ONE: Richard Childress Racing Poised to Make the Same Mistakes Twice
There is no getting around several facts involving Richard Childress Racing.
1.) Since cutting down to three NASCAR Sprint Cup cars, all three drivers have run considerably better throughout 2010. Debate causality until the cows come home, the three-car RCR operation is now leading the Cup standings and poised to give JJ a run for his money come fall with Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and possibly even Clint Bowyer.
2.) The organization’s John Wes Townley experiment was an epic failure, one that has apparently put the final nail in the team’s Nationwide Series program (more on that in a bit). Selling a championship ride to a driver that, while funded, was nowhere near the talent of the team around him or even a good fit (Townley had off-track issues at Las Vegas, ticketed for underage alcohol consumption, then was benched at Phoenix on race day for poor driving) rendered the team’s once-vaunted No. 21 team an afterthought in the Nationwide ranks.
That said, RCR appears to have learned nothing from their past. Instead, they’re speculated to be making both of the same mistakes at once come 2011: starting the fourth Cup team back up while bringing a driver on board because of the $20 million in sponsorship he brings. With Richard Petty Motorsports yet to announce anything solid regarding Paul Menard, the former DEI prospect has now surfaced as the lead name to take a fourth seat at RCR, a car which the organization confirmed they were looking to bring back on the Cup level should sponsorship be secured.
Granted, Menard is not Townley. He has won at the Nationwide level, had a vastly improved 2010 season and proven week after week not to be a menace on-track to his fellow competitors. But the Townley analogy works in that RCR was tasked to weigh the risks of bringing on a driver for solely fiscal reasons earlier this year… and they failed royally doing it. As much as any team will deny it, when the visions of painted quarterpanels start dancing around, things like driver personality and chemistry, the fit within the team and the risk/reward of starting another car all take a back seat to those shiny dollar signs potentially sitting on the table.
For all I know, Menard may prove to be the perfect glove fit in that camp. But combining the history of both RCR’s sponsor-driven decisions with their span as a four-car Cup team, that $20 million deal might not be worth the hit in performance it could bring to an organization that just finished rebuilding from their last “expansion.”
TWO: A Moment of Silence for the Demise of RCR’s Nationwide Program
Speaking of RCR, one story that’s not getting nearly the gravity attached that it should is the organization’s decision to leave the Nationwide Series in favor of fielding trucks for brothers Austin and Ty Dillon. The departure of the No. 21 team from the series after 2010 is just the latest example of a championship-winning program leaving the ranks for good, joining 2000 champion PPC Racing and 2004-2005 champs Chance 2 Motorsports.
There’s no getting around it. The fact that a team which has won two championships and 56 races in the last decade can’t find sponsorship and is choosing to hang up its hat – or at least partner with another program like Kevin Harvick’s KHI organization – is a very big deal. Now, even a Cup program with no hesitation on putting Cup drivers in its NNS cars can’t find the dollars to race, either.
It’s perhaps the most striking example of just how toxic the current state of the Nationwide Series is. The same drivers win every single weekend (Kyle Busch may well score 15 race victories in 2010 without taking the series title.) The title chase is non-existent. There’s no money in the back of the field, or the middle for that matter. There’s still the problem of having the new NNS car – the equivalent of an unfunded mandate being placed on teams to research, develop and build fleets of – looming over every budget as 2011 comes to fruition. And, with the exception of Iowa and a few other tracks, the attendance has flat sucked this year.
Bottom line, it’s going to take more than big changes to stem this tide… it’s going to take a miracle, one that even Morgan Shepherd’s Victory in Jesus outfit can’t seem to bring to RCR.
THREE: NASCAR is Not Like Other Sports… and Needs to Stop Acting Like It
NASCAR’s notorious dictatorial style was obviously at work during the week leading up to Pocono, sprung into action after Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin were each revealed as having been secretly fined by the sanctioning body for making comments detrimental about the sport. By the end of the weekend, the two outspoken drivers were acquiescing as to why they were punished, with articles aplenty chronicling how the rest of the field understood and even agreed with NASCAR’s decision to fine its own competitors – noting that other professional leagues routinely do the same.
Problem is, NASCAR is not the NFL or the NBA (thank God). This sport is different, as the complete and utter failure of the Chase has reminded fans for the better part of the last decade. And the consequences of speaking out are also different. As hard-hitting as football may be, NASCAR is the most dangerous professional sport in the United States, bar none. Everyone taking part, from the drivers to the fans in the stands, are risking their lives to do so.
