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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Mark Martin Abandoned, F1/NASCAR Flavor & Earnhardt Needs a New Crew Chief?

Did You Notice? That despite leading the points for three straight weeks, no one’s jumping on the Mark Martin bandwagon quite yet? Despite opening a gap of 18 points over Jimmie Johnson and 51 over everyone else, the 50-year-old is still buried in the headlines this week while Johnson remains the prohibitive favorite.

Why are people so reluctant to jump on board? Simple: You can only cry wolf so many times before everyone stops paying attention. Sure, this year has been different for Martin, who carries an air of confidence and calm about him that we’ve never seen when fighting for a title. No question, he’s driving for the best team in the business right now in Hendrick Motorsports. But in all reality, no one – not even Martin himself – will jump on board this title fight until he makes it through Talladega (i.e., “the lotto”) unscathed. The poor man’s been through so much heartbreak that at this point, we don’t just worry about Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last second – we expect it.

The stats aren’t exactly in Martin’s favor over the next six weeks, either. Six of the next seven tracks left on the schedule are ones we’re visiting for the second time this season. Martin’s average finish at those six places this spring? A mediocre 19.0… the worst average of any of the 12 Chasers. Here’s a full comparison if you’re interested:

Mark Martin – 19.0
Jimmie Johnson – 9.8
Juan Pablo Montoya – 13.7
Tony Stewart9.8
Kurt Busch – 12.3
Denny Hamlin9.8
Jeff Gordon – 13.8
Greg Biffle – 11.2
Ryan Newman – 11.7
Carl Edwards – 13.5
Kasey Kahne – 17.7
Brian Vickers – 15.2

As you can see, two of Martin’s closest three challengers (Johnson and Stewart) have him badly beaten in this category. I know Martin’s poor performance was due to DNFs more than anything else, but that’s exactly the type of thing everyone’s so concerned about, isn’t it? After all, Martin’s gone no more than six races this season without a finish of 31st or worse. It’s a streak he actually tied Sunday at Kansas – which means to win the championship, he’s likely going to have to stretch that number to 13.

Can he do it? Of course he’s got a chance. But history is not on his side.

Did You Notice? This sudden wave of Formula 1 drivers looking to try their hand at stock cars? One week after 42-year-old Mika Salo announced a test for Michael Waltrip Racing, F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. will join the IRL’s Vitor Meira in a two-truck test for Red Horse Racing next week. The goal: see where their times stack up and if an open-wheel to stock car conversion could be right for them.

You’d think after the mixed results of open-wheel superstars in NASCAR (Montoya vs. Jacques Villeneuve, Sam Hornish Jr. vs. Dario Franchitti) combined with NASCAR’s shaky economics, drivers would think twice before making the switch. But when you think about it, this trio all shares something in common: They’ll never be in position to drive top equipment in open-wheel ever again. With Piquet’s role in the Renault cheating scandal (crashing his car in the Singapore Grand Prix intentionally last year to set up a win for teammate Fernando Alonso) chances are he’ll never land a top-notch ride in F1. Salo’s age (42) makes him a dead duck even with the series expanding their grid in 2010, while Meira just went through a scary Indy 500 wreck that sidelined him for months and, at 32, left him an IRL driver most teams just don’t want to take a chance on.

So heck, if I were them why wouldn’t I try my hand in NASCAR? I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by a sport desperate for any type of new talent it can get right now. And when you take a look at the big picture, with the advent of technology this decade these stock cars are set up more like F1 than ever before. The vehicles are so aero sensitive, finding the right adjustments to make have become increasingly difficult for drivers to figure out – so why not turn to those who’ve spent their career working with dozens of engineers before they even get to the track? If you’re still not convinced, look no further than Michael Waltrip Racing’s Vice President Steve Hallam – finishing up his first year in NASCAR after 27 years managing and engineering cars in F1. You think Hallam would fit in with this sport in 1988 or even 2002?

Not a chance.

There’s a slippery slope here, though, for NASCAR in relying on drivers named Meira and Piquet and Salo to be their future talent. In a sport where fans are still struggling to accept a foreign manufacturer, an influx of foreign drivers isn’t exactly going to get fans running back to their seats. I don’t agree, but the facts speak for themselves: Look at how Champ Car fell apart amidst an inability to market anybody American on their roster. NASCAR would be better served working within Camping World East, USAR and other minor-league divisions in ensuring successful talent there gets positioned for rides in the Truck and Nationwide series.

Instead, the sport continues to go outside the box for its future instead of flourishing from within. And when you don’t water your own flowers… after a while, the drought is just too much to overcome.

