Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? McMurray Got Screwed, Screwy Rookie Scheduling & NASCAR’s Fake Title Contenders

Did You Notice? Jamie McMurray’s crash at Dover was not just caused by Robby Gordon’s recklessness… but by missing the playoffs?

Let me explain. After the regular-season finale at Richmond, Roush Fenway Racing GM Robbie Reiser made a number of pit-crew switches to benefit the RFR teams set to contend for the championship.

“There were some members on the No. 26 car that were proven veterans,” explained Greg Biffle’s crew chief Greg Erwin at Loudon. “And both our team and the No. 99 has had some issues with one guy in particular on each squad. Reiser stepped up to the plate and decided, ‘Look, this is our best foot forward. These are what we think are our most experienced, under-the-gun-type players,’ and made the decision and allowed each of our teams to get some guys from the No. 26 car – and it’s helped. Without a doubt it’s helped.”

Sure it has – for them. Looking at the finishing order at Dover, you can’t complain if you’re any of those title-contending teams: Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards put together the first 1-2-3 finish for RFR since Homestead in 2005. But while their pit stops have shown significant improvement, you can’t say the same for the No. 26 car and McMurray. But what would you expect? After all, half his crew is spread out all over the rest of the organization.

So at Dover, he lost four spots on pit road two stops in a row – including the last one he made before getting involved in that wreck with Gordon. If you put McMurray’s old pit crew in there, chances are he doesn’t lose those positions… putting him further out in front of Gordon before the No. 7 Dodge lost control.

So, while Sunday was a great day for the sport – you had three guys from the same team battling tooth and nail for the win, putting the whole team orders concept to bed for the time being – taking away resources from non-playoff teams is a dangerous precedent to set. If I’m IRWIN Industrial Tools or Crown Royal, how am I feeling knowing that Roush publicly admitted he took his best people away from a team I’m giving financial support to? That would make me not want to send in my sponsor check for the last 10 races, because heck, why would I send it to someone who hasn’t pledged to put my investment first on his priority list?

People have always wondered whether sponsors will start pulling out of non-Chase teams after race 26, and the more instances like these become public, the higher the chance we’ll see something like that happen not too far down the road.

Did You Notice? No one’s caring so much about the Rookie of the Year program lately? I’m not directing that towards this year’s crop of freshmen, on track to be the worst-performing rookies in NASCAR history. Instead, it’s the fact that more and more, people aren’t subscribing to the series’ rules to preserve drivers’ future ROTY bids. Instead, teams are opting to get their selections the most experience possible while forgetting about competing for the award altogether.

Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose are two of this year’s cases in point. Almirola’s going to be a full-time driver on the circuit for DEI in 2009, and he possesses both the equipment and the talent to make an all-out bid for ROTY. There’s only one problem, though: starting nine of this year’s 28 races, he’s well over the seven-start limit that eliminates him from participating in the program. As for Ambrose, he’ll likely participate in his seventh race this weekend at Kansas, with plans to run a handful more events before the 2008 season is complete.

As a result, both drivers will be in that no man’s land Edwards and David Gilliland have been in recently: first-year full-time drivers on the circuit next year… but not quite rookies. And that’s a shame, because it eliminates the ability for them to participate in one of NASCAR’s most visible competitions, one that has positive ramifications both on and off the track. Here’s what I don’t understand in this economic climate:

With all the attention given to the annual rookie race, why wouldn’t these two guys be restrained appropriately by their car owners so they can sell them as “ROTY contenders” to sponsors for 2009? Just the catch of being involved in a race that guarantees you air time is a little extra incentive for companies to sign on the dotted line – at least, that’s what I would think. But then again, I didn’t study business in college.

Oh well, at least we have Scott Speed. If it wasn’t for him – and his eccentric personality, to boot – Joey Logano would run away with next year’s award in a snoozer.

