Did You Notice? How amazing it is Jeff Gordon’s competing for the title this year? I say that not because of his ailing back (although that’s another story all to itself) … it’s because he’s busy changing diapers at home. Who in the world is capable of doing both?
Now, I’m mostly joking around with that comment, but not completely. We brought the issue of raising a family and competing in NASCAR up in the Athlon/Frontstretch podcast last week, so I decided to take a closer look. Here’s a list of the top-15 drivers in the points and their marital status:
Tony Stewart – Single, no kids
Jeff Gordon – Married, one kid
Jimmie Johnson – Married, no kids
Carl Edwards – Married, no kids
Denny Hamlin – Single, no kids
Kurt Busch – Married, no kids
Juan Pablo Montoya – Married, two kids
Kasey Kahne – Single, no kids
Ryan Newman – Married, no kids
Greg Biffle – Married, no kids
Matt Kenseth – Married, two kids
Mark Martin – Married, five kids (four stepkids)
Brian Vickers – Single, no kids
Clint Bowyer – Single, no kids
Kyle Busch – Single, no kids
That’s right; just four of the top-15 drivers in the point standings have kids, and in Martin’s case his son, Matt, is just about fully grown. Now, we’ve heard drivers in the past (Kevin Harvick comes to mind) talk about how they’re waiting to raise a family until after the hectic grind of being a full-time Sprint Cup driver subsides. The sponsor commitments, constant travel and other demands make it harder than ever these days to be a supportive parent and still be able to take care of your full-time job; clearly, this isn’t the type of sport that lends itself to having six kids over the course of your career.
But compare that to a sport like baseball, football or other athletic pursuits where most of the major stars are not only married, but married with children. That difference gives a little insight into just how busy these drivers’ schedules are and how much the current one has already reached its absolute limit. So kudos should go to Gordon for not just dealing with injury this year, but also finding a way to balance fatherhood at the same time in a series where none of the champions since 2000 have done so. With that said, there’s definitely a reason the four-time champ’s looking to retire at 40 and not 50 like so many others have before him – sometimes, the demands of balancing home life and track life border on becoming too difficult.
Did You Notice? Vickers’s contract extension coincided oh-so-nicely with his first win with the program? Although the whole process was mishandled for a few months by Austrian management, the back-to-back boosts of confidence are exactly the type of positive PR you want just three weeks before the Chase. Always looked at as one of the nicest, most intelligent guys in the sport, Vickers’ breakthrough was one of the most popular in the Cup Series this year. In my experience, it’s almost like the guy has Casey Mears cult status inside the garage… except his personality comes packaged with actual racing talent. (If it’s any consolation, Casey, my favorite mixed drink is Jack and Coke, so at least I’m always supporting your sponsor.)
Anyways, with the worries of a contract behind him, Vickers can now focus on achieving his goals for the rest of the season in not only making the Chase, but collecting a few more wins for his resume too. And while Hamlin is shaping up to be a nice darkhorse candidate as of late, you can’t count out Vickers for the title due to the simple fact so many intermediate tracks fall inside those final 10 races. I could easily see Vickers and Co. win two or three more times now that they’re over the hump, and if those come at places like California, Charlotte and Texas, it’s not out of the question for him to have an outside chance at what would be a colossal upset.
My only warning for TRB and their fans going forward is not to get too overconfident. If Vickers ends up with a top-three finish at Atlanta on Labor Day Weekend, he should all but be in the 12-car playoff field. However, considering he’s never scored a top-10 finish at Bristol, it’s critical not to lose too much ground to those in front of him on Saturday night. If the team just survives with a top 15… that should be enough to still control their own destiny at Richmond. That will be the goal, and hopefully no random spinning car gets in the way of that.
Did You Notice? That while Vickers made it the final 51 laps on fuel his teammate, Scott Speed, ran out of gas with the same type of chassis and equipment? It just goes to show you that even in this age of engineers and all sorts of technical aids off the track, the guy behind the wheel is still more than capable of making a difference….
Did You Notice? The story about Richard Childress Racing swapping pit crews internally so that all their top guys will work on the No. 33 car the rest of the season? It’s easy to understand the reasons behind the switch, as Bowyer is the only one of the team’s four drivers within shouting distance of making this year’s Chase. But it’s just another sign in NASCAR’s modern era that having a teammate isn’t always a good thing down the stretch. We mentioned Mears and Jack Daniel’s up above… how would you feel if you’re the marketing rep from Jack, in a critical stage as to whether or not you want to renew your contract with RCR, and all of a sudden you’re told the “best people” working on the car you pay for have been moved over and assigned to be with somebody else?
If I were the guy representing Jack… well, I’d have a whole lot of questions for the car owner. In Childress’s defense, I admit this type of pit-road swapping is nothing new – Roush and Hendrick have done it while the Chase is actually happening, as I wrote about last fall. But if we’re starting to make switches before the 10-race playoff even occurs, what does it do to the rest of the teams still hitting the track each week trying to get the best finish they can? They’re already at enough of a disadvantage… and then you take their best people away? Why have 43 cars out there if certain ones are going to be second-rate citizens just because they’re not in Chase contention? Might as well just leave those cars on the sidelines then….
