ONE: Should Kevin Conway’s Ride Be in Jeopardy?
On the stats sheet, it’s hardly been a stellar Cup Series rookie campaign for Kevin Conway. Through 21 starts thus far in 2010, only four have resulted in top-30 finishes, and he’s ended races on the lead lap just three times: the two road courses and a 14th-place run at Daytona. Front Row Motorsports has had to make owner points swaps on a number of occasions to ensure that Conway, the slowest qualifier nearly every weekend, and his valuable Extenze sponsorship take the green flag on Sundays. And the freshman’s first return visit to a track (Pocono) yielded only minimal improvement; Conway finished 35th in his first start on the tricky triangle, then 31st upon his return.
But now, with rumors swirling that FRM may well be looking to make a change if Conway doesn’t pick it up, especially after having their No. 38 team already fall out of the Top 35 (his No. 34 car is 35th in owner points, less than 200 markers from having to race their way into Cup fields), the question has to be asked… should they?
The value Conway brings – having brought the first full-time sponsor FRM has had since the then-R&J Racing No. 37 signed BoSPoker.net for the second half of the 2005 season – has already been discussed ad nauseam. But now that the year is nearly two-thirds over, the question now comes down to Conway, the driver prospect. Has he improved? Has jumping headfirst into Cup racing proven to be an effective baptism by fire?
The truth is, it’s still too early to tell. The Cup circuit is due to make return visits to Michigan, Richmond, Loudon, Atlanta… the list goes on and on. It is in those races that Conway’s future as a driver will be visible. Let’s also not forget, his money was what allowed owner Bob Jenkins to race David Gilliland full-time in 2010. For FRM to make a change, especially before he can return to tracks for the second time, would be both premature and a little disingenuous — especially given the commitment they’ve continually preached since signing Conway.
Granted, the rookie’s return to Pocono was not much in the way of progress, at least on the results page. But Conway has gritted this year out. He’s played the businessman angle well, and through episodes such as driving the full 600-miler at Charlotte despite vomiting in the cockpit all night long from illness has shown a dedication to his race team. He’s earned the right to go back to tracks a second time and the right to put up or shut up when it comes to delivering performance.
Thankfully, Front Row got that message, denying Monday’s report by the NASCAR Insiders later that afternoon.
TWO: NASCAR Hit or Miss with Yellows at Watkins Glen
In the interest of placating a respected fellow writer of mine who’s concerned I spend too much time “raging against the machine,” attention needs to be called to the fact that NASCAR’s yellow flag management on Sunday afternoon was at least not suspect this time. The race opened with a 28-lap green flag run before the first yellow flew for a car stopped off course, and that yellow was held until pit stops had cycled through. The only debris caution of the event came over 50 miles before the finish, for debris that existed. With that said, what was an entertaining race was also done by mid-afternoon. The event was allowed to flow, a rarity these days.
Mind you, it wasn’t perfect. Fellow staff writer Matt McLaughlin did well to remind NASCAR that every other road-course sanctioning body out there makes use of the local yellow flag. And in the case of two of the yellows that flew on Sunday (Bobby Labonte’s spin on lap 42 and the debris caution on lap 62), the local yellow would have accomplished the same end that the full course yellow did without freezing the entire field and event.
Nonetheless, I’ll go as far as to say NASCAR’s officiating did not get in the way on Sunday… I feel like I’m praising an employee for showing up on time to work, but hey, I tried.
THREE: Chicagoland to Start the Chase?!
This sounds more like the NASCAR we’ve come to know. Take a championship format that fans hate and hold its opening race on a cookie-cutter oval in a market that, while a media hotbed, is more synonymous with shootouts on street corners than on the racetrack.
Chicago is the No. 2 media market that NASCAR visits, and given the struggles they face to keep themselves relevant in the fall, even despite their “playoff” system, there appears to be some rationale for moving one of the season’s most significant races to a lesser-known facility that hosts only one date a year. I’ll even go as far to say that the idea of opening the Chase on a track no team will have seen heading into the final 10 races is a good concept.
But this move completely ignores the problem that NASCAR still seems to remain aloof to… a Chase race at Chicago is not going to excite the fanbase that the sport desperately needs back. It’s a cookie-cutter oval with no history, an intermediate snooze fest plagued with the same on-track problems seen on just about every 1.5-miler out there. And it’s a facility that, unlike Loudon, has had a hard time putting butts in the seats. That means a sterile environment, a predictable form of racing and a less than stellar crowd are likely (adding the Chase hasn’t proven to be a big boom for NASCAR fans: just ask Fontana).
Who cares how big the media presence in Chicago is if it’s a boring race that no one is there to see? Besides, didn’t NASCAR learn anything the last time they moved a major race to a big-time media market, only to see it blow up in their face?
FOUR: Denny Hamlin’s “Stupid” Quote was Just That
“I’m not really sure what all took place, but I got hit from behind,” was a true enough first statement. But Hamlin went further, noting “Dive-bombing. It’s just so stupid. We’re not even racing for the win.”
It’s true, Kyle Busch wasn’t racing for the win when he went low on Jeff Burton, forcing the No. 31 into the No. 48 and triggering the incident that took out Hamlin. They were, as he noted, racing for at best a top-10 position, and in the process triggered an episode not of his making that ended his day in a cloud of smoke.
That does not, however, make the move that Busch put on Burton stupid. Yes, it was aggressive, and it proved costly. But to think that Busch had “the nerve” to race hard for a position in the top 10 after starting the event at the back of the field, to make a risky braking maneuver on a road course, to get aggressive with less than 20 laps to go in a Cup race….
Considering Hamlin’s got no shortage of aggression on his racing resume (see him running over David Reutimann at Pocono a few years back), Hamlin’s comments, frustration or not, were far from sensible, yet another example of the double standard he continues to hold towards fellow competitors.
FIVE: The 99 Lives of Casey Mears
Speaking of lessons that the Cup Series can’t seem to learn, Casey Mears has landed himself another full-time ride. Starting at Atlanta and carrying through the entire 2011 schedule, Mears will be taking over the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota that Max Papis has wheeled throughout 2010. Papis will instead move to where he should have been racing this year, full-time in the Truck Series.
On the one hand, it’s not hard to argue with Germain making a change in their No. 13 car. A largely start-and-park entry, Papis has missed nearly a third of the Cup races since Bristol, and hasn’t finished better than 22nd in any of the ones where the team ran the distance. What’s more, unlike the situation of fellow rookie Conway, who’s driving for an established organization with veteran teammates, Germain Racing is still trying to figure out this whole Cup racing thing. Getting a driver who’s actually familiar with stock cars will go a long way for the No. 13 team.
But Mears? The same driver that ran the No. 07 team at Richard Childress Racing into the ground, who led Keyed-Up Motorsports and their No. 90 car out of business after managing to qualify for only one race out of the first five to start this year, is now the candidate that Germain wants to build their Cup team around?
It’s getting easier to write this column… the same half-dozen mistakes just keep repeating themselves. By 2011, this’ll probably be a cut and paste feature.