Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: Junior’s Chief, ‘Dinger’s Future, Ragan’s Security & More

Considering there’s a three-man battle for the championship on tap, it’s been a quiet week in NASCAR Nation. We’ve got enough emails for a column, though.

Don’t hesitate to shoot me some feedback this weekend. Fanning the Flames still has one more filing left; we’ll be up and running on Thursday, Dec. 1 (off for Thanksgiving) before a short winter’s nap.

Q: Hey Matt. Can you be the one to give me the good news that you’ve heard Dale Jr. will get a new crew chief next year? Hendrick won’t drop the driver, but things can’t stay the way they have for two years. Any rumors on a replacement? — Wendy H., Huntersville, N.C.

A: Rumors galore, but no answers. I think Hendrick, Junior, McGrew and company will take a week or two after Homestead, regroup in December sometime and figure out their course of action.

The hot name, as it’s been for some time, is Ron Malec, Jimmie Johnson’s longtime car chief and buddy. Personally, if I’m Rick Hendrick, I don’t know if I take a load-bearing beam from that house to repair the shed; but how do you know if Malec could truly be a great crew chief if you never give him the shot?

See also
Mirror Driving: An End for Earnhardt, Celebration Station & Fuel-Mileage Follies

Of course, we’re assuming Malec even wants the gig. And who’s to say anyone other than Earnhardt’s former crew chief — the one he scored the majority of his career wins with — can turn this thing around over the long-term?

This much we know: three years in, it’s clear Junior just doesn’t speak Hendrickese. Or maybe Hendrick’s pit bosses don’t speak Junior. I know Tony Eury Sr. has said on more than one occasion that he wants no part of that job, but if I’m Hendrick, and I mean what I said about making the No. 88 team my priority, I’ll cater to the driver. And if that means bringing in a square peg to fit a round hole, so be it. The square peg he’s got needs some company.

Q: How does David Ragan avoid the Silly Season talk? Drivers like Elliott Sadler, Scott Speed and Sam Hornish Jr. are out of rides and they have performed the same as Ragan, who is in better stuff. Roush and UPS must believe in the kid or just be really loyal. In fact, I think Sadler would serve UPS better because if the results aren’t different than Ragan’s, at least he’s a better pitchman! What’s the story on this one, Matt? Thanks! — Charles S., Louisiana

A: Your logic isn’t off, but the reason Ragan remains is all in the fine print. From what I understand, if Jack Roush were to make a driver change to the No. 6, UPS can exercise a clause in its contract with RFR allowing the company to leave, if it so desires. So with sponsor money so precious and scarce these days, Roush will absorb the mediocre finishes because it means he’s still getting the $20-plus million in funding — and that funding far outweighs the per-race payouts.

Q: Matt, if RPM shuts down, what are AJ and Ambrose’s options? Ambrose will probably go back to Australia in the Supercars, but will AJ land another ride in the Cup, NNS or Truck series? What about a fourth team at JGR or SHR if he brings the Best Buy sponsorship? Maybe open wheel? He’s come too far in stock cars to get the boot out. — Perry H., Morrison, Colo.

A: That’s a good question, Perry. Since no one knows what the future holds for Richard Petty Motorsports, it’s tough to predict what will become of its two drivers. My guess is if RPM ceases to exist — not that we’re there yet — Allmendinger would stand a better than even shot at landing somewhere in a NASCAR touring series. It may be a little late in the game for a Gibbs or a Stewart to expand, but he’d likely be picked up by a James Finch-type outfit where he could simply bide his time until one of the Big Boys had something open up.

And even in a worst-case scenario, he’d be a shoo-in for some Nationwide and Truck spot duty.

As for open-wheel, I think the same rules apply, though the IndyCar Series has a different Silly Season format than NASCAR. Up in Indy, many team lineups aren’t finalized until February, meaning the opportunity (outside of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti) for a good ride is more favorable. However, I honestly couldn’t tell you what the level of interest is in AJ from the open-wheel set at the moment.

In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed that RPM is able to return as a two-car team next season. We’ll see.

Q: That will teach Mike Ford to keep his mouth shut. When will these guys learn that the quiet ones are the most dangerous? — Damon

A: Silent but deadly, huh Damon? Come on, it’s a lot more fun when the boys are talkin’ the smack. And it’s even more fun when it backfires on them.

Q: Outside the box question, Matt. When you look back on the 2010 season in 10 years, what will be the story that sticks out and made this year memorable? I’ll email you my answer after I’ve read your thought. Thanks and have a great offseason! — Cheryl W.

A: Another good question. Wow, there’s been a number of compelling storylines, but I’m not quite sure I can etch my answer into stone for another 267 laps.

“Boys, have at it,” Hamlin’s return from knee surgery to points lead, Johnson’s quest for a fifth straight title, the resurrection of Richard Childress Racing, Jamie McMurray’s absolutely unbelievable showings in the sport’s biggest events — all stand on their own merits.

The championship battle in general, though, may be what I remember best in ten years. It’s been a helluva show for those that chose to follow it every step of the way. And for those of us that devote 36 of 52 weeks a year to covering this sport, well, I really don’t know what else we could’ve asked for.

I’ll give you my final answer in two weeks and I’ll be looking forward to yours. Anyone willing to share their thoughts are welcome, of course.

On that note, we’re done. Thanks for sticking around to the end. If we’re lucky, we’ll see something like this Video Clip of the Week at Homestead on Sunday (Nov. 21). I really think it could be one we talk about for a long, long time.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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