*Did You Notice?* … Besides the Chase, there’s plenty of other associations coming to an end this weekend. Before we take a look at that championship, here’s a look at the other important storylines and likely divorces headed your way:
*The final race for Kurt Busch and Miller Lite.* Five years into a Roger Penske partnership, Busch and one of the sport’s biggest sponsors part ways while capping a underachieving run that yeah, kind of leaves that bitter beer taste in your mouth. Considering the giant hoops both parties went through to find each other – Busch opted out of his Roush contract a year early, narrowly avoiding a lawsuit and endured months of negative press – this marriage started off rocky and never did quite reach the heights of the mid-1990s, when Rusty Wallace won 10 races per season and challenged Dale Earnhardt for the title in 1993-94.
Instead, Busch has eight wins total during his tenure along with 37 top-5 finishes in 179 starts. Now, he’ll switch to Shell/Pennzoil while the beer glory (and hopefully not the gut) transfers over to Brad Keselowski, he of two top-10 finishes total in Penske Cup equipment. With Budweiser aligning itself with a possible Cup champion in Kevin Harvick next year, might you think the expectations for the now-reigning Nationwide Series champion would ratchet up a bit? Getting flipped by Carl Edwards isn’t the only publicity that new sponsor is going to expect.
*Elliott Sadler’s last race with RPM (or whatever it is now).* Newer NASCAR fans might not remember Sadler’s move to the No. 19 was a bit of a coup when it occurred in 2006, the last nail in the coffin of his former Robert Yates Racing team that would cease to exist as we knew it two years later. A three-time Cup winner, Sadler was expected to catapult a team which struggled with Jeremy Mayfield back into the Chase-making powerhouse it was in 2004 and ’05; instead, he dropped into a ditch the likes of which even the likable Virginian could never dig out. He has more years in the car (five) than top-5 finishes (four), bottoming out with just a lone top-10 result this season while never seriously contending despite everything but the kitchen sink being thrown at the program.
The defining moment came in June 2008, just days after he signed an extension to stay with the team; that weekend in Dover, he started an ugly crash that took out a quarter of the field, angering Tony Stewart and shocking sponsor Best Buy executives in town to see the race. Just eight months later, owner George Gillett was trying to break the contract and force him out, causing Sadler’s smile to be replaced by a bunch of lawyer phone calls, an arranged marriage, then a near-miraculous Daytona 500 victory in February ’09 before a yellow flag for rain came one lap after he lost the lead. That was the proverbial stake in the heart, the start to a confidence-destroying slump that’s been equivalent to playing out the string for two seasons. At least in Sadler’s new home at Kevin Harvick, Inc., he can come to work every day assured his crew actually wants him in the car.
*The last race for Richard Petty as a car owner.* Speaking of RPM, this one’s not set in stone, but Petty’s future in the sport is open to question. Right now, the bank account’s a moving target of red ink in a world where there isn’t a whole lot of green to pass around. We’re not talking a $5 donation per crewman to keep the King afloat; how about $50,000 apiece, and even then, 1,000 donations might not be enough to repay debts that in some circles have been estimated at up to $90 million left behind by Mr. George Gillett and company.
At 73, you have to wonder if Petty’s better off as a consultant of sorts, a castoff in a world where country club businessmen in suits hold all the keys to the castle he built. Will it be a giant loss if The King doesn’t return in 2011? Of course. Was it going to happen sometime in the next couple of years anyway? Yes… even the greats reach retirement age someday. And will NASCAR look at this dismantling of a four-car program as a major wakeup call? I hope so.
The “RPM in limbo” also makes me hesitant to write about the finale of one Marcos Ambrose at JTG-Daugherty Racing. Chances are, despite the hard feelings over the Tasmanian’s announcement he just wasn’t feeling the No. 47 anymore, know that desperate people do desperate things – especially when there’s a contract once written which puts Ambrose in the seat for 2011. A.J. Allmendinger has a future in open-wheel if this RPM deal falls apart, but I don’t think Ambrose wants to head towards a second option – Australia – this late in the game, which thickens the plot for what the future of his soon-to-be-former team and signed 2011 driver Bobby Labonte may hold. With Petty looking to put a deal together with Toyota, this one could get really juicy once the holidays come ‘round in mid-December.
*Jeff Gordon’s final race with DuPont as the major sponsor for almost all the races.* Sure, it’s not like the paint and chemical company is disappearing completely; we’ll see them on the No. 24 car over a dozen times in 2011. But their departure signals a greater transition, the loss of yet another full-time, longtime sponsor who can’t pay the rate Hendrick and the other top NASCAR owners now require in order to compete. Looking back at February 1998, only eight primary sponsors remain from that era now who put their logos on _almost all_ the races: Budweiser, Caterpillar, Cheerios, DuPont, Lowe’s, Mobil 1, Miller Lite, and Pennzoil.
Of those listed, DuPont, Mobil 1, and Budweiser will scale back next season, with Cheerios and Caterpillar not rumored to be far behind once their deals come up for renewal post-2011. My friends, that’s not just a minor problem … it’s a major one. Although I will give DuPont this much: the way in which their driver’s been treated down the stretch of the Chase, between the pit crew swap and being asked to be Jimmie Johnson’s personal on-track assistant at Talladega, they could be figuring out a way to bail at the right time.
