Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Carl Edwards the Wise, Roush the Shorthanded & Dollars for Dillons

ONE: Edwards Wise to Hold Out on Contract Talks

When asked about renegotiating with Roush Fenway Racing, where he’s been the full-time driver of the No. 99 car since midway through the 2004 season, Carl Edwards played it cool. “We’ll just see how it plays out,” he said, noting that he didn’t want talk of contracts and the business side of the sport distracting him from a stellar 2011 campaign that has his Ford team sitting atop the Sprint Cup point standings.

Maybe that’s great public relations, but let’s be realistic; Edwards is holding out for good reason – his stock is sky high and Ford’s currently got the bullseye on their back from the other manufacturers in the field. There has never been a point in his Cup career that Edwards would be without significant suitors should he opt to leave the house of Roush, but the here and now is even more attractive; he’s the winner of three of the past seven Cup races dating back to Phoenix in November and he’s enjoyed a long stretch without controversy on the racetrack or with his teammates.

The nasty temper that NASCAR’s biggest smiler has shown going after Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and others in seasons past has yet to surface in 2011, leaving only the sponsor-friendly pearly whites for all with money to see.

On the Ford side, it’s true that the blue oval brigade is living the high life so far this year. The 2011 Daytona 500 champs, the FR9 motor has proven to be the stoutest power plant in the Cup garage thus far this year, with Roush Fenway Racing showing no signs of the lag they struggled through early in 2010 thanks to erroneous simulation models back at the shop. That bodes well for the here and now, but it also leaves Ford as the target every other team in the garage is going to be gunning for when Chase time comes to bear.

It’s easier to chase than be chased and considering that the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut and Joe Gibbs Racing, with Toyota’s vast checkbook, are doing the chasing, there are legitimate questions as to just how long Ford’s stay at the top of the Cup heap will last.

Ford’s got a number of months left in the timeframe they must show that their return to legitimacy in Cup is going to be lasting. That being the reality, there’s no reason for a red-hot Edwards not to sit back and see “how it plays out” when it comes to contract terms. Funny how watching “how it plays out” isn’t a distraction in itself.

TWO: Speaking of Roush, The Team Needs A Cup Seat

More than ever, Roush Fenway Racing is going to start feeling the heat to get David Ragan out of the No. 6 Ford… and it’s not to give a seat to Trevor Bayne, who has decidedly returned to earth since leaving orbit with an early season Daytona 500 win. Suddenly, leading the points and running like gangbusters in the Nationwide ranks is none other than Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a driver that many, this writer included, had written off early last season thanks to a rash of ugly in-race wrecks and a DNQ at Nashville in the spring.

Where Bayne has made the bigger splash by pulling double duty across the Cup and Nationwide ranks the first five races of 2011, Stenhouse’s singular focus has translated into greater success and consistency in pursuing the NNS crown. Saturday’s Fontana event was no exception, with Stenhouse every bit as fast as Edwards, even at one point taking the lead from the No. 60 under green in the final half of the running. The consistency and relevance at the front of the field that has been lacking from Bayne’s NNS campaign since a strong opener at Daytona has resurfaced in Roush’s No. 6 car.

Which leaves Roush in a situation they likely didn’t expect to find themselves in; with two drivers that, should 2011 keep unfolding the way that it is, will have Cup suitors banging on the doors. Bayne, despite his quiet results since the Daytona 500, has still cultivated an impressive fan following (based on unscientific observations at Bristol at least), and Stenhouse, leading the NNS points, is also now fresh face number one on the development scene, even with seven of the top-10 drivers in NNS points having previous Cup experience.

Either the Ford Racing camp is going to have the turn the wick up in a big way to find dollars to get the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 back to full time or the No. 6 car is going to have make a change in the near future. Along with a return to the top of the heap in terms of equipment, the Ford camp is now sitting on top of the driver development pyramid as well. Just like with their racecars, their prospects are now going to play the role of the hunted. Considering past missteps in development (read: losing Kasey Kahne), Ford will have to play ball sooner than later with this issue.

THREE: Then Again, Has Bayne’s Stock Peaked?

As impressive at it was to see Bayne receive a raucous ovation during Bristol driver intros in his home state rival even Jeff Gordon‘s and Earnhardt Jr.’s, on the track the Bayne phenomenon has failed to live up to expectations since Speedweeks.

