Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: 2011 the Year of the NASCAR (Lame) Duck?

I have a favorite sarcastic saying I like to use whenever somebody starts with the litany of how hard something is, bemoaning their struggle and lot in life.

“It’s too hard. You should probably just give up and quit.”

That saying came to mind this week when I was tasked with detailing the plight of the newest NASCAR phenomenon: The Lame Duck Driver.

Many times in politics, you will hear this term used, often in the second half of a President’s term if not up for re-election or before midterm elections in Congress (a sad commentary in and of itself for elected officials who are squandering our precious resources).

But these ugly words, too could be said for drivers who are in the final year of a contract with a team, particularly if it is one they are less than fond of. When you’re faced with a job coming to a close, it’s sometimes natural for people, along with those around them to relax, lose focus and give less than 100%. But is that phenomenon happening within the wave of NASCAR’s group of “lame ducks?”

Kasey Kahne might as well grow some feathers; the poster child for this position as of late, he’s been one for the last two years running. Starting off the 2010 season saying openly he was less than thrilled to be at Richard Petty Motorsports, not really knowing if it was going to work out, things just went downhill from there. I’m sure the souls and hearts at Budweiser and Ford just leapt when one of the most marketable and recognized drivers in the sport sounded more like a petulant NBA-er than a stock car driver, never really satisfied with the financing or the focus within his program.

As the season went on and parts failures became as routine as those of start-and-parkers, Kahne’s frustration seemed justified, though – particularly after the fall race at Charlotte, failing brakes becoming the final straw that had him leaving the No. 9 Ford a few races earlier than expected. Shut out of victory lane during a trying season, driver and team proved the perfect example of a situation where nobody wins.

But Kahne wasn’t out of work for long. A few months earlier, he had been announced as the heir apparent to the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet once Mark Martin’s contract expired – at the end of 2011. While much of the media took to the streets with torches in hand, demanding that Martin give up his ride to Kahne – after coming off a five-win season and the only driver who came within a whisper of challenging Jimmie Johnson for his fourth straight title – a solution was devised to keep Kahne in the mix elsewhere until 2012.

See also
Full Throttle: Kasey Kahne Getting Wings for 2011

The young driver would link up with Red Bull Racing, a unique one-year deal that would put him behind the wheel of a Toyota, not a Chevy before bolting for greener pastures this November. Once the wheels literally came off at RPM, that’s where Kahne has been ever since, trying to get comfortable before, um, he jumps off the couch and bolts somewhere else.

So, here we are, sitting midway through 2011 with Kahne finding himself in much the same situation now as he did about a year ago. As Red Bull Racing’s future comes into question, the sponsor/owner leaving the sport after the season this lame-duck driver is stuck with a team threatening to fold up shop. Will history repeat itself? If anything, that awkward past has led to frayed nerves for the man behind the wheel.

“If everybody is unsure about what they have [as in: jobs], I don’t think they’re going to perform like if they knew where they were going to be next year and knew that they were stable,” he said last month prior to the road course event at Infineon Raceway. “So as of right now, I’m a bit worried, yeah [about short-term performance]. I don’t see how you can’t be.”

Kahne’s contention is that if team members don’t know their employment status for next year, the performance drops off due to the focus being on their well-being rather than the racing business at hand. So far, those concerns have been justified with just one top-five finish, a fourth at Daytona dotting the resume these last four weeks.

But not every situation can fall apart like that; in other cases, desperation can prove to be a bit of a motivator. Take former lame duck Jamie McMurray, for instance. Towards the end of the 2009 season, he had no clue what he’d be doing for 2010. It wasn’t until the end of the year that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing was able to convince sponsor Bass Pro Shops to sign on for one more season, rather than go with legitimate angler Ryan Newman.

So how did McMurray’s first audition go? Not too shabby – he won the Daytona 500. And just to make sure that win didn’t get lost in the shuffle, considered a fickle fluke like many restrictor plate races prove to be, McMurray went out and won the next biggest race, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Capping off his comeback year with a win at Charlotte, the heart of the industry in last fall sealed a long-term deal with both owner and sponsors going forward.

Now there’s a slight difference, of course between a lame duck, a driver in a contract year, or one looking for a ride: people can often shift in between roles during Silly Season. For now, the list of pending free agents is as distinguished in recent memory:

Carl Edwards is the Jenga piece that will be most likely to cause the other dominoes to fall, or everything else to fall into place. Edwards can make his marionettes dance for him virtually any way he wishes, with sponsors like UPS and Home Depot throwing themselves at him like a Tijuana sweetheart.

Joey Logano has been assured he is returning to Joe Gibbs Racing in the Home Depot No. 20 next year – assuming Carl doesn’t tell the Coach he’s trading in his feathers for a nail apron. With the announcement that Team Red Bull is pulling up the tent stakes, Clint Bowyer wants to return to RCR while Brian Vickers finds himself looking for a spot to land next season.

Speaking of UPS, David Ragan’s Hail Mary effort at Daytona resulting in his first career victory may have been too little, too late – not unlike McMurray’s victory at Talladega in 2009 driving the No. 26 Ford. Circumstances there were a little different, as Roush Fenway was forced to whittle things down to four cars; but considering the talent waiting in the wings now with drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne, along with sponsorship dollars being at a premium at Roush (see: Crown Royal departure), that Daytona 500 lane-change this year may have proved costly in more ways than one.

Caught in the midst of this madness is Martin, the other definitive lame duck within this wave of free agents. The 52-year-old veteran, who is still all smiles after being basically burned out five years ago, was rumored to be the savior for Red Bull Racing, or ready to enter the scene as an owner/driver much like Tony Stewart. Martin has recently stated he has no desire to enter into an ownership role, however, and is content with those in the garage area approaching him as a driver – not an investor.

Martin’s reluctance to do so is easily understandable; his first attempt at it in the early 1980s nearly ruined him before he was 25 years old. He dabbled briefly as an owner again in 1992 fielding the No. 60 Winn-Dixie Ford, which would eventually be absorbed by Jack Roush a year later.

So considering the time gap, and 2012 evolving into what looks to be one of the most difficult years economically everywhere – not just in motorsports – the thought of being an owner/driver like Stewart is daunting. Unless Martin made virtually every decision right, chances are he’d result in being an owner/driver like Robby Gordon. Not the reputation you want to have.

That makes Martin a lame duck with a double whammy involved: no clear future. But no one would ever accuse Martin of stroking it or just riding; he, too, is working to find the right ride and fit for him next year, so giving up and mailing it in the next 18 races isn’t really an option. The same could be said of McMurray when he was looking for a ride at the end of 2009; he won the Talladega race that fall, helping lock up a future opportunity with Earnhardt Ganassi.

Ragan, following in those footsteps posted another top-10 run on Saturday night in Kentucky, following up his Coke Zero 400 win a week earlier. Vickers, too is still working hard to find a home in 2011 – likely not at Stewart-Haas Racing after his dustup with Smoke a few weeks ago – and will be one of the “pushers” and not one that waves the white flag of surrender. Those circumstances, when compared to Kahne make what’s going on at the No. 4 a distinct minority.

So as the world of racing contracts and the number of people within the industry work to find a new place to provide for themselves and their families, any notion of surrender, quitting or pulling up lame is mostly more perception than reality. It might be tempting, but in this day and age, you simply can’t afford to give up.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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