Did You Notice? Despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s insistence he’d like Lance McGrew back as crew chief, Hendrick is reluctant to award him the job for good in 2010? The official statement says it’ll be a “couple of weeks” before a decision is reached… and for good reason. That’s because even though the No. 88 has shown some promise in recent weeks, it still has yet to finish what it’s started. Let’s check in quickly with Junior’s numbers under McGrew vs. Tony Eury Jr. earlier this season:

Eury (12 races): 0 wins, 1 top five, 3 top 10s, 90 laps led, 4 races led, 1 DNF, Average Finish: 21.3
McGrew (17 races): 0 wins, 1 top five, 2 top 10s, 47 laps led, 4 DNFs, 2 races led, Average Finish: 22.9

Just going by stats alone, you’d have to say that things aren’t exactly peachy over at the No. 88; instead, they’ve gotten worse. And let’s give credit to Eury where credit’s due: not only did he get too much blame for the team’s sudden collapse, he’s working wonders with the No. 25 and Brad Keselowski, giving his rookie what could have been a winning car Sunday at Kansas if an untimely caution didn’t cost them too much track position.

Yes, I understand that Earnhardt likes the way McGrew does things and the team is “making progress.” But the bottom line is they’re still not at their best in the race’s final quarter, and hasn’t that been the problem over there for almost two years now? Add to that a driver still acting like he’s out in left field (how can you not know a missed lugnut is a pit road violation? Come on!) and my recommendation for a hard-line crew chief for 2010 still stands. Because let’s face it, folks, McGrew may be the type of guy Junior trusts… but he’s not going to light a fire. Of course he’s going to “trust” a guy who doesn’t put pressure on him. It makes things so easy!

I really did think Greg Zipadelli was the answer here, but he’s not going anywhere it seems, so Hendrick has two options: 1) Look within and see if there’s someone like Steve Letarte that has the talent and the guts to deal with this pressure-packed job the right way. 2) Go spend big money on some big-name crew chief at another team, dangling a carrot in front of them to see if they bite and break contract. But again, I don’t see a big-time, fiery head wrench out there… unless they can make a one-time, desperate plea for Ray Evernham to come back.

Did You Notice? A few quick things before I go, similar to a little segment I like to call “Bowles Bits” over at Sports Illustrated…

  • To put the final touches on Junior: In 29 races this season, he has as many DNFs (5) than the rest of Hendrick Motorsports combined. And that includes the No. 25 car driven by Keselowski.
  • Michael Waltrip Racing pursuing Danica Patrick? That’s like Oklahoma City trying to woo LeBron James in the offseason. You’re telling me the IRL’s leading diva would spurn the sport’s top team (and her current sponsor) for an organization that’s never even made the Chase? Nice try, Michael… but fat chance. Realize she’s using you to drive up the asking price before it’s too late.
  • The start-and-park phenomenon is spreading to include more and more multi-car teams? (As our own Bryan Davis Keith pointed out, SK Motorsports in the Nationwide Series is the latest addition). My take on this one is surprise, surprise: after all, when you’ve got a successful business model, it’s only a matter of time before you expand. How many more will sprout up before NASCAR addresses this problem? Does half the field need to park? Where’s someone like Michael Moore when we need a national video expose to make this damned thing stop?
  • The name Eric McClure probably makes you laugh, but I have a whole different take on the guy after reading Tuesday’s interview on this site with Bryan Davis Keith. Easily one of the top-10 Q&As I’ve read in NASCAR all year… totally changed my opinion on the man. Sometimes, you look at these drivers simply buying a ride (Kevin Conway, Robert Richardson, McClure, etc.) and you forget there’s an actual human being with goals and aspirations behind him. Give McClure this much credit: in an era where small teams are giving up and parking even with sponsorship, he’s giving 110% and trying to race each week.
  • When somebody finds out the latest on the RPM–Yates merger, would they do us a favor and actually tell their own employees? The Gilletts spoke out this weekend and still – to no one’s surprise – real important people don’t know what the hell is going on. Trust me on that.
  • Great job on raising the catchfences, Daytona and Talladega. Now, can you move the stands back just a few rows? No amount of height in the world will keep some debris from spilling into the stands the way some of these crashes turn out.
  • Speaking of Brad, aren’t you foaming at the mouth for when he and Kyle Busch have an on-track confrontation next season? I used to think that Kyle could wind up being the closest thing we had to Dale Earnhardt. Now, it’s Brad. No wonder why NASCAR warned Keselowski about racing hard around the Chasers: he’s shown that if someone else races him hard, the kid won’t automatically come ‘round and let them go just because they’re battling for a championship. And why should he? The sport telling drivers to stop racing hard around the Chasers is an insult to the other 31 cars on the track. Look, I don’t think Vickers stopped racing hard when he turned his own teammate on the last lap at Talladega in 2006. And guess what? Johnson still came back to win the championship. The lesson we learned there is that title-winning drivers can overcome many obstacles put up in their path. Don’t remove the hurdles, because winning that trophy is all about how well you’re able to jump.

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!)

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