Did You Notice? There’s a difference between the problems faced by Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray, both of whom have had disastrous seasons. Mears’s issues have been partially based on over-aggression. He crashed at Daytona making the wrong move at the wrong time going for the lead, then again at Bristol when he smashed into leader Denny Hamlin while trying to get his lap back. How much can you fault a driver for going overboard, giving it all he’s got? Then again, is three wrecks in five weeks too much? That’s the question for Hendrick moving forward.
On the other hand, McMurray’s barely had a sniff of the top 20 all season long with a program that’s now in its third season. The car he’s driving has led two laps; his teammates have combined to lead 275. In the past, Roush Fenway has made crew chief changes to fix the problems within McMurray’s program; now, McMurray is with a team he’s handpicked. Of course, things couldn’t be more different in Mears’s case; it’s his first season with a “new” team after being moved over to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Those things take time to gel.
When you look at things from that perspective, to me McMurray is the one on much thinner ice.
Did You Notice? That while Regan Smith has struggled after being directly separated from Mark Martin‘s tutelage and support, Aric Almirola has shined. After sitting on the sidelines for the first four races this season, Almirola finished eighth at Bristol to give the No. 8 car its best finish of 2008 – beating any of Martin’s performances to date.
In the meantime, Smith – in charge of his own ride at the DEI stable – has seen his team fall outside the Top 35 in points after a 26th-place performance at Bristol. If there’s any doubt as to how valuable sharing a ride with a veteran like Martin can be – even though it means you run part-time – just look at these stats. Of course, Smith can certainly still turn to Martin for support; they’re on the same team. But sharing a ride with a mentor and having one next door are two different things; and right now, Smith is looking like he needed at least another year of tender lovin’ care.
On a side note, I wonder if it’s good for a guy like Doug Richert – admittedly old-school – to work with a rookie like Smith. Not only is there the generation gap in play, but Richert is a guy who’s used to immediate success; after all, he won a title with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in just his second year driving the Cup Series. Smith is more of a long-term project, can Richert both adapt and develop that long-term mentality? Based on what I’ve seen and heard to date, I don’t quite know if that’s happening.
Did You Notice? That when it rains, it pours, literally. I mention this misstep because the Woods said it was a mutual decision for Bill Elliott to switch off and do the race at Martinsville instead of Bristol. We all know the fallout from that; Jeff Green was hired to sub, but when qualifying didn’t happen, the No. 21 missed the race because they were too low in owner points (of course, if Elliott were there, rainout rules would have put the 1988 champion automatically in the starting field). Now, the Woods are in even more serious trouble.
Here’s the issue. I don’t know about you, but I’m a big forecasting buff, and the weather at Bristol consistently said rain for about five days last week.
Now, if you’re a team like the Wood Brothers, and you’re behind the 8-ball – knowing you have to make races in order to jump inside the Top 35 – why in the world would you let Elliott switch his Bristol date to drive when it’s a guaranteed spot in the field for your car if qualifying gets rained out? Why would they even take the chance that rain would knock you out? Shouldn’t someone be looking at the weather each morning? It’s these types of common-sense decisions that start leading programs to their demise.
Let me throw something else out there; right now, there are just 46 full-time teams competing, with one of those cars the vastly underfunded Front Row Motorsports operation – and heading to Martinsville, there are three rookies driving for cars outside the Top 35. Racing at a track with a low car count – and one that’s consistently tough on rookies – why in the world would you need Elliott to race there? I still don’t get it. In my view, this team voluntarily shot themselves in the foot.
Did You Notice? That with the retirement of Dale Jarrett, as of Martinsville there will not be a single driver over 50 who’s made every race this season. In fact, just three 50-somethings remain on the docket overall: 52-year-old Ken Schrader (driving for single-car BAM Racing), 52-year-old Elliott (part-time) and 50-year-old Mike Skinner (temporary fill-in for AJ Allmendinger). Let’s even take this one step further; right now, there’s just two 40-somethings in the top 25 in Cup points – Jeff Burton (40) and Bobby Labonte (43).
Need any more proof as to how NASCAR’s become a sport for the young? Somewhere, Harry Gant‘s holding a day of mourning.
Did You Notice? The high quality of drivers outside of the top 12 in Cup points? This week, it’s particularly important, because as we’ve mentioned before here on DYN, history tells us 76% of those in Chase spots five races in wind up making the postseason field.
That means that, barring some statistical anomaly, nine of the following 12 men will be punching a Chase ticket: Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Burton, Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
No question, that’s one solid group; but check out the four drivers immediately behind them, veterans that will try to push their way in during the coming months:
Those are four men from arguably the three most powerful organizations in the sport this decade; and yet, one will likely be locked out of the playoffs if history is our guide. Right now, that man looks to be Hamlin; with the sour luck from his 2007 Chase continuing into this season, the No. 11 car has already been involved in two wrecks and a fuel-pickup problem. Considering his teammates have already left him a distant third, it seems like Hamlin’s going to have a much tougher time making up the gap than the others on this list. You’d have to assume Hendrick will get themselves together, right?
Did You Notice? That with the release of Johnny Sauter after just five races, the Phoenix Racing Nationwide Series program will once again fail to keep a driver for more than one full season? The last time the team had any sort of consistency year-to-year was with Jimmy Spencer, who drove the Yellow Transportation-sponsored car during 2001 and 2002. For a team that’s had multiple crew chief switches as well, you wonder whether any driver can turn around that program.
Did You Notice? That of the 35 cars locked in to qualifying at Martinsville, just two of them are single-car teams? Of the 11 full-time cars not locked in to qualifying at Martinsville, five of them are single-car teams.
At this point, it appears “extinction” for the one-car program isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside 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. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.