Whenever a high-profile driver changes teams, much is made of how well he will perform at his new digs. Either he will finally realize his long-stifled talent, or there’s going to be some struggles while the new team “gets back on track” with the help of his leadership in the garage.
It seemed like the motorsports press in general couldn’t make up its mind with Kasey Kahne’s recent move to Hendrick Motorsports; one week he was going to be a champion his first season, the next he wasn’t going to light any fires.
In reality, you can probably place your money on Kahne performing about the same as he had been… likely no better or worse. Just look at recent history of drivers switching teams as a guide.
The first name that comes to mind, obviously, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Most of you probably remember the thousands of news stories that surrounded his acrimonious departure from the team founded by his father, and the frustration shared by the driver and his fans in feeling that his stepmother wasn’t doing what was necessary to keep up.
Being more popular than Jesus in NASCAR Nation, Junior could have gone anywhere and reasonably expect to run better. When he signed with Hendrick, analysts everywhere predicted multiple wins and very likely a championship or three. That didn’t seem unreasonable, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson laying the competition to waste at the time. Certainly someone with Junior’s skills would put up similar numbers.
After two seasons with NASCAR’s top team, Junior has as many wins (one) as he did in his last two years with DEI. He actually had fewer top fives in 2008-09 (12) than in 2006-07 (17). Other than his disastrous 2009 season, looking at his finishes in the standings you would generally think he was in a four-year slump.
Today, Junior is seventh in the standings, right there with his fifth-place finishes for DEI in 2004 and 2006.
Tony Stewart went to the opposite end of the expectations spectrum, leaving his multiple championship team at Joe Gibbs Racing to sign on with then Haas CNC Racing, a team that was barely keeping one car in the Top 35. Just about every NASCAR writer out there, including yours truly, predicted “struggles” with his new team (which shows how much we know, as Tony would be the first to point out).
One year later Stewart had racked up four wins, his highest win total since 2006. Even more impressively, Smoke finished in the top five 15 times. If the car’s number, owner and colors hadn’t changed, you wouldn’t have even noticed. Well, that and the driver’s uncharacteristic newly gregarious demeanor. Come to think of it, only the racing ability has me convinced it’s still Stewart in the car.
Mark Martin finished runner-up in the standings four times driving for Roush Racing, then after a brief part-time stint with DEI/Ginn, finished runner-up again with HMS in 2009. But more enlightening was that two-year run with Ginn and then DEI. Martin scored five top fives in 24 races in 2007 after seven top fives in 36 races in 2006 with Roush. In 2008 he scored four top fives in 24 races. Even driving for a team barely treading water, Martin was nearly as competitive as he had been in his better years at Roush.
Kyle Busch went from one top team to another top team and remained a top driver. Did he improve after joining up with Gibbs? Yes, but not as dramatically as it seemed in 2008. His explosion for eight wins in the first 22 events had plenty to do with a racing style that was very much checkers or wreckers as it had been. At HMS in 2007, Kyle finished 30th or lower seven times. In 2008 he did so five times, two of them in the first two Chase races. It doesn’t sound like much, but one or two DNFs in the Chase will probably cost a driver a title.
Jamie McMurray was the big fish in the small pond at Chip Ganassi Racing and it was widely believed he would turn into a whale following his move to Roush Racing, taking over Kurt Busch’s championship car. We know how that turned out. McMurray actually put up lesser numbers driving for Roush despite notching a couple of plate track wins. And now reunited with Ganassi, he has already swiped a checkered flag at Daytona. But in general his numbers haven’t been very different. Maybe the guy is just more comfortable as an underdog.
Casey Mears did show some flashes of greatness driving for Rick Hendrick. In 2007 he scored his only Cup win at Charlotte, one of 10 top 10s that year. In the three years before with Chip Ganassi, Mears had nine, nine and eight top 10s. Driving the No. 5 car in 2008, he finished in the top 10 six times before being let go and picked up by Childress, where he finished top 10 just four times. Mears’s points standing finishes since 2004: 22nd, 22nd, 14th, 15th, 20th and 21st. Again, you wouldn’t even have known that he switched teams twice, let alone that he had gone from a second-tier team to Hendrick Motorsports.
A driver’s fortunes are often more related to his team’s fortunes in general, making Penske drivers the one aberration to a general rule. Kurt Busch challenged for titles driving for Roush, and now at a rejuvenated Penske Racing he is challenging for titles again. Ryan Newman is one of few drivers to change teams and put up a significant improvement in performance, but no one expected his runs to actually improve after leaving a team that helped him win a Daytona 500 for a team that was fighting to make the race every week.
But at the time Newman left, Penske as a whole was in a slump. In three years from 2006-08, only Busch made the Chase in 2007, and was a non-factor in the title hunt.
Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth had subpar seasons last year because Roush Fenway as a whole had a subpar season. Richard Childress Racing drivers similarly suffered, perhaps overwhelmed by running a fourth team, and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer all failed to make the playoffs just one year after the three finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the standings.
It’s actually pretty tough to come up with an example of a driver whose performance changed noticeably after switching teams. Even Bobby Labonte’s performance didn’t change much moving from Joe Gibbs to Petty Enterprises. Maybe Kyle Busch was motivated after a perceived slight from Hendrick to visit victory lane eight times in his next 22 races, but other than that, a driver who switches teams that aren’t so disparate in performance will generally perform about the same as he had been.
Not at all surprising in what is most assuredly a team sport. Perhaps what all of this means is that at the Cup level, for all of the Hendrick dominance, the top teams are actually rather evenly matched. If the driver is, say, 20% of the equation, then that is an important edge that will show on the racetrack. There’s not much difference between first and 15th. Not at this level.
We could probably expect at least a little improvement in performance when Kahne breaks from Richard Petty Motorsports, given that he’s moving from a floundering team to the best outfit in the business. But we probably shouldn’t expect much more than Kasey’s usual success…the occasional win or top five mixed in with some mediocre finishes and maybe more DNFs than a driver should have.
Or maybe he’ll be the exception and kick everyone’s ass. Danged if I know.
- Our own Matt McLaughlin absolutely nailed it yesterday concerning restrictor-plate races in his MPM2Nite column. I couldn’t have said it better.
- I’m not sure Kevin Harvick’s post-race comment about the sponsor leaving while they’re winning was meant to be a dig at Shell. It sounded more to me like he was happy to see their relationship finish strong. As a car owner himself, I would think he would know better than to create ill will towards a company putting its name on a racecar.
- Does anyone think that maybe this Jeff Gordon–Jimmie Johnson feud is just a little bit for show? NASCAR desperately needs someone – anyone – to tangle with Johnson. I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be a little egging on happening, maybe Helton pulling Jeff aside and saying “you gonna let him cut you off like that?”
- As much as I dread the plate races, I am equally looking forward to Richmond, especially for a Saturday night race. This is one track that, for the moment at least, is not in any considerable danger of losing a date, and one of few that deserves to have such status. And the driver matters again.
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