Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? How to Make People Race, a Sponsor’s Decade-Long Despair & Hendrick’s Ace Card

Did You Notice? A big difference in the number of start-and-parkers in NASCAR this past weekend? Joe Nemechek, who was a remarkable 0-for-28 in finishing races this season, went the distance along with recent early exiters Michael McDowell (Whitney Motorsports), Chad McCumbee (TRG) and Bobby Labonte (Phoenix Racing – blew an engine inside of 20 to go). Those gains weren’t just limited to the Cup side, either; Mike Garvey, who’d been serving as a dutiful S&Per ended a 15-race DNF streak for Sieg Racing’s second truck, actually finishing inside the top 15 while putting together an impressive performance behind Kyle Busch’s Hail Mary-style victory.

So why would organizations that spend an entire season packing it in focus on Talladega to give their maximum effort? Sure, some had extra sponsorship money that made it easier to foot the tire bill. But the real answer lies within the sport’s restrictor plate parity, the one place left on the circuit other than perhaps the road courses and short tracks where these teams feel capable of scoring a top-10 finish under the right circumstances. For most of these people their passion to win has taken a back seat, not a permanent trip to death row, meaning they’ll jump at the chance to go for the upset if the right opportunity presents itself.

Taking those chances at ‘Dega also gives them a better opportunity to pay off in the wallet. To go the distance at an intermediate track, where there’s a $2,000 difference, say, between a 42nd-place DNF and 34th place – the high-end possibility if everything breaks their way – pales in comparison to a 10th versus 43rd run at Talladega, which gives them an additional injection of at least 20 grand, if not more. And if a small-time team could pull off the ultimate upset, similar to what Brad Keselowski did for Finch in 2009 in the Cup Series, you’re talking an extra $150,000 in the back pocket you could use to (gasp!) borrow a top engine from a top team and actually run it the distance!

So when NASCAR looks at reforming an ownership class system that’s clearly broken, they need to look at this race and realize how stopping this start-and-park craze is far easier than they might think. Sure, guys like PRISM Motorsports will always be in it for the business opportunities no matter what, but the other teams are simply looking for a playing field level enough where extra money in the purse and quality results are a possibility – not a pipe dream – if they play their cards right.

Some inside the sport advocate the only way you do that is to open up the testing policy, giving smaller owners extra time to play catchup at places like Texas, Michigan and Chicagoland. But I contend that the lower-class poverty victims are getting beat in two ways: Number one, they’re falling short on wind tunnel and engineering expertise in which the geeks set up the cars to go ‘round in circles, not the crew chiefs handicapped by the Car of 5,000 Things You’re Never Supposed To Touch… Or Else. Add in the upper class virtually handing down the chassis and engines of their choosing to give to these other, struggling organizations, and you’ve got permanent serfs to the masters of spots and success on the grid they’ll never give up.

The exceptions, of course, are in restrictor plate races where the outcome is largely out of both the engineer’s and the engine builder’s control. Start-and-park teams aren’t stupid; they know this anomaly, and that’s why we saw the different strategies employed on Sunday.

The difficult trick, now, is to get them motivated and financially incentivized to run every week. But that’s far easier said than done.

Did You Notice? That five years after UPS’ last win and a decade after their NASCAR entrance, there is no high-paying sponsor hamstrung by more bad luck on the Sprint Cup circuit? With David Ragan finishing another awful season en route to a second straight finish outside the top 20 in Sprint Cup points, I thought it’d be appropriate on a post-Election Day defined by anger over bad decisions to stretch out a timeline of a decade’s worth of them from this company:

