Home / Cup Series / Voice of Vito: Knowing When To Fold ‘Em and Top NASCAR Silly Season Rides Revisited for 2018
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Voice of Vito: Knowing When To Fold ‘Em and Top NASCAR Silly Season Rides Revisited for 2018

Chasing Amy

Following the unveiling of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Darlington throwback scheme on Tuesday, Junior Nation was at odds with one another, as well as an Earnhardt. What, they didn’t dig the AC Delco scheme that Junior piloted to two consecutive titles in 1998 and 1999?

Sorry, wrong Earnhardt.

It’s actually Dale Jr.’s wife, Amy, enduring the wrath of a frustrated NASCAR fan base. Shortly after the Southern 500 paint scheme was unveiled at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, she took to Twitter, addressing the rumors and questions that have persisted about her husband competing in the 2018 Busch Clash at Daytona.

“I’ve received many comments on Dale Jr running the 2018 Clash, based on whether or not I give my blessing. Considering his struggles last fall with his injury, we are very blessed that he’s now healthy, happy & able to enjoy his final season…and hopefully many years beyond racing. So my answer is simple. It’s not worth the risk of his health.”

Some of the comments within different social media outlets did agree with Earnhardt’s wife and her concern for his well-being. But others were calling her the second coming of Teresa Earnhardt, claiming their driver chose a domineering, callous woman who was simply after his money.

I can understand Earnhardt’s desire to run the Clash. It’s a short race, run for money, not points. His Hendrick Motorsports team can focus on building a car just for that race all winter since it’s the only one he’d race that year.

Past restrictor plate success would also give him a decent shot at actually winning his final race. Based on how this season is going, the pickings are going to be a bit slim here in the final few weeks of summer before the NASCAR playoff. The ties that bind him to Daytona International Speedway are almost as tight as those to his better half, given his father’s greatest and final moments at that track during the month of February.

Then there’s the realist in me, the one that remembers why 2017 is his final season.

Last year, Earnhardt spent the better part of the year battling post-concussion syndrome. That meant wearing special glasses, practicing going out in public to raise his anxiety, and performing both physical and mental therapy – from what appeared to be innocuous contact at Daytona and Michigan. So after a season of goodbyes, why bother to come back for a quick exhibition race? It’s like being at a party and making the rounds for 15 minutes bidding farewell….only to burst back in 30 seconds later because you forgot your keys.

For drivers, if they say it’s their final race, they should stick with it. Even last year, it seemed a bit odd when Jeff Gordon came back for several weeks, subbing for Earnhardt of all people during his recovery. Um, Jeff, didn’t we just make a big deal of you leaving for six months and bring Tom Cruise out to see you cry at an awards show?

The competitive fire of a professional racecar driver at this level doesn’t need to be fanned; it’s already a threat to burn down everything in its wake. Having seen her husband struggle for half a year, not knowing if he’d fully recover, Amy Earnhardt has every right to voice her opinion when asked her feelings on it. She’s also got plenty of factual reasons regarding the risks to back up those concerns – whether fans like it or not.

Cale Yarborough used to say his wife Betty Jo would ask him now and then through the mid-1980s when he was going to get out of that racecar. After Bobby Allison was critically injured and nearly killed in a first-lap crash at Pocono in 1988, the questions about his retirement became more frequent and more pointed.

Guess where he was after the season finale that year? Retired from NASCAR driving for good.

In closing, this Earnhardt Clash scenario is like George Carlin said in his act about playing golf. “You hit a ball, and ….walk after it. Then…. you hit again. I say pick it up, put it in your pocket and go home #$%@#&%….you won!”

Silly Season: Wild Accusations and Blind Assumptions

While the Silly Season machine was set to tumble last week, following Matt Kenseth’s admission that he would not be back at Joe Gibbs Racing for 2018, speculation ran rampant that he could be a candidate to replace his friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 next year. Kenseth shot that theory down Monday night while speaking with Kenny Wallace on SIRIUS XM NASCAR’s The Late Shift; days later, it was made official when Alex Bowman was hired for the ride.

With that variable removed, what dominoes could fall where for 2018 kind of fall into place a bit easier.

Hendrick Motorsports No. 88: Alex Bowman

This was a no-brainer, confirmed and announced on Thursday morning. The length of time it took to complete had some in suspense, but Bowman, who served admirably in a substitute role for Earnhardt last season had the inside track on the job.

