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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Ford’s Flop, Veteran Victory Droughts & Silly Season Ends Early?

Did You Notice? That with so much focus surrounding Jeff Gordon’s 38-race winless streak, we’ve forgotten about a lot of big-name drivers riding even larger droughts? We’ve knocked off two big ones (Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick) in the month of April, both of whom hadn’t won since the 2008 and 2007 Daytona 500s, respectively (and you think there’s no curse… yeah, and Miss Cleo can actually see the future).

But in a world where only a select few have been visiting victory lane as of late, there’s still plenty with droughts that have lasted more than one year. Here’s a look at some top-level veterans dying in a desert filled with no winning hardware:

Matt Kenseth. Current Streak: 44 Races. With all the Daytona 500 winners getting back on track, you’d think it’s only natural for Kenseth to be next on the list. He’s won just once after his ’09 triumph in the Great American Race, going 2-for-2 at Fontana the next week before the rest of his year got flushed down the toilet. One new crew chief (and several new sponsors) later, Todd Parrott seems to have this group turned around, although it’s notable things have been shaky ever since Gordon bumped him out of the way at Martinsville – a move that cost them both a shot at the win. Maybe an All-Star Race payback could turn things around?

Best Chance To Break Through: Dover. Fourth, second, fourth and third in his last four trips there. What better way to challenge the No. 48 than beat him at one of his best tracks?

Jeff Burton. Current Streak: 51 Races. Burton’s worked his typical “put himself in position to win” to a T in recent weeks. It’s just every time he does it, he gets put in position to get wrecked instead. Since the last time he visited victory lane, he’s scored three DNFs for crashes and been involved in major wrecks about 10 times. Who knew a sponsor change from AT&T to Caterpillar would make everyone else want to run into him like a bulldozer?

Best Chance To Win: Charlotte. Not only was that the site of Burton’s last victory (October 2008), but RCR’s strength this season has been intermediate tracks. The 600 also seems to favor either first-time winners or those trying to break long winless streaks as of late (Mears ’07, Kahne ’08, Reutimann ’09).

Greg Biffle. Current Streak: 54 Races. Biffle’s last win was at Dover in September 2008, part of a two-race streak where he tried the glass slipper of Chase Cinderella on for size. His title bid fizzled down the stretch as Jimmie Johnson caught fire, but third in the standings had everyone thinking future title contender.

It hasn’t happened. While the consistency has been there (Biffle has seven top-10 finishes in 10 races this season) it’s had its limits (zero runner-up finishes during this stretch). Despite leading a whopping 773 laps since that last win, The Biff’s been undone with costly pit road mistakes, where either speeding, long stops or poor track position has bit him at the end.

Best Chance To Break Through: Michigan. Typically a Ford track, Biffle feasted on the competition there in his early years. Just a month away, recent momentum could be enough to get him over the hump again.

Juan Pablo Montoya. Current Streak: 102 Races. Everyone’s favorite (and only) Colombian NASCAR star needs wins in a big way after an awful start. The conservative style of the last year or so won’t get him back inside the top 12; now, the question is when and not if he starts letting loose to get a win by any means possible.

Best Chance to Break Through: Infineon. I know that’s the site of his lone Cup Series win. But there’s nothing like a road course for an open-wheel vet to cure an awkward start to 2010.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Current Streak: 67 Races. This streak’s the one everyone knows about, the type NASCAR execs pray to end every night like it’s some type of life-threatening storm. You’d think the No. 88 was heading in the right direction; then again, there’s only one or two more good tracks left before we head towards Junior’s traditional summer slump. And after an awkward night of crew-chiefing Saturday night (where Lance McGrew chose to pit his driver instead of grabbing a lap back through the wave around) there are still questions over whether that partnership will survive over time.

Best Chance To Break Through: Daytona. Running his dad’s No. 3 car the night before should make for Earnhardt’s storybook ending in the Cup race. You just wonder if when it comes to the Chase, it’ll be far too late by that point.

Elliott Sadler. Current Streak: 201 Races. Made a brief guest appearance at the 2009 Daytona 500 that could have led to an upset win. It rained at the wrong time instead, and he hasn’t been seen on the track since. Fans usually forget he was racing until they either see him wrecked – or wrecking one of their favorites.

Best Chance To Break Through: Retirement. Sorry, Elliott; we love you as a person, but your time as a driver may be coming to an end fairly soon.

Among the veterans we didn’t focus on… Carl Edwards (46 races), Clint Bowyer (72 races), Martin Truex Jr. (105 races), Bobby Labonte (226 races). What a crop of outstanding veterans that have all been cut off during the “Jimmie Johnson Era.”

Did You Notice? Ford has yet to win a race in any of the sport’s top-three series this season? That’s an 0-for-24 shutout, coming off the heels of a year in which they won just three of 36 races at the Cup level. If this trend continues, it’ll be the worst stretch for the Blue Oval Crowd since Buicks dominated the Cup Series landscape in the early 1980s.

