ONE: What has happened to Sam Hornish Jr.?
Just as fellow open-wheeler Juan Pablo Montoya took dramatic steps forward in 2009 by qualifying for the Chase, Sam Hornish Jr. was arguably the most improved driver on the Sprint Cup circuit last season. But Saturday night at Darlington, Hornish was completely smitten by the siren that is the Lady in Black, as time and again she beckoned the Mobil 1 Dodge into her red and white walls.
In one of the ugliest races Hornish has endured at any point in his NASCAR career, the No. 77 car looked every bit as battered as the team’s 2010 season; after all, the former IndyCar champion has only four top-20 finishes in 11 starts thus far. But on the track Saturday night, Hornish looked far less like a Cup driver in his third year on tour and more like a lost open-wheel convert. Considering that the No. 77 team is now in a sponsorship hunt, with Mobil departing after season’s end, this regression could not have come at a worse time, especially with teammates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski running far more competitively across the board.
Hornish has consistently affirmed his commitment to his NASCAR career ever since leaving the IndyCar circuit. Both his and Penske Racing’s commitment hasn’t wavered, even when Hornish went 2 for 8 qualifying for Cup races prior to his first season, or even missing races that rookie year. But thanks to a variety of circumstances, look for 2010 to be the swan song for Hornish in NASCAR.
Consider, there are teams and drivers far more accomplished in stock car racing that are finding the search for dollars to be fruitless (see: Stewart-Haas Racing), making Hornish and his current regression all the harder to sell. Also, as Dario Franchitti proved in 2009, returning to IndyCar from the beating and banging of NASCAR seems to have done wonders for returning open-wheelers; Franchitti’s 2009 IRL title speaks volumes to that. Finally, there’s the question of Justin Allgaier. While many, including this writer, believe the youngster needs at least one more year of Nationwide after 2010 before being ready to make the jump, Penske’s hand may be forced sooner than later to get this promising driver to the Cup ranks… because…
TWO: Who Will Drive the UPS Ford in 2011?
It’s perhaps the worst kept secret in the garage that UPS is none too happy with the results they’ve gotten since signing a big-dollar deal with Roush Fenway Racing. David Ragan went from the most improved driver of 2008 to the biggest flop of 2009, with 2010 being more of the same disappointment. Problem is for the guys in brown, sources confirm that there’s a snowball’s chance in Darlington on Labor Day that Roush is going to let them out of their sponsorship contract.
In short, UPS is stuck for at least the next season, which means they’re going to want a change. Ragan’s seat is probably the hottest in NASCAR, and barring a huge swing in performance he’s going to out of the No. 6 after Homestead… if not sooner.
Which brings the question of who will take his place. The common sense solution would be to hand off Matt Kenseth, a proven winner and spokesperson, to give the UPS company their first sure bet since an ill-fated move to Michael Waltrip Racing and back-to-back busts with drivers David Reutimann and now Ragan.
But with Kenseth having renewed his long-time relationship with Diageo (distributor of Smirnoff), the other option on the table could be for Roush Fenway and UPS to make a ploy for the hottest prospect out there looking to make the jump… Allgaier. Allgaier brings uncharacteristic polish for a driver his age, as well as a lengthier track record of performance on his route to Cup (an ARCA title and a full Nationwide campaign) than Ragan did.
More importantly for Roush, though, proving able to sign away Allgaier from Penske would be a splash they desperately need to make. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Colin Braun having utterly failed as Nationwide drivers thus far, RFR is going to have to hire someone from outside to fill the seats… and someone that will renew the fire of the organization at the front of the Cup garage. AJ Allmendinger is the easy fix, with Richard Petty Motorsports likely to fold after this season, but Allgaier would be a signing nearly on par with the 2005 move that saw the same Penske camp snatch away Busch.
THREE: Speaking of Roush Fenway, What Happens to the Nationwide Program?
What was supposed to be the crown jewel of a deep crop of Nationwide Series rookies has proven to be fool’s gold. With Braun already on the bench and having narrowly avoided being outright fired from Roush Fenway Racing, Stenhouse wrecked his eighth car of the Nationwide Series season at Darlington. Both the No. 6 and No. 16 cars remain outside the Top 30, with half of the season’s remaining races still unsold on both cars.
Kenseth is expected to be in the No. 16 car for the team’s unsponsored races until further notice, and in the case of Stenhouse expect to see Ragan running races for the team in the very near future. With a lack of sponsorship coming in and a real need to get the cars back into the Top 30, it’s unlikely that the same Jack Roush that nearly booted Braun, despite a ROTY truck title and a truck win last year over a one-race incident at Texas, is going to stand by much longer and watch Stenhouse tear up what little remains of the team’s Nationwide Series fleet.
Further, with Baker/Curb Racing’s No. 27 car facing an uncertain future as soon as Red Man’s sponsorship expires at the end of June, Greg Biffle, a big-time fan of Nationwide racing, will also be available to run the No. 6 for the Roush organization. Just know that whoever ends up in the seat, don’t expect to see much in the form of driver development going on with either team for the remainder of 2010… even though such a move will render the team’s future talent pipeline all but used up.
FOUR: Shut the hell up about Kevin Conway already
Kevin Conway did exactly what would be expected of a rookie at the Darlington Raceway on Saturday night; he ran well off the pace while racing the track, found the wall on numerous occasions, and came home a distant 33rd. Yet for all the jokes about Extenze sponsorship, for all the questioning of whether or not he could weather the Sprint Cup storm, Conway failed to pull an Andy Hillenburg impression. (The ARCA veteran took out Jeff Gordon early in the spring 2004 race at the track.)
Conway had a rough night, but it was his rough night. For the record, that’s been the story of Conway’s season; the fatalists concerned he was going to wreck the Daytona 500 field on lap 1 can’t point to one incident all season where the rookie has ruined another driver’s day.
Though you’d never know that with all the moaning and groaning a number of Sprint Cup regulars were doing about the driver of the No. 37 car. Montoya and his spotter on a number of occasions ripped into Conway over the radio. Gordon late in the race called for his team to speak to race officials about getting Conway off the track, arguing “that guy’s a joke.”
The joke is listening to the best of the best groan and complain. It’s Darlington. It’s supposed to be hard. Yes, Conway ran off the pace, but it’s not like he was the only one. And let’s not forget that Darlington is a one-groove race track. Navigating traffic is part of the challenge. It’s not NASCAR’s job to clear the track of slower cars so that the big boys with money and experience can have a freeway in front of them. It’s Darlington. Shut up and drive.
FIVE: They race 500 miles at Darlington for a reason…
It was also laughable to hear and see the number of media in the press box and media center going on and on about how the race was too long. 500 miles is exactly the way they’re supposed to race at Darlington. Not only does the distance make for a grueling endurance challenge and one that requires conservation of equipment, it also is one that provides the meanest old lady in the South time to rub salt in the wounds of her many victims. As physically demanding as the track is (even riding in the pace car with Brett Bodine for hot laps before the race, I was amazed at how much the track throws drivers around), it’s also a mental nightmare, one accentuated by the duration.
The best of the best that built the sport raced 500 miles at Darlington. There’s no reason today’s drivers shouldn’t.
Though, as fellow writer Matt McLaughlin noted, it certainly would be better for all involved if the 500 miles were run during the day, adding the challenge of brutal Southern heat to the equation… and putting one of the most traditional races on the circuit back on a traditional Sunday race day. Of course, if they did that, they might as well move the “Southern 500” back to Labor Day… but that would make too much sense, wouldn’t it?