Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? 6 Things We Learned About NASCAR in January, Part II

Happy Valentine’s Day! But whether you’re single, ready to toss this holiday in the trash can or planning your night with that special someone you’ve all come here for the same reason: love of NASCAR. So let’s get right to it, more offseason observations that will have your pack of Cupid arrows pumped with information, not infatuation about the upcoming 2012 season. Please use with discretion.

For Part I of Tom’s column about January observations, click here.

Joe Gibbs Racing Enters 2012 Sponsored By????

Catching you up on JGR’s offseason sounds like a 60-second promo before one of the latest dramas like Shameless starts up on Showtime. “In case you missed the last episode, here’s what’s been happening: Joey Logano, after losing his championship crew chief is seeing a sports psychologist to rebuild his self-esteem.

Logano: ‘It’s not like you’re a weirdo [to see a shrink]. I think it’s good.’ But does he really believe the worst is over? Especially when he’s staring at the last year of a contract that was nearly pulled out from under him by Carl Edwards?

“In the meantime, a fire at the complex threatens to destroy all of JGR’s engines, research and development for a second year in a row. Can their leaders get over the nightmares, every time they see someone strike a match and get back into the business of building equipment? They’re now led by mystery man, Darian Grubb, a crew chief that has revenge on his mind after being released from last-year’s championship-winning team last November.

Can he turn his determination into cutting the drama for his new driver, Denny Hamlin, who’s also in the midst of seeing his own shrink? Oh! and Susan Lucci-diva, Kyle Busch, makes his return on the season premiere of Joe Gibbs Racing!”

Everything I said above was true. So let’s summarize here: Three Cup cars. Two new crew chiefs. One new major sponsor (Dollar General, No. 20). One driver (Busch) whose actions in other series were so despicable owner Joe Gibbs actually requested Busch remove himself from Truck Series competition and limit Nationwide Series starts to keep him out of trouble.

A revamped engine shop, one that’s now working on engines from Toyota Racing Development instead of building their own. And they’re all working to recover from a 2011 stats line (highest points finish: ninth, 38 top-10 finishes combined amongst three cars) that were their worst totals since first expanding to a three-car outfit in 2005. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say this multi-car giant is trying to rebuild from a season to forget.

“It wasn’t what we had hoped for,” said JD Gibbs in January. “We were able to learn what not to do again.”

“We made some changes [for 2012], and they weren’t easy. But we felt it was the right time to make those changes, top to bottom at the shop. Sometimes, in life you have to go through that process and make sure you’re where you need to be.”

Psychologically, Hamlin and Logano are working hard to make sure they’re on pace, with the former admitting last season was his most difficult, ever. That’s a hefty statement, considering 2010 involved surgery for a torn ACL and the catastrophe of a championship that slipped away within that season’s final two weeks.

“I needed to get away from Charlotte for a little while, get away from racing,” he said, admitting the 2011 hangover took its toll. “When you have such a bad year, you’re waiting for the season to be over with. Even with the Chase, which is like a second wind when you come out of the gate and have the issues like we had in the very first race – it doesn’t take long to start counting down how many weeks are left in the season.”

Hamlin caught a break in snagging Grubb, whose services were dumped by Stewart-Haas Racing mere days after winning the 2011 title. But revenge can turn bittersweet with bad chemistry; will the soft-spoken Grubb be the confidence-builder Hamlin needs? Especially with so many changes around them, don’t be so fast to jump on this marriage before it develops.

As for Logano, it’s hard to gauge where the fourth-year driver will be after just one top-five finish in the final 17 races last season. A new head wrench in Jason Ratcliff replaces Greg Zipadelli, but can he replace the self-esteem lost behind the wheel? The 21-year-old appeared to walk through the second half of the season as a ghost of his former self, stripped of success and unsure of what the future held.

“I’ve known Joey for a long time,” Ratcliff says optimistically; the two have worked together often on the Nationwide side, where Logano has remained moderately successful despite the Cup struggles. “I know him well enough to where I can build confidence quick. Fast racecars is going to do that, but I have a feel for what he wants in a racecar.”

They’ll have to work quickly; sponsor Home Depot is more than willing to sell off races, a sign they’re not too keen on who’s behind the wheel. And then there’s Busch. After his Texas weekend parking in November, it’s a critical season for the 26-year-old who’s certainly on a shorter leash with both sponsor M&M’s and the Gibbs establishment entering the year.

For now, the powers that be at JGR aren’t too worried about Busch’s recovery, especially after older brother Kurt Busch just went through a public, torturous end to his job at powerhouse Penske Racing.

“Life teaches you lessons, and you can choose to learn from it or you can fight it,” JD Gibbs philosophized on the Media Tour. “And [Busch is] going to learn from it. There’s value going through a difficult situation.”

