Did You Notice? How the simple threat of future job security in NASCAR can motivate drivers sitting in mid-pack? Every year about this time, there can be so many that enter an ugly routine of just going through the motions. They’re not bad enough to have to fight to stay within the Top 35, but not good enough to contend for a spot in the Chase, leaving them lost in delivering the equivalent of a C/C- performance on paper each week. With a 36-race schedule becoming a daily grind, it gets to the point where these teams simply collect their weekly paycheck and muddle on through a year defined by complacency. It’s like the guy in Office Space before he realizes the job has started boring him out of his mind; the most exciting thing in his life is finishing up at the end of the day and going to watch kung fu.
Alright, so maybe Bobby Labonte does a little something different in his spare time. But I think we can all agree his year was pretty uneventful until the rug was pulled out from under him at Hall of Fame/Yates Racing. Replaced by Erik Darnell for seven of the last 12 races, the only ride Labonte could find on short notice (considering he hasn’t won since 2003) was with a small-time team that occasionally start-and-parks due to a lack of funding (TRG). The No. 71 car lacks half the resources of a team he left… yet what does the former champ go out and do? Finish in the top 20 for his best finish since the end of May and the team’s best since Las Vegas all the way back in March. At the end, you see the 45-year-old showing more fire than he has since getting sold some faulty info by Petty Enterprises at the end of 2008.
As impressive as that underdog performance is, it begs the question, “Where was this surge in performance when he drove the No. 96?” But Labonte’s not the first to feel a sudden twinge of motivation behind the wheel after getting the pink slip. David Stremme’s another example, who had perhaps his strongest run of the year Sunday in Roger Penske’s No. 12 car (14th) just days after being told he won’t be brought back for 2010. It was his second top 15 in the last three weeks, the perfect audition as he looks to keep himself full-time in the Cup Series next year.
Even the threat of breaking up can sometimes lift a mid-pack team during the “summer doldrums.” At Indy the end of July, Kevin Harvick threatened to leave RCR to the point where it seemed Stewart-Haas was already setting up a third car with his name on the door. Childress fought back, having a private meeting in which he promised the team’s flagship driver a fresh start. In the six races since, Harvick has four top 15s, one less than he had over the first five months of the season.
Now, compare that to what happens once the sudden adrenaline boost fades away. For example, AJ Allmendinger started the year with no guarantee of a ride beyond Texas in April in the No. 44. Desperately fighting to keep his job, he scored four top-20 finishes in the first six races before Richard Petty Motorsports signed him to a two-year deal in mid-April. With his future intact, you’d think there’d be a movement onwards and upwards; instead, he’s got just one top 10 ever since and has plummeted to 25th in points. Want another case in point? Just check out Michael Waltrip’s stat line as of late, who’s looking forward to retirement and a limited schedule in 2010. Since going public with the change in July, he’s got just one finish inside the top 25 to go along with two DNFs in six starts.
I think these all just go to show you what athletes try and make their fans understand all the time: they’re human beings just like the rest of us, capable of going through the same type of ruts we all face as working professionals over the course of our lives. Because of that, I think that’s for these middling teams, the crew chiefs, GMs and overall management hold the key to their success over the next 11 races. With the Chase one week away, these cars are facing next to no TV time combined with a dearth of media coverage unless they run up front; and with nothing to look forward to, it’s so easy to throw in the towel and do just that. But without a kick in the pants or an extra push to break out of the slump, how is 2010 going to be any different for anyone in this category?
Certainly, I don’t recommend holding a job over someone’s head to fix a problem. Yet for “mediocre” drivers like Elliott Sadler, David Ragan, Reed Sorenson, etc. you wonder if they’re in need of a similar jolt. I mean, what would happen if RPM said they’ll scale down to three teams for 2010: Kasey Kahne’s No. 9, and the two cars who have the best average finish over the final 10 races of the season? Talk about adding a little extra drama to the schedule… you wouldn’t see those cars pulling over for Chase contenders, that’s for darn sure.
Did You Notice? In the midst of Harvick’s dominant performance late in the race at Atlanta, his pit crew almost blew the race for him? With less than 100 laps to go, the No. 29 dropped from the lead to fourth after a poor pit stop under caution let Kahne get out in front.
What’s the cruel irony here? As we reported a few weeks ago, the team didn’t have all its “A” crew members in place because a few of them were on loan to Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 – just because the car was in playoff contention. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot… it’s the perfect example of how this type of strategy backfires, especially for a team that needs a win at any level from whoever can give it to them at this point.
And by the way, did anyone else notice the cruel irony of Bowyer himself bringing out the final caution after Harvick had finally fought his way back to the front and started pulling away? When it’s not your year, man, it’s not your year… Mr. Childress better fix that mirror he broke, because this slump is bordering on out of control.
Did You Notice? David Gilliland is the hottest Silly Season driver on the market right now? Running three races for a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing team, the No. 02, Gilliland will also run the No. 7 for Robby Gordon at Richmond one week after filling in for the Wood Brothers in their No. 21 Ford. And that’s all in addition to his regular ride at the No. 71 for TRG Motorsports (although he’ll now share time with Labonte after his recent “semi-release” from Hall of Fame Racing).
Now, you’ve got to admit Gilliland has done a respectable job this year in keeping an underfunded TRG afloat. But when a driver with four top-10 finishes in 110 career starts is the best free-agent prospect out there… you know you’ve got a driver development problem. In my opinion, that’s likely the biggest reason why Joe Gibbs Racing isn’t willing to expand to four cars full-time yet. As RCR has shown us already this season, why bother to make the switch unless you have the right people and funding in place so you don’t skip a beat? While Gilliland is a good driver, he’s not nearly at the talent level of a Kyle Busch, Joey Logano or Denny Hamlin… so you’re better off building a team around a young talent. But as we saw in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night – where the top-13 drivers will all be full-time in Cup in 2010 – there’s just no new blood to be found.
Danica Patrick, where are you? You can’t get here soon enough. And speaking of racing’s number one gal…
Did You Notice? That Danica’s signing could turn into the ultimate Rick Hendrick vs Jack Roush battle – disguised as two other teams? With a new contract at Andretti Green on the table, IRL rival Chip Ganassi falls out of the bidding war, leaving NASCAR’s Ford and Chevy top dawgs as the likely suitors for her services, respectively.
Here’s the problem for both those organizations right now; there’s no room at the inn on their “A” teams, nor will there be for the foreseeable future. So, instead you’ll see news stories like Danica visiting Stewart-Haas Racing (the equivalent to Hendrick “B”) in between conversations I know she’s had with Roush Fenway (who would put her on their “B” team, Yates Racing). It’s got the potential to be the most blatant violation yet of the four-team rule that wasn’t… you just wait and see.
Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)