Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Restrictor Plate 1-Hit Wonders & the New Precedent of “Probation”

Did You Notice? Just probation for Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Did you really expect the sanctioning body to do anything more after their little post-race altercation at Phoenix? We already have the U.S. Army spread out in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere across the globe… there’s no need to dispatch an additional battalion to protect Brian France and Co. should they have made the bold, unprecedented move of suspending Earnhardt for aggressive driving – or taking away points that could possibly keep him from Chase-ing with the season he’s had.

Looking back at the past year, probation is the exact same penalty Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart got for their on-track altercation at Daytona last February, as well as what Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch received for their Bristol brouhaha. The new precedent has been set, ladies and gentlemen. The question now is whether more drivers not named Robby Gordon will take advantage of it, understanding that throwing a little temper tantrum now and then won’t put you in position to lose a title.

What’s my take on the whole thing? Thank God. It’s about time some sort of small-scale fireworks ensued on what’s been a dud of a 2009 Cup season to date. It’s just too bad it happened with two drivers who didn’t really have an impact on the final outcome of the race itself.

Did You Notice? This whole ideal this week that since Mark Martin won, that made the bad racing OK? On message boards and fan sites all over the place, people are talking about how boring the racing was this weekend – yet Martin’s win is good enough to sweep all the bad blood under the rug.

See also
Mark Martin Breaks His Winless Streak, Wins 2009 Subway Fresh 500 at Phoenix

To me, that’s a little hypocritical. Look, I appreciate the magnitude of Martin’s win – as I explained in Monday’s article – but you can’t call the sanctioning body out for single-file racing and then proclaim it’s all OK just because a classy driver won. If the racing sucked, it sucked, simple as that. Fans looking to effect permanent change can’t flip-flop based on which driver is in first place.

Personally, I’m in the minority concerning the race at Phoenix, because I thought there was some pretty hefty competition between spots back in the pack. But if you disagree, claiming Martin’s win made the racing acceptable doesn’t make much sense to me.

Did You Notice? The Daytona 500 is less of an indicator of season-long success than ever before? Heading into the second restrictor plate race of the year, no less than six of this year’s top-10 finishers in the Great American Race have yet to better their runs from February (and that’s not including winner Matt Kenseth, who’s tumbled to 12th in points after starting 2009 2-for-2 with victory lane). Desperate for the draft to salvage what’s left of their season, let’s take a look at each of these men who left their mojo down in Florida:

Kevin Harvick
Daytona 500: Second
Best Finish Since: Fourth – Atlanta

As I wrote about a few weeks back, Harvick’s poor start can be attributed in part to a history of poor performances on cookie cutters like Fontana and Texas. Fontana was actually Harvick’s first DNF in over two years – stopping short his quest to pass Herman Beam in that category – and the team really hasn’t seemed to get back on track since.

What’s really appeared to hurt Harvick more than anything lately is his pitiful performance at the short tracks. In three starts in Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix this year the No. 29 has an almost-unthinkable average finish of 23.7 – without many extenuating circumstances other than a set of poor-handling racecars. That’s the epitome of shooting one’s self in the foot during what’s usually RCR’s strongest stretch of the year.

Instead, that disaster’s left the team just 16th in the Sprint Cup standings, 77 points behind Kenseth for the final spot in the Chase. In the meantime, Harvick’s self-owned programs continue to excel, with Harvick finishing fifth in his No. 33 Chevy at Phoenix Friday night to score his third top-five finish in just five Nationwide Series starts this year. He’s also seemed to find a possible home in announcing, critically praised for his role in the ARCA broadcast this Sunday.

But if Talladega leads to a terrible disaster, you wonder if maybe, just maybe, DeLana should go run the shops for a month while Harvick focuses on the ride he’s paid to drive. Michael Waltrip can tell him a thing or two about the consequences of putting too much on your plate and unlike Waltrip, Harvick actually runs the risk of getting fired on the Cup side if he fails.

AJ Allmendinger
Daytona 500: Third
Best Finish Since: Ninth – Martinsville

In some ways, it’s deceiving for the ‘Dinger to make my list, since he’s run well enough to earn himself a contract extension through 2010. That RPM was willing to lock up the open-wheeler without enough sponsorship for a full season (yet) speaks volumes as to how they feel about his potential. But while I do think he’s always been the real deal, it’s notable the man’s had the extra incentive of fighting for a job for oh, about the last 12 months.