Some say NASCAR handles the teammate situation far better than in Formula 1, in which there’s a clear hierarchy between the first and second driver on each race team. But while the sport’s car owners often let their drivers settle on-track incidents without team orders, they still control their own internal hierarchy in subtle ways. It’s just we don’t often hear about the changes they make to influence a certain team’s success – because they know what the fan reaction will be.
As for the concept of the playoff itself, last Friday Chase bubble driver Kahne was asked whether or not there should be more emphasis put on winning in this sport.
“There should be,” was his answer. “But everyone loves the Chase. It’s what everyone wants to talk about – drivers, crew chiefs, sponsors. Everybody wants to be in the Chase.”
What Kahne didn’t say, of course, is the enormous amount of monetary and marketing value gained by everyone for just being in the playoffs. But what about the money being filtered to the 31 teams that aren’t? If Jack Daniel’s and Cheerios are signing checks for the same amount of cash, you better believe the marketing reps from both organizations believe they’re equally important. Unfortunately, as long as this playoff system is in place they won’t be treated that way – which is why you’re going to see companies very, very soon get smart and cut funding from teams that don’t make the 12-man cut.
Did You Notice? Everybody and their mother getting on Chad Knaus and Johnson for running out of fuel at Michigan? Look, they took a chance and it didn’t work out… so what? With the team all but assured a spot in the Chase, they made a call to go for the win and 10 bonus points, feeling they were unable to trust the car would be good enough to handle back in traffic if they dove down pit road during the race’s final caution. It was nice to see a car actually gamble for the win instead of points race for once….
As for Johnson worried about getting bitten by fuel-mileage racing, yes, Edwards did win two of the last three races of 2008 on that very strategy. But if Johnson wins the other seven because his car is that much faster than everyone else, I think they don’t need to worry so much for coming in for an extra splash of gas in the other three.
Did You Notice? Some of the top 12 drivers actually declined tomorrow’s invitation to go see President Barack Obama at the White House? We won’t know the official count until tomorrow, but sources tell me at least two of last year’s Chase participants actually turned down the opportunity.
Now, I know a lot of NASCAR drivers lean to the right politically, but how often are you going to get the chance to meet with a sitting president? For some, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with one of the most powerful people in the world. In my opinion, I think it’s a time you put political differences aside and just do it for the experience, especially since they’re not representing themselves, but the sport as a whole with how they react. And after all, how are we going to get anywhere in this country if we refuse to sit down at the same bargaining table with each other? I think declining the invites over political reasons is petty, and it’s wrong.
Did You Notice? The differing comments between rich and poor on the current state of the sport? I read and saw two things this weekend that were the epitome of contradiction – a good point to end on in what’s been a bit of a light news week. The first was a fantastic article on NASCAR.com by Dave Rodman about the start-and-park situation, highlighting Mike Bliss’s decision to go park James Finch’s Cup car for money just one week after being released by the exact same team in the Nationwide Series. As part of the story, Rodman interviewed several people in and around the start-and-park phenomenon, including several veterans who’ve had to stoop to these types of rides in order to survive. Among them was a telling quote by Mike Wallace on how bad things have become:
“It’s to the point,” he said in the story, “Where we’re not trying to build a career any more. We’re just trying to maintain a lifestyle – to make a living.”
Added Bliss: “It really makes you look at the sport, you just want to throw your hands up and just give up – but this is all I know. I love racing and I love the Nationwide Series. We’re all supposed to be big racecar drivers, but it makes you just want to cry. It really hurts, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Now, let’s compare that to Rick Hendrick’s surprise visit on the ESPN Countdown studio on Sunday. When asked about where he sees the sport in two years, here was what the car owner said in the wake of other sponsors getting forced out and manufacturer support drying up by the millions:
“We have a lot of support from a lot of different sponsors not even on the car,” he said when asked about his current situation, as if the economic crisis had been little more than a blip on the radar for HMS. “When you go through the type of recession this country is seeing, you just have to tighten your belt.”
“I think this sport is strong, and the addition of Toyota’s been good for us. I think the sport is in great shape. I think this double-wide restart [rule]… as a car owner, I don’t like it at all, but as a fan it’s exciting. I think these little town hall meetings we’re having with NASCAR, where the drivers and owners are talking with NASCAR trying to look at ways to support the fans more… it shows we’re all in this together. I think the competition is really good. I see our sport being super strong… and with the economy starting to pick up, I think we’ve made it through the darkest days.”
Can you guess who’s got all the money and the power and who doesn’t? Business couldn’t be better for Hendrick because everyone else is being forced to use him in order to survive. Whether it’s another team borrowing an old engine or Stewart-Haas using chassis and equipment, they’ve become the ultimate powerhouse. But as the rich get richer, the poor just dry up and disappear.
Talk to you after Bristol! New track or not, the night race is always one of the highlights of the year… almost impossible to disappoint. There, I’ve jinxed it….
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