Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Angry Brian Vickers & ESPN Wasn’t Joking Around, Either

ONE: Brian Vickers’s Rage Toward Kenseth a Sign of Early-Season Frazzles

Based on the replays, there was some contact between Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers on lap 67, moments before Vickers’s Toyota went spinning and triggered a wreck on the backstretch that took out over a dozen cars, including the second for the No. 83 team in as many weeks into Vickers’s return to Cup tour. Based on those same plays, there is little, if any, evidence to justify the type of anger that Vickers unleashed towards Kenseth in his post-wreck remarks; Vickers cited the driver of the No. 17 for wrecking him while promising retaliation.

No one can blame Vickers for being frustrated that his return to the Red Bull Racing team he helped build from the ground up after a long bout with blood clots has gotten off to such a slow start. But to hear the former Hendrick Motorsports product spewing venom the likes of which he hasn’t since taking justified shots at Kyle Busch after a Nationwide race at Michigan in 2009, speaks to more than frustration over an early end to a Sunday drive in the desert. Because while Vickers has yet to crack the top 25 in 2011, teammate Kasey Kahne scored a top-10 finish on a circuit he calls “his worst track” that same afternoon.

For all Vickers has done for the Red Bull organization, the circumstances are different heading into 2011 for the team. When the their second car was being driven first by AJ Allmendinger and then by Scott Speed, Vickers was always the A-driver in this stable. Now, even if for just a year, Kahne is in the early running showing signs of moving the No. 83 team to the B-slot in the Red Bull garage.

Vickers coming from behind to catch up on two-thirds of a season of missed Cup races is pressure enough. To have to take on that role while a star driver is outrunning the flagship car of an organization Vickers has given everything, including a race win and a Chase berth, can’t be a small burden. Should the incidents continue on track, expect to hear a lot more pointed interviews from the driver of the No. 83.

TWO: NASCAR Has No One to Thank But Themselves for Tommy Baldwin Racing Start & Park Debacle

Tommy Baldwin Racing was fortunate enough to secure sponsorship for their No. 36 team at Phoenix, but after Dave Blaney wrecked the team’s primary car in practice, a business decision was reached by TBR. With their Vegas primary car intact, the team secured the sponsor’s blessing to run the distance at Vegas and park early at PIR to keep their one remaining car on the west coast in one piece.

The decision to do that and put a press release out about it led NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton to lash out in disbelief on Sunday  (Feb. 27) morning, calling the announcement one of “poor timing,” as if having confirmation in writing that a team was not intending to run a full Cup race distance was something different than what the sport has seen before. For crying out loud, a number of teams were acknowledged by the broadcast booth as early as Friday that they would be start-and-parking!

Face the facts, TBR didn’t really have a choice but to put out a press release about their decision. What type of message would prospective sponsors get if a car that supposedly had backing to race at Phoenix was in the garage less than 30 laps into the event? Start-and-park, no matter the arguments for its economic necessity, still has a very negative connotation to both the sanctioning body and fans alike.

For a team seeking dollars to race, staying ahead of that image is imperative. Just look at the former PRISM Motorsports (now HP Racing) or NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87, teams that over the past few seasons have seldom been seen past 50 laps of any Cup race. When was the last time they had sponsorship for anything other than the Daytona 500?

NASCAR suddenly crying foul that a team had to make public their survival practices is both hypocritical, and, to steal Pemberton’s own words, “in poor timing.” The sanctioning body has known for years that this practice was being employed by teams either blindly hoping to secure sponsorship or to collect a steady paycheck. By refusing to police the practice, adjust race winnings accordingly or simply looking the other way when it comes to inspecting half a dozen cars a race that have inexplicable mechanical woes, they’ve made it both an accepted and relied-upon tactic.

It’s a little late to turn sour on the only way the Cup ranks have maintained a full field. But hey, if they’re willing to part with the TV bonus money they still adamantly claim they don’t get for a full field, don’t take this as me arguing with them taking a harsh stand on the start-and-park business.

