Did You Notice? That when it comes to short tracks, there’s a trio of drivers who clearly stand out over everyone else? Let’s take a look at who’s collected wins at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond – the short-track swing which makes up six events on the sport’s 36-race schedule – since the start of the 2008 season:
So I guess we know whom to label as the favorites for Saturday night, right? It’s clearly a different atmosphere for NASCAR than in the past, where first Darrell Waltrip, then Rusty Wallace, even Kurt Busch a few years ago were in a league of their own when it came to these three places on the schedule.
Considering the recent history of the No. 11, you would think Saturday night’s duel would come down to a battle of Johnson and Busch. There’s reasons for both to be smiling heading into the weekend: the No. 48 is our most recent Cup winner while Busch cleaned house at Nashville – again – with a Truck Series victory to go along with a top-five finish in the Nationwide race. But when you look a little deeper into their recent history, it’s Hamlin, not those two, who ekes out the title of “Short Track King:”
Top-10 Finishes at Short Tracks Since 2008
Kyle Busch – 14
Denny Hamlin – 13
Jimmie Johnson – 13
(Ryan Newman surprisingly is fourth with 12)
Laps Led at Short Tracks Since 2008
Denny Hamlin – 2,073
Kyle Busch – 1,791
Jimmie Johnson – 1,416
Looking at those numbers, despite Busch’s recent success you’d have to give Hamlin the edge. After all, the No. 11 has been snakebit by bad luck at short tracks far more than Busch; who can forget one of his all-time greatest performances, at Richmond in the spring of 2008 where he led 381 of 382 laps before blowing a tire? That would have given Hamlin a 14th top 10, tying him with the No. 18 to go along with the slight edge in laps led.
So what does it all mean? Expect the winner Saturday (April 30) to come from one of these three guys but for Hamlin, clearly the pressure’s on (as it’s been for about the better part of two months now). Coming off a bye week, with his Chase chances all out of whack it’s essential for the Virginian to come out and whoop these boys at what he’s always considered a home track, positioning the No. 11 for a wildcard spot they could contend for with victories at some of their stronger speedways (here, plus a win or two at Pocono this summer).
Martinsville, a track where they’re typically at or near the front all day ended with a disappointing 12th-place finish, a car ill-handling for the majority of the second half of that race. For them to bomb here, losing their short-track title to a guy like Busch no less would really show how unbalanced things are at Joe Gibbs Racing right now.
Did You Notice? Speaking of Joe Gibbs Racing, Sliced Bread hasn’t exactly become the “next generation” superstar Mark Martin proclaimed of the youngster at age 15? Considering those lofty expectations, it’s fair to put the 21-year-old’s first 83 starts up against those of his peers:
Joey Logano: One win, 10 top fives, 24 top 10s
Tony Stewart (the man he replaced): 10 wins, 29 top fives, 52 top 10s
Ryan Newman: Nine wins, 33 top fives, 47 top 10s
Jimmie Johnson: Seven wins, 24 top fives, 46 top 10s
Denny Hamlin: Three wins, 20 top fives, 42 top 10s
Jeff Gordon: Seven wins, 27 top fives, 41 top 10s
Carl Edwards: Four wins, 23 top fives, 41 top 10s
Jamie McMurray: One win, 16 top fives, 39 top 10s
Clint Bowyer: Two wins, 12 top fives, 35 top 10s
Kyle Busch: Four wins, 20 top fives, 34 top 10s
Kurt Busch: Four wins, 18 top fives, 29 top 10s
Kevin Harvick: Three wins, 13 top fives, 28 top 10s
Matt Kenseth: Three wins, 12 top fives, 27 top 10s
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Five wins, 16 top fives, 25 top 10s
Mark Martin: Zero wins, seven top fives, 23 top 10s
Greg Biffle: Four wins, nine top fives, 18 top 10s
Jeff Burton: Zero wins, seven top fives, 14 top 10s
So there you have it; compared to arguably the top-16 Cup drivers in the past decade, Logano falls flat in a comparison with virtually all of them. His numbers only put him ahead of Burton and Martin, and that’s not exactly something to crow about; both veterans struggled in a different era, having to man underfunded equipment for a couple of seasons before getting a much better opportunity at success.
Some may say we’re being too hard on the youngster, who’s spent two-plus seasons in a Cup car but still isn’t old enough to drink. There’s some truth to that; but at the same time, when you arrive on the scene with Tiger Woods-like expectations you’re expected to, well, act like Tiger. The famous golfer didn’t go and putz around after turning pro; at the ripe old age of 21, he won the Masters, arguably his sport’s biggest event by 12 strokes.
Perhaps that’s where Logano has failed the most, his lone trip to victory lane coming on an improbable, 10-crazy-things-had-to-happen-for-this-to-work ending at New Hampshire. Leading a total of 91 laps his entire career, even when finishing towards the front he hasn’t been at the front enough to be considered a serious contender late in races. Being the quiet, consistent guy collecting top-10 finishes isn’t exactly how he was billed to the masses, right?
