Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? What Jimmie Johnson’s Hiding, Why Patience for NASCAR Owners Pays Off & Driver Depression

Did You Notice? During a garage walkthrough on Friday, the newest edition to Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 cloak of secrecy? It was a dark-blue drape placed over his stall inside the garage area, meaning no one walking by could see what they were doing to set up the car. In the team’s defense, the forecast called for rain to hit later on that afternoon. But at the time I did my little garage walk – 11:00 a.m. – all other cars were in plain view on a cloudy but otherwise precipitation-free day.

This latest incident adds to a reputation for this team being a little overprotective about their equipment. Don’t believe me? The next time you’ve got a hot pass, walk a little too close to the Lowe’s Chevrolet while they’re looking under the hood and see what happens. To a certain degree, I do understand the right for Johnson & Co. to protect from copycats stealing their innovative ideas. After all, last time I checked stock car racing was supposed to be a competition, wasn’t it?

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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Hate the No. 48? It's Totally Undeserved

But the other side to this story is how often and how extensive Chad Knaus’s list of violating Sprint Cup rules has been. It would be one thing if the No. 48 car had never been caught doing anything wrong; but Knaus is always one that’s pushing the NASCAR envelope. Sure, any of his “gray area” changes should, and ideally will, be caught in the official inspection line. But wouldn’t you want to keep a much closer eye on a team that’s been known to cross the line in the past? That seems pretty logical to me, and there’s no way to do that with a drape protecting the car from public view.

Did You Notice? How patience seems to still pay off in the long run? So often these days, Cup teams let their drivers go without giving them a full chance to develop. Between impatience amongst sponsors coupled with the pressure of media expectations, it’s pretty hard to leave a guy in a ride for two, maybe even three years.

But perhaps AJ Allmendinger will become the classic case for promoting long-term growth over pulling the trigger too quickly. They released the former open-wheel star over at Team Red Bull after just a season and a half in the Cup Series (and limited time in stock cars prior to that). Even though the ‘Dinger had begun to turn things around last summer – scoring two top 10s and seven top 20s over a three-month period – it just wasn’t enough for the powers that be to offer him a long-term deal.

But just look what’s happened to the team ever since. New driver Scott Speed is just another rookie, one armed with so little experience it’s been equivalent to TRB starting from scratch. Speed’s yet to score a top-20 finish this year and is languishing outside the Top 35 in owner points, slotting in second in the rookie race to Joey Logano. Meanwhile, Allmendinger’s taken a part-time ride in Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 44 to two top-10 finishes and is jumping up to the fringes of Chase contention in 15th. You can even make an outside argument he’s become as competitive as TRB’s number one operation, the No. 83 car driven by Brian Vickers.

Of course, if TRB had only renewed its faith in developing the former Champ Car star just one more season, it’d have two cars looking to make the Chase right now instead of one simply trying to keep from qualifying for races on speed. But as NASCAR desperately searches for new stars throughout its top-three series, it’s a lesson learned to be careful to throw away potential talent before giving them a long-term chance in the seat.

Did You Notice? Sports is as much mental as it is physical? That’s all I could think of after analyzing Denny Hamlin’s post-race comments following the race at Martinsville. Yes, Hamlin’s one hell of a classy guy, but where’s the fire? Instead of being all fired up, Joe Gibbs’s “veteran” wheelman was acting like someone who absolutely expected to lose.

See also
Jimmie Johnson, Martinsville Prove It's the Drivers That Have Changed - Not the Racing

In one sense, I don’t blame him; after all, this was a guy on his way to one of the most dominating performances in Sprint Cup history last May, leading 381 of 382 laps at Richmond before a blown tire robbed him of a win at his hometown track. It seems like Hamlin hasn’t been the same since, and you’ve got to wonder what it’s going to take to change that mentality before seven, eight, even nine wins ultimately slip through his grasp.

I will say this in Hamlin’s defense, though: he’s not alone in terms of drivers who often need a Prozac instead of a chill pill after races. Here’s a look at a few other “Charlie Browns” on the Cup circuit these days:

Matt Kenseth: The only driver I know who takes a fourth-place finish as hard as a death in the family. This man can make Eeyore of the Hundred Acre Wood look chipper.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: On the radio and out of the spotlight, he’s willing to call Tony Eury Jr. every name in the book when things go wrong. But when the cameras start rolling and the mics are in place? Junior simply struggles to put on any sort of happy face.

Casey Mears: I guess if you finish 20th every week, well, there’s nothing to get excited about, is there?

Mark Martin: If I finished runner-up in the title chase four times, I’d expect bad luck to happen to me, too. At least Martin has turned around his depression in recent years; now, even a blown engine in 43rd leaves him “Happy to just be a part of this A-B-C-D sponsored Chevrolet on my fourth-aborted Salute To You Tour!”

Did You Notice? How silly it is for the Nationwide Series teams to hit the track this Thursday? At Texas, they’ve always had a schedule in April that spreads out over four days – not three.

Honestly, the schedule in my mind makes no sense. I can understand spreading out the track time in Charlotte, home base for 90% of the teams and drivers on the circuit – not to mention SPEED network television. But to do it in Fort Worth, where the sole consequence is causing teams and drivers to spend an extra night on a hotel room in this tough economy? And they’re not the only people that lose out on this deal, either. Because no one in television production hits the track until Friday, Nationwide qualifying won’t be televised by SPEED, leaving NNS fans in the dark and forced to rely on internet updates to figure out who won the pole.

Taking a deeper look at this, I just don’t understand why Eddie Gossage didn’t revise the schedule this year. I guess he’s looking at making more revenue by getting additional fans to come to the track on Thursday; but honestly, who in their right mind has the discretionary spending right now to make it a four-day trip to the track instead of three? For 2010, I think it’s time to change this anomaly for good.

Did You Notice? Some short-track aces tripped up big during the two-week swing at Bristol and Martinsville? I know it’s still early, but for guys I consider to be right on the “Chase Bubble” come August and September, these are the types of missed opportunities they’ll look back on should they miss the playoffs. Here’s a quick look at some specialists who really struggled to keep up:

Kurt Busch: The winningest Bristol driver this decade wound up 11th at Thunder Valley, then followed it up with an 18th-place clunker at Martinsville – with zero laps led in both races. Not exactly what you’d expect from a guy who came into this swing with solid momentum from an Atlanta win.

Kevin Harvick: Harvick finished 30th at Bristol (wrecked) and 11th at Martinsville for an average finish of just 20.5. And I thought the short tracks were RCR’s bread and butter….

Jeff Burton: Eighth and 15th over the last two weeks really isn’t all that terrible. But when you realize Burton was first and third during this same stretch in 2008, well, you realize that the No. 31 is not exactly clicking on all eight cylinders as of late.

Did You Notice? The UConn Huskies in the Final Four? Sorry, I know it’s not NASCAR-related, but I had to give a shout out to my home state after a dominating NCAA Tourney performance. There’s more to our state than just the great racing at Stafford Springs and Thompson Speedway!

Now, if only they could tell their secrets of success to Logano.

Don’t forget about Tom Bowles and Matt Taliaferro’s Athlon/Frontstretch Podcast, sponsored this season by Wrigley’s! You can always listen to us on iTunes for FREE! Search for our weekly show under “Athlon.”

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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