Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Party Crashers in NASCAR’s Top 12 – Here to Stay or a Flash in the Pan?

The first few weeks of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season have done much to fuel speculation of whether some different teams and new faces that are currently in the top 12 in points can stay there. The next few weeks will prove pivotal in determining whether teams that were once thought a lock to make the Chase can do so, or if they will continue to flail and flounder, while other opportunistic new comers – and some long dormant veterans – can make a charge to contend for races and a title in 2009.

While the mighty have fallen more than once so far this year, there have been more than a few standing by, willing, ready and able to take advantage of the situation. Let’s take a look at a few of the big surprises so far this year:

David Reutimann: After getting turned around going forward in a straight line by Reutimann during their Gatorade Duel race, Ryan Newman said that the driver’s last name was appropriate, as he’d “Root-a-man up out of the way” to get position on him. Well, here “Root-a-man” is, rooting up long-established veterans and teams out of the top five in points in his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.

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Bowles-Eye View: David Reutimann Proving Old Guys and Big Dreams Can Still Come Together in Cup

The car that was always the lone bright spot at MWR, even during the dark days of 2007, has achieved a fifth-place points standing through poise, precision and audacity – to which he will add resolve. And if you think I got that from “The Rock,” you are very, very wrong.

The No. 00 team played its cards right at Daytona to snag a 12th-place finish and backed that up with a 14th-place run at California, capitalizing on the misfortunes suffered by others late in the going. The team then elevated to fifth in the standings with a stellar fourth-place effort at Las Vegas. It’s clear a safe spot in the Top 35 for the first time to start the year is paying dividends for a team who’s spent far too much time worrying about Fridays in the past.

Now, the driver who has been a visibly nervous wreck during qualifying the past two seasons can finally relax and concentrate on race setup, not just running one fast lap to make the show.

Reutimann stands to continue to gain ground and solidify his points position in the coming weeks. While there isn’t a whole lot of past performance from him to go off of in the Sprint Cup Series, he has run competitively at each of these tracks in his similarly prepared MWR Nationwide Series machines. Atlanta and Texas are big-horsepower tracks that mimic California and Las Vegas in that regard.

To his credit, he runs them well, managing to stay out of trouble while keeping the fenders on the car – making another batch of top 15s a distinct possibility. Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix, however, have traditionally been 20-25th place for the No. 00 team recently – so those remain wild cards.

Verdict: 2009’s feel-good success story stands a good chance of upsetting the pecking order in the top 12.

Bobby Labonte: The fact that one of the most dominant drivers of the late 1990s and the winner of the 2000 Winston Cup was out of a ride just a month before the Daytona 500 is nearly unthinkable. But after Petty Enterprises was bought by Gillett Evernham Motorsports and then morphed into Richard Petty Motorsports (sans Ray Evernham and Kyle Petty), Labonte found himself on the sidelines. His sponsor had jumped ship to Richard Childress Racing, while Dale Earnhardt Inc. was courting him along with Chip Ganassi Racing – once the two teams merged into one.

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Side by Side: Who's a Chase Pretender - Bobby Labonte or Michael Waltrip?

However, Labonte did not take the bait; instead, much as he did in 2004 after departing Joe Gibbs Racing to join the team formerly known as Petty Enterprises, the veteran headed to an even smaller operation: Hall of Fame Racing. HoF had recently merged with Yates Racing, and the No. 96 car was now a Ford with a vacant seat that needed to be filled, ASAP.

Sorted out all that confusion yet? Yeah, me neither. But with Ask.com on the hood and a bevy of questionable commercials in tow, Labonte’s white Fusion has clung to 10th in points by staying out of trouble and finishing with all the fenders and tires intact; that’s something that car had been incapable of doing in recent years. Credit the driver, for sure: Labonte has always been one of the smartest and most prudent pilots on the track, preserving his equipment and never asking more of the machine than it is prepared to give.

The team itself, however, should not be overlooked. They have qualified 12th, 16th and 17th so far this year, and gave Labonte a car he could wheel to a top five at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday afternoon.

Verdict: Labonte used to flat-out own Atlanta while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, and with Roush-Yates power under foot, he could make up further ground this weekend. Keep in mind that this is still a small team with limited funding, though. Their time towards the top could be short-lived.

Michael Waltrip: It was but a couple of months ago that Waltrip was thinking aloud, pondering his retirement from the sport he has been such a presence in for over 20 seasons. Things haven’t been exactly smooth for Mikey the last few years. A very public driving incident on a very public road put him on the wrong side of the spotlight in ’07, culminating with his venture into ownership being nothing short of an unmitigated disaster – the magnitude of which has not been seen since the Hindenburg went up like a tinderbox in New Jersey.

While the highlight last season for this group was teammate Michael McDowell’s death-defying tumble during qualifying at Texas, many wondered if this would indeed be Waltrip’s last season as a driver. And Michael was one of that many. Enduring a marital separation as well as a fleet of struggling racecars, few would fault him if he decided to hang it up and spend more time in the booth – where he is a natural with a microphone.

Well, hold on a second here. To quote his older brother after a particularly strong run in 1998 towards the end of his career, “I was in a pretty deep hole and they were throwin’ dirt on me, but I’m crawling back out.”

With highly regarded crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker atop the war wagon, Waltrip is currently 12th in points, and could be higher minus spinning out unassisted on lap 163 at Las Vegas. It stymied the momentum of a seventh-place run at Daytona and a decent 15th-place showing at California. He battled back to a 27th-place result on Sunday; but had Waltrip maintained his position during the time of his accident, he would likely occupy Tony Stewart’s seventh-place points standing.

Whatever you want to call this sudden burst of productivity, it is welcomed medicine for a man who has endured his fair share of suffering the last few seasons.

Verdict: Well-earned, but likely short lived. Let’s face it, Michael has still only been able to win points races on restrictor-plate tracks, and there isn’t another one of those until April.

While these teams have run well, one of the prime contributions of their successes has been the result of the glaring failures of some very prominent teams. Chief among these are the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. Poor pit strategy coupled with engine failures and wrecks have left the Nos. 48, 88 and 5 buried in 19th, 29th and 34th in points, respectively. Meanwhile, Jeff Burton and Brian Vickers continue to make large strides up the standings, and even Kasey Kahne is starting to show signs of life after inauspicious 2007 and ’08 seasons.

The stay at the top for this surprising trio may be short lived – but it could also be well-earned. Success in motorsports can be slow in coming, and if there is ever a series where baby steps need to be the measuring stick for growth, it is the Sprint Cup Series. The margin of error has always been razor thin, but now it has been taken to new heights (or thinness) when the difference between winning a race and blowing an engine in practice has been reduced to the weight of the oil coursing through an engine’s galleys.

These three teams might not be here in the top 12 following the 26th and final regular-season race at Richmond, but it will be interesting to see if they have what it takes to maintain their current positions – and make some of the larger teams they are up against work that much harder to beat them.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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