NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Big Brother Gets to Keselowski, Marlin’s “Sterling” Career & No Championship Talk (Promise!)

Did You Notice? That with only one week left to go in the season, there’s plenty more to focus on than just the championship. Continuing the theme I had last week, let’s look at some small knickknacks people might have forgotten about with Jimmie Johnson mania on overload. That’s right, it’s time to actually adhere to the meaning of the words of this column….

So Did You Notice? that while Joey Logano has locked up this year’s Rookie of the Year title, it’s first-year driver Marcos Ambrose who has the edge in top fives (4 to 3), points (3,767 to 3,700), and average start (19.7 to 20.1)? Despite Logano’s upset win at New Hampshire earlier this year, the two would be running neck-and-neck… except Ambrose isn’t eligible for the award. Running 11 of 36 races last season, he was well over the limit of no more than seven per year in order to run for the rookie title.

Did You Notice? Carl Edwards has fewer top fives this season (seven) than he had wins in 2008 (nine). And should he fall short of victory lane again this Sunday, Edwards would set a modern-era record as the first driver to win nine times or more and then go winless the following year. In case you’re wondering, the all-time record was set back in 1965-66, when both Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson got shut out one season after leading the Cup Series with 13 wins apiece. However, in each of their cases both men had scaled back to a part-time schedule the following year, before retiring from driving cold turkey after 1966.

Did You Notice? That if Dale Earnhardt Jr. falls out of the top 25 in owner points, it would be the first time in five years a Hendrick-owned car has finished the season that badly. In 2004, the No. 5 and No. 25 cars were 26th and 27th, respectively, with Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers at the controls. However, there were extenuating circumstances in each of those cases: Labonte was in his final year of full-time driving, while Vickers was just a 21-year-old rookie on the Cup level.

Did You Notice? Junior is also the lowest-ranked driver in points of anyone who made the Chase last season. But the biggest drop-off actually goes to Kevin Harvick… from fourth in the 2008 standings to a mediocre 21st in 2009.

Did You Notice? Mark Martin will easily have the biggest improvement in the points, for obvious reasons: from 28th on a part-time schedule last year to second in ’09. Montoya’s the best of the full-time drivers, jumping from 25th in points last year to as high as third depending on what happens at Homestead this Sunday.

Did You Notice? Paul Menard is the only driver to run every race this season without a top-10 finish. That means in his last 101 starts in the Cup Series, the only time he’s run 10th or better is a second-place finish in the 2008 fall race at Talladega.

Did You Notice? AJ Allmendinger is 25th in points, but has yet to lead a lap. That’s the first time someone’s run every race, not led a lap, and finished that high in points since Terry Labonte back in 2001.

Did You Notice? That since winning at Kansas in October, Tony Stewart has been just the fourth-best Hendrick-supported car in four of the last six races. But of course, that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact he gets “the same” chassis and equipment they’re dishing out to Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon… right?

OK, so there you have it: a handful of hodgepodge stats from this season to get you off the “Jimmie’s going to win a fourth!” bandwagon for the week.

Did You Notice? Sterling Marlin was still racing competitively? Seriously, the poor guy hasn’t run the full distance in a Cup show since Homestead in November, 2008. So that’s why, at 52, it’s no surprise to see one of the sport’s unique characters finally sit back and call it a career, all but announcing his retirement to Larry Woody of Racin’ Today this week. He’s spent this year failing to finish all seven of his starts, starting and parking in six while DNQing in five others with James Finch’s No. 09 team.

Can Marlin still do it? Probably, if he had enough experience with the new car to adjust. But in a sport where technology and sponsor savvy trumps driver talent every time, the good ol’ Southern twang rings hollow in a sport Marlin claims “isn’t fun anymore.” That’s a shame, because there should always be a place for men whose lives were built around blue-collar speed – not white-collar sales.

When I look back at Marlin’s career, I always remember him as the early ‘90s Michael Waltrip, the driver who came so close so many times only to come up short of victory lane. Like Waltrip, when Marlin broke through it was on the sport’s biggest stage, winning the 1994 Daytona 500 in his 269th Cup start after a heated, late-race battle with Ernie Irvan. Yet, like ol’ Mikey, he struggled after that, going winless while slumping to 14th in the final standings – in many ways, the worst season for the Morgan-McClure team since 1989.

But the next year is when Marlin broke through and shed the future “Waltrip” label as a one-track wonder. His second straight Daytona 500 victory tied a record set by two of the sport’s greats – Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough – and he did it on old tires, too, holding off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt in a frantic final few laps. He’d add wins at both Darlington and Talladega, leading the Cup Series standings for a time, before eventually finishing third behind Earnhardt and newly-crowned champion Gordon.

