*Did You Notice?* … 5-Hour Energy and Aaron’s Rents, combined are giving Michael Waltrip Racing funding for a total of 38 races next year? More than anything else, that sobering reality is why Reutimann will be packing his bags and heading to the sidelines for 2012. Despite being signed to a multi-year deal, rumors are running rampant at press time 52-year-old Mark Martin has been signed to take over the No. 00. The car will then scale back to a partial schedule, likely under the Aaron’s sponsorship while some of those contingency, smaller primary deals like Best Western can be used to help fund the No. 15.
Certainly, no one saw this move coming; as recently as one month ago, during Clint Bowyer’s introduction at Kansas Waltrip made clear he’d have three full-time teams next season. But Reutimann hasn’t been doing himself any favors in the meantime. He’s finished on the lead lap just 16 times in 33 starts, a ratio of less than half that’s unacceptable for a team which won in two of the last three seasons. He has just one top-5 finish, a fourth at Kentucky, has led only eight laps and sits 28th in points, third-lowest for any driver who’s started every race this season. (Bobby Labonte, in the JTG Waltrip satellite ride and Front Row’s David Gilliland are the others).
Still, you’d think that after five seasons at the Cup level with MWR, helping build that program when the Waltrip cheating scandal plus a flurry of DNQs nearly tore it apart would be enough for both parties to remain loyal. It seems, though that going out and trying to “fill that hole” for 5-Hour Energy became a lot more difficult than MWR might have thought. And in this world where the cost of competition remains high, they were faced with two choices: run three full-time teams, with millions less than the Hendrick-Roushes they were trying to catch or combine the money, run two-plus cars and add the veteran leadership of a guy like Martin to help spearhead the program forward.
Which would you choose? Sounds like a no-brainer when you think about it. The Sprint Cup landscape has been littered lately with organizations stretching themselves too thin (cough, Richard Childress Racing, cough) and with MWR a 20th-place organization right now, at best they couldn’t afford to do the same. It’s just a shame for a guy like Reutimann, loyal until the very end to get dumped because a bunch of marketers were gutsy enough to believe they could come up with _34 races worth of additional primary sponsorship,_ for a “mid-major program” no less when Bowyer was getting drooled over like some sort of Victoria’s Secret model with his 20-race deal.
*Did You Notice?* … There’s a long list of winless wheelmen still looking to snap their victory drought this season? Four men who won in 2010 have yet to break through in 2011: Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Reutimann. But if you’re looking for a guy who’s going to upset the apple cart, well, you’re going to have to look farther than that. Biffle bounced off Martinsville walls like a pinball, joining Montoya in the short track doghouse after the No. 42’s hood popped up during green-flag conditions. Add in McMurray’s ill-fated “retaliation” on Brian Vickers – more like an audition to appear on Tosh.O – with Reutimann’s pending pink slip and, well, your “surprise winner” to end the season isn’t going to come from this group.
No, the Sprint Cup darkhorses knocking on the door have been hungry for far longer than just one season. Here’s three guys who might surprise, throwing a wrench in the championship Chase with their own trip to Victory Lane down the stretch:
*Last Win: Charlotte – October 2008*
*Why Burton:* After a Freddy Krueger nightmare of a season, Jeff decided to dress up like a real race car driver in time for Halloween. Back-to-back top-10 finishes, his first since the summer of 2010 have the No. 31 Chevy heading squarely in the right direction once again. New crew chief Luke Lambert, while sounding like a recurring character in _90210_ has been unafraid to roll the dice; most recently, his choice to leave Burton out on the track, racing with old tires led to Martinsville’s respectable sixth-place finish.
So can Burton pull off an improbable victory, one that could salvage his worst statistical season in over 15 years? The odds are better than you think. Burton owns two wins apiece at Texas and Phoenix, tracks where he’s typically always in the hunt and even ran second at Homestead as recently as two seasons ago. Sitting 22nd in points, there’s no real need to worry about collecting them so this team can stick their neck out and take the risks those Chase-contending drivers just can’t make.
*Last Win: Atlanta – September 2009*
*Why Kahne:* The former king of intermediates has been itching to reclaim his throne as of late. So far in this Chase, we’ve run on three 1.5-mile ovals and Kahne has a sizzling average finish of 6.0. At Kansas, he ran a strong second and just missed nipping Johnson down the stretch; one week later, at Charlotte he wrecked with 40 laps to go only to charge all the way back to fourth.
That’s par for the course for Kahne, who owns eight of his eleven career victories on these “cookie-cutter” ovals. One of them came at Texas, back in 2006 and although Kahne was a ho-hum 21st this Spring, watch out – his Red Bull Racing team has come a long way since then. In fact, it’s a shame this outfit isn’t staying together; six top-15 finishes in seven Chase races have left them more consistent then some supposed 2011 title “contenders.” And should Texas fall through, don’t count him out at the reconfigured one-mile oval in Phoenix. Kahne was sixth there in the Spring, qualified a strong third and, with his “lame duck” status, has no problems muscling his way through to the front. It’s not like these cars are getting used again next year, right?
