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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Spread Too Thin, Do Other Interests Slow Drivers’ Cup Efforts?

Every day, you see it – race fans and media alike wondering about the lackluster performance of a few drivers who, by rights, should be at the top of their games. They drive great stuff, they have the talent, they have a record of past success and certainly aren’t over the hill. So people wonder – is it the crew chief? Is it the cars? Is it the water?

The Martinsville hot dogs?

I don’t think it’s any of those.

There are a variety of reasons that can add up, of course – the test ban, the cars, organizational changes – but for four drivers in particular, you have to wonder if it’s a case of burning the candle at both ends while standing in the middle. In the cases of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards it certainly gives pause – are these drivers simply spreading themselves too thin, losing focus in one area as they hone in on another?

For Earnhardt and Harvick, are business interests encroaching on race day? Both own successful race teams; Earnhardt owns a bar as well, and while he leaves management of that enterprise to someone else, he does spend some time there and he does have the business’s bottom line in mind. For Harvick, the race team he owns with his wife Delana is clearly a labor of love, and it’s been a success – Ron Hornaday won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2007 and is a near lock to do it again this year. Harvick also has five wins as an owner in the Nationwide Series – two driving his own car, two with Tony Stewart and one with Bobby Labonte behind the wheel. He is likely to expand his operation to the Cup garage eventually.

Harvick has all but said that 2010 will be his last season with Richard Childress Racing, and whether he will race for himself or someone else remains to be seen. Wherever he lands, Harvick’s performance has declined over the last three years since his five-win season in 2006, which coincidently is when his own teams have really started to perform. Harvick made the Chase in 2006, 2007 and 2008 but missed miserably this year, where he sits 21st in driver points – the worst among the four Childress-owned teams. Is team ownership a contributor?

Earnhardt, as well, has begun to have success as a car owner. Brad Keselowski sits third in Nationwide Series points, best of any Nationwide-only driver. Next year, Keselowski will move on, but Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports has already signed Kelly Bires as a replacement and is looking for sponsorship and a driver for a second car. As an owner, Earnhardt has the world by the tail with full support from Hendrick Motorsports. His Whisky River nightclub in Charlotte is flourishing. He enjoys the things his career has afforded him, as well he should. But maybe, just maybe, his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt had a point when she told the media that Earnhardt needed to decide between being a racecar driver or a celebrity.

Perhaps the impossible expectations of Earnhardt have taken their toll – maybe JRM and Whisky River are simply more fun for Earnhardt, more of a place to focus on as the intensity of the public eye never blinks. Maybe, as some have suggested, Earnhardt is eyeing a pullback from full-time Cup racing in the not-so-distant future.

Busch and Edwards eat, sleep and breathe racing. In fact, the two of them, and Busch in particular, race so much that they can barely find the time to eat, sleep or breathe. But how much racing is too much?

After spectacular Sprint Cup seasons in 2008 in which both drivers also mounted successful Nationwide Series campaigns (Edwards won the championship and Busch finished sixth in the standings after running only 30 of 35 races) and Busch competed in 18 of 25 CWTS races as well, both drivers chose to pursue the Nationwide Series championship this year, along with being heavily favored to contend for the Sprint Cup title.

And for both drivers, 2009 has been a disappointment. Busch, while leading the Nationwide points handily, failed to make the Chase despite four wins and has mustered just a dozen top-10 finishes in the Cup cars. Edwards has no wins this year after a spectacular nine-win season in 2008 that fell just short of the Cup title. He made the Chase on a lackluster 13 top-10 finishes, but has made no noise at all, and could be mathematically eliminated from contention within the next two weeks, sitting in 10th place, 413 points out of the lead.

Is it these drivers’ extracurricular activities that hamper their Cup Series success? Probably not entirely, but you have to wonder if they don’t play a significant role. Is there such as thing as racing too much, so much that it spreads a driver’s concentration too thin on Sunday? Does having a “feel’ for another type of car make it harder to feel the CoT? It’s worth a second look by these drivers and their car owners – they can and should be winning races, but maybe they all need to refocus on that ultimate goal.

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