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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Driver Development Busts, Ridiculous Race Names & Why Restarts Are Crazy

Did You Notice? How so many race names this year have turned into the equivalent of a tongue twister on crack? It’s bad enough to listen to drivers in victory lane not talk about the race before they have to thank their “sponsors A,B, C… even that Z thingee on the rear quarterpanel who somehow gave me that extra boost of driving talent to win today.”

Well now, it’s the racetracks taking the sponsorship angle just a little bit too far.

Check out some of the names of races we’ve had on the Cup schedule this season:

  • 2009 Crown Royal Presents the Russ Friedman 400 (Richmond, May)
  • 2009 Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 (Pocono, August)
  • 2009 Autism Speaks 400 Presented by Heluva Good! (Dover, May)
  • 2009 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen (Watkins Glen, August)
  • 2009 Price Chopper 400 Presented by Kraft Foods (Kansas, October)
  • 2009 NASCAR Banking 500 Only From Bank of America (Lowe’s, October)

These titles irritate me to no end. It’s bad enough NASCAR has so many “official sponsors” that get snatched up to support the sanctioning body instead of dozens of struggling teams on the circuit during these tough economic times. Now, one of two things are happening at the tracks themselves (many of which are owned by NASCAR’s racetrack wing, ISC). They’re either trying to squeeze two sponsors into the name in an attempt to give exposure to as many companies as possible, or (even worse) sponsors coming up with tongue twisters and special promotions in hopes the long name or cheesy competition will reinforce their branding in our heads.

Well, I have news for these guys; what they’re doing is just making things confusing and awkward. Do they really think I’m going to go on the radio and say things like, “If it wasn’t for what happened at the NASCAR Banking 500 Only From Bank of America, Juan Pablo Montoya would be in Chase contention?” Are you crazy? In fact, I’m surprised some of you are still reading and didn’t doze off during that last sentence. Maybe I’ll say “NASCAR Banking 500” while discussing the race, but when faced with a long name like the one from Saturday night all I’m probably going to say is “Lowe’s” or “Charlotte.” All my writers are perpetually confused by these tongue twisters, too; they don’t want to slight a sponsor that paid millions to a racetrack, but how long can they put a 10-word name in an article, interrupting their flow, and get people to take them seriously?

Well, I have news for you, this practice is out of hand and we’re not supporting it. The one exception here I can see is Autism Speaks, as that deal is charitable in nature, a way to spread awareness about a developmental disorder spreading at an alarming rate. But fitting two sponsors into the same name? That’s just plain silly. It’s either one or the other… and if tracks keep doing that, the only way we’re going to stop it is by ignoring the second sponsor or the absolutely ridiculous name. I’m starting the rebellion here this week by making sure every article refers to Lowe’s as the NASCAR Banking 500… and if people can’t figure out that means Bank of America, well, maybe their marketing execs should have figured out a better way to advertise.

By the way, I couldn’t move on without reciting my personal favorite: “2009 Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola.” You’re kidding me! I thought Coke Zero was made by Pepsi….

Did You Notice? The griping by several drivers on restarts lately? We’ve now gone two weeks in a row with major incidents, with Denny Hamlin’s untimely wreck at California followed by a stack-up at Lowe’s that ruined the days of both Montoya and Mark Martin. After the race, Montoya spoke out on Jeff Gordon’s role in that incident, claiming his tactics caused a bottleneck that couldn’t be avoided.

“They all accelerated and they all checked up,” Montoya said of a brake-checking move during the restart designed to get an advantage. “Every time the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) restarted it was the same thing.”

So the question is… why now? Why so many problems on the restarts in 2009 when we’ve had them for years and years without multiple incidents? Certainly, changing the double-file restarts to put the lead-lap cars up front has a lot to do with it, but that shouldn’t get all the blame. After all, it’s not like lead-lap cars didn’t try and get the jump on people they wanted to keep a lap down under the old format. And Gordon’s been around for 16 years… you’d think we’d hear some sort of complaint before last week.

Well, the real answer comes from a little nagging problem called the “new car.” With the “aero push” and ill-handling vehicles making it harder than ever to pass, restarts have become a two- or three-lap shootout to gain as many spots as possible. Even if you have a long-run car, you lose so much time passing people that maintaining track position is critical; a loss of five or six positions could have you spending the entire rest of your green flag run getting them back. People have suffered those consequences on intermediate tracks, as well as noticed how strong Gordon and other drivers have run on two tires in clean air late in the race. So, the restarts have become a game of trickery, with desperation setting in and people drooling for their one and only chance to pass slower cars in front of them with ease.

