Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?… One For The Underdogs, Zero For The Free Agents

*Did You Notice?…* The new trend in NASCAR’s Silly Season? It’s called “sticking with the status quo.” That’s a dramatic change from the last few years, when around this point in the season we’ve had at least one major announcement a driver was switching rides:

*2010:* Kasey Kahne announces he’s leaving Richard Petty Motorsports for Hendrick in 2012. (April 14th)
*2009:* Martin Truex, Jr. rumors start flying he’ll replace a retiring Michael Waltrip in the NAPA car (early May).
*2008:* Tony Stewart sources reveal he’ll be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to buy into his own team (April 23rd).
*2007:* Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announces he’ll leave DEI and become a free agent (May 10th).
*2006:* Dale Jarrett reveals he’ll leave Ford for Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing (May 13th).

So here we are, April 20th and heading into the heart of Silly Season. And what do we have to report? Two veterans re-signing with their current programs: Greg Biffle with Roush Fenway Racing while Jeff Burton re-upped with Richard Childress. In Biffle’s case, we know he accepted a pay cut while Burton jumped at his extension considering a year’s worth of struggles in the No. 31 (zero top-10 finishes through eight events). There’s still plenty of room for movement – Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers, and Ryan Newman remain among those unsigned for 2012 – but at this point it’s impossible to ignore the growing trend.

Jeff Burton became a part of the newest trend in NASCAR’s “Silly Season” when the re-signed with RCR on Monday.

Sure, the two newly-signed drivers in question are fortysomething veterans, comfortable with their own teams and probably one, two contracts at most away from retirement. But the ugly truth all the free agents are discovering is simple: it’s tough to start a bidding war for your services when there’s no one out there in need of them. That’s what we’re seeing now in this market, the consequences of new Sprint Cup ownership drying up like the Sahara desert. Right now, just eleven people control the top 28 teams in the point standings; that’s a miniscule number of options for each of those drivers to consider. Add in the strong ties between several of those programs – Stewart-Haas and Hendrick, for example – along with four-team limits and options for an expiring contract guy like Carl Edwards are narrowed even further.

In the past, the entrance of a manufacturer like, say Toyota into the fold would expand the possibilities for drivers looking for a better option over the long-term. In fact, that’s what a guy like Vickers chose in 2006, giving up a year or two of running up front by leaving Hendrick Motorsports to build a team from scratch. But there are no such construction projects going on in a market where the price is so high, it’s impossible for any Davids to even bother building themselves to challenge Goliath. So what’s a free agent to do?

Easy; they re-sign with their current team, if they know what’s good for them. And if NASCAR knows what’s good for them, they’ll find a way to loosen up this country club so a variety of driver changes can occur on a yearly basis once again. Shaking things up has become an impossible option as of late; that has to change.

*Did You Notice?…* Speaking of the status quo, let’s take a look at both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Rookie of the Year races through eight events.

*Cup:* Andy Lally 77, Brian Keselowski 12. Best Finish for either: Lally, 18th at Talladega (after using the Lucky Dog to get his lap back).

*Nationwide:* Timmy Hill 58, Blake Koch 47, Ryan Truex 44, Jennifer Jo Cobb 43, Charles Lewandoski 28. *Best Finish:* Hill, 14th at Talladega and Truex, 14th at Phoenix. No top-10 finishes for any of the freshman candidates.

Not exactly a banner crop of candidates now, is it? Only Lally and Hill are running full-time schedules at the moment, and no sponsorship could easily leave both on the sidelines within the next few months. Just one year after the “Kevin Conway” debacle, it’s clear the Sprint Cup side – due to Trevor Bayne’s ineligibility (he chose not to enter the ROTY competition because of a part-time schedule) – will end up with another freshman winner who goes the entire year without sniffing the front of the field in _both_ series.

Even Bayne, whose Daytona 500 victory sparked hope for the underdogs has cooled off significantly since that maiden effort; he hasn’t finished higher than 17th in Sprint Cup since. It’s all added up to a dearth of rookie performers… leading to that dreaded “same old, same old.” And while the Nationwide Series continues to post strong ratings, pulling a 2.1 at Talladega this past weekend the lack of new talent to throw in front of the cameras is proving troubling.

*Did You Notice?…* That, love or hate Talladega’s new rules the competition is critical for NASCAR’s underdogs. Just a few days after nearly pulling off the upset, Tommy Baldwin Racing announced they had enough sponsorship for the No. 36 of Dave Blaney to go through Kansas in June without start-and-parking. After plenty of exposure for one-time sponsor Golden Corral Sunday, they’re hoping more backers will allow them to run the distance every race the rest of the season.

And while Trevor Bayne’s sponsorship search ultimately wasn’t helped by the 500 win – another ominous sign from the business world – his slump since has shown how difficult it is for these “lower class” teams to compete with their “upper class” brethren at virtually every other type of track. Only with the plates tacked on will single-car, start-and-park cars transform into a force to be reckoned with, capable of winning with the right strategy in a way their competitors take for granted every week.

Even Mike Wallace, whose Davis Motorsports No. 01 Chevy went upside down after leading late in Saturday’s Nationwide race can appreciate the ability to run up front. Isn’t it nice to not see some of these guys start-and-parking for a change? For them, these plate weekends are filled with hope… and without ‘em, you wonder how many would find it worth it enough to stick around and go the distance every once in awhile.

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before the Easter holiday:

– The weak entry list, weaker crowds and bad location – nearly an hour outside the city with traffic have me thinking Nashville’s the next track on the chopping block. This weekend’s attendance plus competition will prove critical to its future survival in 2012 and beyond.

– So far this season, we’ve seen Michael Waltrip launch the “Big One” at Daytona, then get left out to dry at Talladega with no drafting partner – leaving him unable to get out of his own way. Tell me again why he’s still trying to compete?

– Speaking of Waltrip, his Michael Waltrip Racing team has zero drivers inside the top 18 in points. Martin Truex, Jr. sits a disappointing 19th, victimized by bad luck while the hybrid JTG Daugherty car driven by *Bobby Labonte* is helping nurse their driver to 24th in the standings. Add in Reutimann, who’s 26th and without a top-10 result and it’s clear his trio of Toyotas have plenty of work to do.

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
“Top Ten Reasons the FANS Think Dale Jr. Is Running So Well This Year”:https://frontstretch.com/jmeyer/33715/
“Mirror Driving: Playing By The Rules, Speed Dating, And Silliness”:https://frontstretch.com/md/33718/
“Turning Back the Clock: 1992 Mountain Dew 500”:https://frontstretch.com/pallaway/33717/
“Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Talladega”:https://frontstretch.com/mneff/33720/

“The Top 10 Closest NASCAR Finishes Of The Last 20 Years”:http://www.athlonsports.com/nascar/slideshows/10-closest-finishes-nascar#1

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