Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Red Bull’s Risk, Kyle Busch Bails & Manufactured Johnson Drama

Did You Notice? Team Red Bull’s willing to take some chances now that their regular season is shot? The move to switch crews between Scott Speed and Casey Mears wasn’t surprising, it’s expected. Not only have both cars lagged behind the curve all year, but with Brian Vickers sidelined and Speed 26th in points making the Chase is about as likely as the Miracle on Ice.

GM Jay Frye understands how that leaves this team in a unique position. In a story that’s going to be out on Frontstretch tomorrow, our Jay Pennell talked with a number of people in and around the Red Bull organization in the wake of Vickers’s departure. Everyone had a different take, but the running theme remained the same: roll the dice!

 

With no sponsorship issues to worry about – after all, the owners self-fund the team – why sit there and try and make small gains when you’re out there running 25th every week? Might as well take a home run-type shot at it, play with some different combinations and see if you hit on something that returns the chemistry to that of Chase contender just in time for Vickers to return in February.

So kudos to TBR for actually sticking their neck out and taking a walk on the wild side. I’m told this could be the tip of the iceberg, with the green light given to think outside the box and try radical setups that are going to be hit or miss. So often these days, we no longer see Cup teams do what they need to do to make things better, falling victim to the guise of “racing for points.” Now, Team Red Bull is racing to win and that “no guts, no glory” attitude is something everyone can appreciate.

Did You Notice? Both the TV ratings for Charlotte and Indy were sinking like the Titanic? Indianapolis registered just a 4.0 rating, its lowest since the race began being televised live in 1986. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 matched those numbers, producing its lowest overnight since a 3.4 when TBS Superstation covered the race back in 2000.

As the downward trend continues, I was struck by how both races didn’t carry with them the type of transcendent storyline that would get new fans to stand up and pay attention. It was a historic day, to be sure, with Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi battling through a total of 1,100 miles. But how many times have we seen those guys come out on top? In all, they’ve won eight Indy 500s in the last 11 years, 34 of the last 41 IndyCar races overall and three of the last four championships. To the rich go the spoils, the same type of problem that’s been happening on the NASCAR side of the fence.

There’s been a lot of talk about how one chassis provider seems to hurt Indy’s endless quest for speed. I’d agree with that, but would also point out the predictability factor. How many people stood up and took notice when Mike Conway took the lead with 25 laps to go? When you have a favorite vs. underdog dynamic, people take notice (See: Duke vs. Butler, NCAA Championship). The rich against the rich? Not so much.

We’ve talked about this problem over on the NASCAR side several times, so I won’t get into it again. What I will mention is Burton Smith’s $20-million offer to win both races, which got heavily panned by many of my colleagues in the press and in the garage. All I heard last weekend at Charlotte was a bunch of “nos.”

No, drivers won’t be let out of their contract to do it. No, it’s just too hard to find the right equipment to make it worthwhile to contend in both races (another sign of how big the gap is between rich and poor nowadays: Mears specifically said he wouldn’t do it unless Ganassi or Penske had an Indy ride for him). Others claimed the Indy guys would find NASCAR too difficult, a half-dozen Sam Hornish Jr. types trying to make the field in low-quality rides.

Hmm… OK. So we should just sit here, twiddle our thumbs and let both series die a slow death? Let me tell you one thing that $20 million would garnish for both teams immediately; free publicity. Remember how the Winston Million put NASCAR on the map in 1985? You have five, six drivers going after that prize in the month of May and there’s a whole lot of people who’ll take notice. I didn’t talk to a single fan this month who wasn’t excited about the prospect.

Yes, doing both races could take the focus off the Chase for several NASCAR drivers. But doesn’t running Nationwide 25 weekends a year do the same thing? Over on the IndyCar side, you know those guys would go for it in a heartbeat; I’ve even heard their TV contract beyond 2010 is in jeopardy, sponsors threatening to pull out if they don’t average a 1.0 in their remaining races on Versus (which they’re not). Desperate men need to take drastic measures to turn around this type of downward momentum and that’s why Bruton Smith’s offer to stop it is looking better and better every day.

Let’s hope both sides are smart enough to make it happen.

Did You Notice? Speaking of the Winston Million, if it were still in play we would have had ourselves another 600 storyline? Jamie McMurray has four finishes of second or better this season, and all of them have occurred at the old Winston Million venues: Daytona 500 (won), Aaron’s 499/Talladega (second), Southern 500 (second), Coca-Cola 600 (second).

While a win would have only garnered McMurray $100,000 under that old system, could you imagine if he knew the million-dollar bonus was still in play? We could have seen an even more dramatic finish at ‘Dega than we already did and perhaps some risky strategy at Darlington to get the No. 1 car out front. With inconsistency problems this season, McMurray’s needed to balance points vs. wins instead in order to remain a contender for the Chase. But wouldn’t you think the prospect of a victory in one of NASCAR’s crown jewels should tip the scales?

