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5 Points to Ponder: Drive for 5 Alive, NHMS>AMS & Earnhardt’s Thrill Over for the No. 3?

ONE: The No. 48 Team Is Back… Like It Was Ever Gone

The only rival to the amount of ink wasted on Danica Patrick this past weekend proved to be the plethora of columns out there professing that Jimmie Johnson’s luck had simply run out, that this was the year the streak would finally end.

So much for that. Back-to-back wins over the last two weeks have made 2010 suddenly look a lot like 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006… you know how that story goes.

Face it, any talk of a Johnson “slump” was nothing more than wishful thinking. With cars as good as the No. 48 team puts on the track every week, it’s always only a matter of time before the wins come back. What we saw this May – with the Lowe’s team suffering through head-scratching wrecks at both Darlington and Charlotte, two tracks where they’re no stranger to victory lane – was simply a case of their driver screwing up, nothing more. Regardless of whether Johnson is perceived to be one of the all-time greats or simply the beneficiary of A-plus equipment maintained by a better team, there’s no arguing he’s nowhere near as good a driver as Chad Knaus is a crew chief.

With Knaus at the helm, the cars are always going to be there, and have always been there, for the No. 48 team. The simple truth is Johnson made mistakes earlier this season, mistakes that weren’t seen in a 2009 that held very little suspense as to who would hoist the Cup. The last two weeks, he’s been back to normal, and trophies, not trouble, have been his reward.

So all the titles of “Jimmie’s Back” and “Awakening a Sleeping Giant” are complete misnomers. Chad Knaus brought the same cars he brings every week, and he even said as much on Sunday.

“I think that it’s easy to get misconstrued that we don’t have what we need,” he said. “Are we as fast as we want to be? Absolutely not. We are always looking for ways to get faster.”

“When you guys say, are you experimenting, do you have the same setup, we have never run the same setup twice anywhere at any racetrack. We don’t have a pocket setup and say, hey, we are going to take this and put this in. We are always experimenting and trying to improve.”

I rest my case. The Lowe’s team is still the best in the business… just as they have been all season long. It’s just that this week, the driver finally got the job done.

TWO: Weekend Attendance Should Get NHMS Off the Bubble

Saturday and Sunday’s races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway yielded two rarely seen sights in NASCAR: One, a Nationwide Series attendance estimate that didn’t appear to be inflated by 100%, and two, a Cup race where the grandstands actually were close to full. Drawing over 90,000 fans yesterday could only be considered a victory for a track rumored to have one of its Cup races on the chopping block, with Kentucky Speedway now lawsuit free and clamoring for a date of its own.

Based on attendance alone, Kentucky frankly deserves a Cup race, even if it’s yet another 1.5-mile facility; they filled 92% of their grandstands for a standalone Nationwide event this June that didn’t even have support from ARCA, the Truck Series or IndyCar. In this economic climate, that’s no small feat. But looking at SMI’s portfolio of racetracks, New Hampshire easily outperformed its closest competition for losing a race date… Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Just look at the math: 91,000 at New Hampshire, 85,000 at Atlanta. Now granted, that’s not a huge difference, but when compared to the total availability of seating, the numbers are much starker in comparison. NHMS’s reported attendance accounted for 86% of its total capacity. Atlanta? Only 68%. Never mind the fact that replacing an Atlanta date with one at Kentucky would also replace a 1.5-mile oval with another, rather than having one of the more unique layouts on the Cup circuit in NHMS bumped out by the consummate cookie-cutter.

Yes, all signs point to the deathbed for Loudon’s days of two Cup races after Bruton Smith took the tiny flame of security payments at the facility and poured a BP-sized slather of gasoline on it. But the bottom line suggests that may not be the right move… and if Bruton cares about making money, in the end that’s what’ll end up winning out over a petty $100,000 dispute.