“He got married [last year] and he’s been maturing and growing. The Truck race, he was thinking, ‘That’s my stuff, not Joe Gibbs Racing stuff.’ Now, he’s realizing it’s all related.”

Certainly, at this point with Busch it wouldn’t be surprising if what Gibbs says carries weight. After all, Kevin Harvick rebounded from his own one-race parking with Richard Childress in 2002 to post one of his best Cup seasons one year later.

But with the historical volatility of Busch’s behavior, your guess is as good as anyone within JGR as to what will unfold – and that applies to the organization’s entire 2012 season as well, instability shaking things up with no clue as to how it will balance out.

“We’ve gone through some big changes with our team,” said Hamlin. “And that’s what’s got us really excited.”

It’s also made them the most unpredictable.

Fuel Injection? The real focus in money and development is on 2013

Quick … when’s the last time you heard a quote about fuel injection you actually cared about? That’s because no one behind the scenes is seriously concerned about the transition to the “new” technology for the coming year. We put “new” in quotes here, of course since this type of “innovation” has been around for decades. So while you might see an engine failure or two early on, don’t expect a major rash of mechanical disasters to define the Chase.

More pressing this season is NASCAR’s research and development of the 2013 car, whose Ford model was revealed to great fanfare in January. It appears the sanctioning body is throwing all their eggs in this basket re: reducing costs long term, fixing the handling problems on intermediates, and using the new design to attract new ownership next season.

The early response by fans has been positive and there’s plenty of testing ahead to fine-tune the handling. But the sport needs to be careful; a supposed “long list” of new owners and interest never fully materialized after the Nationwide CoT’s full introduction.

Goodyear, whose tires took years to fully match the current car, must also be heavily involved in testing. And NASCAR, through the season must allow for as many affordable, open tests as possible so the big teams don’t jump so far out in front on R&D no one else will be able to catch up.

Death Doesn’t Take a Break in the Offseason

Unfortunately, the new year has already brought with it a trio of tragedies. In the media world, veteran NASCAR writer Benny Phillips passed on at the age of 77. Phillips was a contributor to Stock Car Racing magazine, the sports editor of North Carolina’s High Point Enterprise for 32 years (longer than I’ve been alive) and was a racing expert for television programs like Motorweek Illustrated.

Most importantly, he always had something to say that made perfect sense. His passing is a reminder of the legendary writing of years past, along with an uncertain future as to who will replace them as newspapers and other sources of media continue to struggle economically.

On the personal side, Matt Kenseth lost his mother, Nicola, to early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the end of January. She was just 63, another tough loss for a driver who lost a full-time sponsor, Crown Royal at the end of last season despite finishing inside the top five in Sprint Cup points. Kenseth, whose team is still searching for primary sponsorship for select races on the schedule, tweeted to let everyone know how much their support has been appreciated during this time of grief.

It’s notable one of Kenseth’s favorite athletes, Brett Favre of his beloved Green Bay Packers pulled off arguably his greatest performance following the death of his father. We’ll see if the Wisconsinite follows suit down in Daytona for Speedweeks.

And finally, Dr. Joe Mattioli’s death is still being felt weeks after his passing. The Pocono Raceway founder and patriarch died Jan. 26, 2012 at the age of 86 just months after stepping down as President of the racetrack. The future of the facility is in good hands, led by a trio of grandchildren – Brandon, Nick and Ashley Igdalsky – but the leadership and kindness that defined his tenure will not soon be forgotten.

See also
Remembering Doc Mattioli: A Legacy Beyond the Racetrack

Certainly, living in the Philadelphia area – where Mattioli built his dentistry practice that would build the foundation for a racing career – his death had a bigger impact than other areas of the country. Having talked with him several times, the impression I always got was that Dr. Joe was proud to do things his own way.

He was one of the last independent owners in a sport whose tracks have been swallowed up by two monopolies: SMI and ISC. To that end, he insisted on 500-mile races even when criticism ramped up over those distances at the 2.5-mile triangle.

But he made decisions with a smile, not a frown and welcomed visitors personally with the type of charm that even in those aging years made it clear how a dynasty was formed.

When you stop and think about it, what Mattioli did – building a 2.5-mile track in the middle of nowhere in northeast Pennsylvania and turning it into a multimillion-dollar empire – is the longshot type of dream that takes a special person to turn into reality. To this day, it remains the closest track to the New York City market and attracts the top racing series in the country, with two Sprint Cup dates, a Truck Series visit and two ARCA stops.

Through our years of being involved with the sport, the Mattiolis and company have always been warm and welcoming to the Frontstretch staff and me even during times of sharp criticism. Personal relationships were never affected by professional coverage, an example set right at the top. No doubt, the future is strong at Pocono Raceway but their past leader will be sorely missed.

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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