This column marks Tom Bowles’ “post-Clapgate return”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faGde_PmHkY to writing. Catch him every Monday and Wednesday from here on out here on Frontstretch.com, as well as doing spot appearances for Athlon Sports. He’s still looking for other opportunities, too while hitting the reset button; if you have one, he can be contacted by “clicking here.”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/
*Did You Notice?* … That the one crew chief change working brilliantly at Hendrick is the one I least expected? When looking at the trio of switches: Lance McGrew with Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon with Alan Gustafson, and Steve Letarte with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. I figured it was NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver getting the shaft. After all, Letarte’s as laid back as your local Californian traversing Venice Beach, the last thing I thought Earnhardt needed for a guy who’s about as high-maintenance as they come on the racetrack. As Rick Hendrick detailed the changes last November on the phone, I was driving near Pocono and visualizing how his press conference would go there this summer…
*Reporter:* “You’re 25th in points with two top-10 finishes, just yelled at Steve three times last week and missed pit road. What’s wrong?”
*Earnhardt:* Well, me and Steve get along great off the racetrack. We’re great friends… it’ll work itself out.
Since when have we heard that before? (Cough cough, about every week since February 2008). But it’s here where I deliver a sincere apology to Letarte, because while Earnhardt sits 12th in points the radio traffic and overall enthusiasm surrounding the No. 88 is better than it’s ever been. Powering through a stretch that included two of Earnhardt’s worst tracks, Las Vegas and California, while remaining within striking distance of the Chase this team is poised for a Spring breakout performance at Martinsville this weekend – the track where Earnhardt led 90 laps last Fall before a late-race handling fade left him seventh.
I think that’s the biggest change we’ve seen in Earnhardt this season, Letarte’s uncanny ability to turn him back into a driver capable of closing the deal. Take a look at Earnhardt’s stats through five races this season:
*Daytona – 50 Laps To Go*: 1st
*Finish:* 24th (wrecked)
*Phoenix – 57 To Go:* 19th
*Las Vegas – 57 To Go:* 8th
*Bristol – 50 To Go:* 12th
*Fontana – 50 To Go:* 14th
OK, the stats aren’t exactly Kevin Harvick-like, the type that’ll lead to a last-lap pass of Jimmie Johnson at Fontana. But – Daytona notwithstanding – Earnhardt is holding his own as the race winds down instead of throwing a hissy fit and waving the white flag a half-hour early. In the last four races, he has a net gain of +13 positions over the final 50 to 60 laps of each race which is what Chase-contending teams do: they save the best for last.
I thought the Bristol speeding penalty, incurred two weeks ago by Earnhardt encapsulated how this relationship has changed the dynamic. Bit under caution with 65 to go, he lost track position, restarted at the end of the longest line and was right in the eye of the storm where wrecking is as easy as one bad tap of the brakes. A similar pit penalty last year at that same race, one where Lance McGrew spouted off, “Don’t lay down on me” with a few expletives thrown in had the divorce papers sitting on ice from virtually that moment on (and that’s despite a seventh-place recovery).
Compare that to March 2011 where Letarte told Junior there was “plenty of time” to keep his composure and work his way back through the pack. Earnhardt responded without anger, just a central focus to keep from fading further back and he didn’t: working back up through, the reward was 11th but most importantly a calm, relaxed chemistry between all aspects of the team that should keep carrying over.
Who knew laid back vs. laid back off the track (Junior) would actually work out? It’s bittersweet for Hendrick, who’s watching Earnhardt’s new stablemate, the No. 48 chug along just fine (virtually in Chase test mode already) while the Jeff Gordon / Mark Martin combinations are a bit … troubling. Gordon hooked the Phoenix victory but has looked like junk ever since, he and Alan Gustafson seemingly unsure where to go from here after peaking too soon by popping a two-year victory drought that was clearly bothering Mr. Four-Time behind the scenes. Runs of 36th, 14th, and 18th the last three weekends at a trio of tracks Gordon used to dominate – remember how he led almost the entire Vegas race last year before a poor Letarte pit call? – equals trouble in my book.
