NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Military Matters, Kicked To The Curb, And It Doesn’t Pay To Finish First… On Friday

*Did You Notice?…* How the U.S. Army’s departure from NASCAR puts the focus on the No. 88 car manned by the sport’s Most Popular Driver? With the Army’s decision to leave stock car racing, announced Tuesday, that leaves the National Guard, who backs Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as the lone military branch with a major presence in the sport. In the past few seasons, we’ve seen the Coast Guard, the Navy, and the Marines leave the Nationwide Series, all while the U.S. Air Force has seen primary sponsorship reduced to just two Sprint Cup events with the No. 43 and Aric Almirola. Even auxiliary branches of government, like the U.S. Border Patrol, have pulled back and turned their marketing dollars towards other areas.

That natural decline has gone on while protests ramp up, fair or not, in the U.S. House of Representatives to prevent the military from sponsoring NASCAR, period. Calling it a waste of funds, Democrat Betty McCollum from Minnesota backed a bill banning the use of military marketing dollars for all motorsports; her excuses included the poor economy, bloated budget and limited proof recruiting at the races actually works. In the end, the measure was defeated in the House last year but brought up again in 2012 with a Southern Republican, Jack Kingston from Georgia now trumpeting its passage.

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The days of U.S. Army sponsorship are over, and Ryan Newman’s team is the one paying the price.

Looking at the Army, even though their sponsorship of Ryan Newman was reduced to 12 races this year, you’d have to think political pressure played a part. Newman has won once this season, at Martinsville, and remains in position for a “wild card” berth in this year’s Chase. While the possibility (now stronger) remains that he’ll go elsewhere for 2013, the association with championship driver / owner Tony Stewart and an up-and-coming teammate named … what was it again? … Danica Patrick would have kept the Army’s exposure sky high. Plus, over the past few months Army representatives have trumpeted how much their connection to racing has boosted recruitment; why would they leave so shortly after unless someone turned a wrist until they cried Uncle?

So it looks like for now, that’s exactly what happened; the naysayers have won out inside closed doors on Capitol Hill. What an ominous sign, in the face of Earnhardt’s first win in four years that indicates a championship-contending Fall could be on the horizon at the No. 88. If he loses a sponsor in the process, even though there’s politics behind it, what message does it send about the sport? How do you market your Most Popular Driver losing money the second he emerges back towards the front of the pack?

Simple answer: you don’t. This one’s a case of bad timing that could only get worse.

*Did You Notice?…* Sam Hornish, Jr. angling heavily to drive the No. 22 Dodge he rest of the season? The ink hasn’t even dried on the paperwork to test AJ Allmendinger’s “B” sample but Hornish is acting like the man’s been put on the street. While adamantly claiming “no disrespect to AJ,” in the next breath he’s pushing to saddle up in the No. 22 straight through November.

“This is definitely not the way that I would like to do it,” said the Indiana native to ESPN’s “David Newton”:http://espn.go.com/racing/nascar/story/_/id/8151079/sam-hornish-jr-interested-driving-no-22-car-fulltime-penske-racing&campaign=link&source=JAYSKI on the subject. “But at the end of the day, I feel like with the way things have been in racing lately, I feel like you take what you can get at this point and time.”

I agree with Sam … to a point. We’re not talking about a temporary fill-in from another manufacturer coming in, having a good first week and then trying to get back in the game. We’re talking about someone’s _teammate._ It’s intriguing to me that a guy who sits in the same meetings, pledging to work with a person hand-in-hand would so publicly angle for their full-time position before there’s any sort of conclusive decision on the drug test. What’s going to happen if it comes back negative? Sam sees AJ walk into a meeting and blurt out, “Sorry for trying to steal your job, dude! I just thought if you were a druggie…”