*Martin Truex, Jr.*
*Last Win – Dover – June 2007*
*Why Truex:* Ever so quietly, one of the year’s big underachievers has started to get his act together the last few weeks. 10th at Talladega, then eighth at Martinsville means this team is beginning to build momentum despite losing crew chief Chad Johnston due to “Windshield-Gate” at Talladega. Replacing him is former head wrench Pat Tryson, and honestly? He couldn’t have come along at a better time. Last season, Tryson had the No. 56 in contention to win at Homestead, battling side-by-side with Carl Edwards until a tire problem left them fighting to crack the top 10 (11th). Can this duo recreate that season-ending magic all over again? 24th in points, Truex is another one with no reason to play it safe; and under Johnston’s watch, they never really were. Time will tell if Tryson will prescribe to the same fuel and tire strategies that nearly earned the duo an unlikely win during the Bristol night race in August.
*Did You Notice?…* That despite all the criticism surrounding Carl Edwards’ one win, don’t be fooled: he’s racking up a series of “championship performances.” Let me explain what I mean by that. While not winning a race this playoff, the No. 99 team has become a master at overcoming adversity, charging back from a lap down not one, not two, but three separate times. You had the pit road speeding penalty at Dover, where Edwards sat as low as 25th before working his way back up to third. Then, it was the Midwestern Massacre, or so it seemed as Edwards battled a 20th-place machine through the first 250 or so miles. It took a few lucky adjustments, some well-timed cautions and the right restart line with two laps left to leave the No. 99 car surging into fifth.
But Martinsville may have been the biggest masterpiece of all. At one point, Edwards was sitting 24th, nearly down two laps while running behind such juggernauts as Front Row Motorsports (Travis Kvapil) and the single-car, FAS Lane Racing outfit running scuffed tires and driven by 56-year-old Ken Schrader. For the team to wiggle back into one-lap down contention, passing cars until they got their lap back and _then_ dodge the late-race mayhem to end the race ninth was nothing short of a miracle. Throughout the event, Edwards was clearly nervous on the radio but the trust between he and crew chief Bob Osborne allowed both parties to keep their cool. Both knew this track was the hardest one left to conquer, and survival, not Victory Lane success was the ultimate goal.
Let’s stop and add those points up. 22 + 15 + 15 = 52, or nine more than the gap between he and Five-Time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson – who was unable to manufacture those same breaks. Sure, it’s not the flashy three wins of Tony Stewart, and absolutely this playoff should be structured so that wins, not consistency become more of a deciding factor. But you can’t blame Edwards for recognizing the system, taking advantage of it and busting his butt to do all he can to maximize each opportunity. It’s how a one-win Kenseth captured the title in 2003; every time it seemed he was down for the count, the driver buckled down, focused on survival and turned a top-10 finish out of 25th. Making something out of nothing may not lead to victories, but under this format it can lead to a championship; so don’t fault the drivers who are simply mastering the criteria that’s needed to win.
And for those who are frustrated, hey, look at it this way; if there’s a one-win champion, what was supposed to _never_ happen under Brian France’s Chase playoff maybe it’ll be the kick in the pants NASCAR needs to make major changes.
*Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before we take off:
– What a ratings jump for Martinsville: from 2.8 to 3.6, a year-to-year increase of 28.5 percent. Let’s see: fender-banging action, on a short track, after race after race of limited passing or two-car “man-dating” as the main attraction. Looks like the fans were just as weary for quality competition as the drivers themselves.
Now can we get some more of these short tracks built, please, as soon as the U.S. economy starts picking up again?
– There’s a lot of focus on Brian Vickers this week, and deservedly so. But let’s stop short of calling his performance the worst in the history of NASCAR mankind. If I remember correctly, there’s always someone at Martinsville who loses it and causes about a gazillion cautions every time we go there. Remember David Ragan’s nickname? “Dart without feathers?” That came from a nasty Martinsville debut. Marcos Ambrose also had an ugly series of wrecks there not too long ago; the bottom line is short tracks can cause a temporary lapse of focus.
I do wonder, though, if people are being harder on Vickers due to the high volume of crashes he’s been involved in this year. High-profile incidents at Phoenix, Bristol, Darlington, and Sonoma come to mind – not exactly the “comeback year” this blood clot patient envisioned.
– Ryan Newman landed Quicken Loans in a nine-race deal to help fill his sponsorship inventory for 2012. That now leaves us with around 42-43 “partial” sponsors for only about 30 cars on the grid… could you imagine if those deals were spread out to cover the whole field? Just sayin’; the ratings have stabilized, attendance is still decent but NASCAR’s business model has never been worse.
– A quick “best wishes” to Rick Hendrick from all of us at the Frontstretch on his continued recovery from Monday’s plane crash down in Key West. “In case you missed it,”:https://frontstretch.com/breakingnews/36190/ Hendrick suffered a broken rib and clavicle after the brakes failed on their plane (co-owned by Jimmie Johnson) during landing.