  • November 2000: UPS signs with 1999 champion Dale Jarrett for the 2001 season, setting up an aggressive marketing program that asks Jarrett to “Drive The Truck.” Along the way, the delivery company attaches him to celebrities like the Muppets over their eight years together, one of the most successful campaigns in history and the lone decision they’ve made that’s clearly been right. On the track, they hoped pairing with Yates Racing just one year after the duo’s first championship together would be the perfect way to make their splash in a delivery market that, at that point, they had cornered within stock car racing circles.
  • 2001-02: The first year is the most successful on-track of the company’s tenure in the sport. Posting four wins and 19 top-10 finishes, Jarrett winds up fifth in the standings after a bit of a fall slump that drops him out of title contention and hands the trophy to Jeff Gordon. The next year, the Ford program wins twice and Jarrett ends up ninth, the last time this sponsor has multiple wins on tour despite a sponsorship package that’s reported to have grown to well over $20 million – and even back then, was easily one of the top-five financial contracts within the sport.
  • 2003-05: While its main competitors start expanding to three and four-car programs, Yates Racing hangs back at two while failing to hire the proper engineering support needed as the transition towards high-priced technology occurs. The team wins just once in the ’03 season, finishes a disastrous 26th in the standings and never again ends up inside the top 10 in points. Jarrett winds up mired in a two-and-a-half year victory drought, loses crew chief Todd Parrott for a time and triumphs just once upon his return, during a wild and crazy ending to the 2005 fall plate race at Talladega.
  • 2006: Making an early decision, both Jarrett and UPS would go to newly-formed Michael Waltrip Racing and Toyota for 2007. A “lame duck,” wasteful season ensues where the team scores one top five and two top 10s post-announcement – a span of over 20 races. In the meantime, delivery rival FedEx makes a huge splash with rookie Denny Hamlin, who wins twice, takes the Rookie of the Year Award and finishes third in a season-ending Chase this sponsor still has never made. After the season ends, both sides make it clear there was tension within the program, with crewmen seemingly giving less than 100% after they felt Jarrett gave up on them. It’s the start of a downhill slide where it takes less than two years for owner Robert Yates to retire, his program eventually swallowed up by Roush Racing after losing both its marquee driver and sponsor.
  • 2007: The team UPS decides to join has one of its’ teammates cars, driven by Michael Waltrip, accused of cheating via jet fuel during the buildup to the Daytona 500. A $100,000 fine, the loss of two key crew members and a stigma that hampered the whole MWR program followed. Jarrett, despite the availability of a half-dozen championship provisionals, runs out of them and fails to qualify 12 times over 36 attempts during a season in which he fails to score a top-10 finish. At year’s end, the chaotic season pushes him towards retirement after the first five races of 2008 at age 51; a shocking turn of events for a guy most expected to run well into his mid-50s considering he didn’t even join the tour full-time until age 31.
  • 2008: After enduring a nightmare ending with Jarrett, where the car failed to crack the top 10 once again through March, the company never fully embraces replacement David Reutimann. Despite a promising end to the season that includes a run for the victory at Richmond, one of three top-10 finishes in the last dozen races, the company chooses to run back to Ford, aligning with top dog Roush Fenway Racing and promising up-and-coming talent Ragan, who finished 13th in Cup Series points and came within a whisker of making the Chase that year.
  • 2009: Ragan crashes and burns, going the entire season without a top-five performance while slumping to 27th in the overall standings. Meanwhile, former driver Reutimann wins his first race at the Coca-Cola 600, challenges in several others and winds up a respectable 16th in Cup points. At the end of the season, Jamie McMurray becomes available for a possible driver swap, but Roush and UPS decide to give Ragan a second chance, sticking with a contract that could be broken if the youngster leaves while their veteran driver walks.
  • 2010: McMurray signs with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and has a dream season, winning three times including two of the sport’s crown jewels: The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Reutimann wins a second career race, at Chicagoland, while remaining one of the more competitive Toyota entries. Main rival FedEx is in position to win the championship with Hamlin, the fifth straight year they’ve made the playoffs and the multi-million dollar exposure that comes with it.