I asked several drivers this weekend about whether they’d welcome a return of the Winston Million program and not a single one said no. So why can’t Sprint step up and put together their own version? It would work wonders in bringing more interest back while NASCAR works on improving the most important part of putting fans in the stands: fixing the on-track product. And even with that, don’t you think giant dollar signs might take care of that lagging driver aggression problem we’ve been facing?

Did You Notice? Kyle Busch bit off more than he could chew? Just weeks after claiming he wouldn’t be a Truck owner if he knew how much it was going to cost, Tayler Malsam’s jump from Trucks to Nationwide gave him an opening to immediately shut down his No. 56 program. That leaves just the No. 18 to worry about for the rest of the season, a Truck Busch drives in the majority of the races that’s currently leading the owner’s championship.

Busch’s main complaint was that he was funding the team largely out of his own pocket, unable to replace sponsorship lost when Miccosukee resorts pulled out just weeks before the start of 2010. Add in a $3 million dispute between subcontractors building parts of his new shop and just making the move to start a team has been the equivalent of a self-induced black eye.

But that’s not all. Let’s compare Busch’s decision to shut down his program to JR Motorsports for a second. Remember, the No. 7 car doesn’t have primary sponsorship beyond the 13 GoDaddy.com races for Danica Patrick. Yet Earnhardt still felt it was necessary to keep both his teams up and running, spending money out-of-pocket to keep employees on the payroll and ensure during this rough economy they didn’t have their paychecks stop flowing midseason.

There’s no word on whether Busch will keep all his employees, but you’d think cutting the team in half doesn’t make it financially viable to do so.

The fact two of the sport’s biggest superstars couldn’t find sponsorship showcases how badly the current business model is broken inside the sport. It’s just interesting the different ways both of them have chosen to handle it; Earnhardt is going the route of perseverance and loyalty, while Busch appears to be bailing the second the ship starts to sink.

Did You Notice? All the ink spent already on whether Jimmie Johnson has lost his mojo? Yes, it’s true the No. 48 team had an uncharacteristic month, its driver wrecking at both Darlington and Charlotte while going five races without a top-five finish. Suddenly, everyone is treating the Lowe’s team as if the sky is falling. The way people are panicking and pumping up the problems, you’d half expect Chad Knaus to charge JJ with a tire iron if he struggles to a 25th-place finish at Pocono.

But before you get caught up in the drama, take a deep breath and slow down. How quickly this ADD generation forgets how history repeats itself; remember that in each of Johnson’s last four championship years, he’s gone through a bit of a slump. Consider…

2006: Five straight finishes of 10th or worse to end the regular season with just 34 laps led. This slump actually continued into the Chase with four more runs outside the top 10 until a crash with Vickers at ‘Dega lit a fire under this team and sent them soaring to the title.

2007: One top-five finish in nine races, highlighted by two straight DNFs for wrecks at Chicago and Indy, had people questioning whether Johnson would even make the Chase (sound familiar?) One month later, he posted back-to-back wins at Fontana and Richmond, made the cutoff with ease and stole a title straight from under Jeff Gordon’s nose.

2008: Four straight runs of 10th or worse in the spring that culminated with a blown engine at Charlotte. That left him ninth in points, 95 above the Chase cutoff and forcing the team to rebuild their cushion with top-10 finishes in five of the next seven races. All of a sudden, wins at Indianapolis, Fontana and Richmond (peaking at the right time; sound familiar?) launch them into the Chase on a high, where they proceed to coast from New Hampshire to Homestead with ease.

2009: Johnson ends the regular season with several mistakes, including running out of fuel at Michigan and – gasp! – wrecking at Atlanta to have people all but writing him off at the start of the Chase. Instead, he went on to have his most dominating 10-race performance yet.

The bottom line is the No. 48 has you thinking exactly what they want you to think: they’re out of it. It just astounds me that everyone’s being so reactionary when this team still has 261 laps led in the last month and would have easily won Dover and the All-Star Race if not for a pit-road penalty and the special four-segment format, respectively.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the sky doesn’t fall on the Lowe’s side of the fence until they’re 100 or more points behind halfway through the Chase. That’s the only part of the season that really counts for them, so don’t get caught up in all this drama in between.

Did You Notice? Quick hits:

– Halfway through the regular season, the points system appears to be fairer than ever, with only one winning team shut out of the top 12 (McMurray). If one team should have any gripe at all, though, it’s Earnhardt Ganassi; they have a combined eight top-five finishes with McMurray and Montoya, yet neither is in the Chase, lagging behind Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle who have a total of three.

David Ragan returning behind the wheel of a UPS Ford isn’t as set in stone as you think. Check out the key word in that SceneDaily article: “anticipation.” Geoff Smith anticipates performance will improve, but that’s no guarantee. I continue to hear from reliable sources UPS is very unhappy with recent results, and if Ragan ends the year where he is right now (24th in points) a change is still possible depending on who’s available. At least Ragan’s future is placed in his own hands; he’ll either sink or swim the next few months.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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