_Catch Tom Saturday on SIRIUS XM Channel 90! He’ll be co-hosting Press Pass with Jim Noble from 11 AM – 2 PM._
*Did You Notice?…* What a difference Mike Ford makes? He’s only been at Richard Petty Motorsports for less than a month, handed the unenviable task of revamping a two-car organization that had earned exactly one top-10 finish, combined through the season’s first nine races. His driver, Aric Almirola, appeared to lack both the confidence and experience to be successful on the Cup level. Even the Petty name was in the news for all the wrong reasons; a confusing battle over the future of Victory Junction Gang Camp gave the impression of a family feud (rightly or wrongly) between King Richard, son Kyle, grandson Austin and daughter-in-law Patti.
Perhaps they should hire Mr. Ford as their mediator? Already, in just two points-paying races Almirola has put back-to-back top-20 finishes together for the first time in four years. Across the way, teammate Marcos Ambrose earned his first top-10 of 2012 at Darlington, fighting back from two laps down Mother’s Day Weekend with a car that flashed some speed in the closing laps. Now, both cars start on the front row for this year’s Coca-Cola 600, a sudden burst of speed most observers figured they’d have from February onward. After all, chassis and engine supplier Roush Fenway Racing sits 1-2 in the Sprint Cup standings with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, respectively.
Could one man change up the chemistry that much? It’s possible. Almirola, publicly and privately admitted Ford took a completely different approach with both equipment and setup for Charlotte than they would have tried just one month ago. At a time when the race shop, not driver talent makes more of a difference than anything else perhaps a fresh face was needed. And Ford has a history of developing young drivers; Hamlin, in just seven 2005 races finished solidly inside the top 10 and had the look of a title contender by midway through his rookie season.
In Ford, RPM investors Andy Murstein and Co. have also found themselves a guy with something to prove. Many people blame this mechanic’s trash talk at Texas, in November 2010 combined with an ill-fated fuel call a week later as providing the opening Jimmie Johnson needed to surge right into a fifth straight championship. That’s ironic, seeing as at Joe Gibbs Racing the quieter Ford, at least in public was looked at as a forgotten genius: Greg Zipadelli, then Steve Addington always seemed further up in the pecking order.
How Almirola and Ambrose will race on Sunday, especially considering the former has just one career intermediate top-15 finish is anyone’s guess. But looking at the landscape right now, it’s clear why RPM pushed to grab a top-quality name sitting on the bench. The No. 43, despite considerable marketing efforts is still only grabbing patchwork sponsorship. Dodge, which once seemed to be a shoo-in to fit back with this company for 2013 is being wooed by the power of another legendary last name: Andretti. The fight for relevance is on, and RPM wasn’t going to earn it by sitting around and accepting a 25th-place finish every week.
So far, their change to Ford has certainly paid off. But now, for Almirola the pressure will start ratcheting up. With this type of experience on top of the pit box, there’s no longer any excuse for poor performance. And with drivers like Kurt Busch, even Ryan Newman available… I would have a sense of urgency behind the wheel. Wouldn’t you?
*Did You Notice?…* The foreign flavor infiltrating this year’s Indianapolis 500? Just three of the top 10 drivers list their hometowns from the United States: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, and Josef Newgarden. Just nine of the 33 starters overall – less then 30 percent – were born here, compared to 41 of the 43 starters in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
How much does that really matter? In a racing sense, absolutely nothing. But in a series trying hard to reestablish its place on the American sports map, it’s that much more difficult to find a household name to rally around. Last year, for better or worse Danica Patrick once again stole the headlines during the month of May. Her potential replacements, while filled with talent haven’t yet proven their worth in the series. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal have won a total of three times on the circuit since 2006; that’s hardly a track record to get fans hooked on their future success, no matter how famous their last names (and families) might be. Instead, household names in the series like Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, and Will Power take the stage but with a limit to how much their fan base can expand on American soil.
*Did You Notice?…* It’s up to Jeff Gordon to make this summer an interesting one? At 24th in the standings, he almost certainly will need to win to make the Chase (as long as he recovers enough to slide inside the top 20). But based on the way the field is shaking out, one win is probably not going to be enough. Two, even three may be the magic number with so many drivers breaking through to Victory Lane this year.
The question is, with a top-10 car at many tracks will Gordon’s team take the chances he needs to gain the right track position for a victory? Or, will others step up and recognize the potential sigh of relief earned by shutting out a five-time champion? Either way, we’re about to start seeing exactly how much JG has left in the tank. If this team wasn’t operating in desperation mode before… they definitely should be now.
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before I take off…
– So Kurt Busch would be a welcome addition at Joe Gibbs Racing? Color me surprised; it’s what I’ve believed since late last year, a partnership never perfected due to the late release date from Penske more than anything else. But two things have to happen for the brother/brother deal to come to fruition: no more Kurt Loses His Temper while Joey Logano needs to give Home Depot a reason to bail. So far, the jury is still out on both but it’s a story to keep watching as again, it’s the only major veteran organization capable of welcoming this top-tier driver with open arms.
– One story I’m watching for the Indy 500: the huge dropoff in speed back in the pack. There’s a handful of cars who have struggled in race trim, combined with efforts from the back row (Bryan Clauson, Simona De Silvestro, Jean Alesi) that were 12 miles an hour or more off the pole speed. How often have we seen slower traffic, when approached the wrong way lead to devastating wrecks on an oval? Lapped cars at the very least could help decide this thing on what’s bound to be the most unpredictable Sunday for open-wheel (new cars, no heavy favorite) in a long time.
– Money. Money. Money. In talking with a young, up-and-coming driver a few weeks ago that point was hammered home to me about what earns you a developmental ride these days. See: Blake Koch not racing this weekend to go off and find sponsorship, drivers from Danny O’Quinn to Marc Davis sitting on the sidelines, etc. But isn’t it interesting how the expectation has shifted from owners finding sponsorship to drivers bringing in money? Whatever happened to internal marketing departments stepping up? There’s a danger to an owner attaching himself to a self-funded driver, because the second he bolts the sponsor almost certainly goes with. It’s the old “chicken and the egg” theory, and right now owners are almost universally unwilling to invest. They’re playing the role of conservative businessman, refusing to go into the red unless someone else puts some cash on the table.
Paying to play. What a concept… if you’re trying to beat your friends at the local go kart track. Somehow, that thought just makes you cringe when you’re talking professional sports.