Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Rowdy’s Coup, a Dying Cup Team & Why Norm Benning Made the News

ONE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Runner-Up Result Has No Negative

Dale Earnhardt Jr. came oh so close to ending the longest losing streak of his career at Martinsville this past Sunday, falling only a few laps short to a red-hot Kevin Harvick. And for as stellar a result as it was for the No. 88 team, any observer of Jr. and his post-race reactions would be very correct in expressing concern over his emotional state of mind following the event. Despite his remarks, Jr. thought that Martinsville was going to be the place the losing stopped.

He was convinced, after bumping Kyle Busch from the lead, that he had this race won. Speaking fast, Earnhardt was doing everything he could to hold back his emotions.

If this was 2010 and Earnhardt still had wet noodle Lance McGrew atop the pit box, this obvious dejection would be cause for concern. But with proven leader Steve Letarte in control of the reins, this utter emotionality is something Jr. fans should be thrilled to see. It’s one thing for a driver running 22nd to express frustration with poor performance, but a driver that runs second and is utterly devastated is more than that. They’re hungry, they’re possessed and they’re going to win very soon.

See also
Steve Letarte Taking Charge as Bristol a Step Forward for Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Team

All of the questions regarding both Earnhardt’s talent behind the wheel and his mindset as a major-league racecar driver were put to rest this past Sunday. A true driver’s track, Earnhardt took the bull by the horns in moving Kyle Busch to take the lead, taking a car that even the driver admitted was at best a top-10 machine and turning the afternoon into a near win. And as for running second, there was no mistaking just how distraught NASCAR’s most popular driver was over it. There was a complete and utter sense of devastation in his post-race remarks.

Any competitor displaying that kind of agony isn’t going to let it continue for much longer. By Talladega, Earnhardt will be back in victory lane.

TWO: Kyle Busch Signing of Raikkonen a Shrewd Move

The ink was barely dry on articles that 2007 Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen was not going to be making his NASCAR debut with Gillett-family backing when another king of controversy, one Kyle Busch, announced that his Truck Series operation would field the Finnish driver in his stock car debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Raikkonen is now slated to test at Gresham Motorsports Park this week.

The decision by Raikkonen not to follow through with a Gillett deal is a no-brainer; the family’s list of financial transgressions within the sport could fill encylopedias, while trying to make a NASCAR debut with a less than premier organization is an open-wheel recipe for disaster. Just ask Jacques Villeneuve.

Busch’s move to sign him to drive for his truck team was not so certain a good thing, but it terms of business decisions the young owner scored a coup with this signing. Be it the product of a slow newsweek or the fact that figures such as Ray Evernham wasted no time publicly trashing the ownership group that initially was trying to bring Raikkonen into the sport, this story has become nearly as big a story as when Juan Pablo Montoya announced that he was making the very same move back in 2006.

And by inserting himself and his race team, an operation still searching for additional sponsor dollars for 2011 and beyond, Busch turned KBM into a story not only in the weeks to come, but further on a weekend in Charlotte where the All-Star Race is supposed to take center stage from everything else.

Busch the owner just made quite the splash. Maybe that will fill the hole where the two grandfather clocks he narrowly missed on this weekend were going to go.

THREE: The Future of the No. 37 Team Very Much in Doubt

As has been reported in recent weeks, Front Row Motorsports has been keeping the No. 37 car running to bridge the gap until new owner Larry Gunselman can get his house in order to take the operation over. Walking the pits at Martinsville this weekend, while its unclear as to just how far the transition away from Front Row Motorsports has gotten officially, it was more than obvious that the team is no longer operating as an FRM entry.

See also
Beyond the Cockpit: The Direction of Ford, Front Row Motorsports & Car No. 37

The crew was smaller. Both David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil had five sets of sticker tires each for their racecars… while Tony Raines‘s No. 37 had nothing but scuffs. Front Row’s cars were emblazened with their trademark fast food decals, representing team owner Bob Jenkins’s restaurant chain. Not so for Raines’s car.

Besides the obvious conclusion that can be drawn for any car seen at the track with a diminished crew and a lack of sticker tires, there are two obvious concerns for fans of both Raines and full-time Sprint Cup entries not reduced to playing the role of start-and-park.

For one, Larry Gunselman’s ownership history at the Cup level is far from stellar, with his No. 64 entry last season running past the halfway mark only once in 16 starts. Two, anyone paying close attention throughout the weekend would have noticed the sponsor decal present on the No. 37’s hood, that of Raymond Key’s contracting company. The same Raymond Key whose Keyed-Up Motorsports had disappeared from the Cup circuit before the all-star break in its inaugural season.

There’s no reason to say anything negative about Gunselman or Key, or their intentions of being involved with the No. 37 team. The unfortunate reality though, especially for Raines fans, is there’s a whole lot of history taking over this race team. And none of that history has a strong sense of longevity.

FOUR: Norm Benning’s Anger at Justin Lofton a Product of an Existential Struggle

Norm Benning has certainly been a topic of discussion since moving to the Truck Series full time a few seasons ago, but more often than not for Ron Hornaday and Todd Bodine moaning about how far off the pace his No. 57 entry is. On this Saturday, however, Benning found himself involved in a rare on-track incident, tagging the No. 77 of Justin Lofton on lap 18 and ending any prayer of contention for a fellow former ARCA regular.

Benning’s team insisted that Lofton was driving over his head. Lofton’s team was incensed that a backmarker took them out. And for over 200 laps, this festered, until the two trucks pulled onto pit road following the end of the race one behind the other. Both drivers emerged from their machines and both exchanged words… only it was Benning, not Lofton, who was doing the vast majority of the talking and gesturing.

How does that work, that the driver who wrecked the other is the one angry? It’s simple really… Benning can’t afford to be in situations like this, to have drivers angry at him. Because while his team was being glib over the radio when they referred to Lofton’s racing “on daddy’s money,” Lofton does indeed have family money and plenty of it. That means that when he wrecks trucks, they get fixed.

The same can’t be said for Benning, who runs the same truck week after week. His team wrecks a truck, they’re out of business. Meaning that having a driver like Lofton, who’s obviously upset with the No. 57 and, correctly or not, is seemingly ready to go after said team in the weeks to come, poses an existential threat to Benning’s racing career. And considering that Benning didn’t believe that he was in wrong, that Lofton came across his nose, who can blame him for being angry in that situation, justified or not?

FIVE: A Well-Flagged Race

In case a six-pack rating by our own Matt McLaughlin didn’t drive the point home enough, Sunday’s race at Martinsville was fantastic. And in addition to the action on-track that was plentiful and entertaining, NASCAR’s officiating was for once up to par. This time, there was not a yellow flag that flew the second a tire went flat or a car scraped the wall. Instead, the race was allowed to play itself out, with the immediate yellow coming out only in very deserving cases such as Martin Truex Jr.‘s harrowing stuck-throttle wreck in turn 3.

That’s the way it should be. If a driver can get a car with a flat tire or a flattened quarterpanel out of the way and keep it moving, there’s no reason for the race to stop, especially in a day where track position is of supreme importance at every venue, be it to stay up front at a bullring or to take advantage of clean air on an intermediate oval. NASCAR acted like that was their modus operandi this Sunday, and the race benefited as a result.

Then again, 36 dates at Martinsville would benefit a lot of things too.

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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