Occasionally, you hear comical stories of superstition in motorsports.
Joe Weatherly, whose untimely death in a crash is why stock cars have window nets today, suffered from triskaidekaphobia and once asked NASCAR to call the 13th Southern 500 the “12th Renewal of the Southern 500.” He also once asked to rename his 13th starting position in a race to “12a.”
There are green car phobias, which supposedly trace back to one of the Chevrolet brothers, Gaston, being killed in a Beverly Hills race. Gaston was driving a green car at the time, and green has been seen as bad luck ever since, despite Bobby Labonte’s 2000 championship in an Interstate Batteries Pontiac.
Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. were also both famous for their aversion to peanuts in the garage, and both were the targets of peanut-related practical jokes by team members and fellow competitors. One story told by Robert Yates describes a crew member who was painting foam packing peanuts and pretending to eat them near Johnson’s car, a move which sent Junior through the roof. “He didn’t think that was very funny,” chuckled Yates.
But who knows? Kevin Harvick claimed to lose an engine once on a day where there were peanuts around the garage. Sometimes, these things do take on a life of their own.
Which brings us to… David Ragan. After pulling the UPS No. 6 into the Loudon garage after finishing 33rd and 13 laps down, placing him 30th in the standings, it’s nearly been forgotten that Ragan was a driver with a bright future not very long ago, when AAA was sponsoring the car.
But it seems that there is some sort of FedHex on any car that sports the famous UPS logo. Not anything dangerous, mind you; just something that makes race cars slow.
Let me explain. Now, if your racing fan days go back a stretch, you remember how dominant Dale Jarrett once was, as difficult as that may be to believe seeing his last few seasons behind the wheel.
Back in 1996, Jarrett took over the Quality Care Ford Motor Credit No. 88 for Yates Racing. In that car, he won two Daytona 500s, a Coca-Cola 600, and the Winston Cup championship in 1999, after falling 14 points short to Jeff Gordon in 1997. He won 20 races, scored 95 top fives, and 119 top 10s in 167 races. That is rare supremacy in this sport.
Then Jarrett and Yates signed on with UPS, launching the now-famous “Race The Truck” campaign. For the first two years of this partnership, there was a slight downturn: six wins, 22 top 5s, and 37 top 10s, along with a fifth and ninth place finish in the standings. That’s hardly terrible in any two seasons, but it was the first noticeable decline in the performance of the No. 88.
Then, in 2003, Jarrett fell off a cliff and never fully recovered. He won just one race that year, and that win was his only top five in a season where Jarrett inexplicably finished 27th in points. For the rest of his career at Yates, Jarrett would score only one more win in three seasons and never again finished higher than 15th in the standings.
Despite the dropoff, UPS was happy enough with Jarrett as their spokesman to go along with him to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007. In retrospect, that seems like a colossal blunder, but at the time most of the pundits saw the big name sponsors, manufacturer, and the veteran’s three-car team and predicted big things.
It didn’t work out that way. Jarrett burned his six champion provisionals very early in the season and made just 24 races in 2007, never once finishing in the top 10. At the end of the season, Jarrett finally tired of the aero disadvantages of racing in a parcel delivery truck and announced his retirement after five races in 2008. In those five events, his highest finish was a 16th in the Daytona 500.
The UPS whammy then passed down to David Reutimann. After a 2007 season where Reutimann was the top performer at MWR, he scored just four top 10s in 2008, finally exhausting UPS’s patience despite their own role in driver declines. He was still the top performer at MWR… but that wasn’t saying much.
Yet after UPS left, Reutimann not only won his first ever Cup race at Charlotte, but he actually surprised everyone by challenging for a Chase spot well into the season. Reutimann has scored five top fives in 2009, after managing zero with the heavy UPS logo on the car. He is also still ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Harvick in the standings, two drivers that have had little trouble acquiring sponsors in their careers. And 13 drivers separate him and the current UPS driver, Ragan.
UPS had signed on with Ragan starting in 2009. Last season Ragan, with AAA on the car, seemed to have the best future of the sport’s “young guns.” He barely missed the Chase and finished 13th in points, a great improvement over finishing 23rd in 2007. He scored six top fives and 14 top 10s in 2008 after scoring two top 5s and three top 10s in 2007. He had even scored 11th and 13th place finishes at Martinsville, a place where he had once been called a “dart without feathers” by Tony Stewart. Of course it seemed like a wise choice for the company — if you didn’t consider the withering effect that UPS brown has had on its past wheelmen.
But with the UPS logo on his car, Ragan has gone from riches to rags. The No. 6 has exactly one top 10 this season, in the rain-shortened Daytona 500. Since then Ragan has finished in the top 15 just four times, never higher than 12th. His last three races have been three straight 33rds. And he is now 30th in the standings — which means if he drops one more position, it will be the same margin of decline that Jarrett suffered from 2002 to 2003.
It might be a strange statistic to consider, but what would be the odds of two different drivers, driving for two different teams, dropping 18 positions in the standings in the space of one season while sharing only a sponsor in common? (Also a manufacturer, I suppose, but many more drivers have driven Fords than for UPS.)
Most all of this stuff can probably be explained away. Yates in general was beginning a decline when they signed on with UPS. All of Michael Waltrip’s teams have struggled. Roush Fenway has had problems with NASCAR no longer allowing them to test. You could just call it bad timing and foresight on UPS’s part.
But there isn’t any denying a noticeable correlation between a team’s performance with and without a brown UPS logo on the race car. UPS appeared on Jarrett’s car, and he went from contending for titles to fighting to make races every week in just a few years. They appeared on Reutimann’s car, and Reutimann showed little improvement; then, after their departure, he rocketed to near-playoff contention. Now, they move to Ragan’s car, and he has gone from a young driver with a bright future to being one of those who is rarely shown on TV unless he crashes or enters into the pits spinning backwards.
No doubt, Matt Kenseth must have breathed a sigh of relief when UPS didn’t offer to replace DeWalt on the No. 17 in 2010.
- As our newsletter reported on Tuesday, overnight ratings for Sunday’s race were the worst ever for a Chase race and 17% lower than the last pre-Chase era Loudon race in 2003 (although the final ratings were a little better). That looks like pretty strong evidence that the Chase hasn’t captured the “they just go around in circles” crowd. Yet there are still constant assertions from several places that it’s “working,” somehow. Sigh.
- As you probably know, Jack Daniel’s is leaving the No. 07 car, putting Richard Childress in the unenviable position of deciding whether Shell, Caterpillar, or General Mills should now sponsor Casey Mears. OK, I’m kidding, but I’ve seen more ridiculous things done to keep a driver who averages eight top 10s a season.
- We at Happy Hour like to acknowledge unsolicited charity efforts by the sport’s drivers and teams, so here’s a shout out for Martin Truex, Jr., who bought 100 tickets for Dover season ticketholders who couldn’t renew in these tough times. At today’s ticket prices, that’s not a small chunk of change. Good job T.
- Kasey Kahne’s team has publicly denied that there was any sabotage of his engine last weekend following the Ford announcement, and given that they are bringing the old Dodge motor back for Dover, I believe it. Still, that is some coincidence.