Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: NASCAR “Silly Season” is Actually a Very Serious Matter

I’ve always been uncomfortable with “Silly Season,” the phrase used to describe the portion of the year where drivers, sponsors and team owners decide who will drive what car backed by which financial heavyweight the following season. Not too long ago, Silly Season used to start in the fall; now, it starts about 15 minutes after the end of the Daytona 500. Just ask Jacques Villeneuve, who arrived at Daytona thinking he had a Cup ride for the entire season – but found himself unemployed after having failed to qualify for the big race.

The term Silly Season also implies much joy and frivolity, sort of like a middle school dance that pays really well. Fans, for the most part, seem endlessly fascinated by the latest Silly Season rumors, as witnessed by the success of Jayski’s site that contains that very phrase. As a fan as well as a writer, I am not immune to finding the latest rumor, gossip and deliberate mistruths spread by agents trying to advance their clients’ futures – but I’ve also seen the dark side of the carnival.

In what amounts to a huge game of musical chairs, some drivers and team members end up losing big, finding themselves still standing without a place to sit when the music stops. These are real people with real dreams, aspirations, obligations and families who – having once been in the Big Top – find themselves abruptly tossed from the circus like a shovelful of elephant crap.

It might seem an affectation for me as a solid and proud blue-collar guy to worry much about the continued employment of drivers who make millions of dollars a year. Most of you reading this, and me for that matter, would be giddy to retire on what a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes in just one season. But the closer you get to the game, the more you realize that these drivers are real human beings, not cartoon characters.

They are gifted with incredible talents, and they take a considerable amount of risk most of us would find unacceptable each time they take the wheel. Theirs is a high stakes game where the losses are far too harsh; you might run well and win a bunch of races for a few years, but when you hit hard times, you’re gone – and you’re lucky to have your health. All too often, a driver’s life is forever altered by injuries suffered practicing their craft. Ask Ricky Craven or Jerry Nadeau how it feels; although sadly, you can’t ask Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin or Tony Roper.

Some drivers play this Silly Season game better than others… and some just don’t ever play it right at all. One driver who will admit his many missteps is Jeremy Mayfield. Mayfield’s rise to prominence began about the same time I started working the garage area. I was covering the race at Rockingham in the spring of 1998 when Mayfield posted a solid fifth-place qualifying run, one week after finishing third in the previous week’s Daytona 500.

I asked for a few minutes of his time and in our chat, I found Mayfield to be a thoroughly likable and down to Earth fellow, willing to give me all the time I needed for an interview – even if I worked for a small paper. I wrote a positive piece after our encounter, and the next time he saw me in the garage, Mayfield went out of his way to thank me. Trust me, that doesn’t happen a lot.

Two years prior, Mayfield had decided to leave Cale Yarborough’s team to drive for Michael Kranefuss. It seemed like a sure thing, as Kranefuss was the former head of Ford Racing and a heavy political insider in Dearborn. Ford was going to see to it their new team and driver succeeded; and once the team announced a partnership with legendary Roger Penske, their fortunes just simply took off. Mayfield scored the first Cup victory of his career at Pocono in 1998 and he’d go on to win twice more with the team before deciding at the end of 2001 that the grass was greener somewhere else.

A lot of insiders felt Mayfield was making a huge mistake; but for all his talents as a driver and his occasional bouts of good humor, Mayfield’s then-teammate Rusty Wallace could be an egotistical, self-centered, nasty monster. Rusty didn’t want a teammate and never warmed to Mayfield. So, once Kranefuss sold his share of the team to Penske during the 2000 season, Mayfield’s career with the team didn’t last much more than one more year.

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Still, the veteran seemed to land on his feet with an offer to drive for Ray Evernham’s Dodge team in 2002. Ray was the guy who had helped guide Jeff Gordon to all those titles, and the team was spending freely to be sure that they had a winning program. What could go wrong?

At times, nothing… and at times, everything.