THREE: It Takes Two…Start and Park Cars These Days

With Red Man sponsorship now gone for good from its No. 27 car, Baker Curb Racing did exactly what they told Frontstretch they would do back in May… they rolled out their No. 37 start-and-park entry at NHMS, with Kevin Swindell only completing a handful of laps in the ride before retiring. What was unexpected, however, was the team’s No. 43 car doing the exact same thing. Despite informing Frontstretch a few months ago that the team had 70% of the races on the No. 43 car sold, weeks of carrying the Autism Awareness banner on the quarterpanels turned into a start-and-park effort on Saturday afternoon, with Brad Baker doing the honors as full-time driver. As a result, Scott Lagasse Jr. missed his first Nationwide Series oval race of the season, a necessary sacrifice in order to maintain BCR’s continued survival. His benching, coupled with Justin Lofton’s family sponsor dollars, allowed the team’s No. 27 car to race to a respectable 17th-place result.

While the practice of running additional start-and-park cars to fund a full-time racing entry is nothing new (Rensi Racing, JD Motorsports, Stanton Barrett’s team and others have employed the practice in recent years), Baker Curb’s model is one that is becoming more and more prevalent… running multiple start-and-park cars every weekend.

D’Hondt Humphrey Motorsports (formerly MSRP) has long been using the two-car model, sharing the same hauler and often times even the same set of tires since their inception in 2008. JDM utilized a similar setup for much of that year, shifting focus when Kertus Davis returned to the team from Jay Robinson Racing. K-Automotive Motorsports was another such example for much of 2009 and earlier this season, running the Nos. 92 and 96 cars to supplement their full-time No. 26 entry. For K-Automotive, choosing to run three cars came as a result of needing to justify the expense of bringing a second hauler to carry the backup car for the No. 26 team.

As for Baker Curb, their No. 27 car has been running at the front all season, the symbol of what has been an on-track resurgence for the organization. And with purses in the Nationwide Series down “far more” at some tracks than the 10% advertised at the start of the season, the fact is there’s less money to be made per start-and-park car. It appears that, as a result, two cars may become the norm for those using second and third teams to keep their first cars running.

More start-and-park proliferation? Who’da thunk it? (For the record, this weekend’s race at Daytona will be an aberration to that rule… because frankly, there’s not enough CoTs built for teams to run extra cars).

FOUR: Junior’s Not So Thrilled to Drive the No. 3?

This Friday night will mark the long-awaited return of an Earnhardt to the No. 3 car, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. scheduled to run the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series event at Daytona. Junior, who in the past has commented that he had planned to end his career driving the No. 3 that his father lifted to the ranks of immortality in stock car racing, hardly seems to be too pleased with the arrangement, though.

“After this, I’ll probably never drive a car with a No. 3 on it again. I’m 99% sure that will never happen again,” said the Intimidator’s son of his upcoming racing tribute.

“It’s not my number to take and use whenever I feel like it,” Earnhardt continued. “You don’t just grab the keys off the counter, go run out the door and haul down the road with your dad’s car. I didn’t do it when he was alive and I won’t do it now.”

Marty Smith’s article on the arrangement concluded with his own words that “[Junior] admits this project was an important, positive reconnection in the oft-cold relationship with Teresa Earnhardt, his stepmother.” But is that really true?

If you’re someone that’s willing to take Hendrick Motorsports’ PR representative in ESPN garb at his word, don’t read any further. As for the rest of us… look closer. Notice how Smith didn’t utilize a quote from Junior regarding his stepmother? Notice how the article concludes that putting the No. 3 back on the track was not just a means to recognize Dale Sr.’s induction to the Hall of Fame, but a move made out of “necessity?” Could it be that maybe, just maybe, that the huge supporting cast orchestrating what was supposed to be an emotional, honorable return of one of stock car racing’s greatest names to one of its most iconic rides has spiraled into something dramatic behind the scenes?

It’s suspicious that an article heavy on quotes from Junior draws the conclusion that this reunion with his stepmother was a positive… in its own words alone. And it’s awful suspicious that Junior has gone from wanting to close his career in the No. 3 to referring to it as, “It’s just something I want to do, and that will be that.”

There’s more to this story. I can sense it.

FIVE: Cup Racing is a Job… This is Fun?

As if Cup drivers aren’t double-dipping enough already, a big deal was made out of Ryan Newman stealing a Modified tour win from series heavyweights Bobby Santos and Ted Christopher on Saturday. Kevin Manion, crew chief on the Modified that Newman drove to victory at Loudon, noted that “Cup racing is a job, and this is fun to him [Newman].”

Cup racing’s not as much fun as it used to be? It doesn’t take an engineer to figure that one out.

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