What’s got the Fords off kilter? It’s a combination of things. As Rick Hendrick is so fond of saying, “It’s all about people,” and Ford’s signature team has lost some of their best ones in recent years. Whether it’s retirements (Robert Yates), defections (Kasey Kahne) or last-second career changes (Mark Martin), the bleeding started six years ago and just hasn’t stopped.

What’s worse, the manufacturer doesn’t have any top-level talent coming up the pipeline, leaving Edwards their lone “young gun” hope in the wake of Kahne’s departure. Colin Braun? Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Those guys have wrecked more cars this year than most people do during their whole career.

People also forget how badly Roush fell behind with the sport’s new Car of Tomorrow in 2007. Badly burned by the technology over at Hendrick and Penske, it’s taken years for them to close the gap – and they’re still not there.

You also wonder how much Roush is burdened by supporting every team under the Ford banner. It’s one thing for Penske to be the lone Dodge organization; they’ve got just three cars. But Roush is working with four-car Richard Petty Motorsports, the three-car Front Row team, Latitude 43 Motorsports and even the part-time effort of the Wood Brothers. That’s 13 cars in all, many of which have limited sponsorship and need a little extra financial as well as engineering support.

You’d think that with Ford doing the best of any manufacturer outside racing, they’d be putting a little more emphasis and funding into their racing program. There is an internal push according to sources to increase the ownership ranks, but also consider Ford just changed ownership of its own program January 1st, with Jamie Allison replacing Brian Wolfe. It’s the third director in the last two years for the manufacturer after Dan Davis ran the racing side from 1997-2008.

You add all these little things up, and it turns into a big problem. I still think Edwards is the best long-term hope for the company; he’s not just a superstar on the track but a marketing cash cow off it. One thing’s for sure though, the Blue Oval Crowd would be wise to look for other young talents to plug in rides within NASCAR’s lower series. For as good as Kenseth and Biffle can be, at 38 and 40 they won’t be around forever.

Did You Notice? That whenever Kyle Busch has a great day, you can almost guarantee his brother has a bad one? Considering how this sport has a history of brothers duking it out on the track (all the way back to the Flocks in the 1950s), I figured I’d take a look at the last time both were able to finish strong in the same race.

What I found shocked me. Since the start of 2009, the duo combined for 24 top-five finishes. But they’ve finished inside the top five together just three times: Fontana in February of 2009, Richmond last fall, and Texas just a couple of weeks ago.

Instead, what’s more memorable about the Busch brothers is how one takes advantage of the other’s misfortune. November, 2009: Kyle dominates Texas only to run out of fuel with a handful of laps to go. Who benefits? Brother Kurt, who takes the win while Kyle ends up 11th. June, 2008: Kyle Busch has a dismal car at New Hampshire, but crew chief Steve Addington realizes the team has superior fuel mileage over everyone else. If the race goes all 300 miles, Busch was set up to win. Instead, an untimely caution followed by a thunderstorm handed the win… to brother Kurt. March, 2009: The Busch brothers sweep the front row for their hometown race at Las Vegas. But while Kurt runs into one problem after another, Kyle demolishes the field en route to leading 51 laps and taking the victory.

I could go on and on. It’s just a pattern I found interesting; two brothers that never seem to have the 1-2 punch at the right time.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before taking off….

  • Lead changes can always be a deceiving number. Did you know last Richmond’s fall race, perceived as one of the best of 2009, had only 12 of them? That’s the same number from the race this spring, one we know isn’t going to make the highlight reels anytime soon. Thinking back to the May 2008 event, Richmond had only four lead changes but the finish was so dramatic (Kyle Busch spinning Earnhardt Jr., then having to leave the track with the equivalent of the Secret Service guarding him) thousands of fans click on YouTube clips from that race on a regular basis. Keep those thoughts in mind when NASCAR throws numbers down your throat about how many lead changes there have been this year. Just because there’s a big number on paper doesn’t mean the racing is always better.
  • Is it just me, or did Silly Season explode a little too early? Sure, two weeks of high-quality news generated buzz about 2011. But now, the biggest free agents (sans Harvick) have been spoken for, top-level crew chiefs have extensions, and many dominos have already fallen. For a sport that needs drama to keep itself in the national news cycle, you wonder if packing all that much into a short period of time will backfire in the long run – especially when the summer doldrums hit and Silly Season’s a desert of dried up stories.
  • Along those same lines, one of the biggest news items as of late has been the positive buzz about the sport’s new Hall of Fame. By all accounts from Media Day, the Hall will be an A+ facility when it opens to the public next week (see Mike Neff’s take for more – he was there yesterday). But isn’t it weird the best thing going for NASCAR right now is a building that celebrates its past?
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