During the 2006 season, Mayfield struggled after his crew chief was pulled and teamed up with star driver Kasey Kahne; the two-time Chaser would fall far short of a third appearance, and he decided to call Evernham on the carpet. Going public, Mayfield said his boss’s involvement with Erin Crocker – and the resultant divorce proceedings with his wife – were distracting Ray from managing the team.

Despite the two wins the duo had enjoyed together, Evernham canned him shortly thereafter – and Mayfield was hard up to find work somewhere else. Eventually, he found himself driving for the floundering Bill Davis organization in 2007, failing to qualify for races and driving for a sponsor that wasn’t paying the bills. By and large, he’s been on the sidelines ever since despite five Cup victories to his credit.

Every year, Silly Season seems to hinge on one monumental change. Last year, it was Earnhardt Jr.’s decision to leave the family team to drive for Rick Hendrick. This year, it was Tony Stewart’s decision to leave the safe and successful comfort of Joe Gibbs Racing – an organization that has helped him score two titles – to throw in his lot with a current team owner serving time in prison. (For all the rave reviews BC Hydro gets, it seems they’re growing some pretty potent whacky tobacky in Indiana, too – perhaps Hoosier Stupid Weed?)

Anyways, once Stewart made his choice official, the dominoes began to fall. Rookie sensation Joey Logano will take up the Home Depot colors with the No. 20 team at JGR in Stewart’s absence. As big a stir as Logano is raising, he’d be well advised to place a phone call to Casey Atwood. Atwood was once the next big thing, the can’t miss young superstar who was to follow in Gordon’s shoes and prove the missing piece in Ray Evernham’s puzzle to return Dodge to the winner’s circle.

It was great in theory… but that didn’t work out too well. After two winless seasons, the New Kid in Town found himself on the outside looking in, and he’s struggled to find a Busch, Nationwide or even Truck seat since. (see Tom Bowles’s Did You Notice article yesterday for more.)

Like Mayfield before him, Ryan Newman has also decided he has no future with Penske Racing, and he’s thrown in his lot to drive as Stewart’s teammate next year instead. Remember, this is the driver who won this year’s Daytona 500 with Penske – it was all was sweetness and light at the time but to date, the rest of the season has been a disaster for the No. 12 bunch, so much so that Newman has decided to leap headfirst into untested waters. My guess is that the water turns out to be a lot shallower than it appeared from that bridge overpass… but we’ll see.

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Tony Stewart Boldly Goes Where No Sane Man Has Been Before

Over at Penske, nobody has been named to succeed Newman in the No. 12, though rumors are rampant David Stremme might get the nod… if, in fact, the team can find a new sponsor. Alltel may decide to bail now that they’ve been acquired by Verizon and can’t be grandfathered in under the exclusive rights afforded to Nextel… err, I mean Sprint.

Some teams seem to be heading for the precipice altogether. Chip Ganassi Racing had to shut down Dario Franchitti’s team because of lack of sponsorship, and Texaco/Havoline has announced they won’t be back with the organization next year – ending an involvement decades long with NASCAR, one that included the salad days of Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan at RYR. Reed Sorenson has announced he’s leaving the team, and Target is reconsidering their involvement with Ganassi despite the success they have enjoyed with him in open-wheel racing.

So, it seems CGR is looking for at least two drivers and three sponsors next year in a difficult economic climate. Recall as recently as 2002, Sterling Marlin seemed headed for a championship with Ganassi at the wheel of the Coors Light Dodge before he was injured. Now Marlin is gone, Coors Light is gone, hopes of winning a title anytime soon are gone, and CGR may be gone soon, too.

DEI also seems to be on the ropes. It is very unlikely any of their three teams will be in the Chase this year, and while Martin Truex Jr. recently signed a one year deal with the team, it was with seeming reluctance. It seemed that with all the prime seats filled for 2009, Truex apparently just decided to wait another year to see if the pastures are greener elsewhere for 2010.

