The running of the Coke Zero 400 on the high banks of the most famous venue in stock car racing this past Saturday night marked the exact halfway point in the 36-race schedule. While I’m on the subject of the weekend’s crashfest, why on earth did Coke decide to call it the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coke? I mean, come on for a minute; do the powers that be at the soft drink giant really figure we’re going to think it was “powered” by someone else like, maybe, NoS energy drink? No, thought not.
Oh well. Moving on from the often-bizarre nomenclature of race sponsorship, we head right into the meat of the season, with just eight more races until the Chase cutoff. At this point, the playoff contenders have long been separated from the pretenders, with plenty of drivers facing the disappointment of sitting on the outside looking in. So, let’s take a quick look at some of the drivers currently making their living driving three and a half ton behemoths as fast (or in these cases not that fast) as possible – and who, given their druthers, would eviscerate 2010 from the record book and take the proverbial mulligan.
After making the Chase in 2009, for the first time for both himself and Team Red Bull 2010 was meant to be the year that Vickers was going to establish himself as a bonafide top driver. It hasn’t happened, as you no doubt know if you’re reading this column and you’re not related to me. But just in case, Vickers is on the sidelines for the remainder of 2010, not as a result of crash damage or poor form, but rather the much more serious issue of blood clots that developed in both his lungs and left leg. For the loquacious, intelligent driver, who was really starting to come into his own, it’s a hammer blow. “This sucks – because this is what I love to do…” he said when stepping back in May. “This is my life, this is what I love to do. I fully intend to be able to do it again.” Here’s hoping he’ll be back in full health by the next time we visit Daytona in 2011.
After what can most charitably be described as a brain fart at Infineon, Ambrose could have hidden away and licked his wounds. He chose not to do so, facing the media and answering their questions – both inane and otherwise. He is certainly to be commended for fessing up to arguably the biggest mental error on a racetrack since the Busch race when Mark Martin pulled onto victory lane early, under caution, when all he had to do was drive about 300 meters to the checkered flag for the win.
But facing the music doesn’t earn you any extra bump up the standings. A whopping 510 points out of 12th place, I think it’s fairly safe to say there won’t be Australian representation in the Chase this year. The numbers, after all, don’t lie: Seven DNFs, an average finish of 22.9 and just two top 10s all year long. The only piece of good news for Ambrose is that the circuit will shortly swing through Watkins Glen, where the Aussie won the last two Nationwide races. There won’t be a Chase spot, but there’s still time for a silver lining and a maiden Cup victory. Ambrose needs it – in the worst way.
It would be fair to say 2010 has been a very trying year so far for the only South American-born Sprint Cup driver. He’s had the speed, no doubt, but for one reason or another (such as a teammate taking him out, albeit accidentally) he’s not had the finishes he perhaps should have attained. Looking at his record this season is instructive: Four top fives, four more top 10s but six DNFs, well on his way to equaling his 2008 career high (well, low) of nine. Now some 246 markers out of the 12th and final Chase berth, Montoya needs a borderline miracle if he’s to make a second consecutive big dance. Unless he racks up a couple of wins or reels off a “Double J in the final 10 races” style streak, he’s missing out… but expect some fireworks from this cat the next few weeks either way.
It’s not been a banner year at Roush Fenway Racing, with all four drivers essentially off the pace or, if you want to be a little harsher, out to lunch. Ragan has one solitary top 10 on the season… but that came at Talladega, so while it shows an ability to handle the vagaries of restrictor plate racing, it’s not an indicator of overall season form. In fact, if you include 2009, Ragan has just three top-10s in 52 races. Simply put, it’s not good enough, especially with a powerhouse sponsor like UPS adorning the sheet metal of his No. 6 Ford Fusion each weekend. Yes, Ragan is still young – exceptionally young – but Sprint Cup careers can be cut brutally short and if he’s not careful, he might find himself on the scrap heap sooner than he expected. Just ask Reed Sorenson. For my money, Ragan will likely turn this around — just not this year.
The Toyota Sponsafier Paint Scheme
The astute amongst you will realize that this is not, in fact, a driver, but I think it’s still merits inclusion on this list. There’s a lot of excrement in NASCAR advertising, a seriously large amount. But the Toyota Sponsafier promotion was anything but that. In fact, in my humble opinion, it was genius. Over 84,000 entries were submitted as fans the length of the country got their chance to design their own NASCAR paint scheme. A million votes were cast and the winning design (see it unveiled here,) the “Praying for Karson” paint scheme was designed by his grandmother and is her vision of the future of her grandson, who is afflicted by a rare lung disease. Great campaign, great story, worthy cause… check, check, check. The only problem is that Michael Waltrip, who piloted the paint scheme, wasn’t able to qualify for the race at Infineon. Oh dear. Talk about a damp squib.
You could make the argument with Mears that nice guys finish last, and there’s certainly something in that hypothesis. Surplus to requirements at Richard Childress Racing, after sponsorship dried up in a tough market, Mears was left to scratch and beg for a ride which eventually materialized in the Keyed-Up Motorsports Chevrolet: a far cry from where he had been, that’s for sure. Mears DNQ’d the first four races looking, at times, so off the pace he was in the wrong zip code. He eventually made the field at Thunder Valley where he finished 30th, 17 laps down, in a forgettable debut.
Mears stood by for Denny Hamlin after his ACL surgery, but never turned more than a practice lap before moving to Red Bull to keep the seat warm for his friend Vickers in what was purported to be a rest of the season minus road courses type deal. But four so-so finishes and a two-car crash at Michigan with teammate Scott Speed prompted the laconic, toenail-painting Formula 1 reject to remark: “Both of us were struggling, but wrecking us like that — I mean, is ridiculous. Whenever you’re at Hendrick [Motorsports] 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.” And there weren’t, it seems, as Mears was unceremoniously dumped after a very short tenure in the No. 83. The waters sure are murky for Mears right now, and his time as the top echelon of the sport appear to be very numbered.
The Big Three Roush Fenway Wheelmen — Edwards, Kenseth and the Biff
“But wait!” I hear you cry, “All three drivers – Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle – are in the Chase transfer spots.” And this, dear readers, is indubitably true. The trouble is, based on current form and a complete lack of wins for Ford at the Cup level, they’ll only be there to make up the numbers. That’s not what any of these drivers wanted or expected headed into the season. Clearly, something is off at Roush, and the rumors are that the simulators are spitting out bad data, which has translated into so-so form on the track itself. But whether it’s a computer generated issue or not, the three Cup veterans need something to change, and change quick-smart, if they are to have any aspirations of standing atop the big podium at Homestead.
And that’s my list. If you think I’ve forgotten someone, let me know in the comments section below.