*Sam Hornish, Jr.’s final race in NASCAR.* Sure, Hornish has said and done all the right things while suffering through another mediocre season at Penske Racing. But with no sponsorship in place for 2011, the surge of momentum heading to open-wheel and Verizon boosting the funding within Penske’s IndyCar program, why would he not give “that other series” a serious look? There’s also Panther Racing, holding an open seat while GM has announced a return to Indianapolis for 2012 … how much more prodding does the poor man need to check his ego, admit his mistake and move on? The numbers through three seasons in stock cars are borderline embarrassing with championship talent; two top 5s, eight top 10s and just 55 laps led in 107 starts. Sure, Hornish can test the free agent waters and hope some middle-tier team will be in need of his services, maybe over in the Nationwide Series. But if it’s not happening in what’s equivalent to top-tier equipment in the sport, will it ever?
*Verizon’s final race with a NASCAR team.* Justin Allgaier’s once stepping-stone ride is now drying up for good, the talented Nationwide sophomore headed to Turner Motorsports while his multi-million dollar backer gets “locked out” at the Cup Series door through the exclusivity of title sponsor Sprint. Sure, the phone network had found creative ways to get the word out that they were backing Brad Keselowski’s No. 12 on the Cup side – the company sponsored in-car camera shots on FOX, among other initiatives – but the refusal for Sprint to allow their logos on the car certainly carried some weight in their decision to squeak out NASCAR’s back door. The new “AAA” Pony cars may be nice, but it’s a major league sponsor we’re talking about here with major league marketing expectations they could never realize… except they can do the same over on Penske’s cars in the IndyCar Series. Can you say momentum swing?
*Did You Notice?* … How the three Chase contenders were inspected nearly two weeks before their cars came to Homestead? What, are they just going to rubber stamp them in pre-race inspection down in Miami? How in the world, unless you impound the cars, are you going to run that type of inspection and then trust your results _weeks_ before the car actually comes through the gate at the racetrack? Even if you put some sort of label on the car to track it, these teams made it to the last race on top for a reason: their creativity and ingenuity in the shop while putting together chassis that consistently straddle the line. You don’t think they might make modifications between Phoenix and Homestead, possessing the intellectual capability to skirt around and “modify” chassis in the next week if they so choose?
It makes for a cute PR story, sure, but I highly doubt the other two competitors are breathing easy knowing their rivals have been “inspected” so soon. And it’s all a moot point, anyway; if the championship car was deemed illegal in post-race, could you imagine the outcry from the fan base and the garage in such a scenario? If you think the ratings and negativity are bad now …
*Did You Notice?* … Speaking of ratings, the Phoenix ones were pretty important in that their drop of 24 percent was consistent with other Chase races across the board. Sure, we’re in the throes of one of the most exciting points races in history (and I’m fully on board with it; I may dislike the Chase, but you race with the system you have in place, right?) For fans disgusted with the current playoff format, though, they’re making their voices heard with remotes that clearly indicate no type of “nail-biting finish” will keep them watching when Kevin Harvick, in their minds, is the “regular season” champion that would have already clinched Sunday at Phoenix.
Right now, the top three rated Chase events nine races in are the following:
1) Charlotte – 3.2
2) Talladega – 3.1
3) Texas – 2.9
To me, the explanation on each one of these is easy. Charlotte was the lone race on ABC, on a Saturday night where you didn’t have to compete with the NFL. Turns out moving these races to cable may have hurt more than anyone thought. As for ‘Dega, it’s a race with guaranteed passing, a nail-biting finish and all sorts of drama surrounding the “Big One” going in. The drivers hate it, some hardcore race fans hate it, but that’s the type of race which is a “must see” for even casual fans. AND in past years, it’s made the difference and clarified who, exactly, will come out the big winner in the points race. Finally, the show at Texas, to me, was boosted by the fact the end of the event had so much drama and excitement, those coming off the peak of the NFL schedule and into the 4:15 games might have snuck a peek and wound up sticking around for what, to me, was one of the top-5 races of the year.
Notice I didn’t mention the Chase in all this mess. People don’t tune in to see points dropdowns; they tune in to see side-by-side competition and individual storylines related to _each race_ play out. I think all of us reporting — from television to us writers to radio to whoever — would do well to remember that as the hype of “Championship Weekend” turns up.
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we go:
* Think Mike Ford regrets talking trash before Texas? I certainly think Denny Hamlin does.
* Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s comments towards Lance McGrew this week sounded to me like a man who knows a divorce is imminent. But I think we all know keeping them together at this point just won’t happen.
* I didn’t mention *Scott Speed* in my relationship-ending drama up top. But it sure doesn’t sound like Red Bull wants him to stay. Does the man have a Plan B?
* In the midst of all the championship hoopla, let’s not forget Ford has won six of the last eight races at Homestead; it is called the Ford 400, after all. I see Matt Kenseth needing to end a winless streak, Carl Edwards coming off a win and Greg Biffle already earning two of his own in 2010. Rest assured, it’s no guarantee _any_ of the three title contenders will win the race, let alone finish in the top 5.