Bass Pro Shops also seems more married to Truex than DEI, which can only help his bargaining stance next year. John Menard and his boy are looking at what’s out there in the “Buy a Ride” market, while Regan Smith has struggled to make and finish races – and there’s no clear indication that Principal Financial is going to be around next year.

All season, Yates Racing (now run by Robert’s son Doug) has struggled to find sponsorship for his two teams, and out of pocket expenses are mounting. Supposedly, Jack Roush is trying to help keep Yates alive but, while Yates says he remains committed to his two drivers, he’s made it clear that if any driver is able to bring solid sponsorship to the table, the team is willing to listen. I can’t imagine the Yates organization surviving another year on life support.

In other news, Casey Mears is on the move from the “Fourth Beatle” status at Hendrick Motorsports to fourth Beatle status with the newly formed Richard Childress Racing team. In a bit of a puzzler, he’ll apparently inherit the Jack Daniel’s sponsorship and the team points from Clint Bowyer’s potentially championship-contending No. 07 team, while Bowyer will drive for General Mills (about to depart Bobby Labonte’s storied No. 43 car).

Talk about a kick in the teeth for Bowyer, who will have to qualify for the first five races next season with a new team and new crew chief. I don’t know… when thinking Mears and Jack Daniel’s, the only thing I can figure is his haircut makes it appear Mears drinks a lot of the stuff and made an unfortunate phone call during a UHF “Flow-Bee” hair-cutting system ad. Meanwhile Mark Martin – another victim of a chronically bad hair life – will once again compete for just one more full season with Hendrick in the No. 5 car.

We shall see… but before this season is even over or 2009 begins, there’s already speculation as to who will get a ride in the No. 5 car for 2010.

Finally, the two most storied teams in NASCAR history – Petty Engineering and the Wood Brothers – are in dire trouble. The Top-35 qualifying rule and failure to keep up with the times might just end up sending both the way of the Dodo bird, regardless of any investors who jump in to save them.

Like I’ve said, racing’s a tough business these days. Good sponsors are getting harder to find and even harder to keep… and when you do get one, chances are they’re pickier than ever. Pity poor Scott Wimmer, who recently heard that RCR will no longer require his services in the Nationwide Series next year after having also been passed over for a chance in the seat of the fourth RCR car. Wimmer was once the next big thing: he and his then crew chief Bootie Barker won four of the final eight Busch races in 2002 driving for Bill Davis, and Davis decided to capitalize on a sure thing by moving Wimmer to the Cup Series.

But shortly before the 2004 season began, Wimmer was involved in a DUI accident and abruptly fled the scene. Despite an emotional apology that had even MADD back off their demands he be fired, Wimmer’s stock has been in the hopper ever since; and now, he’s on the outside looking in again, despite being a loyal soldier at RCR these past two seasons.

Hiring and firing is always a messy and unseemly process. Relationships between team owners and drivers usually start with such high promise and praise, predictions of near-immediate success combined with a slew of titles down the road. I’ve never heard a driver announce he was making a career change in an effort to post more top-15 finishes, and I’ve never heard a team owner predict his new driver will be somewhat less mediocre than the one he’ll replace.

Sponsors buy into the dream and want to see their cars running up front; but if they don’t, all too often relationships that start with such optimism dissolve into bitter acrimony, finger pointing, and violations of duly witnessed contracts. A slew of crew chiefs and crew members are sacrificed on the altar of expediency, trying to show sponsors that team owners are trying to turn things around however they can. And if nothing improves, the relationship usually ends with a tersely-worded press release that states Team Owner A and Driver B have agreed to a “mutually agreed upon parting of ways” and “wish each other all the best down the road.”

When the first one breaks, the music starts up, and everyone starts scrambling, looking to fill seats. And when that music stops, there’s always someone without a seat and – to that fellow – there’s nothing silly about this season at all.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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