Now that Allmendinger’s finally received the stability he seeks, the key is to keep the fire burning and not get too comfortable in an age where far too many are content to settle for 20th place. Finishes of 34th and 35th the past two weeks have made the Chase a long shot at best; now that the ‘Dinger’s shooting for wins and a top-20 points finish, will that be incentive enough to keep his development on track?

Elliott Sadler
Daytona 500: Fifth
Best Finish Since: 20th (twice)

There’s no question Sadler’s looked the worst of these restrictor plate one-hit wonders. He’s been so invisible this year, sometimes I even forget the freaking guy’s on the racetrack. But for this one, it seems the biggest problem appears to be Mother Nature. If the rain had come just one lap earlier, it’d be Sadler, not Kenseth, as your 2009 Daytona 500 winner – and that loss appears to have taken the wind out of this Virginian’s sails.

Of course, let’s not forget this guy needed legal action to put him back behind the driver’s seat this year, too… and that’s bound to mess up team chemistry just a bit. Sadler and RPM look to me like a married couple who’ve gotten back together just because it’d be more of a pain to break up. But marriages of convenience in this sport tend to come with a ticking time bomb attached, and for Sadler, the clock is quickly running out.

David Ragan
Daytona 500: Sixth
Best Finish Since: 17th – Fontana

Who would have guessed that Ragan’d be on this list? Armed with both a high-dollar sponsor and that always tenuous “driver about to have a breakout season” tag attached to his back, the Chase appeared to have already put together a golden throne for this man’s arrival. Hopefully, it won’t be that expensive to make a return, because there’s no way that’s going to happen at this point.

You could count the number of laps Ragan’s led on your thumb, and at 30th in Sprint Cup points he’s already over 220 points out of the Chase. Thank God for Ragan both youth and exuberance are on his side, or Jack Roush would have actually had to stop and think for a minute about whether he should actually release Jamie McMurray after all.

And on a side note, you’ve got to feel just a little sorry for sponsor UPS. The year after they bolt from David Reutimann, Michael Waltrip Racing suddenly rises from the ashes and puts him in position to both win and make the Chase. In over eight seasons of sponsorship in NASCAR, the company has just eight wins – six of which occurred in its first two seasons – and has never had a driver finish higher than fifth in points in its car.

Michael Waltrip
Daytona 500: Seventh
Best Finish Since: 13th – Martinsville

You better believe Waltrip was going to make this list! Since his surprising performance in the Great American Race, the driver/owner’s watched both Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose push forward while his own No. 55 is stuck in reverse. Despite arguably the best crew chief within the whole organization – (“Bootie” Barker), the most money (NAPA), and the most experience, he’s yet to even score another top 10 while plummeting to 25th in points.

One thing about Waltrip you should know, though, is that whole theory he’s only good at plate tracks is actually a bit of a myth. Yeah, his four career wins all came at Daytona and Talladega. But since 2002, Waltrip has just eight of his 42 top-10 finishes at those two tracks, and he actually has run more consistently at Michigan and a handful of other speedways.

Oh, well… according to Robby Gordon, Waltrip’s strengths and weaknesses won’t really matter by Feb. 2010, anyways. Forget about the Jayski; I’m getting all my Silly Season news from Gordon from now on.

Reed Sorenson
Daytona 500: Ninth
Best Finish Since: 12th – Phoenix

Is it just me, or is it appropriate considering how poorly the No. 43 has run in recent years the worst of RPM’s four-driver fleet is assigned to that car? In the past year and a half, Sorenson has come up with just three top-10 finishes… and two of them have occurred at restrictor-plate tracks. How running well at four races gives you a ride for all 36 is beyond me… but at this point, that’s the only consistent success the Georgia driver has on his resume. For his sake, let’s hope full-season sponsorship for Allmendinger comes through… because you gotta believe he’s the one most likely to get canned if it doesn’t.

So there you have it, folks: Six drivers who started the Daytona 500 with a bang that have fizzled ever since. Combined, they’ve scored just two other top-10 finishes in 42 starts this season – but the crapshoot that is restrictor plate racing gives them a chance to contend three more times this year.

Looks like they better make the most of it.

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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