Did You Notice? Something during the rain-delayed ESPN broadcast that caught my attention? Kevin Harvick was being interviewed in the studio, and while the group was chatting the topic changed to driver development. All of a sudden, Harvick took a serious tone and started talking about defunct series like NASCAR’s Winter Heat, offseason racing televised on the major networks where drivers like himself, Greg Biffle and others were “discovered” by owners in NASCAR’s top-three series.
Of course, there isn’t any type of special series like that anymore that’s on a major TV network on a regular basis. So Harvick took the opportunity to preach his own homily, pleading with both television and the powers at be with NASCAR to change it.
Now, Harvick is the type of guy that spouts his mouth off about everything and anything he gets a chance to. But on this particular topic, he’s right. While it should be NASCAR’s responsibility, not the networks, to resuscitate those types of series, something needs to be done to get some independent driver development established so car owners can have some in-house talent to choose from rather than reaching from other forms of racing to replace aging veterans.
I hear you muttering to yourself over there… you say the Nationwide Series is the perfect proving ground? Not when Cup drivers jump over and win almost all the races in that division each year. And over on the Truck side, while the series continues to gain popularity, it’s looked at as more of a Senior Tour in which former Cup drivers Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine and Ron Hornaday Jr. do battle with a couple of guys in Rick Crawford and Matt Crafton who just were never in the right place at the right time to get there.
It’s a unique mix that continues to gain traction with a stock car audience, but with the exception of a few guys (Brian Scott, Tayler Malsam, Colin Braun) that’s no longer the Truck Series’ bread and butter.
A look at the past three NASCAR rookie classes shows you how bad the “farm system” has gotten. Here’s a list of rookies from 2007, 2008 and this year:
2007 – AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, David Ragan, David Reutimann
2008 – Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Michael McDowell, Regan Smith, Jacques Villeneuve
2009 – Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Max Papis, Scott Speed
That’s a roughly 50/50 mix of drivers from stock car backgrounds versus those who came up through NASCAR’s “minor-league” system. But check this out: of the seven drivers with a stock car background, only THREE (Keselowski, Menard and Reutimann) had a full season or more under the belt in NASCAR’s Nationwide or Truck series before making the switch. In essence, the other five were “thrown into the fire” with just a handful of starts.
Since these drivers aren’t being given much time to prove their worth, it makes their jump up to Cup a total crapshoot… which is why it’s not surprising that for every Logano, there’s been a McDowell who clearly needed more development time in a Nationwide or Truck before being given a top-level opportunity. But if there was a stable farm system with owners having both the patience and money to keep these guys for a couple of years before moving up to Cup, then there wouldn’t be as much pressure for them to make a move so quickly before it’s too late.
How do you fix it? I think the Nationwide Series is the answer, but the sport must do more to both cut costs and kick out Cup drivers who are absolutely running roughshod over the competition. A CoT that looks nothing like the Cup design is a step in the right direction, as the Cup guys are discovering already what they learn on Saturday doesn’t translate so well to Sunday when the cars are totally different. But as I’ve said before in this space, encouraging diversity in ownership would also help.
The more separation there is between Cup and Nationwide, the more owners there are looking for drivers outside their current sphere of influence to move up to at least a second-tier level. Right now, if you don’t sign with Roush, Hendrick or Gibbs as a development driver you’re dead in the water… and if you do sign with them, how are you going to get anywhere? As we are seeing with Mr. Keselowski at the Cup level, these owners are so filled up with drivers on their own roster they don’t have any room at the inn.
New owners and their new blood are the answer to that problem. Having successful Nationwide owners whose primary responsibility is success in that series, with drivers dedicated to that series alone, can provide a place for these young drivers to nestle and develop. But of course, Harvick already knows about that division… he’s busy running his own team with himself as the driver in a majority of races. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
As for a resumption of the Winter Heat Series, again it’s a great idea that would lead to plenty of other drivers being “discovered” at a stock car racing level. But once again, you need to entice new ownership to enter the sport and cut costs associated with running the cars under this economy. I ask again… where are the new owners? Do you see them? Because I don’t.
Did You Notice? How Logano’s personality finally showed signs of growth this weekend? I knew we were keeping Robby Gordon in NASCAR for something.
