Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Odds-On for Hendrick & Mayfield’s Improbable Return

ONE: Expect Hendrick Motorsports’ Best Shot on Saturday Night

The parade of hype surround Hendrick Motorsports’ inevitable 200th win got stalled for two more weeks last Sunday (April 1) courtesy of another crazy Martinsville finish. But delaying the inevitable is one thing, having that accomplishment literally snatched away in a wreck that crashed two team cars in one corner is something else.

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That being said, it’s hard to imagine that any race team not under the Hendrick banner is going to walk away with Saturday night’s upcoming 500-miler.

Regardless of what the points say, HMS has got three teams knocking on the door. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to his best season start since 2008, Jimmie Johnson has overcome the penalty of Speedweeks and been red-hot – assuming one takes away that same weekend’s Daytona crash. As for Jeff Gordon, well when was the last time the No. 24 was actually a better car than the No. 48 like last race weekend?

True, Texas Motor Speedway as a track has not been a playground for HMS the same way Martinsville has. Last weekend’s win was seemingly automatic until the chaos of the green-white-checkered finish did its work. Meanwhile, HMS hasn’t visited victory lane in Fort Worth since 2009.

But all four drivers on the team roster have won at TMS in their careers. Tony Stewart has won on a 1.5-mile oval already this year driving the team’s equipment. And the organization has spent two weeks preparing for this race and trying to overcome the disappointment of what was a picture-perfect situation for 495-plus laps at Martinsville.

It’s hard not to take those odds.

TWO: BK Racing and an Engine Reliability Quandary

Mechanical failures kept David Reutimann and the Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 10 team from overcoming a miniscule points gap between them and Landon Cassill’s No. 83 team. The gap is only one point, but that’s the difference between a guaranteed spot in the field and being forced to time trial into the field for Saturday. While BK Racing’s primary entry has got the luxury of knowing they’re going to race this weekend, they can’t race with a cushion.

That poses a tough challenge for the No. 83 team. On the one hand, the team has to throw everything they have at this race. The margin of error is one point between being a fixture in the Cup garage and being a go-or-go-homer.

On the other hand, this is an operation that has been no stranger to engine failure even this far into the 2012 season (in the Cup Series’ only race on a 1.5-mile oval this season, both Cassill and Travis Kvapil had motors expire), and they’re facing 500 miles at a high-speed venue that’s arguably harder on engines than the reconfigured Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

An engine failure is perhaps the most catastrophic outcome that either BK team could face as the 2012 Top 35 entrenches itself.

So just how far does the No. 83 team need to push? How safe can they play it in the engine department while being reliably able to compete with and beat the No. 10 team?

And how ironic is it that Reutimann is battling in the No. 10 car to knock his BK Racing teammate (he drives the team’s No. 93 car part-time) out of the Top 35? You gotta feel sorry for the guy; at Martinsville he’s driving a disintegrating racecar to keep the No. 10 locked in for Danica Patrick – as well as himself – and becomes a villain for it.

Now, it’s either continue to fail at that job or keep teammate Cassill from doing his. I’d wager this wasn’t in Reutimann’s mind when he agreed to run a full schedule between two teams.

THREE: Max Q Motorsports May Well Be Better Able to Survive Having Lost Sponsorship

No. 37 team owner Larry Gunselman is reportedly looking for new partners to keep his journeyman Cup operation afloat, now that backer Poynt and Rick Ware Racing driver Timmy Hill are returning to the Nationwide Series after failing to qualify for five of the season’s first six Cup races.

While losing a sponsor is something no owner in their right mind would be longing for, the situation for Max Q Motorsports may not be quite as dire as it seems on paper. Because frankly, as promising a driver as Hill is, a 19-year-old with only one year of Nationwide racing in an underfunded ride can’t realistically be expected to take a go-or-go-homer Cup ride and time it into the field week after week.

Now, Max Q and the No. 37 are in a situation that, while undesirable, is far more attainable than trying to make Hill a Cup driver overnight. Stacy Compton’s Turn One Racing team, Mike Smith’s No. 19 team, Joe Nemechek’s No. 87; they’re all making start-and-park at the Cup level work.

It’s not pretty and it’s frankly not something to be encouraged, but if the idea is to simply keep a car on track, Gunselman’s team now has free reign to go after any driver they want and need to crack the field.

It’s the end of a bad marriage. Gunselman’s team wasn’t ready to handle true driver development, nor was the driver developed enough to be at the Cup level. That’s not a knock on driver or team, that’s reality. And just as Hill’s not a prospect to write off after struggling in Cup, nor is the prospect of the No. 37 team staying on the Cup circuit. After all, how long has Gunselman been around here anyway?

FOUR: Survival of the Funded

Casey Roderick hasn’t been seen in Randy Hill Racing’s No. 08 car since Daytona. Joey Gase supposedly had a full-time deal lined up with Go Green Racing’s No. 39 team, but after multiple races with no sponsorship and falling out of the Top 30, suddenly Kelly Bires and a one-race sponsor are driving the team’s bright yellow car at Texas.

Kenny Wallace’s name has been replaced by TBA as the driver of the No. 09 on the weekend’s entry list, as sponsorship still hasn’t materialized for a driver that was top 10 in points a season ago. Mike Harmon’s No. 74 car is apparently available as well for the weekend.

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It’s race number six of the 2012 season. The Top 30 is set, the contenders and pretenders are emerging. And it is when seed money starts to dry up. Driver development deals, full-time campaigns, even self-owned rides are coming available to the highest bidder.

The Nationwide Series is seeing the top part of its regular driver base enjoy a resurgence this far into the season. They’re contending for wins, running the way one would expect a championship-caliber team to run instead of just banking on a prohibition on Cup drivers scoring minor-league points, and legitimately proving to be the face of their series.

That regular driver base is going to prove highly limited if it remains as near impossible, as it currently is, to commit to a driver and keep him in a car all year-round.

While NASCAR is indeed a free market and drivers with dollars have every right to buy valuable seat time, regulars are a series’ lifeblood. The Nationwide Series needs Wallace and Gase the same way the Cup ranks need David Gilliland and Cassill.

FIVE: Jeremy Mayfield and his ARCA Suitor

ARCA team owner Roger Carter made some headlines this past week by stating publicly he’d be open to putting embattled driver Jeremy Mayfield in one of his cars. And while this isn’t too far off the wall, seeing as how Mayfield was the 1993 Rookie of the Year in the ARCA Racing Series, there’s no need to try and make this substantial.

Here’s the facts. Dating back to the ARCA finale at Toledo last fall, Carter’s cars went zero-for-two in qualifying at that race, missed Daytona and missed Mobile. Despite fielding a team that’s run purple cars and entries embroidered with Ron Paul for President decals, Carter’s team is having trouble making any splash …because they can’t seem to make a race.

Don’t hold your breath Mayfield fans. This one isn’t going anywhere.

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