Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Admirable NASCAR Underdogs, The Power of Motivation & Chase Boredom… Already

Did You Notice? The stars of Speedweeks so far (with the exception of Mark Martin) have been drivers with something to prove?

After a miserable 2009 that ended with an all-but-public pronouncement he’s leaving RCR after 2010, Kevin Harvick won the Bud Shootout, with fellow free-agent-to-be Kasey Kahne right behind him in second. Jamie McMurray, who was dumped by Roush and signed a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi that’s “make or break” for his career – finished third. That followed a pole qualifying session where Dale Earnhardt Jr. began his “Recovery 2010” tour by putting himself on the outside of the front row.

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Get the picture? As Denny Hamlin told us today, “Daytona means nothing as far as the season is concerned. We’ve seen that in years past. The top five typically finishing [there] are not your typical top five week-in and week-out.”

Why is there such a disconnect? Because of the parity combined with the uniqueness of restrictor-plate racing, today’s “championship first” mentality for the big teams has diluted the value of a 500 win. But while guys like Hamlin or Jimmie Johnson are taking more of a “big picture” approach, there are longshots and others with a chip on their shoulder for whom a 500 win would clearly be the highlight of their season.

With that in mind, keep an eye on teams that might not necessarily contend for the championship. All the RCR cars, for example, have been lightning quick this week according to garage observers – all of them looking to make a statement one year after missing the Chase. Kahne’s also been consistently quick and I observed Ray Evernham debriefing with him in the garage area in between television work for ESPN. Is a little tip or two from Kahne’s former mentor what he needs for Sunday success? We’ll wait and see… but one thing I don’t see right now is your typical Jeff Gordon-type 500 winner.

Did You Notice? Speaking of Gordon, the Hendrick cars aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire in the draft? By the time you read this piece, success in the Duels may have snuffed out these concerns before they begin. But in two practices Wednesday (Feb. 10), the fastest Hendrick-supported car was Ryan Newman in 11th (first practice).

As far as strictly Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson bested all comers at 17th – before his primary car was wiped out in a four-car crash. Add in some subpar runs in the Shootout, where all six Hendrick cars failed to finish in the top five, and questions remain on whether the pure qualifying speed will translate into race setup once those Goodyear tires start to wear.

You’d like to think a team that finished 1-2-3 in the points last year would get this thing figured out – but remember what Denny said about Daytona above? Maybe it applies to Hendrick here. Considering I actually got a chance to look at Johnson’s car in the garage area and the damage was 0.5 on a scale from 1 to 10, you wonder if Chad Knaus almost wanted to go to the backup car to try something different.

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It’s that type of outside-the-box thinking that puts the No. 48 in constant position to contend – so it wouldn’t surprise me if they throw the book at this new car during the Duels just to see what happens.

Did You Notice? All these second cars for underfunded teams entered in the Gatorade Duels today? A lot of people are scratching their heads, wondering why these guys with junk equipment would even try and squeeze in one of the seven open spots on the grid.

There’s certainly an emotional side to it all, as we’ll investigate throughout the Duels. But for the owners pushing their crews to work overtime, there’s a financial incentive as well.

Just follow me here. Over a 60-lap, 150-mile race, the tires will hold up the full distance. That means you only need one crew to pit two cars – especially if they’re in two separate races – with a pit stop for fuel with car No. 2. Add in a minimal cost for running an engine just one-quarter of its usual distance and it’s a no brainer to trot that second car out.

Yes, both cars could wreck – even if the second one stays at the tail end of the draft, not trying to make the field unless there’s carnage in front of them – but with minimal risk comes great reward. Last place in the Duel gives the team an extra $19,000, and if they somehow get two cars in the race, the final payday could be over $400K if they get it right. It’s the type of profit that could put you in position to run a few races the distance with a primary car, just to see if you could sneak in the Top 35 – and for all these aspiring full-time owners, that’s a heck of a gamble worth taking.

Did You Notice? Speaking of small-time owners looking to live the dream, these Duels have a history of producing at least one darkhorse for the 500. Last year, we had Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs, the year before Kenny Wallace in a second Furniture Row car… the list could go on and on.

Who’s the best chance to assume the role this year? Let’s quickly break down both Duels to see:

Duel #1: Reed Sorenson. Not exactly with a small-time team (Nationwide powerhouse Braun Racing is starting up a limited Cup program), Sorenson fits the profile of a man with something to prove. He’s got a strong Toyota engine under the hood, and is typically known for being a good plate racer (his lone top-10 finish last year occurred in the Daytona 500). Add in a weak field – just three or four drivers stand a chance of competing for two spots – and I could easily see him sneaking in over former Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip.

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Reed Sorenson Needs Wins to Escape NASCAR Purgatory

Duel #2: Casey Mears and Aric Almirola. Talk about two guys fighting for their Cup careers. Mears has gone from the cushiness of Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing to running with unsponsored, underfunded Keyed-Up Motorsports for the first five races of 2010. As for race six and beyond… if they don’t find some money, there won’t be a race six. For a guy who knows how to work the draft (remember, he was runner-up in the 2006 500), that’s more than enough motivation to succeed.

As for Almirola, his team (Phoenix Racing) is fighting for their lives after an Indian election of all things cost owner James Finch primary sponsorship of his Cup and Nationwide cars. Almirola has a fallback – he’s running the No. 51 truck full-time for Billy Ballew and sponsor Graceway Pharmaceuticals – but he’d certainly like to keep his Cup gig on the side as well. To do that, they’ll need to make the 500 and woo potential sponsors, something Almirola’s more than capable of doing – after all, he made the race through the Duels last season.

Scott Speed and Bobby Labonte are the “cars to beat” in this race, but like Duel No. 1 there’s issues for both. Labonte has the past champion’s provisional and can fall back on speed, while Speed has a habit of speeding into the outside wall on occasion.

So where does that leave us with these predictions? Your eight guys making the field are Joe Nemechek, Bill Elliott, Speed, Labonte, Sorenson, Mears, Almirola and… Waltrip. Yup, you can’t get rid of him no matter how hard you try.

Did You Notice? NASCAR’s “Boys Be Boys” philosophy has absolutely no effect on the championship Chase? Wednesday, I asked Hamlin how important it was to make a statement the first few races, to back up claims he’s the best bet to unseat Johnson come Homestead in November.

His response?

“I don’t think anyone should look at us until September, to be honest with you. We’re going to have somewhat of a judgment on where we’re at five or six races in, but it’s not going to define who we are until we get to August and September when we start turning the heat up.”

Hmm… I feel like I’ve heard that philosophy before. I’ll give you a hint: common synonyms to describe him range from “boring” to “dominant” to “formulaic.”

Did you say Johnson! And you’re still reading? Good for you! But like it or not, four straight titles has everyone willing to copycat his formula of virtual indifference until mid-July. If you win a race, great, but otherwise it’s all about putting yourself in position to make the playoffs, the regular season a mere blip on the radar screen compared to the final 10 races nobody’s watching.

It’s a systemic problem you can’t correct through a simple lecture from NASCAR to loosen up and relax. And that’s why I’m beginning to think if they really want to listen to the fans, the Chase might wind up on the chopping block here before we’re all said and done.

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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