Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Keselowski Crawling, Rising Ratings & Judging Martin’s Win Total

ONE: Monetary Woes Are Getting to Robby Gordon

Though the No. 7 car has been painted for each of the first three races of the 2011 season and Robby Gordon has been reported to have sponsorship through the early spring for his Cup entries, any doubt that finances were very much an issue for the Robby Gordon Motorsports operation were laid to rest this past weekend in Las Vegas, both on the track and off.

For the third weekend in a row, the No. 7 car was involved in an on-track incident… and for the second straight time, it was a spin on his own. For all of his aggression, Gordon’s car control has never been questioned. But both at Phoenix and now Vegas, Gordon has been involved in spins that seem almost as if the driver is distracted behind the wheel, having a difficult time getting into a groove in the afternoon’s event.

Couple that with a reported altercation involving Gordon and former employee Kevin Conway in the garage area Friday (March 4) that resulted in immediate probation and a police report being filed after an argument over compensation, and it’s becoming readily apparent that finances are prominently on the brain of one of the sport’s few remaining owner/drivers.

See also
No Bull: The Robby Gordon-Kevin Conway Fight From Sin City & More

Dramatic revelation? No. But if its something that’s going to result in incidents on and off the racetrack, it’s certainly a cause for concern. Gordon may have started Speed Energy in an effort to finance his racing operations, but the countless number of energy drinks that have come and gone through the sport (Shark, Wave, Who’s Your Daddy?) without leaving any sort of significant financial impact on their respective racing operations makes it decidedly obvious that the venture is not a surefire solution to sponsorship woes.

For Gordon to keep his Cup car going through all of 2011, he’s going to have to bring outside dollars in and that’s not going to happen for an owner getting in heated disputes with delinquent sponsors or a driver proving to be his own worst enemy on race day.

Cooler heads need to prevail in the No. 7 camp, fast. It’s probably a good thing that there’s an off weekend before Bristol.

TWO: Welcome Back the Start-and-Parks

And that doesn’t just apply to the Nationwide Series, where three entries that came out of nowhere over the course of the week between Phoenix and Las Vegas prevented consecutive short fields for the AAA ranks in their first full season with the new CoT cars that so many weren’t able to afford. In Cup, it certainly appears that the old days of turning a blind eye to the practice at the back of the garage is coming back into fashion for the sanctioning body.

Quietly, a significant change in inspection processes for the teams outside the Top 35 in owner points has taken away the incentive that last season had the start-and-parkers running at least 80-100 laps a race instead of 22. There is no longer an incentive not to be the first car to park because the inspection process now has the first car in the garage and out of the race randomly picking a number to be the car NASCAR inspects.

Instead of having an incentive in place for teams to run more laps and actually take some semblance of a part in the race they’re getting paid to run there, now there’s no way to effectively avoid being the team to go through additional inspection and an engine teardown.

In short, for the fleet of start-and-parks in the back, might as well bring those cars in when they’re good and ready now. If inspection is going to be determined randomly for those outside the Top 35, the chance of being selected is going to be the same if they run 22 laps or 222. So much for NASCAR’s comments the past few seasons that they needed to ensure, at least at the Cup level, that teams were “on the up and up.”

It already seems to have made an impact; twice as many cars parked within the first 50 laps of this Vegas race as one year ago, despite an equal number of start-and-park entries.

Either NASCAR’s stopped caring about the start-and-parkers participating in at least some form in their races, or they’re resigned to inspecting a random outside the Top 35 because they’re resigned to having multiple such entries in the Cup field. Either way, there’s a problem with this change in inspection processes.

THREE: Mark Martin’s 49th NNS Win…or 96th NASCAR Win?

I have to thank a fan comment on this week’s Nationwide Series Breakdown for this point, but it’s certainly one that ought to be answered. Upon scoring a surprise victory in Nationwide competition at Las Vegas this past Saturday, Mark Martin was hailed for extending his all-time record NNS win total to 49, delaying, at least a little while longer, according to the ESPN booth, the inevitable that he will lose that title to Kyle Busch.

See also
Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Sam's Town 300 at Las Vegas

Martin’s 49th NNS triumph was indeed his 96th win in NASCAR’s top-three series, but that statistic wasn’t given the light of day. Which begs an interesting question…why not?

After all, as ESPN and everyone else that isn’t convinced the current Nationwide Series is a hollow “Cup lite” waiting for a bottle of scotch and handgun to put it out of its misery continually harp on, every time Kyle Busch scored a Truck or Nationwide win, it’s not just a trophy, it’s his 80-something win in NASCAR competition. He’s that much closer to the century mark. He’s that much closer to hitting the mystical 200 number. He’s that much closer to being Richard Petty. The second coming is here!

So where was the hubhub that Martin had scored his 96th win overall, putting him only four away from the century mark? Here’s the answer as simple as can be… Martin isn’t busy running wild all weekend in the minor leagues and the 200 wins in NASCAR number isn’t something he’s floated out as a career goal, as a numerical justification for beating up kids on the playground for lunch money when he’s making a living as a professional boxer.

Fact is, Kyle runs roughshod over both the Truck and Nationwide series frequently. The TV crews, for better or worse, have harped on his going for 200 total wins as something to talk about, some sort of significance to attach to a practice that ultimately has rendered each of the two series playgrounds for the stars most weekends.

Doesn’t sound like everyone’s buying it. Gotta love Frontstretch readers; agree or disagree with our writing, they’re a sharp bunch.

FOUR: Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Team Still Crawling to Start 2011

Though Kurt Busch has picked up right where he left off and is looking every bit like a Chase contender for Penske Racing yet again, contraction from three cars to two has not appeared to do any favors for the No. 2 team. Case in point, Las Vegas; Brad Keselowski was a non-factor in the event all day long, eventually finishing off the lead lap in 26th, behind even the Germain Racing entry of Casey Mears.

Something has to change in that shop, fast. Keselowski is now in a marquee ride and no longer has the rookie stripe to point to as justification for struggling in the Cup ranks. He’s even got a year under his belt working with the crew chief atop the box, yet Sunday saw the No. 2 as much of a non-factor on an intermediate oval as David Stremme and Ryan Newman were as Kurt Busch’s teammates the seasons before 2010.

Sure, going to two cars wasn’t a recipe for instant success; the No. 12 and No. 77 cars were far from setting the world on fire last year, it’s not like combining those two was going to necessarily produce something better instantly. But Keselowski has his Nationwide title that was oh-so-important now. It’s time to play with the big boys, not run alongside them.

FIVE: TV Ratings Speak Volumes

For years, it’s been the media’s fault for perpetuating negative tones about the sport, scaring people away from the grandstands and into turning off their TVs. The media was killing off the sport.

Enter 2011. TV ratings for each of the season’s first three races are up, as is interest. The Daytona 500, for all the wrecks, produced a dramatic feel-good story and a fresh new face on a sport that’s been seeking one. That was followed up by one of the best to ever drive showing he’s still got it, a thrilling conclusion to a Phoenix race that, while not Rockingham, was certainly an improvement over previous seasons’ snore-inducing second races at Fontana. And Vegas was Vegas, the first intermediate of the season and a race that actually produced some passes for the lead.

The 2011 season has had compelling storylines and competition, and fan interest has been there as a result. The fact that TV ratings are up despite little change in broadcasts or cast of characters has spoken volumes that no matter what’s written or said, the tale on the track will tell the tale of the sport.

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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