THREE: Even Minus Kevin Conway, Front Row Motorsports Still Flirting with Owner Points Troubles

For as much as the Extenze sponsor dollars brought to the Front Row Motorsports camp the first half of 2010, the constant swapping of drivers between race teams to keep rookie Kevin Conway locked into the Cup field took a toll on the performance of the team’s veteran drivers and their respective squads. That, coupled with a penalty at Pocono Raceway in June for bleeder valves, kept the team’s third car from locking into the field for the first five races of 2011, costing a tight-budgeted team a mega-resource.

Unfortunately, even with Conway gone and veterans Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland the only two drivers guaranteed a full-time campaign for the organization, Front Row is still battling to lock into the field… and this time, even the second car is in jeopardy. Thanks to early wrecks involving Kvapil and the team’s No. 38 car in each of the first two races, only Gilliland finds himself in a secure owner points position heading into Las Vegas. The team’s third entry that has already played host to multiple drivers, actually sits ahead of the team’s second, committed full-time operation.

The early wrecks that both the Nos. 37 and 38 teams have struggled to avoid this month have shadowed gains that Front Row made after a blue-collar 2010 season, including the power of Ford’s FR9 engine that they are now enjoying. What does all of this mean? It’s got major implications for the current Cup field because after five races in, how long Front Row’s going to keep rolling a third car out is anyone’s guess.

Without a sponsor to offset the costs of a third car (the Extenze sponsorship was the only reason the team went that route last season), the incentive to field it goes away unless it’s locked into the Top 35. With full fields likely to be a weekly-repeating drama in Cup racing this year, this team may well be the story to watch along the bubble.

FOUR: ESPN Really Wasn’t Kidding About Focusing On Race Winners Instead of NNS Title Contenders

One of the more under the radar comments to come out of Speedweeks came from ESPN’s Rich Feinberg, while speaking to Scene Daily during the midst of NASCAR’s PR blast, remarked that his broadcast team would continue to focus on the Nationwide race winners and leaders above all else. He didn’t “see a substantial change in how we execute in our [ESPN’s] control room,” when it comes to televising NNS races in 2011.

If nothing else, Feinberg wasn’t beating around the bush. Though Reed Sorenson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are currently leading the points, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano have largely dominated the broadcasts, as if nothing has changed at all in NASCAR’s AAA series. Further, as reported in this weekend’s Nationwide Series Breakdown, a whopping 45.7% of the field that didn’t start-and-park was minimally mentioned, if at all, over the course of a two-hour plus telecast. And this was with a short field.

This practice is both a damn shame and a foul for those teams that run the Nationwide Series as more than a test session or a confidence boost. Well, if nothing else, ESPN was honest. Maybe that’s improvement?

FIVE: James Buescher’s DNQ a Massive Event in NCWTS Title Chase… That Should Happen More Often

As much as the top 25/30/35 rules across NASCAR’s three national touring series have devalued qualifying sessions across the sport, Friday night’s Truck session in Phoenix broke the norm and had a dramatic impact on the title chase in that series. James Buescher, coming off a top-10 finish to start the 2011 season and driving for a Turner Motorsports organization that has come out larging and charging in their first season as a three-truck organization, failed to qualify for the season’s second race, and in doing so dropped to 24th in points despite being in one of the stouter rides in the field.

It’s only two races into the year, and now Buescher is not only going to have to treat qualifying for a few more weeks as the significant matter all teams should every weekend, he’s also going to have to race for wins early and often, old points system or new. Bad finishes are one thing, DNQs are something else.

Want to make the racing more exciting? There’s no reason storylines like this one shouldn’t play out 25 times a year for the trucks, or 30-plus for Nationwide and Cup. If a team can’t race their way in, why should they be out there?

This isn’t rocket science people.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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