ONE: No Chase Drama, No Problem
As the Sprint Cup Series headed to Richmond this past weekend for the final race to set the Chase field, ESPN and company were stretching every which way they could to make it sound like 12th-place Clint Bowyer was vulnerable. It was a cute storyline, for sure; but most everyone with a shade of common sense knew better. The reality is, as was demonstrated on Saturday night (Sept. 11), none of his challengers ever had a ghost of a chance. Bowyer easily made the Chase, with 13th and 14th-place Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray never even factors throughout the 400-lap event.
Looking at the points, since the inception of the Chase in 2004 there was only one other season where the first driver out of the field was further back heading into Richmond (in 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 128 points back; this season, Newman came in trailing by 117). Even still, Newman had the biggest hill to climb, faced with the unenviable task of having to make up that deficit at one of Bowyer’s best tracks. It truly was about as comatose a “Race to the Chase” as has been seen since the format came into the sport.
And yet, the fans still showed. Yes, 95,000 is the smallest crowd Richmond has ever drawn for the fall race since 2004, but when you factor in the 14,000 seats RIR has removed, the grandstands were very close to capacity. And given the crowds this year, 95,000’s a big deal anyway.
Another nearly 100% capacity crowd for RIR – a feat that the track has accomplished every year since the first race under the current format in 2004. How interesting that whether the race to the Chase is extremely tight (that ’04 race had the first five drivers on the outside looking in within 56 points of making the field) or it’s a boring season like 2007 or 2010, the crowds have still shown up at Richmond. How interesting that the all-powerful Chase and the drama (or lack thereof) it provides has seemingly had little impact on one of its most significant race dates’ attendance.
Validation for short tracks? RIR’s marketing? Fall racing? Whatever it is, it sure doesn’t seem to have anything to do with NASCAR’s BCS, a farcical system determining a faux champion every year.
TWO: Too Much of a Good Thing At Hendrick Motorsports?
Bob Pockrass of SceneDaily wrote an excellent account of Earnhardt Jr.’s glorified test session at Richmond, a race that saw the No. 88 team struggle to a 34th-place finish at one of its driver’s best tracks. While the team was running a rear-end package that it never had, largely to blame for that sorry performance, the mere fact that it has come to rolling the dice for Junior and Lance McGrew says far more than any detailed account of an experiment gone wrong ever could.
Why? Because somehow this nightmare happened to Dale Jr. and the 2010 No. 88 team. This year was the one that Hendrick Motorsports said enough is enough, we’re going to get the No. 88 back to title form. To make it happen, they gave them the same advantage as Mark Martin‘s No. 5 team last season; first pick of everything from engines to chassis. This personnel shift was supposed be the final answer, the same way last year was supposed to be the one that Martin finally won a NASCAR title.
Think that unofficial “favorite” label is in name only? Just look at Martin’s performance. In 2009, he won five races and finished second in points. This year, he has five top-five finishes and missed the Chase. Yet for Junior, despite his team being able to handpick the cream of the crop in terms of equipment, his highly visible ride has been an also-ran since the Daytona 500.
There’s no need to rehash the debate on Junior. Personally, I have no doubt in my mind the guy can drive. NASCAR may throw him a bone with restrictor-plate races here and there (Daytona 2001, NNS race in July), but they didn’t hand him 18 Cup wins.
What I do doubt is Hendrick Motorsports’ ability to have four cars running as strong as their equipment would indicate they should. Seriously, when was the last time Hendrick didn’t have at least one car floundering in mediocrity? In the case of the No. 88 team, just as it was with Brian Vickers in the No. 25 or Terry Labonte in the No. 5, the whole “it’s the R&D team” angle doesn’t jive, either. There’s been way too much talent behind the wheel for that theory to hold water.
Because even at the Cup level, a solid level R&D team pulls performances out that show a spark. Brad Keselowski scored a top 10 in the Southern 500 in a Hendrick R&D car last year. Bill Elliott scored a top 10 in the Brickyard 400 for Evernham Motorsports and led a number of laps in challenging for the win at Texas in the spring of 2004 before succumbing to tire failure. Those are part-time efforts, constructed with one-tenth of the budget and personnel HMS has to offer Earnhardt. Yet this No. 88 team for Hendrick hasn’t shown any of that flash, any signs of life to show that the potential to win is there.
Maybe, just maybe this whole four-car thing is too much for Hendrick’s “people first” model, and it’s a deep pool of them. With the quality of personnel that they have on the No. 48 and No. 24 team, it’s frankly amazing they can even keep three cars as competitive as they do. But just as RCR and EGR have shown, sometimes less is more.
