Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Bobby Labonte Parks Again, Hornish vs. Allgaier & Bowyer’s Meaningless Win

ONE: Clint Bowyer and RCR Have Done This Before

Clint Bowyer lived a Cup driver’s dream that used to only be possible in the first week or two after Daytona – win a race and go from 12th to second in points over the course of one dominant Sunday afternoon (Sept. 19). But that’s what happened at Loudon, where Bowyer had just enough fuel left in his tank to hold off Denny Hamlin and score a victory that saw him lead 177 laps en route to his second career win on the Magic Mile.

Now, merely eight days after taking the green flag at Richmond, driving for his playoff life, Bowyer is a few positions on the racetrack away from taking the point lead. It’s a great underdog story, the kind NASCAR wants to trumpet for its floundering playoff system.

Here’s the problem: I’ve seen this movie before. And it doesn’t end with that underdog hoisting the Cup.

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As most of you know, Bowyer’s been there, done that. Back in his first Chase appearance in 2007, the one-time Cinderella led 222 circuits and scored his first career win at NHMS. Yet, by Charlotte, the slipper had cracked; he was nearly 80 markers out of the lead, never again to challenge for the Cup while sliding far behind the pace of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in front. But that’s just the latest in a long list of historical footnotes that prove Bowyer’s ultimate futility in this department.

Never mind that RCR has done this in the Chase before with drivers other than Bowyer; Kevin Harvick led 196 laps in winning the 2006 Chase opener, but faded late in that championship race which went to – you guessed it – Johnson. Never mind further that since Kurt Busch won the first Chase in 2004 on the heels of a dominant win at Loudon, no other Chase driver has accomplished the same feat.

You also can’t ignore the fact that Johnson, after a 39th-place finish in 2006, was 139 points out of the lead after New Hampshire, Chase race one. Nine races later, he was hoisting his first Cup. After his late-race spin this past Sunday, Johnson is within 100 points of the lead. Meaning, despite all the dominance of his win on Sunday, Bowyer didn’t knock out Johnson, and until he and the rest of the field does, this win means nothing.

TWO: Bobby Labonte the Latest to Jump on the S&P Bandwagon… After Refusing to Do So

Bobby Labonte retired from this Sunday’s Cup race after only 89 laps for electrical reasons (read: a dead battery). After pulling into the garage and asking his team about making repairs and returning to the track, a crewman’s voice radioed to his driver, “You’ve got to give me a really good reason to race, or else I’m gonna get into a pile of trouble.”

The next radio transmission was even more dire. “Yeah, unless we have a sponsor, we’ve got to be smart about this,” said another voice on the scanner. “With the engines lasting two or three weeks, we can’t afford to race just because we can.”

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So with that, James Finch’s unsponsored program packed up and called it a day, the nail in the coffin of a now-unfulfilled promise by his driver. Remember when Labonte left his full-time ride in TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 for being unwilling to drive a start-and-park entry? That’s not meant to be a knock on the 2000 Cup champ, as the stable of rides in the Cup garage frankly isn’t offering a lot outside of start-and-parks. But he is the latest and biggest name example of a driver who refused to take part in the S&P practice, yet now is doing just that.

Scott Riggs took a number of rides with PRISM Motorsports over the summer after leaving Tommy Baldwin Racing last year to avoid S&P. Terry Cook left Whitney Motorsports after Darlington earlier this year because that team was unable to live up to its promise of having Cook go the distance every week, yet he was running S&P in the No. 09 car by Pocono.

And on the Nationwide Series front, a number of organizations from Specialty Racing to even RAB Racing have had to park their cars early, intentionally, despite a commitment to running the distance through much of the 2009 and early parts of the 2010 campaign.

Despite arguments made by so many that start and park has always been around and doesn’t pose the problem that many of us at Frontstretch have reported on for the better part of the last two years, it’s spread to the Cup Series, it’s spread to organizations that have won races, and it’s now spread to the point that a Cup champion is doing it to keep himself in a racecar.

James Finch’s organization has never been afraid to shoot from the hip with regard to their S&P practices on the Cup circuit (Finch noted after Bristol in 2004 that he’d keep running Cup races as long as they were profitable because he made more money per lap than race winner Busch did, with Joe Ruttman parking the No. 09 after only four laps). But to hear them flat tell a Cup champion that they can’t afford to let him go back out and make laps is about as sickening a radio communication as I’ve heard in recent memory.

