*Did You Notice?…* This week’s 2010 Chase driver on life support happens to be Jeff Burton? While Denny Hamlin remains in crisis, Talladega returns the focus to the driver of the No. 31, whose fiery wreck last fall with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has precipitated the current slump that’s perhaps his most serious since first signing with RCR in 2004. The veteran remains without a top-10 finish in his last 11 races while sitting 25th in points, 57 out of a postseason spot and lacking the type of victory cache someone like Hamlin can use to earn a wild card position. That leaves his team with their proverbial backs against the wall, no room for error while reflecting on what’s put them in this spot.
“The way we ended last year, you know, we started pushing too hard,” he said on a Tuesday teleconference with reporters. “We started trying to make stuff happen and got behind in the Chase.”
“So, we took that action and said, OK, to make it happen, we have got to really, really start pushing hard and that didn’t work out for us. And then to come into this year, the kind of start we have had this year, it’s really frustrating. It’s hard to put into words. I can tell you this, though: I’m extremely confident that we can dig ourselves out of the hole and get ourselves in the position we need to be in.”
Certainly, Burton’s had some bad luck, an engine problem with a top-5 car at Daytona causing a hangover that hasn’t yet worn off. Last year, he led 539 laps while this season the number sits at five through seven events. What’s confusing is that new teammate Paul Menard has had few issues, contending for a Chase spot while Clint Bowyer sits tied for 12th and Kevin Harvick has just won two out of the last three Cup events.
Could RCR, expanding to four cars for just the second time be struggling to keep each one of them ahead of the curve? It looks like the veteran’s fourth out of four on the depth chart right now; that’s why for Burton, Talladega is critical as it’s a rare opportunity for him to earn a chunk of points back in one race. With an average of six top-5 finishes the last three seasons, this veteran’s made the Chase with consistency, not victories… and already, he’s in a position where those numbers might not prove to be enough. Gaining three points per race on his competitors from this point on would still leave the No. 31 on the outside looking in come Homestead, so 14th place after 14th place won’t do much for him. If there’s a guy in need of his ECR engine to last 499 miles – a question mark considering the motor woes that encapsulated the program back at Daytona – it’s him.
If Burton fails to make the Chase, it’s a more important failure than people might think. Turning 44 in June, he’s working on an extension with RCR with an expiring contract this November. But the team’s sponsorship situation is uncertain (keep reading for more on that) and with Austin Dillon coming up through the ranks, Childress will eventually need someplace for him to land if companies want to pay the money they won’t for a fortysomething. It’s hard to imagine this duo ever parting ways, considering the strong leadership role Burton’s played behind the scenes. But no one ever thought Roush and Burton would separate, or Roush and Mark Martin for that matter. It’s something to watch going forward, especially if poor performance forces Childress’ hand and leads to a shorter-term contract offer than his driver would like.
*Did You Notice?…* How this current plate package at Talladega could affect the Chase? The thought occurred to me when thinking back to last fall, where Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 lost the draft and nearly fell a lap down before half a green-flag pit cycle was complete.
And suddenly, the light bulb went off: if, say, Jimmie Johnson has a 30-point lead heading into the October weekend why wouldn’t people leave him out of the two-car draft the second the green flag falls? Without a partner, someone willing to work with him the No. 48 would fall a lap down in a hurry, and with a 43-car field there’s always going to be at least one odd man out.
Freezing the point leader would be the ultimate strategy ploy, the perfect way to automatically ensure yourself a points gain as long as you don’t get thrown into the Big One. Could it happen in this era of teammates, especially during the final few laps when it’s every man for himself? Absolutely, adding a highly debatable element to a championship that could be decided, in part because other people don’t want to be your “friend.”
*Did You Notice?…* How Ford’s fantastic season hasn’t translated to Front Row Motorsports? In thirteen starts with their two primary cars, the No. 34 and No. 38 the team has crashed out four times. That 30.8% accident rate is easily the highest amongst the full-timers and doesn’t include other, smaller wrecks for both David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil where they limped home to the finish after extended stints on pit road for repairs.
Both cars have suffered from a disturbing number of tire failures, destroying a fleet of retooled Fords they hoped would make them consistent top-20 performers this season. Instead, Kvapil sits 31 points outside the top 35 and, at this point might be better served leaving to fully concentrate on winning the Truck Series championship. Gilliland, while running better has only escaped the same fate through February’s third-place finish at the Daytona 500. With limited sponsorship and hundreds of thousands in damage to their equipment, you’ve got to wonder what owner Bob Jenkins is thinking about the outfit’s long-term future in Sprint Cup. It’s his seventh year in the sport, but that podium finish at Daytona – about as high as he can get without funding – remains the only top-10 performance for the program he’s spent millions on in 208 career starts.
You may be sitting there thinking, why so much ink on FRM? Because in a field where we’re struggling to bring 43 cars to the track each week, two underfunded cars that actually come to race, improve, and work their way up the ladder are found with increasing rarity these days. To lose FRM, or even see them forced to scale back would be devastating to a grid that’ll be flirting with seven or eight start-and-park efforts once again later this summer.
*Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before taking off:
– Richard Childress Racing announced a new partnership involving their marketing and business development staff. Typically, this type of announcement does little more than incite a yawn from the general public, but pay attention to this one. Why? Clint Bowyer let slip on Saturday night that despite a second-place finish (and a multiple-win, Chase appearance in 2010) he’s still in need of primary sponsorship to fill several unsold races later on this season. Add that to Jeff Burton’s need of more money in 2012 – current primary Caterpillar is expected to cut back at the end of their contract, circa DuPont in 2010 – and, well, let’s say the Menard family can’t fund the entire Childress organization. Heck, there’s even seven races for Kevin Harvick where primary sponsorship has yet to be announced.
It’s a disturbing trend, this marketing malaise that shows better ratings aren’t the automatic fix-all to the sponsorship dilemma. Even Trevor Bayne, whose financial roadblocks have been well-documented following the post-Daytona 500 dream had to reach out to the Truck Series primary sponsor, Camping World, just to get a little extra money to race this weekend. The sport has some energy for the first time in years; now, it’s about convincing the business world of the value that still exists. Easier said than done…
– So is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. still the Most Popular Driver or what? For all the attention he’s been getting lately, FOX has assigned Jeff Gordon as that “Pizza Hut Fan Favorite” virtually every week. Sure, the original Four-Time’s no slouch but he’s done nothing really to warrant a changing of the guard, right? It just goes to show you the problem with these “popularity contests;” one group of well-organized fans can monopolize the competition and make their driver a winner… even if he’s far from it in reality.
– From the “wow” department, rookie Andy Lally has led one lap this season (Phoenix) and thus has one more bonus point than Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, and Joey Logano. Kasey Kahne is tied with him in that category, meaning all of Red Bull Racing has been out front just once, for one lap all year.
– In the last four races at Talladega, there are only two cars that have finished in the top 10 three times: Joe Gibbs Racing (No. 20 – Joey Logano) and Phoenix Racing (No. 09 – Brad Keselowski and Mike Bliss). Need any further proof on the whole crapshoot theory?
– Among those who started following me on Twitter this week: The Bail Hotline? Do I look like a guy who’s about to go to prison? Geez. I guess this clapping thing has stirred up the watchful eyes of the police…