Now, if we make the new car easier to pass with at the intermediates, chances are these problems will ease up a bit. But since we’re not… you know how everyone copycats in this sport, and with brake-checking and different restart styles becoming an accepted practice (i.e. – not penalized by NASCAR) we’re going to see it more and more down the stretch because of what’s at stake.

Did You Notice? Being the Rookie of the Year in the Nationwide Series can be the equivalent of the Kiss of Death? We’re reminded of their free-fall this week, when Landon Cassill gets his first Nationwide start of the season driving James Finch’s No. 1 Chevrolet despite winning this prestigious award a year ago. Here’s a quick look at the ROTY race from 2008 and where the drivers ended up:

2008
Nationwide Series Winner: Cassill, no starts this season
2nd: Bryan Clauson, no starts this season
3rd: Dario Franchitti, went back to IRL
4th: Cale Gale, one start this season (wrecked at Nashville in June for KHI; 2010 free agent)
5th: Brian Keselowski (no top 10s in 18 starts with his family-owned team)

Now, a look at this year’s standings doesn’t show much improvement. Justin Allgaier looks destined to win the award, but there are some whispers cropping up recently he may not return full-time with the team in 2010 (see below). Second-place Brendan Gaughan has also not officially announced his return to Rusty Wallace’s No. 62 Chevy, while Michael McDowell and Michael Annett have no sponsorship in place for 2010 in their respective rides. Scott Lagasse Jr., who rounds out the top five, has already been released, unceremoniously booted from his ride in the No. 11 Toyota for a handful of different drivers back in August.

OK, so let’s think about this one for a second. This level is supposed to be the equivalent of “AAA” baseball, where the sport’s best prospects dust themselves off and prepare for a possible jump to the major leagues. But how can they do that if their development is not sustained? No wonder NASCAR has to go reaching over to open-wheel to grab the next big talent… right now, they have no choice unless some car owners and sponsors are willing to align themselves with the next big thing instead of some established star looking to beat up on the little guy.

Did You Notice? That with Kirk Almquist leaving as his crew chief this week, Robby Gordon has made it through the full season with the same head wrench just once in his five years as a car owner. Only when Greg Erwin (now Greg Biffle’s crew chief) manned the shop from late 2005-early 2007 did Gordon have stability in the leadership position. Ever since, it seems like it’s been a revolving door over at RGM, with crew chiefs quickly tiring of the limited funding and Gordon’s tendency to berate his team on the radio.

Gordon claims he’s in solid position to continue racing in 2010 despite losing sponsor Jim Beam. But he won’t be in a solid position to contend until he’s able to keep someone around long enough to both organize his program and get it heading in the right direction. Perhaps Doug Richert is that man… we’ll have to see. By the way, it was Richert who Erwin essentially replaced over at the No. 16 after he and Biffle had a falling out by the end of 2006. What goes around….

Did You Notice? Two interesting situations to close it out this week…

  • If rumors are true Jamie McMurray is out of the running at Earnhardt Ganassi, then David Stremme likely moves to the top of the list for the No. 1. Yes, that David Stremme, who’s gone a whole year at Penske without a top-10 finish. But he’s kept up a good relationship with his former boss since being released from the No. 40 Dodge a few years ago, with former teammate Montoya giving Stremme the bulk of the credit for helping him learn the stock car racing ropes as a rookie. Remember, Bass Pro Shops is the sponsor there, and they’re looking for an outdoorsy type they can market – Stremme fits that bill. If he doesn’t get the ride, the best opportunity could be with a Rusty Wallace Inc. car next season in the Nationwide Series.
  • What’s going to happen with Roger Penske’s Nationwide program? This much we know for sure: Brad Keselowski will be driving the No. 22 Discount Tire Dodge in 2010. But when I got confirmation from a source Penske prospect Parker Kligerman was moving up to Nationwide next year (it just hasn’t been announced yet), that surprised me as the organization is committed to two full-time teams – not three. Could that mean Allgaier’s in trouble? Currently fifth in points, he’s collected three top fives and 12 top-10 finishes in what’s been a productive rookie year behind the wheel of the No. 12 Verizon car. But he hasn’t had a top-five finish since Kentucky in June, and Kligerman impressed plenty of onlookers with his pole-winning run at Kansas this October. I’ll bet the runner-up in ARCA points will just end up in a third part-time ride depending on sponsorship, but there’s enough whispers I’ve heard that the situation bears watching.

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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