Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Kentucky Non-Surprise, Zaxby’s & Denny

ONE: There will be a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway in 2011

Let’s all stop kidding ourselves, this one was never in doubt. Bruton Smith did not buy the Kentucky Speedway without knowing and knowing full well that the anti-trust lawsuit brought upon NASCAR by the facility’s former ownership was going to get settled. He didn’t spend millions of dollars on cosmetic and infrastructure improvements to put on a better Nationwide Series race; that’s a safe wager.

The details on how this one got settled are likely never to be known in full, but use your imaginations. The former owners of the Kentucky Speedway have spent a year waiting for a trial date to go against an entity in NASCAR that has proven an absolute behemoth in the courtroom. Through all of that time, their suit completely failed to grab attention amongst stock car racing fans, never riling them up enough to rally behind an independent body and make an issue out of ISC and SMI’s near monopoly of the Sprint Cup schedule.

Bruton wants a Cup race… now. Money probably traded hands, some wrists were probably slapped and in the end Bruton got his way. That tends to happen.

What details will now start to emerge, as the 2011 Cup schedule now is facing double realignment with both Kentucky coming on board as well as a second date for Kansas, is who the tracks are that will likely lose dates. With ISC and SMI each looking for a new date for themselves, expect to see one ISC and one SMI venue lose a date. Between Atlanta (SMI), Fontana (ISC), Loudon (SMI) and Martinsville (ISC), two of those four venues will have only one Cup date in 2011 now that this suit has been resolved. That’s a safe wager.

TWO: Denny Hamlin was Saturday night’s big winner

While it was no surprise to see the Kentucky Speedway anti-trust suit go by the wayside, Denny Hamlin, bum knee and all, has been a tremendous surprise, proving the majority of NASCAR writers (myself included) very wrong. His performance since knee surgery, including a gutsy full run at Phoenix and a dramatic win at Texas Motor Speedway, has kept the No. 11 team in the Chase hunt.

And while Hamlin’s 11th-place finish at Richmond this past Saturday night will certainly not go down as one of his prouder moments on the Virginia short tracks he has come to dominate, it was just the latest example of how the No. 11 team really may be the frontrunner to finish second to Jimmie Johnson this season. Frontstretch spoke with Hamlin’s crew before Saturday’s race and after the No. 11 team was mired on the speed charts all day Friday; the crew was scratching their heads, providing no real explanations for why what was typically the car to beat at RIR was so mediocre.

Some of that confusion translated into the race, as the No. 11 car certainly wasn’t its usual self; Hamlin was a stranger to the top five all night. But he did manage to mount a steady charge from his 30th-place starting position, ending up 11th by the checkered as one of the few cars in the field to actually pass a good number of vehicles. Making something out of nothing was exactly what the No. 11 team did, minus the frustration that in the past has dogged Hamlin (see Dover last September).

Failing to capitalize on tracks like Richmond are a clear indicator that this bunch is still not ready to challenge Jimmie for the throne… but finishing 11th on Saturday with a struggling racecar also served notice that they’re moving in the right direction towards that goal.

THREE: Terry Cook Out at Whitney Motorsports Because He Fears the Team’s Direction?!

As Hamlin and the No. 11 team are serving notice that come 2011, they may well be ready to contend, Terry Cook served notice of his own on Facebook this week that he’s left the No. 46 team at Whitney Motorsports after qualifying for just three races in 10 attempts. His best run was 34th at Phoenix, the only race the team was able to make the full distance. On Saturday night, the No. 46 completed only 92 laps after Cook experienced mechanical failures in the rear end.

“Something broke inside the locker and there are parts disintegrated all inside the rear end,” said Cook in his Raybestos Rookie of the Year statement. “It destroyed the oil pump, the rear end cooler pump. We don’t have another cooler pump, so just to put another gear in there and go back out at this stage, we’re so many laps down and all you’re doing is breaking more parts.”

Being underfunded, quality of equipment, etc., was not mentioned as Cook’s reason for leaving. Rather, he said he was concerned about the direction the team was headed. And that’s an eyebrow raiser for several reasons.

Cook told Frontstretch as early as January that he would be serving not just as the team’s driver, but also as a team manager. The team manager leaves an organization entirely because he’s concerned about direction? Doesn’t the team manager, well, direct the team?

