NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Jeff Gordon Going Softie, Fans Faking Martinsville Love & Innocent Victims

Did You Notice? How much Jeff Gordon gets pushed around by Jimmie Johnson? Sunday was the latest chapter in a book of on-track incidents, Johnson clearly cutting off the No. 24 car on several occasions to the point Gordon radioed in to ask if J.J. “had a spotter.” Yet once again, even though it’s the No. 48 initiating contact, Gordon decides to complain instead of taking matters into his own hands and fighting back. How much longer is the prodigy going to run roughshod over the master? Four more years? Five? Six?

In watching Gordon the last few seasons, this constant deference to a team he co-owns is nothing new, an open wound that continues to affect the way he drives with everyone. Since Johnson beat the man at his own game in 2007, what’s followed has been three seasons with only one win and a sudden loss of composure in key situations to close the deal. It seems like whenever Gordon needs to stand up for himself, he doesn’t, and when he does get too aggressive it’s at the wrong times and provides the worst of circumstances.

Just think back to Martinsville in March, his longtime rival Matt Kenseth issuing a bump that angered the No. 24 driver and rooted him out of the lead. Had Gordon kept his composure, the chance for the victory was still readily within his grasp, but a knee-jerk response was to slam into the No. 17, wrecking the chances for both cars while Denny Hamlin slipped by for the win. Three months later, he turned a track he once dominated at Infineon into his personal Demolition Derby, angering everyone from Martin Truex Jr. to Elliott Sadler while bulldozing his way to perhaps the most embarrassing fifth-place finish of his career.

Compare that to Sunday’s incident with Kurt Busch, a driver who our own Nick Bromberg smartly pointed out has had a borderline personal vendetta with Hendrick Motorsports. Considering the circumstances, where the Miller Lite Dodge treated the DuPont Chevy like a pinball after a rather innocuous move, Gordon had every right to run down the No. 2 car and ruin his day.

He didn’t.

Such confusing decisions on when to speak up trickle down to the crew chief as well. Yes, Rick Hendrick has a policy of being politically correct under virtually every circumstance, internal strife handled long after the cameras and media types like me go away. But several times this season, Gordon’s losses can be attributed directly to a bad call with Steve Letarte or the actions of his pit crew, who on Sunday left him caught in traffic with a poor stop that left the No. 24 a sitting duck. In some ways, it’s admirable the Rainbow Warrior hasn’t come out and criticized his crew the way Kevin Harvick, Busch and others provide R-rated verbal abuse on a weekly basis. But there’s also an interesting counterpoint to the silence as well, summed up perfectly by Brad Keselowski in my SI Diary with him last month:

“Everyone wants to talk about the consequences of being too vocal,” he said. “Swearing, being angry — but what they don’t think about is the consequences of not being vocal enough. And when you’re not, people begin to think you don’t care. When you’re not angry from having a poor run or having a mistake or whatever, it’s very easily interpreted as you don’t care.”

Could the same be happening for Gordon? If you put out an attitude where you’re comfortable making these types of mistakes and moving on, then the crew gets it subconsciously in their heads that they’re going to be playing second fiddle to the No. 48 – and others. I think there’s an interesting dynamic at play here, one that will likely end with Gordon leading the most laps since Harry Gant in 1981 without scoring a Cup victory.

And at this point I’m more uncertain than ever as to when that car is going to find its way to victory lane again. Perhaps that lone win in the last three years was one of the reasons why it took so long for a 2011 sponsor to be signed, after several companies spurned Hendrick until a “Drive 4 Hunger” campaign sponsored through the AARP Foundation came through to fill the gap left by some reduced funding from DuPont.

Did You Notice? NASCAR’s officiating silence is haunting them again? Ever since the story broke that the No. 48 had to replace a driveshaft cover on Sunday, I’ve heard so many stories and fantasies that Milli Vanilli and Bernie Madoff combined couldn’t compete. One of the more popular versions, reported by several outlets, is that there was a crack in the cover and NASCAR merely asked for the team to replace it for safety reasons. But others surround the thickness of the cover itself, saying its design bothered officials enough they ordered its removal.

Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to tell you the real answer here because once again, the sanctioning body has clammed up on the issue faster than Christine O’Donnell when you mention the word “witch.” And in pleading the Fifth, the sport is again doing itself a disservice, considering even a whiff of a cheating scandal surrounding the reigning four-time champion is enough to give the fanbase torches and a reason to march towards those luxurious ISC offices down in Daytona Beach. Whether it’s a minor issue or not distracts us from the major point, an open-door, honest policy to keep people informed when these types of incidents occur so it can be properly explained why one Chaser got a 150-point, Category 5 hurricane penalty while the No. 48 received the equivalent of “please” and “thank you.”

How many more times is it going to have to happen before NASCAR wakes up and realizes how ending conspiracy theories is as easy as opening your mouth and telling the truth? Then again, truth is a very hard thing to come by down in those offices these days …

Did You Notice? As the Richard Petty Motorsports saga unfolds, the two innocent victims whose careers hang in the balance? In one corner is AJ Allmendinger, who turned a part-time opportunity into a two-year, full-time ride courtesy of a third-place finish in last February’s Daytona 500. Recently the owner of a new contract extension, he’s embodied the heart and soul of a building organization that was looking forward to going to battle with him in 2011.

