*Did You Notice?* … How the next wave of stock car drivers don’t come from stock car backgrounds? Danica Patrick joins Kimi Raikkonen as two highly-sought, open-wheel experts that NASCAR would love to put behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup vehicle with minimal training. Heck, all it took was just one top-15 finish in a Truck race to drop Raikkonen, the former F-1 champion into a Nationwide ride on Saturday; now, Cup rumors are spreading faster than that Lauren girl lost her voice before Tuesday’s _American Idol_ finale.
In one sense, can you blame this sport for digging outside the box? The pool of rookies recently has dried up faster than the Arizona desert. (Last time I checked, Andy Lally was turning more heads with his MMA training than on-track performance to date.) Certainly, the addition of Patrick, who is rumored to make the NASCAR jump full-time next year and Raikkonen add a bit of star quality to their future. The problem is, in the midst of those courtships, the powers that be may not realize their short-term impatience leads to long-term consequences NASCAR’s _own_ development series (and drivers) will suffer.
For example, let’s say Raikkonen heads to Red Bull on the heels of a blockbuster deal for 2012. If Brian Vickers re-signs for the second car next season just where, exactly, does that put current RBR development driver Cole Whitt? All he’s done lately is take over the Truck Series point lead, putting together two straight top-5 finishes while knocking on the door of Victory Lane. A championship in that series should mean an automatic promotion; but in this case, a guy with F-1 credentials would steal the spot.
And so it goes, superstars from other series (Patrick, Raikkonen, Ricky Carmichael, Travis Pastrana) making the crossover into stock car racing while the sport’s local roots, its short track champions and work-hard-to-climb-the-ladder minor league system slowly dissipates. It used to be the Nationwide and Truck Series were places development drivers could go to hone their skills, auditioning for a full-time ride at NASCAR’s top level down the road. But now? Top-heavy owners either have no openings for them or are too busy flirting with the big-money prizes, armed with the knowledge they _think_ there’s no sponsors available willing to connect with the unproven, cookie-cutter type that dominated the “young gun, Jimmie Johnson era” rise to power for the Cup Series in the early-to-mid 2000s.
If there were a mix of big names and young talent going on, well, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with these open-wheel purges. But what sense does it make to pull other fruit from other trees, adding it to the top without watering the roots at the bottom? What’s to make of NASCAR’s Diversity program, successful drivers without stepping stones as the money available must be funneled towards landing these top-level names instead (Ask Kyle Busch… they don’t come cheap). How do the minor league owners, committed for years to developing talent and performing an integral role in the food chain compete against the rising costs associated with these money grabs? (Answer: They don’t.) What happens to aspiring short track stars who wanted to go stock car racing all their lives? (Answer: They move to another series, like UARA, USAC, or something where they can pay the bills… not waste a decade seeing their dream die on the vine.)
It’s an ugly cycle, one that turns these NASCAR reaches for talent into a matter of necessity for survival, not the icing on the cake grabbing an IRL guy like Tony Stewart was during the late 1990s. As we’ve seen with Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish, Jr. translating open-wheel talent to stock car success comes with no guarantee. And if Patrick, Raikkonen, et al start struggling they know there’s options for them to simply pack up, wave the white flag and drive elsewhere. That translates into an exceptional level of risk, NASCAR betting the farm these moves will pay off because if not? It’s a lot of wasted cash and capital while letting the rest of their rookies die on the vine.
The intriguing part is, more than ever lately wins like Regan Smith’s at Darlington and Trevor Bayne at Daytona have showcased how the little guys, homegrown minor league talent can still develop naturally in this sport. But when the owners get on a kick, they get on a kick and at the moment that concept appears to be kicked to the curb in a Silly Season quickly getting defined by two schools of thought: Re-sign who you have (Biffle, Burton, soon-to-be Earnhardt and Edwards) or make a splash only if the driver’s a proven A-Level superstar… from somewhere outside the sport.
*Did You Notice?* … These “would you have guessed” moments eleven races into 2011:
– Jeff Burton has yet to score a top-10 finish, but Trevor Bayne has one – and that came packaged with a Daytona 500 trophy.
– Jeff Gordon is fourth-best out of four Hendrick drivers in the current standings… while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is fourth in points.
– Matt Kenseth has as many or more Sprint Cup wins than any other driver on the circuit (two). And he hasn’t even changed a crew chief yet.
– Tony Stewart has as many top-5 finishes as David Gilliland (one).
– Carl Edwards has led double the number of laps in the Nationwide Series compared to the Cup side (619 to 307), continuing to run a full-time schedule there despite leading the Sprint Cup points, scoring nine top-10 finishes and winning a race in Las Vegas.
