NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Hendrick Expanding His Reach?, Toyota’s Gone Jimmie & Red Bull Gone Wrong

ONE: Who You Didn’t See This Weekend

Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway marked the second week of that tour’s standalone summer stretch and, not surprisingly, the second such race won by a Cup Series regular. And while ESPN’s telecast did pretty well to keep side-by-side action on the screen, showing more than Joey Logano while he laid waste to the field for much of the event, there were a lot of Nationwide Series regulars that in the span of three hours didn’t have their cars featured on TV.

Robert Richardson, Tony Raines, Jeff Green, Shelby Howard, Jason Keller, Sean Caisse, Derrike Cope… the list goes on. All of the drivers mentioned here ran the full race distance, and storylines amongst them were plentiful. For example, Raines is still challenging for the top 10 in points despite going against teams with considerably more resources. His teammate Keller has closed to within 31 markers of a locked-in spot in the field with the No. 35 car, charging despite failing to qualify in three of the first seven races. Howard, driving for what’s essentially a part-time team, ran inside the top 20 all night with the No. 70. But for ESPN, none of that was apparently worth showing the viewers.

The current economic situation in this sport is bad enough. But not getting the TV time that NASCAR prides itself selling to sponsors is going to reduce even more teams to either start-and-parking or closing up shop before much longer. With just the minimum 43 cars – over half-a-dozen of them start-and-parkers – entered at Road America this weekend, one can’t help but wonder: how many more teams going away will it take for NASCAR to wake up and do something about their No. 2 series being reduced to rubble?

TWO: Kahne to Phoenix Racing Makes It Clear: Hendrick Satellite Cars are Hendrick Motorsports Cars

Kasey Kahne and Hendrick Motorsports may not be acknowledging the reported deal for Kahne to drive the No. 09 car currently owned by James Finch come 2011, but trust me: it’s happening. Just because Marty Smith didn’t report it doesn’t mean that it’s not the actual case within the Hendrick camp.

With this latest expansion project, to me the truth of HMS’s ever-growing list of satellite teams is made clear… it’s no technical alliance. These deals are not a case of support, but of Hendrick getting around NASCAR’s four-team ownership rule by slapping a different logo on his employees’ uniforms.

The fact that Kahne is headed to Phoenix Racing should be all the evidence needed to make that case. Kahne is not going to settle for running top 25 in 2011, which is probably the best the current Phoenix operation could do if they actually ran the distance. Furthermore, with Kahne driving the No. 09 in 2011, that means that the Hendrick camp is going to have to find an additional 38 races of sponsorship for yet another car while Mark Martin‘s retirement “tour” continues right alongside James Hylton‘s… never-ending.

To sell those races, as well as to keep the sponsors signed who will be expected to switch from Martin to Kahne in 2012 happy, that No. 09 car is going to have to be capable of winning races from the drop of the green at Daytona next year. And as good a driver as Kahne may be, it’s going to take a lot more than a new wheelman to turn a perennial start-and-park entry to a Chase contender in a span of eight months. It’s going to take a complete Hendrick Motorsports makeover.

So make no mistake, HMS will be running the equivalent of seven cars in 2011. Just another reason why Roush should have kept that No. 26 Ford and dared NASCAR to stop him.

THREE: HMS Isn’t the Only Dominant Force Out There Right Now

The four biggest national stock car touring series ran races this past weekend, and Toyotas took the checkers in all of them: Mikey Kile in ARCA, Aric Almirola in Trucks, Logano in Nationwide and Denny Hamlin in Cup. Four different circumstances, four different racecars… one manufacturer.

On the one hand, it’s really hard to do anything but congratulate Toyota for the superiority they’ve achieved in such a short time. Venturini Motorsports is the dominant force in ARCA competition this year, just after Justin Lofton won Toyota their first series title for Eddie Sharp Racing the year before. They’ve owned the Truck Series since they entered it, winning two of the last four championships to go along with 20 of the last 34 races. And as for Joe Gibbs Racing… their Nationwide program is next to untouchable, their now Toyota-mounted power plants impeccable in scoring 40 victories in their last 84 starts – a winning percentage that’s nearing 50%.

On the other hand, though, NASCAR sure did bend over backwards to get these Camrys up to speed. Anyone who doesn’t buy that sorely underestimates the advantage this make received when they were able to be the first to design a motor strictly for NASCAR competition.

Now, they’ve both proliferated and dominated, with no signs that the other manufacturers are going to catch them anytime soon. Ford’s engineering departments are off, with their flagship Cup program mired out of victory lane. Dodge has next to no teams left, and Chevrolet’s too busy funding any and everything Hendrick. That leaves Toyota, who’s played their cards well and are just now reaping the rewards.

But if the fan reaction to Jimmie Johnson‘s four straight titles means anything, NASCAR might want to be a bit proactive in seeing what can be done to help the Big Three catch up. Fair or not, fan interest keeps this sport moving, and you wonder how many will sit there and spend time watching a parade of rice rockets ride around.

FOUR: ARCA Flavor to be Had at Road America

Two ARCA veterans with considerable road-racing background will debut in the Nationwide Series this weekend, with Robb Brent taking over the No. 09 ride for RAB Racing and Tim George Jr. the No. 21 for Richard Childress Racing. Both have proven able to handle stock cars on the road courses, with Brent posting a career-best runner-up result in the rain-soaked ARCA race in Palm Beach, while George came home in eighth place behind him this February.

While the Nationwide Series and the grueling Road America circuit will certainly be a step up for the two prospects, if nothing else it’s one of the few examples out there of driver development that makes sense. Instead of bringing in international names for hit-or-miss one-off deals, these two teams are sticking with drivers committed to making stock car racing happen over the long-term. Clearly, that’s good for the health of the sport, a move that hopefully pays off for both of these teams come Saturday afternoon.

FIVE: Casey Mears Not Proving to Fit Red Bull Like a Glove

Red Bull Racing has rightly proven loyal to Brian Vickers throughout his whole episode with blood clots, even selecting his friend Casey Mears to play relief driver for the No. 83 team. Mears has made laps for Red Bull’s flagship ride, and, well… that’s about it.

Until Sunday.

In a nightmare scenario, Mears ended up taking himself out after making contact with teammate Scott Speed around the halfway point – a move that had Speed justifiably upset.

“Both of us were struggling, but [Mears] wrecking us like that — is ridiculous,” Speed told NASCAR.com. “Whenever you’re at Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing, and then you still don’t have a ride and haven’t done anything, there’s no real excuses after that, but whatever.”

Loyalty to Vickers is important, but maybe Red Bull oughta listen to Speed on this one. Mailing the rest of 2010 in doesn’t seem to be the best way for the No. 83 team to spend their time until Vickers can return.

At the very least, there’s plenty of other drivers available capable of mailing it in without wrecking their teammate.

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