Did You Notice? That two races in, the only team to have each of their Chase contenders finish in the top 12 in both events was – surprise, surprise – Richard Childress Racing? Currently, drivers Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer occupy the fourth, fifth and sixth positions in the standings, each of them no more than 106 points behind Edwards for the title.

See also
The Yellow Stripe: The Power of 3 - Why Kansas, Talladega and Lowe's Can Make or Break the Chase

So, why don’t I trust RCR can be a championship force? After all, a fired-up Harvick – coming off his eighth consecutive top-10 finish – said, “I really think we still have the momentum to win this thing.” To find out why, let’s check out the laps led so far between the Big Four during the first two races of the Chase:

Roush Fenway Racing – 460 (includes 35 laps led by McMurray at Dover)
Hendrick Motorsports – 230
Joe Gibbs Racing – 4
Richard Childress Racing – 3

OK, so let me get this straight. Two of JGR’s cars spent Dover in the garage, their No. 1 driver and points leader entering the Chase has led zero laps, and Tony Stewart’s been a non-factor – yet they still have more laps led than a team that’s finished 12th or better in every race to date? Right now, RCR’s working off a best-case scenario, and unless they can figure out how to run up front, they’ll remain consistent – consistently on the outside looking in at a title, that is.

Did You Notice? Rick Hendrick’s public comments surrounding Junior’s need to calm down on the radio at Loudon don’t bode well for… Tony Eury Jr.? That’s not just wishful thinking on my part. Even if Junior’s the problem, there’s no way they’re going to get rid of the driver on the No. 88. You crazy? If Hendrick thinks Junior isn’t giving the information he needs to his crew, the only change he can make is to find another head wrench that’s capable of getting it out of him.

To be honest, no one outside of Hendrick expected Junior to win a championship this year anyways. But as one source told me, the way things are going right now they’re concerned about fan reaction – because winning that title could take a little longer than expected. There’s supposedly a great emphasis being placed on the No. 5 car in 2009, as Mark Martin will take his last chance to achieve that long-coveted Sprint Cup title – and Hendrick has supposedly offered him “the best of the best” in order to make sure Martin gets the best opportunity to cash in.

Did You Notice? The severity of Kyle Busch’s points swing? It’s 240 in just two races, folks. That’s a lot. But it also shows you how to never say never in this business. That’s why Alan Kulwicki made up 278 points in six races to secure that 1992 title. Too bad something tells me Busch has nowhere close to that underdog attitude he needs to make up a similar deficit.

See also
That's History Profile: Alan Kulwicki

Did You Notice? How once the dust settled and I really got to thinking about it these last few days, NASCAR’s drug policy is equivalent to public posturing? With no published list of banned substances, heroin could be legal for all we know. But that’s all I’m going to say about that (Note: Shameless self-promotion coming!)… come back tomorrow for Jeff Meyer’s take on the subject.

Did You Notice? Bobby Hamilton Jr. saying he was talking to a Cup team about a ride for next year? With who… the Richard Petty Driving Experience? Seriously, I can’t let that one go. Almost all the open slots for next year are filled, and without a scintillating resume for either the Cup or Nationwide series the last few years, it’s hard for me to chalk up that statement to anything more than a Cup team playing with poor Bobby’s head. His best-case scenario is hoping Rensi gets a sponsor for 2009.

Did You Notice? How my column from last week sucked? Yeah, it really did. I can never really predict the future, but turns out I was dead wrong about AJ Allmendinger and Team Red Bull after all – they’re parting ways, much to my chagrin. Between that, messing up Steve Hallam’s NASCAR future (he’s working with Michael Waltrip, not the sanctioning body itself), and completely missing the boat on Logano’s Sprint Cup equipment, it wasn’t the best of efforts from me.

The way I see it, journalists should be held to the same accountability as the superstars they cover. It’s only fair. So, I apologize for some sloppy reporting and look forward to reverting back to the high standard of factual excellence I look to deliver in each of these columns. It’s a standard you should not only expect from the media, but one that you all deserve.

Until next week.

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.

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