Did You Notice? … The powerful resume of Kasey Kahne? This year’s Brickyard 400 victory, combined with years of wooing major sponsorship, tipped the scales for single-car Leavine Family Racing. Despite a major leap forward with Michael McDowell this season, on-track potential wasn’t enough to keep the ride.
“We look at this as an opportunity for marketing, to be able to sell sponsorship,” said LFR owner Bob Leavine to Motorsport. “There is absolutely nothing that Michael (McDowell) did, it was just a matter of us having to make some changes to help us move up the ladder and be a factor in the playoffs.”
Kahne’s track record the last few years is spotty but his off-track persona? He’s still living off a brand built by old sponsor Allstate many years ago.
These commercials, made at the height of NASCAR’s popularity, appealed to women and were well-liked by all aspects of the fan base. By taking this gamble, Leavine is hoping the now 37-year-old Kahne “still has it” when it comes to being liked in the boardroom.
It very well may work out for them. But keep in mind Kahne’s car was the one at Hendrick Motorsports where sponsors are leaving, not increasing support. Farmers Insurance, Great Clips, and Time Warner Cable are just three major backers leaving the No. 5 car.
The man he’s replacing, Michael McDowell, hasn’t exactly drawn in sponsorship either. McDowell, winless in his career on the Cup level, may be younger (32) but spent years starting-and-parking before getting a chance. Beyond his faith, religious convictions that attracted the support of Christian-based K-LOVE Radio, he hasn’t had a full-time backer since 2008, his rookie year.
But McDowell is at least partially responsible for the growth of LFR over the course of 2017. A career-best 25th in the standings, he was fourth at Daytona and has just one DNF. The average finish of 21.6 bests Danica Patrick and is just a tick off Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21.2).
Of course, McDowell hasn’t led much — only six laps compared to Kahne’s 31. It’s Kahne who made the playoffs by virtue of his crown jewel upset at Indy. But check out the last seven races for each.
Kahne: 11th, 16th, 38th (DNF), 24th, 24th, 12th, 21st. No laps led. Average Finish: 20.9.
McDowell: 18th, 12th, 27th, 20th, 19th, 16th, 30th. No laps led. Average Finish: 20.3.
So since that Indy victory, McDowell has been outperforming Kahne in a car that often doesn’t have primary sponsorship. It makes Leavine’s argument this change was based on performance a bit harder to stomach.
Of course, the move to LFR likely means a partnership with greater Hendrick support. That engineering help and perhaps a connection to their marketing team is enough to understandably tip the scales. But let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?
NASCAR is a business, just like any sport. Unfortunately, on-track performance is more irrelevant than ever (see: Matt Kenseth) when the money isn’t there for it to make sense. I hope it works out for all parties (McDowell will be fine for 2018) but it’s a shame your brand is a better skill to have than your driving.
Did You Notice? … Martin Truex Jr.’s NASCAR season is shaping up to be one of the best in the sport’s playoff era? Sure, there’s still nine races left on the year. Truex could easily fail to finish the next two events and spiral out of the playoffs.
But assuming all goes as planned, he’ll be at Homestead on the verge of rubber-stamping an impressive season. Here’s a look at his stats to date.
2017 Truex: Five wins, 11 top-five finishes, 18 top 10s, 1,723 laps led, seven DNFs
Projected: 7 wins, 15 top-five finishes, 2,297 laps led
These projections are based on simple math, dividing the season into quarters and mimicking his averages over the final nine races. If they hold, he’ll lead the most laps of any driver since Jeff Gordon in 2001. That’s the first year NASCAR expanded to 36 races in the modern era.
Most Laps Led in NASCAR Since 2001 (36-race seasons)
2001 Jeff Gordon 2,320*
2009 Jimmie Johnson 2,238*
2017 Martin Truex Jr. 2,297 (Projected)
2015 Kevin Harvick 2,294
2014 Kevin Harvick 2,137*
2013 Jimmie Johnson 1,985*
2008 Jimmie Johnson 1,959*
2005 Tony Stewart 1,845*
* – Won series title
OK, you can read the chart. I think you know where this is going… let’s just say history is on Truex’s side should he make it to Homestead.
Did You Notice? … Chase Elliott was docked 15 points for improper modifications of his rear spoiler during the race? The L1 penalty also cost crew chief Alan Gustafson $25,000 and a one-race suspension. The car chief, Joshua Kirk, is also suspended.
Hendrick has depth so a capable head wrench, Kenny Francis, will be on top of the pit box to fill in. But the move puts an asterisk on the sudden speed the No. 24 showed at Chicagoland. Prior to Sunday, the sophomore hadn’t led a lap on an intermediate since Fontana all the way back in March.
Moving forward, Elliott was a respectable 11th at Loudon back in July. The next weekend at Dover, he’ll likely benefit from Johnson’s bulletproof setup there. That means it should be easy for him (still 18 points above the cutline) to make it into the next round.
Does that mean this move was a slap on the wrist? Well, yes and no. Without the infraction, Elliott would still likely have had a top-10 finish. His teammates were hanging around the back half of the top 10 all day.
But any penalty, no matter how small looks ugly for NASCAR and the playoff driver in question. The fact we’re one race in and one of the 16 competitors was caught cheating? It’s not a good look, for either Hendrick or the sport.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- When the playoffs began, one of the big questions was who would be Toyota’s major foil. Right now, early indications are it’s going to be Kevin Harvick and Ford. The No. 4 team looked stout at Chicagoland, running third, and haven’t finished worse than 15th on an oval since Daytona in July.
- Kyle Busch and company said all the right things after Sunday. But you’ve got to wonder how the No. 18 crew must be feeling. Pulled for the playoffs and your replacements cost Busch a potential win, right off the bat? That competitiveness used to be, back in the day, what would tear multi-car teams apart. JGR has to be careful.