THREE: Sam Hornish Jr. Back to the Nationwide Series?

With primary sponsors in the Cup ranks running in short supply, Sam Hornish Jr.‘s future in Cup racing is now in limbo. Yet strangely, a return to IndyCar doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Hornish… rather, a date with the Nationwide Series does? It seems like a very odd stepping stone pattern, going from the peak of open-wheel racing in the U.S. to the Cup Series, then back to the minors.

Frankly, from a racing development perspective, Hornish probably could use the time in the Nationwide Series. It’s where he should have started in the first place. With Penske Racing’s NNS program proving to be among the class of the field, a move to the sport’s “AAA” division would allow Hornish the chance to race for wins and a championship, something he hasn’t come close to doing since tackling stock car racing.

But it’s an interesting move for Penske Racing and their NNS program, seeing as how they’re also searching for a primary sponsor for the No. 12 car that Justin Allgaier drives (Verizon is leaving at the end of this season.)

Take stock of the Penske stable. Brad Keselowski is all but certainly going to run a full Nationwide Series schedule in the No. 22 next year. After all, does anyone think he’s going to just let Carl Edwards hog all the fun? That leaves one Nationwide car for Penske Racing, and an unsponsored one at that which leaves two potential drivers vying for the seat: Hornish and current NNS development driver Allgaier.

Therein lies a sticky question for the Penske camp… which wins out? Loyalty to a driver that brought the Penske organization an IRL title and an Indianapolis 500 trophy, or commitment to a bright young talent who has proven to fit like a glove in Penske’s business-first operating culture? Which driver allows Penske to make a better sales pitch to a new sponsor?

Editor’s Note: This section has been corrected to reflect that Hornish won one of his three IndyCar titles driving for Penske.

For those out there complaining about a boring Silly Season… this one could get interesting.

FOUR: Enough of This Best Chase Ever Crap Already

The only thing more plentiful than shots of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday’s telecast (and let’s be clear, he did earn those with an excellent run) were comments by the broadcast crew that 2010 was going to be the best Chase ever, that the field was so even, the tension so high. This is going to be the best Chase ever!

To all of those in the mainstream media, ENOUGH! I have irked enough professional writers out there for being and acting like a “race fan” this season, so I’m going to speak like one. I, like any other race fan out there, get it. The field is tight, the points are tight. No, really? Is that what happens when the standings for the top 12 basically get set to zero with 10 races to go? And, like other race fans out there, I know a good race when I see one.

I saw one on Sunday. Seeing Johnson and Hamlin mixing it up three-wide only 20 laps into the Loudon race was exciting. There was aggression in that race that was a thrill to watch, be it Johnson’s bold moves all day long or Tony Stewart risking everything to win rather than pit and try to salvage a top 15 with fuel strategy. I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday’s race, seeing drivers like Bowyer run all over the ragged edge and Kurt Busch cross over that same line. That’s the kind of competition I need to see to enjoy both being a professional covering this sport and a race fan.

What I don’t need is everyone, from the broadcasters to the owners, telling me this is going to be the best Chase ever, like I’m some 5-year-old waiting for Christmas presents I can’t open yet. And race fans don’t need it, either. We’ve had years, and I mean years, of having this joke of a system shoved down our throats.

We keep coming back not because the booth dubs it the best ever, but because there’s still nothing in sports that can top a good stock car race. We had a good race on Sunday. So to everyone in the booth and media trying to sell NASCAR as well as cover it, stop selling the damned Chase. Sell the race. Hell, just cover the race. If it’s good, race fans will take notice, and they will come back… best weekend ever or not.

FIVE: It Really Could Have Been NASCAR’s Best Chase Ever

NASCAR missed a golden opportunity. If they had merely expanded the Chase field to the top-20 drivers in points, Earnhardt Jr. would have made the Chase this time around. And based off the fourth-place performance that he turned in, he would be heading into Dover sixth in points, only 70 markers out of the lead.

Two races with Danica Patrick driving and Jr. in the top 10 in points? Dover could have been the best weekend ever!

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