Consider both Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson both publicly voiced their support for him in the last two weeks. That led me to believe he was the choice of Hendrick Motorsports, but maybe the sponsors needed ushering along. The bottom line is, this guy is too good to be stuck in a simulator. They need to get him back in a car before he starts to take on the appearance of a geek that plays video games all day.

Now, Bowman gets a chance to show what he’s learned and contributed being a somewhat shadowy figure in helping sort out the setups before HMS cars even hit the track. That, and his services probably come a good bit cheaper than the driver he’s taking over for.

Wood Brothers Racing No. 21: Darrell Wallace, Jr.

Bubba Wallace always seems to be in the right place at the wrong time. His success in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series got him a few starts with Joe Gibbs Racing in XFINITY, but the results weren’t what some had expected. He then moved to Roush Fenway Racing, where he had a couple of tangles with his teammate and eventual champion Chris Buescher. While fourth in points this season in XFINITY, sponsorship was unable to be secured – even before a race run in Ford’s backyard at Michigan – and the flagship No. 6 team was scuttled.

Following a few fill-in starts for Aric Almirola, Wallace seemed to find his groove – even after a few pit road penalties fouled up his Pocono debut. Many have called for him to replace Almirola in the No. 43, and RPM is working to find sponsorship for him for a second car. What Bubba Wallace desperately needs is something consistent and not rudderless; grounded and not constantly in flux. The No. 21 Ford is as solid as it’s going to get from both standpoints, packaged with sponsorship and support from Penske.

Add in that Wallace’s best friend, Ryan Blaney, is going to be moving out of it soon and into an actual Penske car. Seems to me this move would be a seamless transition and make for an even stronger alliance between the two operations.

Team Penske No. 2: Ryan Blaney

This promotion to Team Penske’s premier ride would seem to be a good fit to me for a few reasons. First, Blaney is under loan to The Wood Brothers from Penske, so, he’s a Penske guy. Second, he’s already won a race this year with a satellite team, and he’s been consistently faster than the other Penske car of Joey Logano for much of the season. Third, this pairing would seem to be a great sponsor and driver combo. It’s a young driver who has amazing potential and isn’t as polarizing as Brad Keselowski can be. Then again, Rusty Wallace was cut from the same cloth, as he signed a lifetime services contract with them in the early 1990s.

If not the Blue Deuce, pencil Blaney in another Penske-esque number. A Mark Donohue hued No. 16 or 12 would look striking on the track….

Hendrick Motorsports No 5: Brad Keselowski

Could Keselowski return to the car he was originally slated to drive in 2010? As he has stated in his blog on a few occasions, Keselowski was ready to drive the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. But after winning five races in 2009, winding up second in the standings Mark Martin opted to pick up the option years on his contract.

After repeated stumbles this season and no sense of momentum, it’s hard to imagine Kasey Kahne returning for another season in the No. 5 car. This one is hard to fathom, to be honest; Keselowski has pledged allegiance to Penske after he perceived getting Charlie Browned by HMS, and he’s brought home their only NASCAR championship. Ford and Penske are also supportive of Keselowski’s Truck Series efforts as well – one that he says he loses over a million dollars a year operating. But the delay in announcing his contract extension with Penske is a bit puzzling…. I’ve learned to never say never.

Furniture Row Racing No. 77: Kasey Kahne

Kahne has struggled mightily the past couple of years, and his confidence has taken a bit of a hit as well. So what better way to turn things around than pound a 5-Hour Energy, take a deep inhale of fresh Colorado, uh, air, and take over for the departing Erik Jones? Kahne had some of his best races driving for the underfunded but overachieving Red Bull No. 4 Toyota in 2011, all while waiting to take over the No. 5 in 2012. Kahne is from Washington, so naturally, he must like other western states. Am I grasping at straws here? Absolutely. Could this move to greener pastures happen? Perhaps.

Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10: Matt Kenseth

Who would be the most logical addition to a team full of sharp-tounged, hot-headed drivers? The most quiet, reserved guy on the grid. Unless you run into Kenseth; then, you’re getting pile driven into the wall at Martinsville and RKO’d between haulers at Charlotte.

Over at SHR, there’s nothing to suggest Danica Patrick is coming back next year – or that she’s remotely enjoying herself this season. A number of promising runs have been ruined by some spectacular wrecks, coupled with a dressing down of some fans on camera at Pocono and litigation by her once-former, now-current (for a few races, at least) sponsor.

Yikes.