It’s a statement that speaks far deeper than the current state of racing today, where limited funding leaves people catfighting anytime a top-tier opportunity comes into play. Say what you want about Hendrick Motorsports, their teammate collusion through the years posing a whole new set of problems with the sport, but you would never hear that type of internal talk go public in the face of one of their drivers getting pulled. That type of camaraderie has changed the NASCAR game but has never been a “must” at Penske, which has dealt with teammate divisiveness ever since the days of Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield. I’ve noticed teammate Brad Keselowski, in marked contrast to his support of Kurt Busch even after November’s temper tantrum has preached controlled, intentional radio silence. Where is the “Oh my God! AJ’s such a great guy! We’re going to help him through this mess!” from some of the people who’ve worked with him over there. Nothing is stopping these people from preaching positive while they wait for the final results to come out.

At least AJ’s mom “tweeted her support”: https://twitter.com/kadinger17 Tuesday night, claiming there is no doubt in her mind AJ would never take an illegal drug. Too bad she’s on an island when it comes to the list of people who really matter for her son’s future employment. It makes me think even more “along the lines of Monday’s column”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/40369/ that this relationship is irreparably damaged, no matter how this “B” sample turns out and that the sources claiming AJ wasn’t the right “personality fit” at Penske have truth behind those words.

*Did You Notice?…* Winning the pole doesn’t mean very much these days? Tony Stewart’s come-from-behind Daytona victory is the latest example of how finishing first in qualifying gets you … well, absolutely nothing. Already this season, we’ve seen a NASCAR Cup Series record 30 races in between polesitters taking home the checkered flag until Joey Logano snapped the streak at Pocono. He remains the only one victorious this season, slightly bizarre considering just four of this year’s 18 Cup Series winners have started outside the top 10. But the pole itself, again remains like a “perfect attendance” sticker while someone else collects the bigger trophies. Only six of this year’s 18 poles, 33.3%, have been captured by those inside the top 10 in points. Compare that to 19th or worse, where you’ll find a total of seven poles amongst the remaining drivers in the standings. Guess it’s much easier to find one lap of speed these days than to retain it for all 500 miles. Mark Martin, who’s started first three times this season has just two top-5 finishes to go along with it. With no points for poles, and 35 of the 43 spots secure on the grid before time trials even begin it’s like the luster has been taken off starting in first place these days.

*Did You Notice?…* A few quick hits before we take off…

– Finally, Austin Dillon’s crew chief, Danny Stockman gets suspended after a _second violation_ of NASCAR probation in seven days. The punishment? Two weeks away from the track after Daytona’s violation, an unapproved open vent hose found inside of the race car. So let’s make this one perfectly clear: _three violations_ of NASCAR rules, from May 1st to July 7th and Stockman gets a two-week suspension. Chad Knaus, of Jimmie Johnson fame has a violation found in Daytona’s pre-_practice_ inspection and NASCAR’s reaction was to suspend him for six weeks?

It’s getting to the point I’m not even sure NASCAR has a rulebook anymore. Do they just throw darts to figure out exactly how long the suspension could be?

– Along the same lines, Tony Stewart failed post-qualifying inspection at Daytona. He was still allowed to start the race. But if his team had been outside the top 35 in owner points? He’d be sent home for that type of violation. As it is, Smoke came back to win the race and, even with a six-point penalty, still accrued enough for a top-3 finish when it comes to the championship standings. Yes, Steve Addington as the crew chief was fined $25K, but the whole experience was little more than a drop in the bucket compared to how it is on the other side of the fence.

Yes, there should be advantages based on how high up you are in the points. But when you’re caught cheating, there shouldn’t be such a major difference in how it’s handled. NASCAR has to figure out a balance so that these qualifying violations, where teams are pushing the envelope result in A) equal punishments across the board and B) stronger consequences overall.

– How much salt does it rub in the wound that 18 races into 2012, David Reutimann’s former boss, Michael Waltrip, has more top-10 finishes (one) in fourteen fewer starts? To add insult to injury, Reutimann was pulled from a Truck Series ride this week which means his only full-time position is as Danica Patrick’s hired fill-in.

*Connect with Tom!*
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“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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