NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? As the Kenseth Crumbles, Lajoie on Drugs & Bruton the Bully?

Did You Notice? With Todd Parrott’s reassignment Tuesday, Matt Kenseth is now on his fifth crew chief in less than three years?

Let’s review:

  • Robbie Reiser (1999-2007): Reassigned to the Roush GM post after November, 2007. Together, Kenseth and Reiser earned 16 wins, 79 top-fives, 141 top-10s and the 2003 Winston Cup.
  • Chip Bolin (2008): Former team engineer led team to winless season, collecting nine top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. Kenseth is 11th in the final standings, his worst finish since 2001.
  • Drew Blickensderfer (2009–Daytona 2010): Went two-for-two in first two races for Kenseth, including a rain-shortened Daytona 500, then digressed from media darling to team scapegoat after unprecedented slump that followed. Kenseth missed the Chase for the first time in his career, then tied his career low in points (14th) while piling up his fewest amount of top-five and top-10 finishes since 2001.
  • Todd Parrott (February – June 2010): Four top-five and seven top-10s in 14 starts together. Not that bad, until you consider just two top-10s have come in the last nine races, with only 35 laps led halfway through the year.
  • Jimmy Fennig (June 2010 – ???): The legendary crew chief gets nudged out of a research and development role, where he’d been since “retiring” from running the No. 6 Ford and David Ragan in November.

What does this recent pattern tell us about Kenseth? Clearly, he’s running out of patience in finding a combination that works to turn the team around. Sure, the Wisconsinite should make the playoffs with ease, but the cruel irony of the man dubbed Mr. Consistency is his fanaticism about returning to victory lane. Kenseth has led a total of 884 laps combined the last three seasons, compared to 912 the final year he and Reiser were paired together – and that was an off year for them. It’s one thing to scratch and claw for a top-10 finish compared to settling for sixth after leading 50 or 75 laps. For the last three years, Kenseth has been stuck in that first category for virtually every race – and he’s tired of it.

At the same time, it’s notable this crew chief is the second straight selection that can be considered “old school.” Fennig may have been working in R&D, but he made his career working with veterans Bobby Allison, Dick Trickle, Jimmy Spencer and Mark Martin, then developing youngsters like David Ragan and 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. Simulations are not his forte, but motivating the man behind the wheel certainly is. I believe Kenseth thinks that’s what he needs; while I thought he and Parrott hit it off initially, it felt like the driver was still in control of all the decisions on pit road.

And while I thought the two would be successful, Parrott hasn’t exactly been anyone’s first choice in a crisis. Since guiding the No. 88 Ford with Dale Jarrett from 1996-2002, he hasn’t spent more than a season and a half in the same role with the same team. A temperamental guy, he seemed to fail the second this recent slump began and Kenseth started showing shades of the Eeyore personality he tends to slip into when times get tough.

Also notice how Roush has catered to the wishes of his drivers, in particular the Big Three: Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. He’s moved mountains to cater to Kenseth’s wishes, even with the destabilization a new crew chief brings to any program while at the same time bending to Biffle and Edwards to do the opposite. In both those cases, a crew chief change might not be the worst thing, but his drivers are so adamantly against it the owner refuses to act.

The bottom line in all this mess is the one thing Kenseth and Roush are both missing: good engineering people. Running the same retreads on top of the pit box for Kenseth – whether it’s Fennig, Parrott or even Reiser – doesn’t change the widening gap in mastering Cup technology behind the scenes. Roush isn’t losing the battle in the engine room, he’s losing at Dungeons and Dragons behind a computer. More importantly, I don’t think Kenseth fully understands how much that’s out of his control.

Perhaps in three months, when this team’s still in the same spot with Fennig, he’ll figure that out soon enough. Could Reiser make a difference here? To a certain extent; but with no on-track testing allowed, one man can’t change a whole fleet of setups that open each Friday half-a-second off the pace.

Did You Notice? Randy Lajoie’s shocking admission he smoked marijuana? The former NASCAR Nationwide champ turned-radio/TV analyst, supporter of son Corey’s driving career and safety guru is suspended indefinitely for violating the sport’s drug policy. Tested because of a one-shot deal to spot for Joe Gibbs Racing at Nashville, Lajoie admitted he smoked marijuana one week earlier during the Coca-Cola 600 weekend in Charlotte. Tested a few days later, the failure became public knowledge today along with an apology to his family, employers (ESPN has already suspended him), and legion of fans disappointed a 48-year-old would engage in such behavior.

Before we go any further… can someone answer this question? Why in the world would you smoke marijuana three days before you know you’re going to be drug tested? Did Lajoie think he was going to be above the law? That part of it makes no sense.

