*Did You Notice?…* That as we transition from Phoenix to Sin City, there’s no need for some teams to play craps in Vegas. The 2012 season is just a few weeks old, but their combination of winter personnel changes and in-race strategy have already left them cashing in the dough of a strong start. Who’s outwitted the casino of NASCAR luck? Consider…
*Chad Johnston.* This head wrench reminds me of the guy at the blackjack table who’ll hit on 17, just to do something different when the rest of the table is playing by the book. The crew chief of the mild-mannered, conservative Martin Truex, Jr. has played the role of a raging liberal, going against convention almost weekly since inheriting the position last June. When everyone pits for tires midrace, he’ll randomly leave the No. 56 on the racetrack. When other cars don’t think they can make it on fuel, well, they’ll be the ones to try and stretch. It’s a different approach, aimed at keeping the Toyota team on its toes and energizing them in what amounts to a contract year for Truex.
The problem? Last year, for every success (a second at Bristol in August) there was a speed bump, keeping the team from building any true momentum in closing 2011. But so far this year, in two races they’ve come out of the box swinging, collecting the $200,000 halfway bonus in Daytona and then using classic Johnston strategy to succeed in Phoenix, staying out to lead while everyone pitted for gas with 82 laps to go and establishing their car up front. When they grabbed fresh Sunoco and rubber on the race’s final yellow, 25 laps later, it cost them track position briefly, but the advantage ultimately paid off: Truex fought through traffic with ease to cross the finish line in seventh, which is exactly where this team sits in the points.
So far, so good in what’s been the wasteland known as Michael Waltrip Racing. At the very least, it’s not going to be boring or unwatchable around these parts (like those awful NAPA commercials), which for now means mission accomplished.
*Joe Gibbs Racing.* So far, I’m eating crow with my prediction Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb would tank (although, let’s not count too many chickens before they’re hatched; remember how good the Jeff Gordon / Alan Gustafson combo looked at the start). But the Coach’s biggest accomplishments may lie elsewhere over the long-term: resuscitating the lifeless Joey Logano. Letting crew chief whiz Greg Zipadelli go, even though he no longer wanted to be at JGR, was a huge gamble; after all, Zipadelli was the only crew chief on the JGR roster with a Cup Series championship. But the fresh, laidback approach of Jason Ratcliff has worked wonders, rebuilding confidence early when a dull start for the No. 20 would have almost certainly left Logano’s future in the balance. There’s a long way to go – I’m not willing to eat crow here quite yet – but this pairing has given the fourth-year driver a chance.
And then there’s Kyle Busch, who, for the time being, is playing nice, saying all the right things and even resisting aggression when rivals like Kevin Harvick come calling. Surely, he was humbled by November’s Texas trip-up, but the right people need to be in his ear for that type of long-term maturity to stick. Will it last? Maybe not, but once again in this case the necessary breathing room from an M&M’s mess has been established so any future Busch brouhahas won’t bring the house to its knees. It’s amazing how great leaders always seem to respond when the chips are down, right? If only JGR could coach me at the craps table…
*Bobby Labonte.* In the matter of just a few months, JTG-Daugherty Racing has gone from being Michael Waltrip Racing’s favorite pet project to their own, independent entity within Toyota. They moved back to their old shop, are building Toyotas from scratch, and are working towards becoming a multi-car program themselves over the long run. But if you talked to Labonte down in Daytona, he’d tell you in a heartbeat biting off that type of major commitment, so quickly after years of being carefully couched within MWR, came with consequences.
“For us, really not having any race cars back a few months ago so it’s actually a real achievement to just get here,” he said after posting the 42nd-place qualifying lap at the start of Speedweeks. “We have what we have — there’s not much we can do about it.”
Considering the speed differential the No. 47 showed in single-car runs, a deficit they made up in the draft, the team had to be tickled to death with a 14th-place finish. Then, another race of behind-the-curve survival led to a credible 16th at Phoenix, on the lead lap, which leaves the veteran a surprising 11th in points. It’s not exactly the red hot 2011 start, which began with a fourth-place run at Daytona but consider from there, they didn’t post back-to-back top-20 performances until May. It looks like new Head of Everything Important (that’s what single-car teams have to do) Todd Berrier is working wonders, right? Two old dogs learning new tricks, making them the underdogs who you don’t expect to walk away with all the money at the poker table. But I wouldn’t bet against them Friday at the Monte Carlo…
*Did You Notice?…* How strange it was that Richard Childress nixed Elliott Sadler’s MWR Cup ride as quickly as it began? It took just 24 hours, moving from potential opportunity to public embarrassment for the Virginian after Michael Waltrip tabbed him to run five races for Mark Martin in the No. 55 car. Clearly, Sadler forgot one of the biggest items on the “to do” list when pursuing a part-time, freelance opportunity while a full-time “staff” employee: tell your boss. There’s no way Childress knew anything about this job, no matter what carefully worded statements get leaked to the public; why would you say yes only to nix it 24 hours later?
