Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … AJ’s Sigh Of Relief?, No Dodging This Bullet And Kyle’s Crisis

*Did You Notice?…* Dodge’s departure from the sport dashes expansion dreams? In the past few months, the manufacturer has been linked with Furniture Row Racing, looking to add a a second car with driver Kurt Busch; Andretti Autosport, exploring the option of debuting a team in 2013; and Richard Petty Motorsports, whose funding from Dodge could have spearheaded co-owner Andy Murstein’s desire to build from two cars to three. It’s clear, despite the loss of Penske Racing that Dodge had options; they just clearly didn’t like any of them. Why?

“Really this issue started many, many years ago as we consolidated down to one team,” explained SRT’s Ralph Gilles, President Of Racing and Technology. “We had a very, I would say, an elegant situation with the Penske group, having a one-stop shop, an engine, everything, a very high quality team to work with.”

Without a team like Penske Racing to bring them a win on Sunday, Dodge will no longer use NASCAR as a tool to sell on Monday.

“When that changed, the equation changed dramatically. As you know, being in this sport over the last few years, just like anything in America, things have consolidated, right. So what’s available in North Carolina now is not what was available five, 10 years ago. It’s not as easy as you would think to configure a team at the level that we are accustomed to racing and _at the level that we want to perform.”_

The key words of Gilles’ answer were what I put in italics. Yes, there were options available but Dodge _had the belief_ that no matter what money they put in or how they aligned things, those cars would never be competitive with the sport’s “big guns.” The three options available, admittedly middle class based on their 2012 performance (zero Chasers, zero victories among them) Dodge felt were no longer capable of moving up; no longer did they feel “B-level” partners, with the right equipment and personnel could be turned into an “A.”

That thought process in itself, a monopoly on competition is the most damaging I’ve seen with the sport in a long time. Here’s a manufacturer that has a lot of money, willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to stay in your sport and they’re saying the current pecking order of Ford’s, Chevy’s and Toyota’s top teams are incapable of being challenged? That’s like the Pittsburgh Pirates pulling out of baseball because they’re convinced no matter what, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers will always be the two best teams in baseball. With no parity, no chance to challenge the bigger markets they’re not getting the return on investment… so in this scenario they leave, with around 20 of the other small and middle-market programs leaving a glutton of 10 “New York Yankee-like” organizations and… that’s it.

How do you survive with the rich… and the rich? I don’t know but with this announcement, my fear grows greater that’s exactly where NASCAR is heading. Once again, there’s no new teams in the pipeline for 2013 except for Danica Patrick’s No. 10 and maybe Joe Gibbs Racing, looking to put Joey Logano in a new fourth car full-time. For the high-end, “Big Six” programs of Roush, Childress, Gibbs, Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Penske they continue to run at the top, running 17 cars between them (18 in 2013). The “middle class,” led by MWR (who could put two cars in the Chase) is still hanging tough; but they, along with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports combine for only seven cars on the grid. If you count Furniture Row Racing’s single-car program, along with Kurt Busch at Phoenix you get to nine. (Both of them, by the way, receive help from superpowers Childress and Hendrick, respectively).

Beyond that, with all due respect it’s pretty much a junkyard, a ton of cars looking for sponsorship but without the performances necessary to get it. And with the equipment as bad as it is, combined with the widening gap they’re unable to move up the ladder and contend. Dodge recognized that, saw the futility of trying to compete paired with one of these organizations and spent their money elsewhere.

It’s an ugly pattern, one that I don’t think we’re done with. You have to wonder, with patchwork sponsorship at the No. 43 whether RPM’s investors are willing to stay the course with the organization now that Dodge’s departure and Penske’s Ford transfer leaves them the bottom of the barrel in Blue Oval country. Childress’ longtime financial partners are leaving, selling their minority stake and putting pressure on the organization to eventually replace their cash to keep up with his “A-level” counterparts.

How do you fix it? By enticing new owners in two ways: proving they have an ability to qualify more easily for the race (read: ditch the top 35 rule) and then be just as competitive once the green flag falls. But NASCAR also has to do that while convincing the aging “big guns” like Penske and Roush they won’t lose their fortune by cutting costs and enticing others to come out and build teams to beat them. Maybe franchising will force the country club elite to stop simply outspending rivals and get with the program? I don’t know; it’s a solution I used to hate but have come around to in order to ensure fairer competition.

Whatever they do, NASCAR needs to take this one as a wake-up call. All of a sudden, big people that make big money decisions are putting their checkbook in their pocket, saying this sport is too closed off for their liking and the sanctioning body has to make the bleeding stop. The problem, as much as they want to blame the economy is far deeper, more alarming, and most importantly… it won’t fix itself.

*Did You Notice?…* AJ Allmendinger’s tone of voice when talking to ESPN’s Marty Smith? No question, it was a sigh of relief, part of the “right approach” in finally dealing with his indefinite Sprint Cup suspension head on. In an exclusive interview on _NASCAR Now,_ the ‘Dinger spoke candidly about his failed drug test, the aftermath and an explosive season of stress at Penske Racing that preceded it. But despite tackling such a serious topic, from start to finish I was impressed by the way the driver responded; it was as relaxed a conversation as possible considering the subject matter. No doubt, the sense I got was leaving Penske, despite the ugly circumstances has become a surprising sigh of relief for a driver who had seen his dream job self-destruct long before those final test results came in.

The explanation of the drug use itself is still a little shaky. ‘Dinger explained the positive test was triggered by Adderall, an ADHD drug Jeremy Mayfield claimed he was taking when NASCAR indefinitely suspended him back in 2009. Not eligible for a prescription, Allmendinger claimed in this case he “took a pill from a friend” the Wednesday before the race in Kentucky without knowing what it was. Tired from a day of “hanging out,” he needed a little extra energy boost and the friend explained the pill was a supplement that had always helped him. Allmendinger took it without a second thought, never worrying the day of the drug test or checking what it was.