Rumors swirl about the circumstances surrounding Lajoie’s marijuana “experiment,” but it’s too early to fully substantiate any of those, making me hesitant to comment further. I will say it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize it’s the biggest bust since Jeremy Mayfield’s failed test last May. And it also doesn’t take a major leap to realize that if this is a one-time thing, as Lajoie claims, it’s clear he wasn’t doing it by himself in the corner. My hunch is revealing the circumstances behind his experiment – if it ever comes out – may implicate others in the NASCAR garage, and it’ll be interesting to see how much we uncover in the coming weeks.

Did You Notice? Everyone’s groaning over Danica Patrick’s return? But before we go kicking her to the curb, let’s be fair and note she’s not exactly the only rookie that’s struggled behind the wheel. Sure, that 34.0 average finish is downright disgusting, but check out these quick summaries of other Nationwide driver’s rookie seasons:

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Roush Fenway driver has wrecked in 10 of his 13 starts, with more DNFs (five) than TOP-25 finishes (four). He responded to owner Jack Roush’s plea that “his rookies will be better in the second half” by slumping to 26th, one lap down, at Road America.
  • Colin Braun: The second half of Roush Fenway’s dynamic disaster, he was removed from full-time duty after five wrecks in the first eight races. Rumors were Jack Roush wanted to fire him completely, but sponsor Con-way Freight wouldn’t allow it. He’s been marginally better as of late, with three straight top-11 finishes after his crew chief got fired after a reported incident with his crew at a strip club.
  • James Buescher: Dropped from James Finch’s No. 1 ride after pissing off Cup and Nationwide drivers alike by making Jeff Gordon’s Sunday bumper car adventure look like child’s play. Currently driving his father-in-law’s Truck after his bid to buy the operation – keeping the groom-to-be employed – fell through. Four official DNFs in his 10-race stint… all for wrecks.

These three alone have combined for over 20 crashes on the year, making Danica’s three-race debut seem par for the course in comparison. Only Brian Scott and perhaps Trevor Bayne have stood out as possible future talents in a farm system that’s no longer growing crops.

So perhaps we should lower our expectations a bit. After all, this IndyCar crossover star hasn’t even won a race over there this season, scoring just one podium finish (a runner-up at Texas in June). A top-20 finish at New Hampshire, to me, would seem like a win.

One other note: yes, the Nationwide Series has 1,000 problems, and we document them each week. And yes, the pressure is on these young guys more than ever before. But at some point, they’ve got to perform when given the opportunity. Joey Logano didn’t crash 10 times in 13 races while given top-notch equipment. It’s not like Stenhouse and Braun are driving cars from the junkyard… just sayin’ taking the Cup drivers out doesn’t automatically inject some of these guys with more talent.

Did You Notice? A long list of quick hits before we go….

  • The NBA Finals ratings were up significantly this season, with 28.2 million people watching Game 7 of the Lakers-Celtics matchup. That means the NFL, NHL and NBA championships were all up significantly in viewership and attendance this season. Compare that to NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, this year’s Daytona 500, whose ratings were down 16% with only 13.294 million tuning in. Then tell me we’re in bad shape solely due to the economy. Riiight.
  • So much has been made of this whole Shaquille O’Neal – Dale Earnhardt Jr. race. Me? I’m left wondering what the hype is all about. How many minutes does Shaq play in the NBA nowadays? Didn’t his team not make the finals last season? And I know Dale Jr. is the sport’s Most Popular Driver… but we all know about his recent slump, a two-year ditch that’s hurt his mainstream crossover appeal. If I’m wrong here, please tell me, but I fail to understand why it’s even a big deal. Two stars past their prime having a race for fun that’ll air on ABC’s summer programming schedule, where about half the regular viewership actually watches? Wake me up when it’s over.
  • Rick Hendrick sponsored not only James Finch’s No. 09 car last week, but former HMS driver Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 with Hendrickcars.com. Of note: Nemechek gets his engines and chassis from Red Bull Racing, constantly in the rumor mill to switch to Chevy even though they’re under contract with Toyota for 2012. Also, does anybody else find it weird that an owner of four cars would go out and sponsor two others with his business? Hmph.
  • With Robby Gordon’s decision to have PJ Jones start-and-park Loudon, the possibility exists upwards of eight, if not nine start-and-parkers will be in the race pending sponsorship. That would be the highest number in the modern era, and might be enough for NASCAR to pay attention. A quarter of the field pulling in early at the sport’s highest level? How many will need to do it before they take action?
  • OK, so let me get this straight. Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. made $10.3 million last quarter alone, yet they’re arguing with New Hampshire Motor Speedway over a $105,000 difference in security pay? I know this billionaire is a man of principle… but really? You’re trying to undercut a few local blue-collar cops looking to squeeze the system for a little extra overtime one weekend a year? If you were in their shoes… wouldn’t you do the same thing? Smith would be wise to back off, take the hit, and let it go; but based on past history, he won’t, and we know which side will end up winning. Here’s a hint: it’s not the cops.

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