“Even though we, at times, model ourselves after other sports, we have a unique enough sport that we’ve stood on our own for a long time,” Hamlin said in a rare moment of clarity on Friday. “And I think we could in the future, as well.”
But stick ‘n’ ball reform isn’t the only problem with NASCAR’s “keep quiet in public” policy. Because for all the talk of how Hamlin’s comments that landed him a fine were about NASCAR’s deliberate use of debris cautions to close up the finish (in short, telling the truth), Newman’s comments were literally a matter of life and death.
Before and since his harrowing crash at Talladega last fall, Newman’s shots at the sanctioning body have been confined to matters of safety. And that’s been the motif for many of the engineer’s criticisms: Be it after Talladega in the fall of 2009, addressing NASCAR’s lack of work towards keeping cars on the ground with the new car design; the April comments at the same track that got him fined; or even back as far as 2004, when he endured a hard wreck at the Texas Motor Speedway before SAFER barriers were ever installed.
This is where NASCAR taping over their drivers’ mouths is intolerable. Unlike football and other stick ‘n’ ball sports that frankly don’t change that much, NASCAR is constantly in flux. The tires are changing. The tracks are changing. The cars are changing. Feedback from the competitors is absolutely necessary to stay on top of the sport. If NASCAR really wants to avoid damaging statements in the media, instead of telling drivers to shut up, they need to hire up people that have half a clue and give half a damn about improving the sport.
Because before anyone tries to make the argument that the drivers could privately make their concerns known, let’s just remember it took the death of Dale Earnhardt before this same sanctioning body got serious on safety. It’s taking drastic slides in attendance, sponsorship, and TV ratings to get them to listen to fans. NASCAR enjoys living under a rock, stuffing cotton in their ears and singing their own praise, and have for a while. The only effective means to call them out is to do it on TV, in front of the fans that pay their checks each week.
The drivers and the fans would do damn well to remember that.
FOUR: Pocono Raceway Needs Some Fixes… on More than One Front
Elliott Sadler‘s wreck was scary, no question. And it brought up an interesting conundrum on the implementation of SAFER barriers by NASCAR racetracks… why the hell weren’t they built everywhere in the first place? Yes, the corners are the most frequent location for wrecks, but the purpose of SAFER walls was to lessen the severity of any crash at any place… not just in high-risk sections. The straightaways have frequently proven to be the sight of vicious wrecks, too, be it Jeff Fuller‘s broadsiding the backstretch wall in a Nationwide race at Kentucky in 2006 or Jeff Gordon‘s head-on crash into the service entrance at Las Vegas, one that tossed the radiator from his car much like the engine flew from Sadler’s on Sunday.
Given just how many violent accidents have occurred along the Long Pond Straightaway over just the last decade at Pocono, there’s little doubt that come next June, they’ll have a considerably larger amount of the SAFER fence erected around their venue. Money’s obviously not an issue with the track; despite nagging attendance woes, the raceway spent over $15 million building a solar facility on the property.
What is of issue here, though, is the priority being placed by the leadership at Pocono. A solar facility, when much of the backstretch has the equivalent of highway guardrails running along them and the traffic situation is appalling at best? When the logistical layout of the pits and garage makes navigation for writers and fans alike a nightmare? When the track staff is sorely lacking (Example: My last visit saw my credentials misidentified numerous times, then got sent to the wrong office for a proper pass courtesy of directions by track staff… all of which led me to be late to an interview for the first time in my career covering the sport).
Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not for one second questioning the passion or love of the Mattiolis for their facility and their fans. But speaking out is the only way changes are going to be made. And Pocono, frankly, needs a lot of them if they’re going to be hosting two races at this level.
FIVE: What Iowa Speedway’s Doing Right Isn’t Rocket Science
Despite Pocono hosting the Truck Series for the first time ever, the Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway was the success story of the weekend, with over 56,000 fans legitimately selling the place out while the field was able to race side-by-side the entire evening.
Go figure. A fan-friendly facility, in a short-track configuration, built for stock cars, draws a huge crowd and puts on a great show. Sure, their promotion deserves a ton of credit for drawing the crowd they did (and a lot of tracks should probably take note of what they did right), but keep it simple, stupid. Short-track racing is still where stock car racing lives and breathes, and Saturday night, 56,000 race fans paid their hard-earned money to agree.
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