That makes things especially difficult for Home Depot, whose rival Lowe’s is working on a sixth straight championship for Johnson while Logano continues to go through growing pains: just ask Biffle, Harvick or Juan Pablo Montoya whom have all taken potshots at him in the last 12 months. It seems like we’re entering into a similar situation UPS has with David Ragan, where a top-notch, multimillion-dollar sponsor has to ponder a serious marketing decision: how long can you wait for lightning to strike?
It seems improbable, so early in his career Logano would be let go by a team that’s groomed him since he was a pimply teenager. At the same time, historical reference leads us to Target, whose Reed Sorenson experiment – similar age, slightly lower expectations – lasted three full years before they decided to give their driver the axe and go for someone like Montoya.
What were Sorenson’s numbers through 83 starts, though? No wins, five top fives and 12 top 10s… statistics substantially lower than Logano’s. That makes the decision tougher… but, like Montoya in 2009, there’s an “A-level” free agent out there that’s supposedly met with JGR, a man who’s already an established rival to Johnson – Edwards.
What to do, what to do if you’re in that struggling camp, right? One thing Logano does have going for him is it’s not exactly like other guys are knocking on the door to take his place as the top “young gun.” Brian Scott, inserted into the best ride in the Nationwide Series at JGR is acting like he’s been paired with a snail. Trevor Bayne, this year’s 500 winner has looked very much like a 20-year old work in progress ever since. Even Austin Dillon, for all his pomp and circumstance tied to being Richard Childress’ grandson is still two years away from being Cup ready.
Logano’s closest rookie competitor in ’09, Scott Speed is currently sitting on the sidelines, embroiled in a contract dispute with Red Bull Racing. Brad Keselowski, driving the Blue Deuce and on the same career path as Logano is doing worse (if that’s possible) in Cup over at Penske Racing. Heck, in the last year-plus the only rookie/new Cup driver to score a top-10 finish is Bayne with his gargantuan Daytona 500 upset.
So yeah, Logano’s still NASCAR’s best hope for future success. But, like the product the sport puts out these days his sales pitch is getting increasingly stale. That needs to be fixed.
Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we take off:
There’s been a ton of complaining about Cup drivers monopolizing the Nationwide Series this week. But in the midst of dwindling crowds, it is important to show the other side and look at the TV ratings: Saturday’s race set a record for Nashville viewership since ESPN started covering the April event in 2007.
Overall, the ratings for the Nationwide Series are up 14.2% on television through eight events, and that’s with a catastrophic drop at Daytona (33%) year-to-year since Danica Patrick was entering year two, not year one of this stock car experiment she’s attempting (her 2010 debut race set records for this series that will take years to equal, if ever). NASCAR’s always been a place where the critics shout louder than those happy with the racing, so for those proclaiming the death of the Nationwide Series is imminent… let’s walk before we run for a moment.
Crowds are definitely an issue at Nashville, but in the love/hate relationship with the new point system and continued dominance of Cup drivers we’re certainly seeing some mixed messages so far from the fan base.
On the flip side, if Rensi Motorsports is shut down, that’s a major blow to a second-tier division hoping to keep its independent owners alive. By my count, the entry list this week stands at 42 cars, with seven of those start-and-parking. The other 35 are broken down as follows:
Ten are from Cup Series organizations directly (Joe Gibbs Racing – 3, Roush Fenway Racing – 3, Penske Racing – 2, Diamond Waltrip Racing (close enough) – 1, NEMCO Motorsports – 1)
Eight have strong ties to a Sprint Cup organization in terms of engine and chassis development (Turner Motorsports – 4, Kevin Harvick Inc. – 2, JR Motorsports – 2)
That leaves just seventeen teams driving the full distance for independents, two of whom are aligned with Nationwide giant Rusty Wallace Inc. (Michael Annett, Steve Wallace). Among those in that category: Mike Wallace (Johnny Davis), Kenny Wallace (RAB), Jennifer Jo Cobb (driver/owner), Eric McClure and Mike Bliss (Tri-Star), Timmy Hill (Rick Ware), Robert Richardson (R3), Derrike Cope (Jay Robinson), Charles Lewandoski (Go Green), Scott Wimmer (Key Motorsports), Jeremy Clements (driver/owner), Kevin Lepage (Means Motorsports), David Stremme (ML Motorsports), Blake Koch (MacDonald Motorsports) and Morgan Shepherd (driver/owner).
Trust me, that’s not a long list for a series that was once filled with independents capable of winning on any given week. All the guys I mentioned in that category now? They’ll be lucky to sniff the top 15 on Friday night.
Things that make you go Hmmm. So Burton is now signed to a multi-year deal, as is Paul Menard (with his father as the sponsor) and Harvick just got re-signed in 2010. Dillon needs a place to go for Sprint Cup in 2013 and Bowyer’s contract is up with RCR at the end of this year along with sponsorship at the No. 33. Something’s gotta give… right? You know Childress’s grandson isn’t going to run for some sort of satellite organization when he’s ready for Cup.
That makes Bowyer the wildcard in this whole Silly Season deal; he’s not going to want to be some sort of one-year placeholder a la Kasey Kahne. But on the flip side, could the RCR/KHI convergence in the Nationwide Series be some sort of setup for a satellite Cup team over the long term… headed by Harvick? It’s hard to fathom letting a guy 10th in points (Bowyer), arguably your second-best driver this season walk.
The plot thickens.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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