THREE: With Kevin Conway Start and Parking, the Top-35 Chase is Heating Up
As Frontstretch reported last week, Front Row Motorsports’ GM Jerry Freeze noted that unless the team was able to secure a sponsorship miracle or break back into the Top 35, their third team may disappear in 2011. However, thanks to the exploits of the driver and sponsor FRM bid farewell to at Michigan last month, their No. 38 team may well lock themselves back into the field.
Why? Because Kevin Conway, despite bringing his Extenze sponsorship with him to Robby Gordon Motorsports, has been start-and-parking the No. 7 car. I was present in the pits during the Atlanta race two weekends ago when this trend first surfaced, and both the team’s pit stall and radio communications bore this out.
When a team has only one set of used tires in their pit stall and a crew unable to be found merely halfway into a 500-mile race, they’re start-and-parking. When a PRISM Motorsports crew chief is making his way down to a team’s pit stall to ask them how many laps they plan on running, as was detailed on the No. 7 team’s radio, they’re start-and-parking. And as for the rationale the organization provided for their early exit at Atlanta, well… most of the time a driver will report a broken transmission to his crew before the crew chief tells him to park it for the night.
That begs the question: What’s wrong with this picture? A sponsor that, as Jerry Freeze put it, basically told FRM that they would no longer be sponsoring the organization, yet has in-depth plans to continue their involvement with NASCAR in 2011 (the parent company that owns the Extenze brand is looking to focus its efforts on its sleep aid product, Alteril, next year) is now running less than half a race on the weekend? There’s definitely something going on here, and that something involves money.
There’s no real evidence that the money troubles are a result of Extenze not living up to sponsorship obligations. After all, Freeze at FRM did note that since Conway left the team, resources and tire budgets have had to be trimmed in that camp. Those cuts reared their ugly head at Richmond; despite Freeze telling Frontstretch that the short tracks were where his teams had improved the most over the course of 2010, all three teams finished outside the top 30, at least seven laps down.
What it seems to suggest, however, is that finances at Robby Gordon Motorsports may be dire. Enough that maybe RGM, perhaps the only viable option for a new home in the Top 35 for Conway after leaving Front Row, sold the Extenze camp on the notion that if they help them survive fiscally in 2010, the still-developing driver would have a long-term home with his program.
I don’t pretend to have any hard information to prove this theory and obviously start-and-parking is going to have Conway outside the Top 35 and being forced to race his way into Cup shows on time in a big hurry, obviously a huge competitive disadvantage. But considering that Gordon has been running a second start-and-park car in select races this year, that he doesn’t have sponsorship for all 36 races and his deal with BAM Racing fell through, on its way to some ugly litigation, all signs point to money trouble in the RGM camp. Just another supplement for Conway to sell.
FOUR: The Curious Case of Frank Kimmel
After somehow securing a top-five finish on the road course at New Jersey Motorsports Park, the table seemed set for Frank Kimmel to finally secure his 10th ARCA championship. The dirt tracks, as well as the bullrings of Toledo and Salem marked four of the next five races and Kimmel had taken the points lead on a road course, a racing skill he openly admits to be a weakness.
Fast forward to the weekend leading into Salem. Three races remain and Kimmel now sits well over 100 points out in fourth, his title chances now a longshot at best.
How did this ugly ending unfold? Simple: three strikes and you’re out. It all started with a spin of his own making at the Springfield fairgrounds; then, brake issues at the DuQuoin fairgrounds were followed up by a broken rear gear at Toledo. It’s an ugly trio of racing misfortune that could tear anyone’s championship dreams to shreds.
Of course, these missteps are hardly the luck or performance that any ARCA follower would expect, especially of a driver that for the better part of the last decade made this series his personal playground. But it’s just a reflection of how crazy and unpredictable the ARCA title chase has been this year. Heading into the weekend’s race at Salem, there are three drivers within 15 markers of each other. As far as points races go, it’s a classic in the making.
It just goes to show that the competition itself will take care of the drama. Sure, there will be lean years, like many of Kimmel’s eight title runs from 2000 to 2007, where the points race is a dud while one driver dominates the competition as he makes a roughshod claim to a championship.
But racing will take care of itself. ARCA didn’t panic when Kimmel stuck a seemingly permanent claim on the title for all those years, and that series has been rewarded. 2008 saw the title come down to the final race, with contenders Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Scott Speed wrecking each other in the finale while handing the trophy to Justin Allgaier. 2009 saw the final standings battle between Justin Lofton and Parker Kligerman decided by the equivalent of one position on the track.
And 2010 has been more of the same: No Chase required. This sport is as unpredictable as they come, and in no need of a contrived standings reset to make it entertaining.
FIVE: After Hamlin’s win, is there any reason to think Jimmie won’t succeed on the Drive For Five?
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.