NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Lot at Stake for 6 (Other) Drivers to Watch at Homestead

There is a report circulating at Homestead-Miami Speedway that has taken many people by surprise. It’s not really earth-shattering, yet it seems to have crept up on the racing public. In fact many people seem to not have heard it at all.

There are going to be 43 drivers in the race on Sunday.

Yeah, I know, that’s a real shocker. While it’s natural to want to focus all of the attention on the three drivers within 46 points of each other and a championship, there are some others not named Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick who, for a variety of reasons, deserve a second glance this week. One on the outside of a championship team looking in, a pair in limbo, another finally not in limbo, one at a crossroads, a team making a final curtain call. They’re not the only other stories, but they’re also ones you probably won’t hear over the din of the crowd all focused on the big three. When the weekend gears up for the final lap of 2010, take a look for these guys:

Jeff Gordon: Winless since Texas in the spring of 2009 (his only win since he saw victory lane six times in 2007), Gordon has been in a rather unenviable position for the past four years; the four-time champion watched his torch passed-involuntarily to Johnson as he won four straight titles, tying Gordon for third on the all time title list behind Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who share the top of the list at seven apiece. It wasn’t that long ago that Gordon was considered the best shot at meeting, perhaps breaking, that mark himself. Five or six titles were practically a sure thing. Then along came Johnson, the driver Gordon hand picked to pilot the team Gordon co-owns. Johnson came onto the Sprint Cup scene with an exclamation point with what is arguably the finest rookie season ever, finishing fifth in the standings, one place behind Gordon – the last time that would happen.

On Johnson’s heels came the Chase. The playoff system, at least on paper, robbed Gordon of two more championships, and in the eyes of many, handed them to Johnson (actually one to Johnson and one to Kurt Busch). In reality, it’s more complicated than that, but complicated or not, the torch was wrenched from Gordon’s hand. Adding a bittersweet kind of insult to injury, Gordon has had a ringside seat to each of Johnson’s victory celebrations as owner of record of the No. 48. His name is on the owner’s replica of the Sprint Cup trophy. His name is no longer mentioned as the one to join Earnhardt and Petty at that magic number of seven; that’s Johnson’s territory now too.

Gordon carried NASCAR into a golden era. The sport was the Next Big Thing in the late 1990s and Gordon was at the forefront of it all, a bridge between the old days of Petty and Earnhardt and the sport’s future. When the shine wore off, NASCAR’s golden boy and its golden egg were just trying to make it in a new world. But watch Gordon race on Sunday and you will catch a glimpse of what once was. One of NASCAR’s finest still comes to race

AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose: A mere month ago, Allmendinger and Ambrose were coming up roses. Allmendinger had signed a contract to stay at Richard Petty Motorsports; Ambrose had signed on to join him on a new and improved, streamlined two-car team. Both the No. 43 and 9 showed some promise and figured to be even better in 2011, with the focus of the organization and the support of Roush-Fenway Racing and Ford solely on them.

And then the bottom fell out.

Principal owner George Gillett’s financial troubles came to a head just before the team went to Martinsville, and there was rampant speculation about whether RPM would even finish out the year. They managed to scrape by, barely, but the future is very much in jeopardy, and Allmendinger and Ambrose find their careers hanging in a distressing limbo. The news couldn’t have come at a worse time. The rides that had been available for 2011 had filled, and some teams were already out of the picture.

That leaves Allmendinger and Ambrose coming to Homestead not sure of where they’ll be when NASCAR heads back to Daytona. They’re just another sign of the times, really, but they also signal the beginning of dark days for NASCAR in so many ways; the possibility of Richard Petty truly being out of the sport his family has been a part of since the beginning, teams going under, sponsors going home and licking their wounds. These two drivers matter. They’re everyman, hoping to hang on as the world changes around them.

Casey Mears: Mears, on the other hand, is the flip side of everyman. Mears, who was too often a blue-collar driver on white-collar teams, often relegated to the role of preparing cars for the top drivers in those organizations, finds himself somewhere he hasn’t been in a long time – knowing exactly where he’ll be next year, and with whom. Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker have found some excellent chemistry and have made the most of a situation neither relishes, often having to park the car early because there simply isn’t enough money to continue.