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More likely though, it seems like Cook underestimated just how much of a challenge doing the underfunded Cup team deal would be. After falling victim to sponsorship woes and losing a competitive Truck ride, he took to start-and-parking for Phil Parsons’s MSRP Motorsports operation in the Nationwide Series in 2009 and proved to still be a solid qualifier, scoring a top-five starting position in the team’s No. 91 car at ORP last August.

Those top-five qualifying efforts, even qualifying efforts just to make the field, proved to be very hard to come by for the No. 46 team, however, and – as Jason Keller says – missing a race is a real gut check.

It’s hard to imagine that such a successful qualifier missing seven of 10 races to start 2010, and having two of the three he did make cut short by mechanical constraints isn’t impacted heavily by such results. Running in the back of the pack without a prayer at victory is about the hardest thing for any competitor to be asked to do, and there’s no doubt that trying to be a Cup rookie, a team manager and that kind of driver is asking a whole hell of a lot.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cook back with the former MSRP operation (now D’Hondt/Humphrey Motorsports) in the near future, though, even if we never see him in a Cup car again; after what he just went through, start-and-parking will seem like a joke in comparison.

FOUR: Is Zaxby’s transitioning from father/son to sponsor?

Between Clint Bowyer saying he expects to run seven more races in the No. 21 Zaxby’s Chevrolet for RCR’s Nationwide Series team and now the reports that Casey Mears will run races at Nashville and Kentucky in the car, another driver it seems we may never see again is John Wes Townley. When asked at Richmond this past weekend what role he was playing with Townley during his relief driving duties, Bowyer openly admitted he’s had next to no contact with the team’s former driver since taking the No. 21 seat. That hardly sounds like a constructive driver development situation.

On the one hand, it’s not surprising to see RCR keeping Townley away from the team’s cars. Even Mears will be an improvement over a driver that’s well-earned the nickname “John Wreck.” What is surprising, though, is how suddenly Zaxby’s has apparently signed off now on drivers not named Townley driving their car. That’s a drastic change, given that the owner of Zaxby’s (and father of John Wes) has long been the force keeping his son in racecars and his career moving forward fully sponsored, sources tell Frontstretch.

But the reality is two-fold here. One, this is a talent, performance-driven sport that money can only take one so far in, at least if they want to be successful on the track. And Townley has yet to ever show the talent needed to make it in the world’s most competitive motorsport.

Two, Zaxby’s is currently affiliated with a team that has fantastic Nationwide Series equipment, a roster of top-driver talent and a history of winning. From a business perspective, there’s much to be gained by fielding the Zaxby’s No. 21 both for the company and RCR. It seems that maybe, just maybe, the businessman behind those dollars is waking up and realizing that even if it’s not his son, there’s something to be said for being involved in racing.

On this front, the next question becomes… when does Extenze wake up and realize it can do better than Kevin Conway? After all, Conway fell out of the Top 35 in owner points after this weekend – the second time that’s happened in his short tenure with FRM.

FIVE: Baker/Curb a victim in losing Red Man sponsorship… and will KHI lose Longhorn?

Thanks to the all-knowing powers at the FDA (Federal Drug Advocacy, err, Food and Drug Administration), soon all tobacco companies will be “prohibited tobacco brand name sponsorship of any athletic, musical, or other social or cultural event, or any team or entry in those events.” In short, for Baker/Curb Racing, who landed a late offseason deal with Red Man Moist Snuff that has largely assisted the team’s No. 27 operation to return to the front of the Nationwide Series field, they’re losing a potential business partner for good after Kentucky.

Obviously, such a decision by the FDA is damaging to NASCAR, a sport that has no shortage of business history with tobacco, nor any shortage of fans that either support or work in said industry. Under this new law, a laundry list of companies that have supported NASCAR race teams since the departure of RJ Reynolds from the Cup Series in 2003, including Victory Brand, Tucson and Bailey’s can’t appear on cars again. And the way the law is worded, it seems very likely that KHI’s No. 33 Truck entry and their deal with Longhorn may well fall under the axe as well.

Just like NASCAR, this is another case of bigwigs telling everyone what’s best for them. It’s funny to hear a government that’s, in essence, subsidizing race teams by buying half of the manufacturers involved in the sport now telling private companies when they give them money that they can’t take part in an effective, lucrative marketing tool. Decisions like these are bad for NASCAR, they’re bad for business, they’re bad for everyone. Maybe this is why fans are less and less enthusiastic about NASCAR… it provides less relief because real life is all but mirroring it.

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