DP has given it a solid five years, enjoys her new activewear line and vineyards, and her significant other is becoming a consistent winner. Going out on a limb here, but I see a wedding and children in her future, with Kenseth coming back to Ford to run his final few seasons in the Cup Series.

What, no Carl Edwards sightings? I’m still not convinced he won’t be in a car next season. But if he was, I would say it would be in a Ford, and would pair him with an old adversary… chew on that one for a week or two.

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About Vito Pugliese

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Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    5 car: Matt Kenseth, Dale Jr said a great ride shall come his way and it will.

    21 car: Paul Menard, his father has a relationship with Penske in Indycar and putting his son/money with a Penske sat team makes sense.

    88 car: I am happy for Alex Bowman, he worked for the ride and deserves it. But I think the number should revert back to 25. Why? Never be the one to replace a legend, you will never measure up. Ask Kevin Harvick or Rick Wilson. Rick who you ask? He drove the number re-numbered 43 to 44 STP Pontiac after Richard Petty retired.

    77 car: may go away pending sponsorship dollars and 5 Hour Energy will become and associate on the 78 car.

    Leave Amy Earnhardt alone, Dale Jr probably should not be in a race car anyway. I am not a doctor but I do know that your brain cannot take many concussions before you are killed and having another Earnhardt killed in a race car would also be the death of this sport.

  2. Avatar

    Granted, I feel in my fold ’em is why Ware not with East Carolina? You can’t fumble a big sponsor before Indy and I want to see the Blue Paint for Blaney and it being a better visual, but, it would it be a step above Alex Bowman in the standings from 2017 to 2018. Speaking of needing to get manufacturers and builds because the corporate madness isn’t totally sticking like Matco Tools is on the hats.

  3. Avatar

    Bubba can’t win in 3 years in Xfinity, nobody wants him in cup, thus no sponsor. The ones still floating the Edwards theory are the same ones who swore Kenseth was getting the 88. Edwards is gone folks, forget it. Forget bubba in cup till he can earn a win in Xfinity which he hasn’t done yet. The 77 has zero sponsorship and can’t run like that so no Kenseth to that car cause he has no follow along sponsors. Same thing for the 10 car, Haas needs sponsors, not Kenseth who he would have to pay more than he did missy.

  4. Avatar

    Toyota wants and needs “critical mass” for their program, thus look for them to find a way to provide Barney the money needed to run the #77 next year. Who will be in that car? Kenseth? Kahne? Edwards? That is TBD, but one of those three will be likely choices for that ride, because experienced drivers help feed the factory engineering database. However, if the #77 shuts down, Toyota risks having a situation like Dodge when they were down to just Team Penske – Nnice team, won a championship, but the economies of scale for a full factory program were unfavorable.

    Here’s something more to watch out for: Big teams and manufacturers will try to start moving Xfinity and Truck sponsors and programs up to Cup faster and de-emphasizing their own Xfinity & Truck programs. Example One: Kyle Busch’s promise to “retire at 100 X wins” might be cut short by Gibbs moving those Xfinity sponsorships up to fill gaps in the #20 Cup program. Example Two: Meanwhile, Toyota might be cutting way back on KBM’s expensive Truck program, to help fund the #77 Cup team. Example Three: The same will go for Team Penske as I expect the Discount Tire sponsorship to move up to his Cup program with the addition of Blaney.

  5. Avatar

    I like these silly season predictions. If these were true, likely means Bowman will be out after one season and replaced with Byron. Brad would be a long term fixture as is Chase Elliott and unless Johnson retired, which I don’t see, Bowman would be a one and done. Even if Brad didn’t come I still believe HMS will try to lure Harvick away again when his contact expires after the 2018 season. As far as Carl, don’t think he’ll be back but if this article predictions works out I still could see a vacant spot at Penske. I believe Menard would get the 21, Carl to the 12 with Verizon and Discount Tire and best bubba could hope for is a second RPM car.

  6. Avatar

    Yeah, that “Concussion” and those glasses still seem to me to be a very convenient exit for something he seems to have not enjoyed or excelled at in a long time. He seems to want to play and not work.

    As for Miss Amy..ahem MRS AMY EARNHARDT AND TERESA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BIRDS OF A FEATHER……

    • Avatar

      Agree with you on both points. But Teresa was good for his old man, and it looks like Amy has a dose of common sense smarts. Might be just want Junior needs to find the happiness that he was obviously not having in the last 5 or 10 years in racing.