As for Martin and McGrew, some of the No. 5 team’s problems have been self-inflicted, including an uncharacteristic tendency for Martin to accidentally run into other people. Since when does one of the sport’s cleanest drivers become the catalyst for crashes? At 52, I’ve heard it suggested Martin’s reaction times have slowed as he’s gotten older which is part of the problem (Harvick has no qualms in pointing that out, either). It’s _not_ a theory I lend a lot of credence to, despite garage whispers – if that’s the case, 69-year-old Morgan Shepherd should wreck every time he steps into a car – but for a “lame duck” Martin, it’s important to start strong in order to keep his team believing there’s something to fight for. We saw what happens last year when Hendrick gets distracted internally, and if Martin’s 20th in points come June his 2012 plans, not the rest of 2011 will take center stage and complicate an already difficult task to contend in a stable crowded with success.
*Did You Notice?* … Trevor Bayne’s marketing shortfall in the wake of the sport’s biggest upset? It’s true the 20-year-old has crashed back to Earth with a thud since the 500, producing an average finish of 31.0 on the Cup level while looking every bit like a freshman driver competing with an underfunded, single-car team. No one expected him to transition into a championship contender overnight.
But certainly, when you win a race watched by 15 million people and you need sponsorship for both your Cup ride and a full-time assault on the Nationwide Series… companies are supposed to come calling. I don’t care what type of economy we’re in or how budgets work nowadays: when you have a twentysomething driver in the limelight, almost singlehandedly inspiring a NASCAR ratings spike while being pursued by a stadium of teenage girls at every stop on the tour – think the Kasey Kahne, Allstate years – the Wood Brothers should have been turning down offers and expanding their marketing department, pronto. Do you see how people capitalize on 15 minutes of fame nowadays, regardless of circumstances? The fact the No. 21 team, one month later can’t even run the All-Star Race because they don’t have the proper funding isn’t just “raise your eyebrows” worthy: it’s code red. I remember in the late 1990s, when I was just an awkward teenager watching from afar drivers would get a top-10 Daytona 500 finish, then have sponsorship for the whole year (Wally Dallenbach and Johnny Benson come to mind). As it is, Bayne can’t even conjure up extra cash from Ford, who’s by-and-large sponsoring the part-time effort with the Woods.
How bad is it? That’s the worst thing going for NASCAR in 2011, hands down: in an era when new stars have come along about as often as the Olympics this inability for the sport or the teams Bayne’s positioned with to get even a minnow-sized bite from the Fortune 500. And that’s considering a strong performance in Bayne’s fallback job, the Nationwide Series, where three top-10 finishes leave him sixth in the standings while positioning himself for a future audition driving a Roush Fenway Cup car.
Too bad Roush will have to fund his career many weeks with blank quarterpanels. To the outside observer, Bayne winning the title and then having to slug along unsponsored raises the curtain on a mammoth issue: a month’s worth of stats or hype describing “NASCAR’s back!” regardless of truth does not change many years of perception in the corporate world. It’s going to take a consistent, aggressive marketing campaign to turn things around, and Bayne serves as a real world benchmark which tells me they’re getting an “F” in that category right now.
*Did You Notice?* … Speaking of the letter “F” and “we’re back!,” Ford’s bold return atop the Sprint Cup standings with Carl Edwards is missing something: everyone else. The nine-point lead for the No. 99 exemplifies my belief I’ve had since the start of 2011, that he’ll be Johnson’s biggest challenger when it matters down the stretch. Runs of first, second, second, sixth and a pole run at Phoenix before wrecking signifies a return to Edwards’ glory days of 2008, a season where he won a career high nine races and came within 68 points of knocking Johnson off his perch.
Those performances and Bayne’s 500 victory have left Ford as part of a three-way tie with Chevy and Toyota atop the manufacturer standings, forcing the Bowtie Brigade to fight in order to avoid its first loss since 2002. Clearly, the Fusions are running better with as many wins over the past seven races – four – as they had through the last two years prior. But are they truly capitalizing on all their opportunities?