As for UPS? They’re sitting here in the midst of an ugly scenario, reportedly looking to break their contract — except Roush can hold them to it by keeping the underperforming Ragan sitting in the seat through 2011.

So when you take a step back and just look at that ghastly turn of events, you hope one of the few big-money supporters left in the sport makes the right decision this time around; and if they look across the way at General Mills’ Cheerios brand, they can find hope. After all, their sponsorship of Clint Bowyer has led to two victories and a Chase appearance after over a decade of going winless at the Cup level… but before that happens, it appears another ugly season of near-invisibility in NASCAR lies ahead. I guess they still have their commercials…

Did You Notice? The key to Gordon’s sponsorship deal? Everyone’s wondering why the AARP will spend $20 million or so on a “Drive 4 Hunger” campaign designed to raise money for the charity. But what’s been under-reported is the insistence the company will have “corporate partners” on the car. It’s a brilliant idea in this age where businesses no longer want to sponsor a dying product.

“Hey, we want you involved in NASCAR at a high-end price,” says Mr. Hendrick. “No way!” says Sponsor X. “Cars going around in circles is not our thing, especially with that dollar amount you just threw out.” “OK,” is the owner’s response. “But how about pairing you up with a campaign to end hunger, a positive PR opportunity for your company that comes at a bargain price, maybe a one or two-race sponsorship deal?”

Of course, that connection will get extra companies associated with the AARP to take a second look. It wouldn’t surprise me to see new corporate sponsors all over that car next year, HMS able to make the leap of faith for these businesses while the entire rest of the garage gets the door slammed in their face.

Considering the strategy, you’ve got to hand it to the man: he’s one of the best car salesmen and richest owners in the sport for a reason.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off:

  • An interesting note from Talladega, where you need a second guy to push you to a top-10 finish; otherwise, you’re hung out to dry. Toyota’s Reutimann helped Kevin Harvick claim second, while teammate Martin Truex Jr. helped play a key role in keeping Jimmie Johnson from winding up 25th on that final restart. In the meantime, Waltrip failed to help Toyota’s Hamlin stay on the lead lap during the early stages of the race by losing the draft, a choice that could very well have eliminated the No. 11’s title chances. Hey, I hate team orders as much as everyone else, and am glad this race played out the way it did. My argument is if you need a second driver to push you to the win, should we really race for points at a place where who you know is just as important as how fast you are? But considering everything that did happen, it’s fair to question just how close Joe Gibbs Racing – who has a separate engine program and doesn’t like to information share as freely as the rest of the Toyota programs – is with the other Camry cars. Clearly, it wasn’t close enough to get the help they needed.
  • We have a second strong entry list for Texas this week, with rookies Trevor Bayne in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford and Josh Wise in the No. 23 R3 Motorsports Chevy in rides expected to go the distance if they qualify. Both are longshots for a top-20 finish, yet in a world where 2011 Sprint Cup rookies stand at zero, execs are secretly pulling for these guys to compete enough that someone, somewhere will take notice and put up the cash for us to have some sort of freshman presence in the sport next year. That is, of course, aside from the much-hyped Landon Cassill taking his turn starting and parking cars like a hotel valet for Mr. Hendrick.
  • So Bobby Labonte replaces Terry Labonte in the Stavola Labonte car – again – when local sponsor C&J Energy, a company from Labonte’s hometown of Corpus Christi, was going to be backing him in the No. 09? Sounds to me like something to watch. I know it’s important for the team to make the field, but don’t discount that RPM may not survive rumors coming at the same time Petty and Marcos Ambrose are privately looking to see if Toyota could strike a deal – meetings that haven’t gained traction so far. But at this point, The King and his Tasmanian will look for help from anyone and everyone who has it. Could that lead to Labonte, a former Petty guy, getting kicked out of the No. 47 if MWR can’t expand? I only think it’s a possibility, not a probability at this point, but running his brother’s car is certainly a tidy backup plan if things don’t work out.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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