0
Dover: 6
Pocono: 3
Michigan: 2
Infineon: 2
Loudon: 1
Daytona (2): 2
Chicagoland: 3

Turns out the Monster Mile had a monster of a problem with pieces of metal, with no less than half-a-dozen yellow flags officially caused by debris on the track. Not exactly the place you’d think would have the most (especially considering how competitive the last two races have been there, yellow flags or not) but statistics can surprise you.

Where the real surprise (or lack thereof) comes in is when you compare these totals to the numbers from 2000. Here’s how the first 19 races of that season stacked up:

2000 Debris Cautions
Daytona: 1
Rockingham: 0
Las Vegas: 0
Atlanta: 0
Darlington: 0
Bristol: 1
Texas: 1
Martinsville: 0
Talladega: 2
California: 0
Richmond: 0
Charlotte: 0
Dover: 0
Pocono: 1
Infineon: 0
Daytona (2): 1
Loudon: 0
Pocono (2): 0

In case you can’t add ‘em all up in between the zeroes, that’s a total of seven – yep, seven – debris cautions through the first 19 races that year. Now, to be fair there was a slightly higher incidence of yellow flags for oil back then, including a rash of five during the race at Pocono that July. But overall, the message is clear: debris on the track seems to have been considered a far less serious problem than it is now.

What’s the bottom line in this analysis? There’s no question NASCAR has gotten busy cracking the whip on safety. However, a nearly 600 percent increase in debris cautions from the beginning to the end of this decade seems to indicate that something has gone awry. I have a hard time believing a lot more parts and pieces suddenly fall off these CoTs, and an even harder time that cars designed to be safe are suddenly at more serious risk against the same types of things which were falling on the race track nine, 10, even 20 years ago. NASCAR can claim all they want they’re not throwing cautions at specific times in order to bunch up the field; but with this type of disparity, man, you’ve got to wonder.

One more point here before signing off: every time you throw some sort of debris caution, you’re throwing yourself in some type of gray area where you put yourself in a box for explaining what type of criteria constitutes debris on the racetrack. And considering how badly NASCAR deals with gray areas – see yellow line, Daytona, and double-file restart issues as their latest examples – this is one line they’re going to end up getting burned on if they keep crossing it. At some point, you have to let the drivers race… even if it means one guy is dominating over the rest of the field. Anything less constitutes direct manipulation of the competition; and if the officials have the power to change the playing field at random, well, does that make what they’re controlling a sport?

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower.

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