Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Earnhardt’s Free Pass, Busch’s Less Than Intimidating Nature & Mourning NASCAR’s Past

Did You Notice? Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s been getting rather “lucky” these days? Just 19th in points after five races, so much talk has centered around the No. 88 team struggling to get it together. Some feel like they’ve turned the corner towards respectability in recent weeks, but I’m not so sure. Just check out this list of Free Pass totals so far this season:

2009 Free Pass Chart Through Bristol

Car # Driver Free Passes Used Number Of Races Used
88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 6 4
9 Kasey Kahne 2 2
29 Kevin Harvick 2 2
34 John Andretti 2 2
77 Sam Hornish Jr. 2 2
09 Sterling Marlin 2 1
71 David Gilliland 2 1

Note: 17 drivers tied with 1

Those numbers for Earnhardt are staggering, not just in total number of passes but races used. He has needed help to maintain a lead-lap finish in all but one race this season and that was at California, a track that left his Chevy sitting in the garage with engine failure. At the other four races, Earnhardt has struggled to move up significantly after getting back on the lead lap.

Take Atlanta, for example. Two free passes kept Earnhardt hanging on as the last lead lap runner in 11th, competing in a car that was running at or near the back of the pack following every restart. Without Earnhardt using the free pass twice that weekend, you’re looking at him dropping another 8-10 spots in the final results.

Both driver and team faced a similar story at Las Vegas and Bristol. Vegas was Junior’s best performance; he charged to 10th after getting his lap back during the fifth caution period on lap 96. At Thunder Valley, he was about a top-15 car the entire race, using the Lucky Dog twice and winding up 14th, ahead of only Carl Edwards and AJ Allmendinger on the lead lap.

You get the picture by this point; Junior’s needed help to get put in position to finish even as high as he has. And whatever you think the problem is, the facts speak volumes for a four-car Hendrick organization that prides itself on a top-five finish being a disappointment. Junior hasn’t even had one of those since Martinsville last fall, where he wound up second to Jimmie Johnson; and at this point, it’s been over eight months since he was the top-performing HMS car in a race (Coke Zero 400 – July 2008).

Did You Notice? Kyle Busch seems to be distancing himself from comparisons to the Intimidator these days? His whole tirade in the Nationwide Series Saturday reminded me of a race in the fall of 2000 at Talladega, the site of Dale Earnhardt’s last career win. That was one of the most ridiculous finishes to a race I’ve ever seen, one where Earnhardt came from 18th to first in just four laps in order to take the checkered flag.

Busch has no problem being a team player… when things go his way.

See also
Voices From the Heartland: Will the Real Kyle Busch Please Stand Up!

I thought of that because of the circumstances surrounding the win. If Earnhardt didn’t take tires under the race’s final caution on lap 167, he probably would have been up front and needn’t have had to worry about working through the pack. With that in mind, what if Earnhardt’s comeback just didn’t work out? What if he finished fifth and couldn’t make it all the way back to the front (remember, he was also in championship contention at the time, trying to catch Bobby Labonte on top of the Cup Series standings)? Would he have gotten out of his car, screamed at his crew chief and blamed his team for putting him back in traffic?

Honestly, I just don’t think that would ever happen. For as much of a villain as Earnhardt could be on the racetrack, I just never remember him publicly chastising the hand that fed him. Sure, NASCAR would get a bunch of expletives every once in a while if things didn’t go his way, but car owner Richard Childress? Or crew chiefs Larry McReynolds, Andy Petree, Kirk Shelmerdine and the like? Rare was the day the Intimidator would intimidate the men who helped make his car go fast.

And that’s what I think puts Kyle in a different type of category. Sure, his pit crew messed up in what amounted to a big mistake in Saturday’s race. Without it, Busch would have very well come through with a weekend sweep. But screaming, “YOU SUCK!” to your pit crew on the scanner after that tire penalty? Really?

Rivalries amongst drivers play out really well amongst this fanbase. We want to see Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Harvick go at it, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch trade barbs… it’s what helps humanize the sport in an age of political correctness. Even a driver versus NASCAR feud plays out well, often taking on a good vs. evil mentality. But a driver going against his own team? Fans usually look at that one and scoff in disgust.

Looking up at what I just wrote, there’s a little touch of irony going on in NASCAR right now. Its most popular driver is struggling to remain successful, while its most successful driver also remains one of its least popular. And people say this sport is scripted. NASCAR wishes the whole thing was scripted right about now.

Did You Notice? That despite a multitude of side-by-side action at Bristol, there were just 13 lead changes, and five under green-flag conditions? Since the track was repaved in mid-2007, the track is averaging just 11.5 lead changes per race, down from an average of 15 in the races held earlier this decade (2000-07).

That’s part of the reason a lot of fans just can’t warm up to the new Bristol; there’s a heck of a lot of passing, but none of it ever seems to occur up front. While that was a problem which began here before both the Car of Tomorrow and the repave, the fact remains that it’s harder than ever to pass for the lead at Bristol.

See also
Full Throttle: Bristol and the New Car Not Pleasing the Casual Fan

Now, there are plenty of people who defend the new style of racing in Thunder Valley, but the trend seems to steer towards plenty more who dislike it. As for me? I’ve gone from a one-time staunch defender to someone who misses the old racing after all. I think every track has something which defines their character; and for Bristol, it was the beating, the banging and yes, the wrecks.

And that’s not because the fans loved the carnage, they loved the emotion that came with it. Bristol used to be the one place in this politically correct world where true feelings amongst drivers shined through. Now, everyone gets to leave with a smile on their face and a three-sentence sponsor mention for the cameras.

Yeah, I hear those track supporters loud and clear: the side-by-side racing throughout the pack is great. But as I said on a radio show Monday night, the type of action we see now there is the type fans would like to see at a Charlotte, a Michigan, one of these 1.5-mile or 2-mile cookie cutters that often turn into single-file parades.

At the old Bristol, it was all about pushing and shoving someone to get your way – the one place where single-file was not only acceptable, it was a necessity in order to get around the track in one piece. Not having a second groove there was a testament to how aggressively you had to drive it just to stay in control. Now it all just seems so tame.

Did You Notice? That in the wake of Yates Racing closing the No. 28, the No. 8 car over at DEI could be the next legendary car number to bite the dust? If Aric Almirola doesn’t step it up within the next two weeks, that car will either suspend operations or be turned over to another driver with sponsorship (JJ Yeley has been rumored but I have yet to get that confirmed).

That means, in the matter of just six months we’ll have lost the numbers 8, 21 and 28 from full-time competition, along with an ownership change at the 43 which will never leave that car quite the same. Where has all the history gone? It’s a double-edged sword around the sport these days. Both NASCAR’s past and future are disappearing at exactly the same time. And that’s one heck of a sucky situation for the present day.

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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