That’s where the Blue Oval simply turns blue, with just Edwards and Matt Kenseth (tied for ninth in points) inside Chase contention as of now. While Edwards has led 108 laps, his manufacturer teammates have combined for just 38 while combining for seven top-10 finishes in 49 starts. That’s well off the pace of Edwards’ four top-10s in five races, often the only Fusion battling up front while the rest still struggle with track position over the closing laps.
Indeed, pit road continues to be a bugaboo for this group, whether it’s Greg Biffle’s well-documented fuel issues (they couldn’t get the gas can in right at Las Vegas) or the two-car RPM contingent’s maladjustments from the pit box over the race’s final 100 laps. What’s most frustrating for them is insiders claim the horsepower of the FR9 is the best in the business right now, combined with a new simulation strategy and teamwork that’s left all Ford teams better prepared. Right now, in many ways it’s this car that has the edge … so why aren’t the people who work on them maximizing opportunities while they can? Gibbs, Hendrick, Childress et al won’t waste time trying to catch up.
*Did You Notice?*… The only way Dale Earnhardt’s grandson gets in the news is through a bizarre breakup/makeup that seems more like a public relations ploy? On Tuesday, Rick Ware Racing announced the 21-year-old Earnhardt was fired, breaching his contract by shopping around sponsor Fuel Doctor – and his services – to other teams.
“It is disheartening that all the effort, time and money spent on Jeffrey have been for nothing,” he said, claiming a dramatic breach of contract as if the driver had reached for a knife, stabbed him in the back and then continued on his merry way. “We have been given no choice but to look for another driver.”
Of course, Earnhardt had a different side to the story, insinuating that money – or lack thereof – was forcing him into survival mode to make sure his career didn’t fall apart.
“We were contacted by Rick Ware, informing us that he would be unable to support me without the sponsor’s funding,” was Earnhardt’s response. “And the facts support the sponsor notified Ware and my group they were pursuing alternative marketing venues. To suggest anything other than these facts does not reflect the truth.”
OK, so what is the truth, seeing as 24 hours later everyone’s kissing and making up? I guess _Judge Judy_ wasn’t taking on any new cases to get them more national attention…
“Jeffrey will be in the truck at Martinsville and we will work hard to continue to keep him in that seat,” Ware said in today’s bizarre, retraction-like press release. “The amount of effort we have poured into his career and having a place for him to perform is important in his development. He is young and there is a lot of promise in him and both the management of RWR and JEI have the same goal.”
Of course, that same release also references how aggressively they’re searching for additional marketing partners to keep both Earnhardt and Ware on the track this season, likely the heart of this whole teen-sized drama. My personal theory, one which won’t be confirmed involves the silence of one very important player: Fuel Doctor either ain’t paying much longer or doesn’t have the money to fund this full-season effort. If that’s true, it’s a brilliant strategy move for both of these guys to engage in 24 hours of statement shenanigans: haven’t you learned more about both in the last day or two than you had all season long? I bet some people didn’t even know Dale Earnhardt’s grandson was competing, which is a shame considering he’s tenth in the points with three top-20 results in three Truck events (See: NASCAR, marketing new stars better, above).
It’s not the first time Ware has played the public relations card, picking up Jennifer Jo Cobb after that woman’s public start-and-park refusal that turned into a truTV-style lawsuit all its own. It’s just disheartening that in order to get sponsorship these days, these are the games people have to play in order to keep themselves in the public eye. And now there’s a report from Finland “Foster Gillett”:http://www.ts.fi/moottoriurheilu/muut/208761.html is looking to make a return to the sport with F-1 champ Kimi Raikkonen? Seriously? How much more recycling of the country club elite can we have? This sport needs to stop accepting Bobby Ginns and go find new ownership that doesn’t throw money down a black hole.
We’ll stop here, but I’ve still got plenty to say – a month on the sidelines will do that to you. Check the site tomorrow for Part II.