Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Dollars, Cents & the Lack Thereof

ONE: Pit Call of the Day to Johnston, Truex?

When all was said and done on Monday (Sept. 19), there wasn’t much to celebrate statistically for the No. 56 team, coming home a mediocre 18th despite leading 14 laps (more than he’s led the previous nine races combined). And those laps came late in the going, with Martin Truex Jr. going full bore as leaders Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and others were stroking the throttle, trying to conserve fuel to the finish.

Truex and the No. 56 team knew full well they weren’t making it to the checkers without stopping; they had played an earlier strategy card, banking on a caution to come with 20-30 to go that would force the hands of the pack to come in for tires if not gas.

Given how 2011 has played out, with copious numbers of fuel-mileage finishes and a visible decline in cautions, playing that strategy card was the No. 56 squad trying to defy the odds. And it didn’t work out; the caution never came, Truex’s charge to the front of field past both the Chase field and the class of Monday’s field fell well short of a serious challenge for the win, and his team remained without a top 10 finish on a 1.5-mile oval since Las Vegas nearly six months ago. And it was the exact right call for crew chief Chad Johnston to make.

Yes, it didn’t work out, and it may well have cost the team its ninth top-10 finish of the season; around lap 150 the NAPA team had reached that point in the running order. But Johnston, for all the flack he’s been catching for the call, did exactly what both a non-Chaser team and a flagship for a struggling organization should be doing … he made a play for the win.

He got his team off-sequence, he got them up front, and when it became clear it wasn’t going to work, he had his driver in position to at least score some TV time and some confidence. Anyone that’s had the type of year Truex has had is going to take something away from blowing by the No. 48, from blowing by Stewart on his A-game, even if its just for a fleeting few laps.

Instead of going for the top 10, Johnston played to win. He lost and his team lost. But there’s definitely something to be said for going down swinging. After all, what else is a team outside Brian’s favorite circle supposed to do during their two-month lack of appreciation tour?

TWO: Go Figure … Chicago Lacked a Spark

The new face of the Chase was the 1.5-mile cookie cutter in Chicagoland, and the 400-miler played out just as anyone from the pundit to the casual fan would have expected; clean air made top-10 cars dominant racecars up front, pit stops and track position were essential and fuel mileage dictated the way the finish unfolded. Oh, and debris cautions aplenty.

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There was some good racing through the field; most notably, Johnson’s methodical performance until the gas tank ran dry had plenty of entertaining exchanges to enjoy on the track. But wasn’t there was constant close quarters racing. What wasn’t there was a spark, a la the Kurt Busch/Scott Riggs tussle of 2005, to set things in motion, to set the stage for the upcoming stretch of races.

Instead, well, short of Stewart finally breaking through in 2011, Monday’s race was about as predictable as they come. Carl Edwards, Johnson and Kevin Harvick were fixtures in the top 10. Ryan Newman was a top-10 car, but it took pit strategy to get the No. 39 to the front of the field. Kurt Busch was a rocketship in the first half, then enjoyed a fade in the closing run of the event that saw the No. 22 team fall victim to their driver’s latest tirade.

Had it not been for the fuel-mileage shuffle in the final lap, this race would have just about as played out as the standings chart. And given that five of the 10 Chase races are on these intermediate circuits, that’s bound to happen sooner or later (face it NASCAR, even with the reset, the top teams are the top for a reason).

But given the purpose of the Chase, to spur interest in the sport and avoid a Matt Kenseth-esque charge of consistency to a championship, Chicago was about the worst possible starting point. There were no scuffles. There was no traded paint. There was, for better or worse, the type of racing that is seen on intermediate ovals.

The rainout just put an exclamation point on what everyone with half a clue saw coming; Chicago was another race; it was the start of absolutely nothing worth exciting over.

THREE: The Math at Roush Fenway Racing Isn’t Pretty Right Now

Kenseth is sans a primary sponsor for 2012. David Ragan‘s No. 6 car is short at least 20 races, and more like 28, on paint jobs for next year. Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s Nationwide Series entries have been running on patchquilt sponsorship for all of 2011. Edwards has close to full season covered on his Cup car … because his No. 99 Cup team poached his Nationwide Series backer … and (at least partly) as a result, Edwards will be running only part time in the Nationwide ranks for the first time since 2004.

