As you read this article, half the world is popping up with internet stories that may or may not be true. Your best friend may be pulling a prank, as we speak, moving your car across the street and then waiting for your frantic call, thinking it was stolen (yes, that’s happened to someone I know). All across the country, this day is a time for creating fools.
But Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t need that type of aggravation today: all across the wires, too many of their people appear as one. The company still reels this Monday, adjusting to life without Denny Hamlin and a series of whoops! announcements from one of the sport’s professional companies that makes you think whether Chuckles the Clown mistakenly jumped in as head of PR. At one point last week, Hamlin had a sub for all six races… and then, after a national release they were told through a matter-of-fact PR response it was one. In the midst of it, the first and seemingly logistical pick to substitute was passed over faster than your wife the second Miss America sits down beside you. Except in this case, Miss America would be 54, up at 5:30 and asking you to do 500 pushups before breakfast.
It’s all a series of bizarro choices by people who simply don’t make such mistakes. For once the dust has settled, on this comedy of errors heading to Martinsville it’s hard to consider anyone comes out a winner in a solution that’s left a whole lot of people scratching their heads. (They say Denny Hamlin was in on the solution for his team. Was he taking pain medication at the time?)
Mark Martin’s six-race deal that turned into one. At 54, Martin to me reflects the perfect profile sources claimed Fed Ex was looking for while Hamlin sits on the sidelines. They wanted A) a proven race winner that B) would not cause a ride controversy upon his departure while C) providing the least bit of chemistry interruption, keeping their full-time driver in position to immediately win races upon his return. Martin could do all that, while receiving that slight uptick in personnel allowing him another milestone in a Hall of Fame career: oldest man to win a Cup event. Sure, with Michael Waltrip Racing he might still do it. But amidst the pole-winning efforts, combined with internal leadership provided Martin’s team is still growing around him. Case in point: Phoenix, where one wrong pit road decision likely kept the No. 55 from contending for victory. As the part-time driver, Martin also runs the most experimental equipment for MWR as an engine failure doesn’t exactly keep him from the championship. There would be no such problems at JGR, combined with one of the best head wrenches and crew chiefs in the business.
Instead? We’ll only get to see this pairing at Martinsville, one of the driver’s worst tracks considering the Charlie Brown-like luck complex permanently attached. If there’s a grudge match Sunday, Martin’s sure to play the innocent victim and that’s not exactly how he expected to spend those extra days “on” running for anybody else.
That leads us to the No. 55 car itself, Martin’s current employer whose potential 2014 driver, Brian Vickers just lost out on his extended audition. For some, the deal for Vickers to back Martin is all but done at this point. But notice sponsor Aaron’s doesn’t back the races Vickers is jumping in for. The fact they chose not to, this time in this little sponsor snafu with Fed Ex should raise some eyebrows. Yes, with more top-5 finishes as a part-timer than what Montoya or Jamie McMurray give us combined you’d think that would be enough to prove yourself. But at some point, for sponsors it’s not about what you do but whether you’re a perfect match for their branding. Does Aaron’s not think Vickers is right for them, for whatever reason? It’s possible. The bottom line is they’re allowing him to slot in elsewhere, at a JGR gig who has a fourth car opening up next year when it would have been great for him and crew chief Rodney Childers to develop more chemistry at MWR. Vickers, of course is an intermediate specialist but he hasn’t run any such races with the program. Will that leave them an extra step behind if their deal does finally come together in the offseason?
You also have Fed Ex Racing, whose quest for a one-time sub for Hamlin now consists of two completely different drivers, perhaps more should this injury stretch into June (and the inevitable Nationwide Series conflicts). Yes, there’s no ride controversy coming from either of these final selections. But for a sponsor desiring exclusivity, one of the few not looking to sell space on the hood or scaling back a marketing campaign the inconsistency, however small is not ideal for them. In a sense, they’re looking at reduced exposure should Hamlin’s injury prevent a Chase appearance so no real solution results in a win. Ironically, the decision allows Aaron’s to continue their branding campaign around one driver and one driver only. If Martin was the pick, and all that company wanted was a little extra exposure for the swap was it worth it to snub them, moving to the guy ever so slightly less proven on paper? We’ll see.
But perhaps the biggest loser in this whole deal is Elliott Sadler, a native Virginian and full-time Nationwide driver for Joe Gibbs Racing who will instead be watching this scenario unfold from the sidelines. Our Mike Neff was told, by multiple sources Sadler was the primary pick within JGR, brought to sponsor Fed Ex before the whole story turned in a whole series of wild directions. The company line, in recent days is that Sadler has a commitment to drive a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing Cup car in a limited schedule. But a “limited schedule” is exactly that; a series of dates, handpicked on the Cup calendar that can be easily postponed and moved around. It’s hard to stick by a marketing campaign, of course when no one had officially heard about it at the time of these substitutions. The bottom line is that Sadler, if fitting within JGR’s long-term plans was the “easy pick” from a staffing standpoint. He wants to stay there for 2014 and beyond, unlike Vickers and Martin, becoming the main contender for the fourth car. So what better way to feel the guy out than throw him in a top-tier Cup situation for six weeks? Yes, he hasn’t tested much with the new Gen-6 but everyone, to a certain extent starts out on the same page. And as for past results? This guy’s got a past win at Texas, after all. But someone, somewhere in the board room thought the Virginian clearly wasn’t good enough; that means he’ll suffer, in the coming weeks with the difficulty of trying to run a new, part-time car from scratch sitting at the back end of the series garage. If I’m Sadler, my confidence took a bit of a blow with this pick.
Of course, these issues pale in comparison with Hamlin’s long-term injury and its consequences. No one’s happy when a driver of that caliber goes and sits on the bench.
But that doesn’t mean the answer needs to be more complicated than a calculus problem. To borrow a line from Friends, which JGR and MWR may be anything but for the next few weeks this episode was the one where everybody loses.
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