*Did You Notice?* … How basic marketing still can have an affect on our ADD, smartphone and Facebook-addicted society these days? Charlotte Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith did a masterful job of selling the All-Star Race this month, clearly utilizing the Kevin Harvick – Kyle Busch spat to his advantage. From billboards indicating both men would “have at it” to offering to pay the fines of either driver (or anyone, for that matter) who played the revenge card during racing Saturday night, it was like Humpy Wheeler briefly came out of retirement. And sure enough, his local audience reacted to the wild possibilities with their wallet; attendance rose 5,000 from their 2010 numbers at the turnstiles. Sure, there’s a big new flat screen but I don’t think paying to watch the race on TV was what people came to see at CMS.
Now here’s where it gets interesting for Smith; through no fault of his own, a false product was advertised for the All-Star Race. With the final ten laps run caution-free, a dominant late-race surge by Carl Edwards and struggles with the dreaded aero push, this NASCAR exhibition may have been the worst since Jeff Gordon’s infamous T-Rex “I’ll stomp the field until running out of gas” episode in 1998. For the next seven days, Charlotte has little to no real “action” to advertise for a fan base that, more than ever these days makes their ticket-buying decisions at the last minute. Does that mean Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 crowd will disappear?
The answer, either way will tell us a lot about the state of the sport. If a less-than-thrilling race leaves NASCAR with no margin for error, causing attendance to dip significantly from last season’s 140,000 for their Memorial Weekend Classic it means the quality of racing is clearly affecting sales. If it doesn’t, well… then maybe the sport is experiencing a renaissance in certain markets after all? And maybe we’re a little off on just how bad some of these races have been from the bleacher seats?
It’s a question, and topic worth following; there’s no other tracks on the schedule where we can see this type of week-to-week cause-and-effect experiment play out.
*Did You Notice?* … Some quick hits before we take off:
– So Kyle Busch was caught speeding, going 128 in a 45 this week. In other news, race car drivers like to go fast.
What… you’re telling me I’m supposed to care? Don’t make this out to be Bad Boy Busch breaking the law like he’s some sort of disrespectful shell of a human, as I’m sure some people will make this out to be. The guy was only doing what most blood-pumping, twentysomething males naturally do on a deserted suburban road with a brand new sports car to play with – they “test it out.” It’s not like Busch was driving like a madman through downtown Charlotte, playing some reality version of “Grand Theft Auto” while giving the middle finger to frantic pedestrians fleeing for their lives. He went out in the sticks, tried out his new toy and made a mistake in judgment; it just wasn’t rural and desolate enough, as in there was a speed limit on this road and he got caught.
Now am I going to stand up and say it’s OK to speed? No, absolutely not. But going fast is this man’s chosen profession; for some reason, I trust him more at 128 than you, the reader, hustling down the same street at 55. It should be noted that Busch didn’t resist arrest, cause a stink, anything like that… he immediately took responsibility for this incident.
Shouldn’t that be enough? Always asking perfection in our athletes is a bit hypocritical when we’re far from perfect ourselves.
– Kimi Raikkonen reportedly tested Tuesday in a Robby Gordon Motorsports Dodge at Virginia International Raceway. Like NEMCO on the Nationwide side, Gordon could use a little extra financial infusion so don’t be surprised if they get involved in the Raikkonen sweepstakes for seat time. You’d have to think, though, that Gordon will pull out a second car at the road courses considering it’s one of two opportunities a year he has to win a race; if not, well, then you really know this guy’s days in Sprint Cup are numbered.
– Daydream with me for a minute. IndyCar is working on a new chassis design for 2012, a major adjustment most people agree will make or break the sport over the long-term. The two owners reported to be at the forefront of those chassis designs, becoming an integral part of their forward vision are the duo that’s dominated IndyCar racing in recent years: Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske.
But of course, making a brand new chassis doesn’t mean you snap your fingers and it appears out of thin air. You need engineers, feedback, overtime, and focus when the future of an entire sport you love is involved. And with a gun pointed to both men’s heads, there’s no argument they’d pick the Indy 500, their first love although stock car racing is clearly a close second.
So let’s turn around and look at the NASCAR side. Who are the two teams struggling the most in Sprint Cup as of late? Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing. Let’s also not forget Kurt Busch, in recent weeks, has openly complained about a disconnect amongst Penske engineers.
Just something that makes you go hmm. Are certain owners spending too much time and money trying to revive something else?
– Brian France did a whole lot of talking this past week, between the “State of The Sport” speech and his NASCAR Hall of Fame appearance Monday night. So why is it, mere days later I can’t remember a single word he said?
Maybe that’s ‘cause he didn’t say anything A) we don’t already know or B) worth remembering. And for a speech supposed to stir the NASCAR fan base to its feet, well … that’s not good.
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