That’s a lot of sponsorship for any organization to sell, especially for Roush, which is widely known to be among the most expensive organizations to sponsor at all levels of stock car racing. And that leaves the team in an interesting predicament, because the team’s succession plan is now likely to be interrupted. Edwards, Kenseth and Greg Biffle are all nowhere near retiring and given their time and contributions to the RFR organization, they’re not going anywhere.

If there’s a Cup driver on the roster that’s on their way out, it’s Ragan, even if he did have a better season after a win at Daytona in the summer.

One of two scenarios plays out here. Let’s say Ragan keeps his seat. That leaves Roush with no place to move development drivers; namely, Daytona 500 champion Bayne and the likely Nationwide Series champion in Stenhouse. Those are two awfully big names to have running in the Nationwide ranks again without primary backing … and in the current case of 2012 without a fully sponsored No. 60 team to bounce stuff off of.

So let’s say one of those two gets promoted to the No. 6 at the expense of Ragan. Yes, that leaves some Cup races for the second driver in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 car (who are rumored to be considering both Bayne and Stenhouse for their seat in 2012), but that also means one will still have to stay put in Roush’s Nationwide program for 2012, a program that again, will be without backing and short at least one full-time teammate.

The talent is definitely in this stable and Ford Racing has already enjoyed one of their best seasons in recent memory, with a legitimate shot at both the Nationwide and Cup titles and a season sweep of the Daytona races under their belt. That being said, there’s some real issues about what the roster is going to look like next season.

FOUR: Speaking of Lack of Health, Look at the Nationwide Series

Take a good hard look at the top 10 in points in that series and what’s on tap for their 2012 seasons:

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – no sponsorship for 2012, unknown what Roush Fenway Racing’s NNS program will look like.

Elliott Sadler – the No. 2 team is being merged into another organization following this season.

Reed Sorenson – primary backer Dollar General is not resigned for 2012 despite a winning season and sitting third in points.

Aric Almirola – signed and sponsored for 2012.

Justin Allgaier – sponsorship uncertain for 2012; could Allgaier be getting the Great Clips deal?

Jason Leffler – unsponsored for 2012; free to search for a new ride.

Kenny Wallace – likely to return to the No. 09 with American Ethanol/Toyota backing.

Steve Wallace – losing primary sponsorship after Homestead.

Brian Scott – returning for 2012 with family sponsorship.

Michael Annett – expected to return for 2012 with family sponsorship.

Out of those top-10 drivers, less than half have dollars and firm places to race next year … and half of those are being sponsored by the family business. It was already shocking enough to see 2010 ARCA Racing Series champion Patrick Sheltra all but fall off the map in 2011 despite having won a national touring series title, but now that same type of scenario is hitting the Nationwide Series, the same entity that NASCAR continually takes pride in dubbing “the second biggest form of motorsports in America?”

The financial questions at Roush pale in comparison to what’s being seen industry-wide at this level of racing. Ten start-and-parks are regularly appearing already at this point of the season … and now even running in the top 10 isn’t landing dollars.

Do the math on this one, it’s not pretty. And there’s not much of it to do.

FIVE: JGR May Have a Seat Next Year … For a Price

With all of that uncertainty at the very top of the Nationwide Series pecking order for 2011, even the team that has made the series its playground since 2008 is likely looking at openings next year. With Joey Logano‘s return to the team still up in the air, the No. 20 car would need a new primary driver for the first time in years, and possibly even new sponsor dollars if GameStop didn’t come back.

And as for Kyle Busch and the vaunted No. 18, well, all signs are pointing to Busch running plenty of NNS races in 2012 driving for his own race team. There’s nothing official to back this theory yet. But it’s no secret that Busch has found Truck Series ownership to be a losing venture fiscally … and that Dollar General, the same sponsor that’s painted Busch’s trucks for much of 2011, has yet to re-up with Turner Motorsports and the No. 32 team despite being a legitimate title contender and a race winner with Sorenson behind the wheel.

Long and short, there’s a viable case to be made that both the Nos. 18 and 20 will be available next season. Problem is, affording them. Sources have told Frontstretch that factoring in the level of preparation and equipment that JGR is employing at the Nationwide level, a single race behind the wheel of one of those vaunted Toyotas is going to run a driver in the neighborhood of $150,000 an event. In short, that’s a $5-million level of sponsorship for a season.

That type of dollars and cents kind of puts JGR’s dominance into perspective doesn’t it? The equivalent of 6-8 purses of race winnings per race for a budget?

On the plus side anyway, if some development driver comes out of nowhere with that kind of cash, it’d be nice to see someone else stomping the field in the No. 18. Wouldn’t it?

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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