Now? One of the sport’s rapidly improving drivers could be sitting on the sidelines next year with no stock car opportunities and only a handful of open-wheel offers enough to possibly lure him away for good. What a terrible turn of events that would be: One of the sport’s more outspoken, honest personalities driven right back into the hands of a rival in the IndyCar Series that’s building more steam to challenge stock car’s reign of racing dominance than we might think.

But nothing would be more devastating to NASCAR than to lose Marcos Ambrose to… Australia? That’s where he’ll be going if the No. 9 ride doesn’t pan out, closing up shop and leaving Ford no choice but to follow through on a financial commitment to return the likable driver to V8 Supercars. With JTG-Daugherty Racing moving forward with 2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte, Ambrose rolled snake eyes on a gamble where he felt the No. 47 was no longer the perfect fit despite a contract that ran through the end of the 2011 season. Now, despite public moments of regret, private hurt feelings have left him unable to close the gap and compromise to the point JTG-Daugherty would even consider rolling out a two-car team for next year.

And let’s not forget the hundreds of employees in the shop, too, all 240 being threatened with a pink slip if investors can’t get this ugly fight between a handful of rich men turned around by Monday morning. What opportunities lie ahead for them in a sport that’s rapidly contracting, no longer able to provide for the multitude of talented people within it just trying to make a living? That’s where the idea of start-and-park teams lie, ugly in practice but understandable when comprised of a handful of hard-working men who loved this industry and find it inconceivable to let go.

It’s a sob story that goes much further than a living legend and the lies he was sucked into, a deep cut that should make all of NASCAR’s remaining owners take notice. For even with Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and others, the pool of funding is not unlimited.

Some sort of drastic action needs to be taken to stop the skyrocketing costs; otherwise, there’ll be just two rich men left, stroking egos on a playground with no one even bothering to come see them fight.

Did You Notice? Fans really need to start practicing what they preach? Martinsville’s race was easily the best of the season, if not the top three behind March’s phenomenal green-white-checkered finish at the paperclip and February’s Daytona 500. It’s the type of event fans email me all the time saying they want to see, claiming it’s the “last straw” if a date ever gets taken away from the half-mile oval.

But it’s one thing to tell us what you want… it’s another when you don’t give NASCAR what it needs to justify two dates. Now, I know Martinsville unemployment is absolutely outrageous, a number hovering around 20% that exudes nothing but sympathy and support on this end. In many ways, 56,000 is a respectable attendance figure for a track with a capacity of nearly 70,000.

Here’s the problem, though: when looking at the bottom line numbers, it’s still by far the lowest attendance we’ve seen anywhere on the NASCAR circuit this year, with the exception of one other event: Martinsville’s rain-delayed show in March. That brought the track down to an average attendance of 48,000, a disturbing number that places it even 20,000 behind tracks like Chicagoland and Fontana, both of whom are struggling to attract fans despite a higher capacity.

“So what?” you say. “Fans were watching this race on TV.” Well, not exactly. The 2.4 rating leaves the track just fourth among the six Chase venues, trailing Charlotte, Fontana and Dover with a viewership level that’s in line with similar declines around the postseason. There wasn’t the type of bump typically seen at places like Talladega, the restrictor-plate addiction that makes it so difficult for NASCAR to do the right thing.

You’re also making it more difficult for them here. Especially in this era where profitability will become exceptionally important, with attendance dwindling and tracks on the precipice of closing down, men in suits aren’t going to care about tradition when they look at those numbers. So feel free to complain all you want when a date gets taken off the schedule, screaming “final straw” and “how dare you, NASCAR!”

But, just like poor attendance doomed Rockingham, you guys are just as much at fault for taking this type of classic competition for granted.

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before taking off:

  • Now that the cat is out of the bag with Scott Speed, the way Red Bull is treating his possible demise is more confusing than ever. Keep in mind Speed has been Dietrich Mateschitz’s right-hand man ever since the first search to land the American in a Formula 1 car in 2003. For nearly eight years he’s been given virtually unlimited opportunity by the Red Bull company, thrown in everything from open-wheel to stock cars without a hint of criticism from the powers that be back in Austria. To go from that to a third-rate insurance policy for the company, employed only in case Brian Vickers gets ill in the offseason, is the type of dirty, unfair ending we usually don’t see in this type of scenario. Sure, Speed has failed to meet a performance clause in his contract, one that dictates a top-16 points finish for him to stay on board in stock cars. But would Mateschitz drop him after a season where there was small but gradual improvement? After all the years of investment in the California driver, it’s notable to have silence on his end after GM Jay Frye needed a yearly, three-week trip to Austria to seal his driver’s fate in the past. Notice that didn’t have to happen this time… So what’s going on? The right answer in place of speculation is: I don’t know. But I’ve got a hunch there is something that just isn’t right here, a part of this story we don’t know about that will come out eventually.
  • Speaking of something we don’t know, on the gossip front: Speed and his wife Amanda and Kyle Busch and his fiancée, Sam Sarcinella, are no longer friends on Twitter and Facebook, part of many signs that point to a once best-buddy duo hitting the skids. Considering the amount of press given surrounding their unlikely friendship, its demise is more than a bit surprising.
  • Michael Waltrip returns to Talladega this week for PRISM Motorsports, worth mentioning since he had a car that could have won the race in the spring. He and Bill Elliott – driver of the No. 26 Ford this weekend – join Regan Smith and Keselowski as wild cards on a weekend where anything can and will happen.

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