Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Time’s Up, NASCAR Drivers Nearing the End of the Line

There are few things as inspiring as the athlete who refuses to give up and keeps fighting under the most overwhelming of odds and circumstances. Willis Reed trotting out on a broken leg during the NBA Finals, Curt Schilling pitching through a bum ankle and bloody sock in the World Series or Ronnie Lott choosing to cut off part of his finger to get back into a game against the Dallas Cowboys. You can stamp Man’s Game on all of the above.

Then there is the case of those who maybe stick around too long, or should step aside and give somebody else a crack at it. NASCAR is no exception; there are a few drivers who are tied in and have immunized themselves from outside competition, or are able to land rides by being able to provide sponsorship.

For every Junior Johnson there is a Buckshot Jones – a Casey Atwood for each Kasey Kahne.

Hey, whatever works – it’s a free country (for now) and it’s like Thunderdome in the upper echelons of auto racing. A few drivers whose careers have sputtered, stalled or never really got off the ground came to mind, and one wonders just how much longer they will keep trying – or be allowed to.

Steven Wallace

At some point, Steven Wallace will need to produce. If not for the sake of his father’s company, for the sponsors who fund his efforts and are becoming increasingly difficult to source in NASCAR. There is a bit of irony here with Wallace, who has shared a bit of the same rap that was unfairly foisted upon Paul Menard; he has a ride because of his dad’s name and money. That isn’t to say that Wallace isn’t a talented driver who has shown flashes of brilliance during the course of his brief Nationwide Series career.

In only his second career start at Bristol, a track that father Rusty ran roughshod over during his storied career, Steven started third and by lap 3 had taken the lead – with a flat tire. He would eventually end up wadding it up three laps later, but he showed speed early, and like Junior Johnson used to say, it’s easier to slow a driver down than have to spur him along.

Unfortunately, five years after that inspiring start, the results have left a little to be desired. Zero wins, five top fives and a number of solid runs that have met with disaster late in the going. Wallace has had to overcome some challenges along the way; driving for a smaller team with little solid Cup affiliation, team cars that have not performed much better than his own (including when driven by former Truck Series champion Brendan Gaughan).

Not to completely throw Wallace under the bus, he is having a decent year in 2011 from the outside looking in. He currently sits eighth in the Nationwide Series points, 103 points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – a driver who had to overcome a case of the wreckers himself last season.

That is however 103 points under the new points system, which would probably equate to about 450 points under the traditional system. He’s led all of six laps this year, with three top-10 finishes, and an ugly accident that at Lucas Oil… O’Reillys… Indianapolis Racetrack Motordome (whatever they’re going to call it now) that happened about a half a lap in front of him, as well as another questionable incident at Loudon, N.H. a few weeks prior, both reminiscent of an ARCA accident at Daytona.

He has yet to win a race in seven years and 158 starts of competition, and the promise that was shown in ARCA in 2005 and 2006 (four wins in 12 starts) has yet to translate into NASCAR success.

Casey Mears

While Menard gets garbage for being the son of a father who made his billions selling home improvement supplies, Casey Mears has done a fair job of parlaying his uncle’s Brickyard heroics and father’s off-road laurels into a semi-successful Cup career. After nine years of competing at the highest level of motorsports in North America, Mears has made 292 starts with one win, 11 more top fives and three poles. He’s finished as high as 14th in points in 2006 and even nudged Clint Bowyer out of his own car in 2009.

His win in 2007 was the result of a fuel-mileage gamble, and a year after he vacated the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after a 20th-place points performance, Mark Martin won five races with the same crew and nearly won the championship. Last year while subbing for the recovering Brian Vickers driving for Team Red Bull, Mears took out teammate Scott Speed at Michigan International Speedway leaving Speed to say, “Whenever you’re at Hendrick [Motorsports] and Richard Childress Racing and then you still don’t have a ride and haven’t done anything, there’s no real excuses after that.”

Ouch, quit it.

Mears’s performance in Nationwide has produced similar results. Nine years of racing, 93 starts and one win at Chicagoland in 2006. For 2011, Mears is driving the No. 13 GEICO Toyota for Germain Racing. He has qualified for all but one race this season (the Daytona 500 – kind of important), and currently sits 32nd in points behind Dave Blaney (20 starts) and road-racing ace Andy Lally (17 starts). The No. 13 car isn’t exactly a game changer, but it has kept him relevant in the sport and he has helped elevate the performance of the small independent Toyota team.

Credit to Mears for hanging in there and enduring the whispers and questions as to why he has not produced like his uncle or father in their respective series. Like former Notre Dame and University of South Carolina coach Lou Holtz says, “90% of life is just showing up” and doing so has helped Mears amass nearly $36 million in career winnings. That’s about $36 million more than I have made. I have the tax returns to prove it.

Robby Gordon

When the going gets tough, quit. While Robby Gordon has done an admirable job of keeping his head up and making an effort to get his team to the races, one would not fault him if he just s-canned everything, pulled up the railroad ties and scuttled the entire NASCAR operation for Robby Gordon Motorsports. I’ve often written how his decline and fall from grace in NASCAR is one of the most unfortunate that I can remember, simply due to the amount of talent and effort that Gordon has expended in recent years.

After winning three races in the No. 31 RCR Chevrolets – something that had not been done in a points-paying race since the counterpart to the flagship No. 3 debuted full-time in 1997, Gordon decided to go his own way, moving his Busch Grand National team up to Cup. The effort was strong, but the engines were weak and Gordon floundered.

Performance picked up in 2006 with a switch to DEI powerplants, however then Gordon began playing manufacturer roulette, moving to Ford for 2007, Dodge to 2009 and Toyota in 2009. Gordon is running Dodges again, one of three in the series along with the Penske duo of Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

With sponsorship a constant struggle, Gordon has had to fill out the season with a number of backers from Jim Beam, Harrah’s, Menards and Monster to name a few, as well as forming his own company – Speed Energy Drink – to help fund his racing efforts.

Ever the entrepreneur, Gordon is soldiering on in the spirit of drivers such as Dave Marcis and the late JD McDuffie. He’s started 15 races this season, and has resisted the temptation to become a start-and-parker, but has failed to finish a third of them. His best run was a 16th in the Daytona 500 and the road-course race at Infineon – one he normally is in contention to win no matter how bad things are going – was an 18th-place run, never a factor in the race or during qualifying.

For a driver of Gordon’s pedigree – wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, Baja 1000, seven SCORE Off-Road championships, a pair of wins in IndyCar, three Cup wins and coming within a lap and about a half gallon of fuel of winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1999 – it is a bit depressing to see him struggle and not be able to compete at the level he once did in NASCAR. Ryan Newman may have once deemed him Reckless Robby, but you’d be hard pressed to find another driver with the will, determination and pure driving ability of Robby Gordon.

Which makes his continued floundering and folly in Sprint Cup that much harder to witness – and understand.

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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