From that point on, Marlin’s presence as an underrated superstar in the sport was secure. Leaving MMM for Felix Sabates (and what would later be Chip Ganassi) in 1998, he went through a down cycle until the team aligned with Dodge prior to their 2001 return to the series. Collecting the first win for the Intrepid at the Cup level, Marlin nearly won their first title the next year before a freak neck injury at Kansas ended his chances. It was a heartbreaking loss, especially when paired with a team so good that sub Jamie McMurray won just two weeks later at Charlotte in only his second career Cup start.

But perhaps another story from that year defined Marlin’s character as much as anything else. In that year’s Daytona 500, the No. 40 car spun out Gordon on a late-race restart to take the lead. But when the field was black flagged for cleanup just a few laps later, Marlin took the unprecedented step of climbing out of his car to pull out a right-front fender. Fearing it would cut down a tire, the move cost him what would have been a third Daytona 500 win. It’s the type of stuff that might have caused sponsors to balk today; but back then, it was simply just Sterling being Sterling.

“I got the fender on the tire,” he said matter-of-factly. “I saw Dale do it at Richmond one time. I figured I could still get out and do it, but they must have changed the rule in between.”

Looking back, that September crash at Kansas effectively marked the end of him competing for wins and championships. Sometimes, those types of wrecks are harder to overcome than they seem, and Marlin never appeared to be close to the same driver after that. With just four top-five finishes in the last six years of his career, the downfall was as swift as it is painful to watch for so many veteran legends. But while it’s a shame to see Marlin go out so quietly, no one will ever forget how much he meant to the sport.

Did You Notice? How NASCAR called Brad Keselowski into the NASCAR hauler for a talking-to, while Denny Hamlin was the one who claimed he’d be retaliating against the driver on the race track this Sunday? And call me crazy, but wasn’t Hamlin the one who nudged Keselowski first on the racetrack at Phoenix?

Some may say that Hamlin deserves an eye for an eye after all the incidents Keselowski’s been involved in this season. But what I find so interesting is Hamlin had an opportunity to pay Johnson back at Martinsville for contact that cost him the race there that spring… and he didn’t do it. So just ‘cause Keselowski’s a rookie, that means Hamlin can go out there and take care of business?

It just goes to show how drivers can play favorites with respect sometimes. But what disturbed me most is this comment Kes made to summarize his meeting with NASCAR:

“It was (about) just to trying to pick and choose who you want to be your friends and enemies in this sport, and making sure I understood that process and what it takes to make it to this level.”

Oooo, so Hamlin doesn’t like you, Brad. I guess since the Big Boys think you’re mean, you’re not going to be able to play on their playground! If I were NASCAR, I’d say kudos to a guy in Keselowski who is worried about winning the race instead of who he’s going to have beers with when it’s over. Who said racing was about holding hands with the other 42 drivers on the race track and singing Kumbaya? Personally, I’m getting rather sick of this “all the drivers have to be friends” crap on the track. A “rivalry” isn’t a “rivalry” if two people play nice and hold hands in the middle of the game.

So Kes has a lot of enemies on the track. So does Kyle Busch, and so did Dale Earnhardt Sr. … and they’ve both had some pretty decent track records to speak of in this sport. Neutering Kes’s aggressive style just to make him as cookie cutter as everyone else isn’t the way to go here.

Did You Notice? A few quick hits before we go…

  • Robby Gordon having only eight races of sponsorship in 2010? Color me surprised; everybody and their mother knew he was in deep trouble the second Jim Beam said “see ya later” for 2010. So why did he bother to boast a few months ago he had plenty of funding to fill the gaps? I’d have been out there begging with my Folgers can from Day 1… especially since November’s really late in the game to publicize your problems.
  • Oh my God, Rick Hendrick says there’s no deal with Danica Patrick! He also said he wasn’t talking to Earnhardt Jr. in ’07, and that Casey Mears had a long-term future with his team after he’d already privately shoved him out the door. Translation: all the big-time car owners lie until there’s actually a deal out there to publicize. Can you imagine the egg on NASCAR’s face if this whole Danica deal didn’t get done right now? If she doesn’t make it official by January 1st, I’d be shocked… and if she’s not in a car at Daytona, I’m deathly concerned for this sport’s future.
  • It was obvious to all that the Todd Berrier – Harvick partnership had reached an end by early April. You just wonder what might have happened for Jeff Burton if owner Richard Childress pulled the trigger then and put the Berrier – Burton partnership together. Three top 10s in three straight races bodes well for the veteran to rebound in ’10.
  • Bobby Labonte made the right move to join TRG Motorsports in 2010. But it also looks like the only option he had. How far the 40-somethings have fallen …
  • For one of Earnhardt Jr.’s own buddies (Stewart) to call him out on his driving speaks volumes about how much his stock has fallen. I still don’t understand what it’s going to take for this team to get blown up and start from scratch… ‘cause that’s really what needs to happen at this point.

There, I made it through a whole column without talking about the championship this week! I hope in this era of Chase overload, I made more than a few people happy.

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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