Rewind back to the summer of 2006, and one will come across arguably the greatest Nationwide Series upset seen in the 21st century. On a warm summer night in Kentucky that saw the stage set for Joe Gibbs Racing’s JJ Yeley to finally break into stock car racing’s victory lane, David Gilliland and the No. 84 Clay Andrews Racing stumbled upon a setup for the ages, and stormed to victory lane without a sponsor in sight. It wasn’t but a few weeks later that longtime M&M’s driver Elliott Sadler parted ways with Robert Yates Racing…and Gilliland found himself a Sprint Cup Series regular. A driver that had moved over from being a West Series regular just that season to follow a dream, that one race was enough to secure a ride with one of the sport’s longest term and most recognizable sponsors.
It didn’t matter that Gilliland was largely unproven and came from grassroots stock car racing. Nor did it dissuade the Mars company that said unproven commodity would take the seat of Sadler, an immensely marketable driver scarcely a season removed from a Chase berth. Nor did the sponsor seemed concerned that hiring the California-native meant that Dale Jarrett would have a rookie as a teammate even as Yates Racing was struggling to stay relevant in the Cup garage. In the end, no matter how deserving one felt him, Gilliland was the flavor of the month after delivering such a feel-good triumph…and that was enough to land him a full-time Sprint Cup ride despite having less than a dozen Nationwide Series starts to his credit.
Why bring this story up? Well, there’s suddenly a number of parallels to that episode that may well play themselves out in the Arizona desert this weekend. For one, the M&M’s sponsorship is suddenly in play; though Kyle Busch has won 19 races since taking the M&M’s ride over in 2008, the fallout in the past week over his ugly retaliatory episode with Ron Hornaday at Texas has generated significant fan angst. Significant enough that the Mars company is reportedly considering walking away from perhaps the sport’s most talented driver (JR Motorsports regular Aric Almirola told ESPN that Joe Gibbs Racing has contacted him about the possibility of driving the No. 18 Cup car in the final two races of the 2011 season).
What’s more, after a dramatic performance at Texas the following day that saw Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 car steal victory from a dominant Carl Edwards in the closing laps, Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne has suddenly catapulted back into relevance in the garage area. Coupled with a 17th place finish in the Cup race on Sunday, Bayne enjoyed arguably his most complete weekend of NASCAR racing since Speedweeks. Now, a proven winner in both the Nationwide and Cup ranks and with a top 10 car in both practice sessions at PIR this Thursday, Bayne is a legitimate threat to go back-to-back in Nationwide competition at another track that Roush Fenway Racing has enjoyed plenty of success at.
Seeing a pattern here? Big-name marketable driver relationship goes sour for the Mars company, while feel-good story in the Nationwide Series ranks scores the big win and becomes the next big thing. This truly is a sport of “what have you done lately?”…and let’s not forget that despite scoring a tremendous upset in the Daytona 500, Bayne disappeared from the NNS title chase after a mid-season bout with illness. Until finally breaking through this past weekend, Bayne had taken a backseat even on his own team to current points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who’s even been rumored to be in the running to take over the same Wood Brothers car that Bayne won the 500 in.
There’s a reason Almirola seemingly had no qualms going public that he told JGR that he was available if they needed him…he knows like everyone else that a huge sponsor…and maybe even ride…is now on the market.
Considering the history of the Mars sponsorship, be it something small like patching together sponsorship with UPS to put Elliott Sadler in a Nationwide car at the Glen back in 2005 for the track time or something big like Gilliland, their’s is a sponsorship that’s had some impulse to it. The fact that they’re sitting quiet while rumors run wild that their marquee driver is out of the No. 18 for the rest of the year makes clear that the populist rage of the past seven days has the company on their heels, four years of exposure notwithstanding. The silence surrounding Rowdy Busch has been deafening.
And that being said, Saturday’s Nationwide Series race suddenly has new importance. For guys like Bayne, Stenhouse, Almirola and even Allgaier, winning at Phoenix may well prove to be the ticket out of AAA and to the big-time.
It’s sad that a story of a Cup regular making a jerk of himself in a minor league race has been the story of stock car racing the last week. But with a few lucky breaks this coming Saturday, a Nationwide Series regular may well get the last laugh at the expense of the minor league’s biggest exploiter.
Justified or not, it’d certainly be poetic.