Did You Notice? … How the biggest move of Silly Season didn’t cause that much of a stir? Carl Edwards’ decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing, a move which would have caused a collective gasp a few years ago instead had most observers yawning, pulling the old McKayla-is-not-impressed-face from the 2012 Olympics, while chanting the phrase, “Tell me something I didn’t know.”
That’s because Silly Season in NASCAR, once the place for National Enquirer-style drama has devolved into an anticlimactic affair, one where the full season plot line gets revealed with six episodes left in the show. In a 24/7 news environment, where information gets reported on sometimes before it actually happens, Edwards’ departure from RFR came with little fanfare. Even more casual fans knew of the fourth team getting developed at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s hard to walk the garage these days without getting stopped by accident and asked if you’re under contract for 2015, what your status is and would you like to be part of the newest expansion by Toyota? After three years of under-performance with a team in RFR that has been slowly withering, it’s clear Edwards would at least take a long look elsewhere in free agency – or so he thought.
This driver’s ability to “scour the market,” or lack thereof is where NASCAR is hurting itself the most these days, a laughingstock of free agency news compared to the NFL, MLB, and the NBA. With the number of car owners down to a handful, the sport’s four-car limit and no new investors on the horizon, the Silly Season options for top drivers can be counted on one hand. For Edwards, it was clear early on there were only a couple of places he could wind up, considering he was already with a major, Chase-contending organization that is one of just four to win a championship within the last decade. Two of them, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing find themselves filled to the brim, all drivers signed to long-term contracts and no room to expand under the current NASCAR cap rules.
Other options, like Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi were a lateral move, if not a step down from RFR even in a down cycle for Ford’s once-dominant force. Penske Racing, while a viable option within the Blue Oval family would have caused a lot of bad blood within a manufacturer trying hard for all its entities to work together. So who does that leave? Michael Waltrip Racing, another lateral move with Toyota or Joe Gibbs Racing.
You connect the dots… then, have your four-year-old son, nephew, and the dog do it. It’s really not that hard.
Therein lies NASCAR’s problem, a sport once sold with TNT’s “We Know Drama” tagline, is completely devoid of it when it comes to where drivers will end up next. What’s worse, even as reports run rampant as to Carl’s future destination, no one’s going to be able to talk about it for weeks based on contractual obligations. We don’t get the same type of “waiting period” when it comes to, say NBA free agency. And when we do, like in the case of LeBron James recently, one of the sport’s biggest stars finds himself with a buffet list of choices. The drama can ramp up for a whole week, causing record ratings and attention while several different scenarios get fans drooling.
Instead, the current process in NASCAR feels (ironically) too slow. Too easy to figure out. And everyone winds up cheapened by it all, like going to see a movie with four-star reviews only to fall asleep in the theater. In a racing world where all accomplishments feel watered down these days, one of the sport’s biggest drivers shifting teams should move the needle more than it did. The drama that spurred the sport’s growth, off the track as well as on it, needs to return.
NASCAR must find a way.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off…
– NASCAR’s new format, for the most part, has pushed drivers to get more aggressive — but there’s still the problem of having an entire organization running nose-to-tail with each other. With Kyle Busch second, Denny Hamlin third and Matt Kenseth fourth in the closing laps, what incentive was there for any Joe Gibbs Racing driver to pass each other? Busch and Hamlin are in the Chase, they weren’t catching Gordon, and Kenseth needs to stay consistent in order to secure his place on points. Of course they were going to run easily spaced and coast to the finish line, instead of racing for position and taking each other out. We’re seeing less of this type of performance these days but with the Chase eliminations looming and a glutton of three-to-four car operations getting everyone within their team to run the same speed, you wonder about a more disastrous scenario reoccurring in more races down the stretch.
– Speaking of car ownership, the 43-car breakdown for Pocono gives us the fewest number of owners entered in NASCAR’s modern era. Check out the breakdown:
4-car teams: Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, BK Racing
3-car teams: Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing
2-car teams: Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports
1-car teams: Circle Sport, FAS Lane Racing, Furniture Row Racing, Germain Racing, HScott Motorsports, Hillman Racing, Jay Robinson Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Phil Parsons Racing
That’s only 21 different organizations, for 43 spots with several of them heavily connected. The Race Team Alliance, currently nine members strong wants to invite the rest of the full-time teams to join up, but there’s no need to get a bigger conference room. There’s honestly not too many left.
– Heading to Pocono this weekend, Tony Stewart is the driver to watch. Just 17th at Indianapolis, one of his best tracks, the No. 14 car is precariously close to tipping out of the Chase. But Pocono was a place in June where Smoke could have smoked the field, including a dominant Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., without a poorly-timed speeding penalty on pit road. The other tracks remaining based on 2014 performance, simply don’t tilt Stewart’s way in terms of Victory Lane potential, so this weekend could be his best chance to kill the drama and snag a spot. He’s been tearing it up in Sprint Cars lately — perhaps that confidence will carry over into the Sprint Cup cars.
– If you haven’t seen it, our “Numbers Game” column in the free Newsletter goes over the stats to remember from the previous race. Here’s some of the best ones for those who haven’t signed up to get it yet:
Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas inside the top 5, with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth running second, third, and fourth, respectively. It’s the first time ever Joe Gibbs Racing has had three drivers run inside the top 5 in a Cup race.
Straight victories for Chevrolet at Indianapolis. Overall, they’ve won 16 of 21 Brickyard 400s, with Bill Elliott the last to break their streak, driving a Dodge to the win back in 2002.
Lead changes at Indy, the third time in five races a Sprint Cup event has had 15 or fewer passes for the top spot.
About the author
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.
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