For just about every organization out there, there’s a magic number of cars that just seems to work. For all its tradition and talent, Richard Childress Racing has never been able to make a four-car stable work as well as it has with three teams. Penske Racing dropped Sam Hornish Jr.’s Cup team last season and ended up batting a thousand in terms of putting cars in the Chase.
And over in the Nationwide Series, that magic number for JR Motorsports is apparently one. Because 2012 has perpetuated a stretch going on for years now, one that has seen the de facto Hendrick Motorsports Nationwide program struggle even to be a consistent top-10 presence in NASCAR’s AAA. Ever since bringing the No. 7 car back unexpectedly to full-timer status in the spring of 2010, JRM has gone from title contender to series regular.
After a disappointing couple of debut seasons (USAR standout Mark McFarland never found his footing, while Shane Huffman was seemingly rushed out of the No. 88 car in 2007 by an owner that later admitted that his equipment wasn’t what he thought it was), the team found a star in Brad Keselowski. And come 2008, JRM made the jump to contender; Keselowski won races and finished third in points, by far the best finish the organization had ever posted.
Granted, 2008 was a season that saw JRM field two full-time rides, but the No. 5 of then was not the No. 7 of 2010, or even today. That No. 5 team was the remains of Hendrick Motorsports’ signature Nationwide Series entry, one that Kyle Busch had wheeled three wins in the final eight races of the 2007 season.
The No. 5 team was a force and with a roster of drivers throughout the season that included Cup stars in Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin, it was perhaps the perfect situation for the team’s flagship No. 88; a teammate entry with experienced wheelmen that didn’t have points to worry about.
2009 saw the No. 5 scale back to a partial schedule … and the No. 88 moving up the Nationwide Series ladder. Though driver Keselowski again finished third in points, that finish came with double the poles and double the wins of the 2008 campaign. And after signing hot prospect Kelly Bires to replace the departing Keselowski, the No. 88 car was poised to contend further for the titles Earnhardt proclaimed it should win.
Alas, 2010 blew up on the launch pad almost before it started. Though Bires had an inauspicious start to his season with only one top-10 finish in five starts, he hardly seemed the focus of the organization, driver of the No. 88 or not. First, the team opted not to run Bires in the season opener at Daytona, citing sponsorship woes as they fielded cars for Danica Patrick and Earnhardt, but not a third for their supposedly full-time competitor.
It was less than two months into the season before JRM pulled the plug on Bires for what was reportedly a lack of chemistry within the team. It’s kind of hard for a team to establish chemistry with a driver, and vice versa, when the team tells the driver they can’t race their season opener for lack of sponsorship, yet only a month after Daytona then opt to field their No. 7 car full-time, sponsored or not, out of fear that Patrick would have to race her way into an event.
Nonetheless, the decision was made. JRM was a two-car team again. The No. 88 went from being one of only a handful of cars capable of challenging for a Nationwide title to a driver-by-committee entry and performance hasn’t recovered since. Jamie McMurray started off red-hot filling in the No. 88 seat after Bires’s release, scoring four top 10s in the first five races, but that streak tapered off; the team didn’t score a top-five finish in the final nine races of the season.
2011 saw the team get back behind a single-driver in pursuit of a Nationwide Series crown in Aric Almirola, but they may as well not have. Almirola was a non-factor in the title race the entire season, taking till the 14th race of the season to crack the top five at Charlotte while failing to find victory lane all season long. In fact, JRM saw a three year streak of winning seasons snap a season ago.
By the numbers? In the 67 races that have elapsed since JRM’s knee-jerk decision to unexpectedly keep the No. 7 going full-time, the organization has posted a grand total of three poles and one win. In the 67 races before that, five poles and seven wins … and that was with fewer cars on the track.
Two weeks into 2012, things don’t look much better. Patrick’s yet to crack the top 20 and Cole Whitt was an also-ran at Phoenix only a week after being chastised by his teammate for bump drafting gone bad.
That Whitt ran 13th at Phoenix may not strike one as being something to fret over (he is a rookie, after all) is not an argument that holds water though; as a rookie in the Truck Series just a year ago, Whitt won the pole, led 27 laps and finished sixth in his second race … and that was his debut at Darlington of all tracks. Whitt’s no stranger to starting fast, but the signs of that being the case at JRM aren’t there.
It’s a no-brainer as to why this happened. Danica Patrick can’t miss races and she was in real danger of having that happen in 2010 without owner points. JRM had no real option but to bring back the No. 7, to rid themselves of projects and distractions, to commit to bringing the open-wheel star to stock car racing.
There’s no doubting that from a business perspective, landing the biggest name in American open wheel was a huge coup for the organization and there’s no faulting them for protecting their investment.
But like any choice, it comes with consequences. And in this case, opting to go with a driver that’s claim to fame is more dollars than driving, the consequence is this; the No. 88 is no longer the flagship. A driver’s title is no longer the priority.
Those championships are going to have to wait.
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