The No. 16 was a solid top-10 car at Fontana this past weekend on the Nationwide circuit, but ran third of three on his team, playing second fiddle to both Edwards and Stenhouse. When the Cup cars took to the track, Bayne looked more rookie than anything, scraping the walls on multiple occasions en route to a mediocre 30th-place run, two laps off the pace, his third finish outside the top 25 in the last four Cup races since Daytona.

Couple that with an NNS campaign that has shown little in terms of spark or consistency to challenge both a streaking Stenhouse and the Turner Motorsports’ threesome hogging the points lead for the top spot in the AAA ranks, and Bayne on-track is not living up to the star he’s become off of it.

Under these circumstances, it’s not as hard to understand why Roush Fenway Racing isn’t in a hurry to rush a car out for Bayne to run the Sprint All-Star Race if a sponsor doesn’t step up for the Wood Brothers. Even if Charlotte Motor Speedway is just up the road from the team’s shop, is preparing for a Cup exhibition really the best move for both driver and organization? The fact that a sponsor has not stepped up, and didn’t in the weeks immediately following the 500 said as much about Bayne’s stature as a stock car driver as it did the economy… a great story, but not a sure success, yet.

The fad has passed and now Bayne is back in development reality. The talent is still there, the 500 victory still a historic accomplishment and one of the biggest upsets the sport has seen. But just as the Monday following the 500 is a return to the Cup grind for race teams, Bayne also returned to the unsure life of a development driver, no longer hot enough to justify rolling out an unsponsored car for an exhibition.

FOUR: Harvick Frustrated with Busch Because He’s Winning Too Many NNS Races?

Scene Daily reported following Saturday’s Nationwide race at Fontana, prior to his win in the Cup race the following day, Kevin Harvick stated “there’s nothing worse” than watching Kyle Busch pull into victory lane, that he’s winning too much and it’s the responsibility of the other drivers such as himself to stop such things from happening.

Again, big words with regard to what’s going on in the Nationwide Series ranks. Where are these bold words when it comes to Jimmie Johnson and his five consecutive Cup titles? Where is the chrome horn, the win it or lose it pit strategy and the radical tactics that can and have stemmed dominant tides in this sport before?

For that matter Kevin, who the hell cares? It’s freaking AAA ball! Just as Kyle’s running wild over the minor leaguers means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of the sport, there’s absolutely nothing for Harvick to be upset about here. Yes, you didn’t get to the playground fast enough to steal milk money from the kids. Now be a man, grab your wallet and head to an ATM and withdraw something you earned for yourself.

FIVE: Dollars for Dillons? Menard to Childress Signing Starting to Make Sense

With Paul Menard sitting seventh in points, the highest of Richard Childress Racing’s four Cup drivers five races into the season, old RC is looking every bit a genius for adding a fourth car to his stable that isn’t dragging the organization down with it.

Now sure, there would have been experts out there in the offseason that would have called Menard an improved driver, someone that could realistically finished top 20 in points while contending for a win or two along the way. But seventh in points? That’s a rare preseason forecast indeed, and it’s one that it’s hard to believe that RCR was banking on when signing Menard last year.

Though Menard has always been a far more accomplished driver than a Kyle Krisiloff in terms of being a racer that comes with sponsorship attached at the hip, it’s that money that has carried the Wisconsin-native through a lengthy Nationwide Series development track to one of the Cup Series’ premier organizations. There’s no way that reality wasn’t lost on RCR… especially with not one, but two family drivers climbing the development ladder.

Menard’s home improvement stores are already one of the most prolific sponsors in all of motorsports; in addition to Menard’s No. 27 car, they also are a partial sponsor on KHI’s No. 33 Nationwide car, Matt Crafton‘s No. 88 Truck and Frank Kimmel‘s No. 44 car in the ARCA Racing Series (they’re also a presenting sponsor of that series). When it comes to motorsports, they are the venerable cash cow.

And cash is something Richard Childress will need as he brings Austin and Ty Dillon through the ranks. Austin may well have the backing of Bass Pro Shops in the Truck ranks, but not to the financial degree that will be needed to run a full NNS schedule as is planned in 2012, all while resurrecting RCR’s NNS program. Ty, meanwhile, has run unsponsored in a number of his ARCA races and will be looking for dollars to fund his truck next season. By giving Paul Menard a home, Richard Childress brought a serious cash cow under his roof.

“It’s 4:30 Mr. Book. Time for milking.”

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