The last two weeks have been a ray of hope for the Germain Racing Cup operation. While the organization’s Camping World Truck Series team was winning the series title with Todd Bodine, part-time sponsor GEICO, impressed with the team’s recent performance, added both Phoenix and Homestead to the payroll, allowing Mears to run both full races. Mears, finally number one in his organization instead of second (or third, or fourth) fiddle, has thrived, the team’s finishes have improved, and could be a solid threat to break into the Top 35 in points in 2011. But there’s a catch; they still need a sponsor to cover the races GEICO isn’t, or they will be forced to start-and-park some weeks. Unlike the Truck Series, where Bodine won the title with a blank hood for most of the year, Cup races require sponsor money, and lots of it, to compete on a regular basis.

This is a team on the cusp of defying the odds in today’s NASCAR-and one of the few rays of hope during NASCAR’s dark days.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Earnhardt Jr. isn’t a bad driver. He isn’t some no-talent riding his daddy’s coattails, as some fans seem to relish in proclaiming. He isn’t his father either, though, nor is he the next Gordon or even the next Matt Kenseth, though Kenseth and Earnhardt came through the ranks together, once a pair of racers bound for stardom. Neither quite found what the other had. Earnhardt was, and still is, wildly popular; Kenseth is a champion. Now 36, Earnhardt stands at a crossroads, not the first in his 18-win career. It’s not the first time he’s had to choose a direction in his career, but this crossroads is perhaps the most important. In a three-year span with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has just one win (interestingly enough, that’s exactly the same number as Gordon has in the same timespan). He’s gone through two crew chiefs, and it looks likely that there will be a third when the season starts next year.

This time, the direction Earnhardt chooses could make or break him. He either needs to put aside everything he knew before and enter the season with a clean slate, learning the current car and putting the set ups the old car favored out of his mind, or he needs to decide that his other interests are more important to him than racing. And really, if he were to do just that, if that was what he truly wanted, should anyone begrudge him that? Junior has had the weight of NASCAR, real or imagined, on his shoulders for far too long. Some of the expectations put upon him are unrealistic, some ridiculous, and you have to wonder if any of those expectations were ones that Junior himself really wanted to take on. If he chooses to race and relearn, maybe it’s time for him to get rid of the burden of all those expectations and just race, the way the kid in the Busch Series with the bleached blond hair and the familiar crooked grin raced. For nothing and nobody but himself and the fun of it all.

Prism Motorsports: The Phil Parsons-owned team, which has been the object of so much scorn and ridicule for its start-and-park approach in the last couple of years, will shut is doors after Homestead. While some may look at this as a positive, don’t be so quick to rejoice that another start-and-park is dead. First of all, the team’s intention wasn’t to start-and-park for as long as they did; the intent was to use that strategy to remain on the sport’s radar, and to hopefully attract a sponsor that would let them run all day. None ever did, and the team was never able to get its feet underneath it. Second, and most significantly, the No. 66 is at least the third team that will not return next year, and that’s possibly as high as the sixth. Besides Prism, at least two Richard Petty Motorsports teams will be gone after Sunday. That could jump to four, and with Robby Gordon’s future also in jeopardy, NASCAR is perilously close to not having full fields at many Cup races in 2011. There are just 45 entries for 43 spots in Sunday’s Ford 400. and most races have had 45-46 entries this year, with a few higher-paying events attracting a few more teams, but could there be races in 2011 with just 39 entries? That’s looking more and more likely.

No, don’t be too quick to celebrate the demise of a start-and-park. It’s really a part of something much bigger – the tailspin NASCAR has been in. Short fields almost every week are a grim reminder of a sport in crisis. Next year will be critical for NASCAR.

Five drivers and one team, none in the title hunt and some perilously close to losing more than just a title. Two at career crossroads, others on the verge of disaster. There’s one ray of hope, but also some tough decisions to be made within this group. Five drivers and one team reflecting the state of NASCAR, losing the torch once so proudly carried, uncertain of the future, holding onto hope of better days, making a critical, life altering decision and fading quietly. Perhaps that’s the biggest story of all in 2010. Homestead comes down to three for all the marbles, and others, including NASCAR itself with, in reality, a lot more at stake.

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