If that’s true, at best we’ve got a driver who made a very poor choice in judgment. How could someone, especially considering their status as an athlete just “take a pill” without checking what was going into their body? And what type of “friend” is randomly carrying around these prescription ADHD supplements? ‘Dinger swears he’d never knowingly take a drug, and the Road to Recovery program has been tailored more for stress management than abuse; that’s why, on Tuesday the rumor was he could be done with the program as soon as the end of this month. But you still have to carry a healthy level of skepticism, no matter how truthful AJ seems on camera. You’re telling me one pill, this one time triggered the positive after two days in the system? When no other drug was ever taken? Better yet, NASCAR is going to _suspend_ someone for having the equivalent of an ADHD drug in their system? The whole scenario seems a little extreme, especially considering AJ wound up fired for this “one-time use.” You’d think Penske, with a history of problem children on the IndyCar side (see: Castroneves, Helio) would have more compassion if the story were true. Maybe he didn’t believe it?

Or maybe all the information, the confirmations needed by NASCAR weren’t available. One of the most shocking portions of the ‘Dinger interview was the sanctioning body’s response to it, in which they _admitted_ not knowing exactly what drug triggered the positive test. Spokesman David Higdon, in response to Smith’s report claimed the sanctioning body was unaware of the specific substance taken, just that it was an amphetamine.

Doesn’t that seem a little bizarre to you? Wouldn’t you want more information if you were NASCAR in making a decision that, you know affects a driver for the next 10, 15 years of their career? I just felt like that claim didn’t really mesh, especially considering that if these circumstances are true, a month’s suspension seems not just extreme… it’s torturous. So which side is hiding what? I’m almost afraid to ask, as the Mayfield affair still brings up new answers and arguments every day.

At this point, though what’s done is done; the focus is on AJ and what happens now with this damaged racing car. Along those lines, Tuesday was a good first step; he looked Smith in the eye, looked genuinely remorseful and put forth a positive image of himself. It’s going to be a lot harder when Fortune 500 companies are involved, being pitched for tens of millions of dollars for a driver whose resume will always read “Suspended – Drugs.” But we’re off to a good start.

*Did You Notice?…* Kyle Busch is in crisis? With five races left in the regular season, Busch is bordering on Chase desperation mode after losing his spot in the “wild card” standings to Jeff Gordon. The race on Sunday was a microcosm of his 2012 season as a whole; fast car, almost certain top-5 finish ripped away once something inside the M&M’s Toyota ripped apart. This time around it was the brake rotors, not the candy melting that put the car hard into the wall and gave the No. 18 team its sixth finish of 29th or worse in 21 starts. To put that in perspective, Busch has the same number of top-5 results (six) as he now sits just 15th in points, mired in mediocrity despite a laps led total of 463.

“Getting down into turn one with a three-wheel brake is about the worst situation you can have as a race car driver,” said Busch, whose 33rd-place disaster left him 12 points behind Jeff Gordon for a postseason spot. “I kept trying to pump (the brakes) to keep it off the fence but just couldn’t do it. It’s just the way it seems to be, the way our year has gone it’s just inevitable to have something every week happen.”

Busch kept it together well for the press, but when the interviews were over Claire B. Lang of SIRIUS Radio caught him slumped behind some equipment, head down and hardly in the right frame of mind. Minutes later, upon returning to the track the radio reflected that: “Who the hell knows? Who the hell cares?” the driver said after questioning some technical information from the team, all before bemoaning the fact he “probably” still had the fourth-fastest car in the race.

Of course, “probably” just doesn’t cut it in a NASCAR world where parity is making them pay the ultimate price for mechanical mistakes. It’s a stretch that will challenge Busch, long-term even though his much-maligned mental breakdowns have been mostly kept in check. With the right frame of mind, there’s still plenty of time to bridge this postseason gap; a whopping 12 of Busch’s 24 career wins (50 percent) have come at the five tracks remaining on the schedule. But those numbers mean nothing on paper if Busch doesn’t have the confidence to carry through. Dave Rogers must learn a lesson from Alan Gustafson, who kept Jeff Gordon in the game when factors outside their control threatened to sink the No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon wound up in Victory Lane this Sunday, perseverance finally paying off and Rogers can do the same if he can make Busch believe.

Otherwise, with the difficult year the No. 18 team has had both Busch and Rogers will be outside on the Chase looking in – and Rogers will be out of a job.

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before taking off…

– Two races, two large declines in viewership for ESPN. This one was blamed on both the Olympics _and_ the rain, as the final numbers clocked in at a dismal 3.3. Yes, both events had fans putting their eyes on other places. But June was one of the best races of the year and you still clock in at down 15 percent? This sanctioning body should specialize in giving middle schoolers excuses on not getting their homework done, because when it comes to admitting blame they’re worse than Todd Bodine in Saturday’s Truck race. No, it couldn’t possibly be the cars or the competition that’s the problem…

– NASCAR is expected to come up with a different weather plan going forward in case of an approaching lightning storm. But in the meantime, read S.D. Grady’s touching column on how to handle the perils of being out at the track until they do. You’ll be better off for it…

Also, kudos to those involved for getting Carl Edwards connected with the No. 99 fan injured by the lightning strike. That’s the type of direct connection that still has NASCAR’s access and fan/athlete relationships head and shoulders above other sports.

– There are so few road racers this weekend, replacing regular drivers you can pretty much count them on one hand at Watkins Glen. No doubt, when Boris Said is running dated equipment and the only “driver you’ve never heard of” has one NASCAR start, a 15th-place result at Road America the chances of them pulling off the upset grow slimmer every year.

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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