What’s even weirder is the carefully worded denial that this decision was manufacturer-related, with Sadler claiming the reasoning was to focus on the Nationwide championship. Huh? Since when has five moonlighting events – the last of which ended in September, by the way – distracted a driver from the title? Back when it was a driver development series, Nationwide champions like Martin Truex, Jr. would run a handful of Cup races the year before moving back into the major leagues. I don’t see them regretting the decision… or their trophies.
The bottom line is, we all know Sadler’s long-term goal is to get one solid, last chance at Cup and it’s not going to happen at RCR. The fourth Cup car at the shop, the one with the No. 33 on the side, has Austin Dillon’s name on it and when Jeff Burton retires, the No. 31 goes to little brother Ty. So you can’t blame the man for looking elsewhere; but now, despite a Nationwide win at Phoenix you also can’t blame him for being discouraged over his long-term career options. Think of how Sadler started the Sprint Cup season; on Lap 2, he was on the rear bumper of Jimmie Johnson, triggering a multi-car wreck that ruined Danica Patricks’s night as well as Mr. Five-Time’s and all but destroyed Sadler’s “one-off” Daytona appearance. J.J. was clearly angry, above all, publicly denouncing the incident in the same way a certain Matt Kenseth criticized Brian Vickers after Martinsville last Fall. (Roster check: which Cup team is Vickers driving for in 2012? Oh, that’s right; none, although in a touch of irony he’s the new favorite to get signed by MWR.) That problem leaves Sadler in an ugly position where he needs to prove himself at the Cup level; but he can’t, because Childress has to say “yes” and there’s this impression now, beyond those denials that a Chevrolet is the only option.
So let’s review: no Cup ride, an unsturdy reputation at that level intact, and no room for upward movement at Childress. Will Sadler be satisfied with that Nationwide title after all?
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before the bright lights of Vegas are upon us…
– It’s hard to believe, considering all that’s been accomplished by his team recently, but Carl Edwards is now hitting the one-year anniversary of his last Sprint Cup win. In comparison, teammate Matt Kenseth – who is without funding for 15 races this season – has won four times since Carl, the man of 1,000 sponsors, last visited Victory Lane. It’s not like Edwards hasn’t put himself in position – see: last year’s 2nd-2nd-2nd ending – but at some point soon, especially without the bump of Nationwide Victory Lane, he needs to turn potential into reality.
– Considering all the hubbub surrounding Dodge this week, with Penske’s pullout you have to wonder if they’re regretting not giving Robby Gordon some extra cash for a better Daytona engine. Not that RGM is extremely loyal to any one manufacturer – they’ve run four since returning to Cup in 2005 – but as of now, they’re the only full-time effort Dodge has to work with for 2013. Could a top-10 effort in this year’s 500 have kept the cash-strapped No. 7 from parking at Phoenix… and beyond? We’ll never know for sure. But any type of speed and/or cash infusion can only help.
– With all the talk of an exciting Daytona 500, it’s easy to forget the finish happened at a time many casual fans weren’t able to see it. That’s why it was no surprise to see the ratings dip at the Great American Race, despite exceptional circumstances and the downward trend continued at Phoenix. With a six percent decline, it’s notable the 5.0 overnight is the lowest for NASCAR’s second race of the Cup season since the new contract, in 2001. Whether the racing has been competitive or not is beside the point; publicity-wise, this sport is starting behind the eight-ball, without the boost of a young, energetic star emerging on the scene with a 500 win (Trevor Bayne) and struggling to gain attention during a week of Super Tuesday and Peyton Manning hoopla. With Las Vegas, “new Bristol,” and California next on the slate recent trends must be trumped for the sport to gain 2012 momentum.
– Las Vegas Motor Speedway, to their credit, is working hard to fix ongoing traffic problems. But in SMI’s defense, it might be the only racetrack in the country where there’s only so much you can do. For those who haven’t been out there, let me describe what’s to the north of the racetrack… nothing. That means most fans, a great deal of whom have flown in from out of town, are all heading down the same roads, to the came central location (Vegas) and are even staying within a mile or two from each other. Add in one of the biggest crowds in the country (even in this NASCAR downturn, the track repeatedly draws 130,000+) and, well, even a 10-lane road won’t cut it. The best thing Bruton Smith could do is establish a community of 50,000 race fans, 10 miles north of the track who all buy tickets for the race. And while I wouldn’t put anything past him… I think when you come to Las Vegas, bring some beer and brats to tailgate after the race. Hey, you are in the desert… it’s not like the weather’s bad!
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