Seriously, the sport’s biggest instigator finally instigated the largest display of emotion yet from a kid who’s still finding his way less than one year after entering NASCAR’s top series. After a series of beating and banging that lasted over a handful of laps, Gordon unceremoniously dumped Logano right into the wall in turn 9 after the Cup rookie made inadvertent contact with Tony Raines to cause a caution. The resulting wreck left Logano’s No. 20 a pile of mush, leaving the 19-year-old scrambling to exit a car that caught fire while Gordon was left not just unscathed, but rewarded with the free pass that got him back on the lead lap.
Considering he once had a car capable of running in the top five, you can imagine the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wasn’t exactly thrilled to be heading back early attached to a wrecker. So when questioned by an ESPN reporter shortly afterwards, suddenly the robotic, vanilla, nice-guy attitude programmed into him at an early age by sponsors, car owners and so many others finally was replaced by a hint of flavor we hadn’t yet seen before.
“You can’t fix stupid,” he said. “It’s forever. You put that in your memory bank.”
To be fair, if NASCAR had any shred of consistency they would have penalized Gordon for making a move at a section of track that produced a handful of scary incidents this weekend, each of which jeopardized a driver’s safety. But while a penalty for that type of thing is a different argument altogether, it was refreshing to know that contrary to popular belief, NASCAR’s newest rookie actually can get mad. And as the sport’s newest star slowly gets more comfortable in his own skin, I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more than the generic sponsor drivel his generation is known for. At least, we can hope.
Did You Notice? That while road courses may not be a part of the Chase, there’s a handful of drivers who can blame them for taking a right turn straight out of the playoffs? Here’s a look at the points totals from Infineon and Watkins Glen for our Chase bubble drivers (seventh through 15th in the standings):
Of course, the big surprise stands out as Kahne, who pulled a surprise victory at Infineon before being Hornish Jr.’s personal spinning partner at Watkins Glen. Montoya also used his specialty to solidify a spot in the top 12, not surprising despite the fact his aggression and hunger to go for the win has sometimes tripped him up in the past (see: Harvick-Montoya catfight, 2007).
An even bigger disappointment is Martin, who hadn’t run on a road course since 2006 in the Cup Series but is certainly no slouch (he once won three consecutive races at the Glen back in the mid-1990s). Too close for comfort when it comes to the Chase despite a series-leading four wins, Martin is giving up close to 100 points – if not more – to Kyle Busch, Bowyer and Vickers behind him in these two races alone. Without that differential, he’d be nearly 200 points ahead of 13th and all but punching his playoff ticket at this point.
What was the problem with Martin’s cars? Well, turns out all of Hendrick Motorsports not named Jeff Gordon tends to struggle on road courses. Jimmie Johnson has never scored a road-course win and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has yet to even finish in the top 10 in four starts behind the wheel of the No. 88. Even Casey Mears and Vickers – former Hendrick drivers – had just one top-five finish between them in about a dozen road-course attempts behind the wheel of HMS’s top-level equipment.
Only Gordon has been the exception to the rule, but even he hasn’t figured out the intricacies of road racing in the CoT; his last win on that type of track came at Infineon way back in 2006.
Looks like we finally found a way to stop Hendrick’s dominance of the Cup Series, huh? Add Infineon or the Glen to the Chase in 2010 – or even a course like Mid-Ohio in place of the struggling Auto Club Speedway – and perhaps everyone else not named Johnson might stand a chance.
Did You Notice? Ford’s new engine is rumored to pop up at Michigan this weekend? There’s no other perfect place for it to make its debut, as MIS has been Ford’s personal playground through the years. But in all seriousness, this is a critical weekend for the manufacturer more than any other. With short tracks like Bristol and Richmond not Roush Fenway’s forte, Kenseth, Biffle and yes – even Carl Edwards – want to make sure they cash in with top-five finishes to give them some breathing room in case they trip up a bit down the stretch.
By the way, it’s now been a stretch of 20 Cup races since a Ford last visited victory lane. Wanna guess the last time that happened?
You have to go all the way back to when Buicks dominated the sport for a brief time in the early 1980s. Winning just twice in 1982, Ford had a 33-race winless streak snapped by Buddy Baker at Daytona in July 1983. Baker was behind the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, scoring what was his final Cup Series victory in a career that spanned parts of four decades.
Well, guess who’s entered in Michigan this weekend? The winningest active driver at the track, Bill Elliott, behind the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. And at 53, the former champ is looking for one last win before he retires, leaving behind a career that’s spanned parts of four decades.
Would make one heck of a cool story, huh? Hey, a guy can dream.
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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.