Talk about having the rug pulled out. With the announcement made that Kelly Bires has been terminated at JR Motorsports, the Nationwide Series has seen perhaps it’s most head-scratching driver swap since Mike Bliss got yanked at Phoenix Racing last season, and one of the earliest since, well, Phoenix Racing, fired veteran Jason Keller less than a quarter of the way into the 2006 season, and last season’s hottest NNS prospect is off ride hunting again.
It’s hard to fathom why JRM was so quick to pull the trigger here. Because while the No. 88 team is no stranger to removing development drivers from the seat quickly, this one tops them all.
Six races into the 2010 Nationwide Series season, Bires had made five starts. Including a top-10 finish at Fontana, Bires sat 20th in points, but fourth among Nationwide Series regulars in terms of average finish. Take his 43rd-place finish at Las Vegas out of the mix (which occurred not due to driver error but a blown engine), and the only Nationwide regular ahead of Bires in that category is Justin Allgaier. Comparing points just isn’t fair, seeing as how Bires’s shot at running a full schedule went out the window the second Danica Patrick and the GoDaddy marketing machine decided, at apparently the last second (yeah right), that God’s gift to racing would grace Daytona with her presence.
For some historical perspective, even without taking the 43rd-place run at Las Vegas out of the numbers, Bires’s average finish of 18.4 in his first five starts with the No. 88 team is the best that any development driver not named Brad Keselowski has done with the team in their first five starts. After five races, Mark McFarland‘s average finish was 21.8, with no top 10s in the No. 88 car. Shane Huffman, 29.8, no top 10s. And while not in the No. 88 car, Patrick this same season averaged a 34th-place run, with no top 30s.
Yet Bires was shown the door at JRM quicker than any other prospect in the team’s history, for what Kelley Earnhardt termed chemistry that “just wasn’t working out” between Bires and the No. 88 crew. And all this after a truly concerted effort last season to make sure that JRM got this guy to replace Keselowski.
“We’re a top-five running team and that’s what we sell our sponsorship on,” said Earnhardt. “So we want to keep ourselves in that position so that we don’t have sponsorships that are in jeopardy. In this case, Hellman’s, they are a great partner with us. They do a lot of their marketing around Dale Jr. with our No. 88 car. And it’s not necessarily driven by the driver in that car, per se, but it’s important to them to have the performance on the racetrack and have our car up front.”
That account of the situation regarding the No. 88 team may sound convincing, but history doesn’t back it up. Granted, the No. 88 team has been a top-five team the last two seasons with Keselowski behind the wheel. Trouble is, apart from Keselowski, no driver that has ever taken the wheel with the team has been a consistent top-five driver. Not even Cup regulars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman can boast that during their tenures in the team’s equipment. And even Keselowski wasn’t a top-five contender at first with the No. 88 bunch; in his first five races with the team, he averaged a top-15 finish with no top fives. Which is exactly where Bires was sitting in terms of results, sans a blown motor.
Besides, if chemistry on the No. 88 crew was truly the issue, why fire Bires? Why not move him to the No. 7 car, especially now that that team has gone full-time? It’s not like committing to a driver is something the No. 7 team has proven apt to doing; Scott Wimmer scored back-to-back top 10s only to be told to make way for Landon Cassill. Why not give Bires the keys to a different car?
The answer is simple… it’s the one that Kelley Earnhardt refused to give. During an interview on Sirius, Earnhardt made a point to note “I don’t want to pin this on our sponsors at all. They did not specifically ask for a change. This was a call more from internally here at JRM with our ownership group.”
That’s got to be a first. A team that went above and beyond to sign a driver now only five races into the season gets rid of him… without a sponsor banging their fist. Sorry, I’m not buying it.
Unilever’s never been the most patient sponsor anyway. Just look back in 2004, when they entered the then Busch Series via the “Hungry Drivers” program with Tommy Baldwin, a program that pitted Tracy Hines, Paul Wolfe, McFarland and Scott Lynch in competition to see who would get a full-time 2005 ride. It wasn’t long into 2005 (the fourth race, in fact) before Wolfe was out of the seat in favor of then-Evernham Motorsports Cup drivers, and by the end of that season was essentially Kasey Kahne‘s Buschwhacker sponsorship. That carried on until the team migrated over to JRM… because back then, who said no to a chance to be associated with Junior?
Now, instead of an up and comer with real potential in Bires, the team suddenly has the ever marketable, Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray behind the wheel for the next six weeks. Sounds like exactly the type of move that both Unilever and it’s race teams have made before.
And as for Bires being fired rather than moved within the organization, that move speaks to a problem that may well be becoming desperate for JRM: the struggle to sell more sponsorship.
It’s no secret that JRM has struggled, and been struggling for a while now, to get their cars painted on race day. Last season, Cassill had to be benched to ensure that the No. 88 team had a full season’s worth of dollars to race with. This year, the team’s top development prospect was denied the chance to run for a championship to pave the way for cash cow Patrick to play around a little bit. And now, to ensure that that same cash cow can’t be threatened by the real threat of having to qualify into a race (read, miss a race), the team made a midseason decision to take a part-time car full-time, despite having no sponsorship lined up to facilitate it.
Maybe JRM and its Hendrick Motorsports operational mentality has made the going rate for a quarterpanel on its Nationwide cars too high. Maybe the team got so complacent and dependent on having the sport’s most popular driver to fall back on that they’re scratching their heads as to how to market in this current economic climate. Or maybe said economic climate really is that bad, even at the top levels of the sport.
Whatever the reason, the situation was bad enough that the most highly touted prospect to earn a full-time ride last year is out of a ride in the middle of April. Another Cup driver has taken a quality seat in the Nationwide Series garage. And another dream has, for the moment, been squashed.
Just another day in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.