Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Too Much Time, Vickers Breaking Ground And Chasing Stats

*Did You Notice?…* A focus on everything but the drivers at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing? As we spoke about “in Mirror Driving today,”:https://frontstretch.com/md/42022/ EGR is switching to Hendrick engines next season, moving away from an internal program combined with Childress in an effort to improve on-track performance. That follows a total housecleaning, at the end of 2011 where just about everyone important _behind the scenes_ got a Pink Slip lump of coal from Target Santa. Among those who got the axe: Competition Director Steve Hmiel, Team Manager Tony Glover and Lead Engineer Ed Nathman. Considering Hmiel and Glover were at the top of the charts in the ‘90s, with Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin, respectively; they had dozens of Cup Series victories, Daytona 500 triumphs and pole positions earned in a combined six-plus decades of NASCAR service.

In their place, Ganassi tried to modernize, snatching lead Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy to head Juan Pablo Montoya’s team while making internal technology position changes to help Jamie McMurray’s program. 34 races in, though, the results can only be characterized as getting worse. The EGR organization has gone the _whole season_ without a top-5 finish in its 68 starts. In fact, EGR hasn’t had one since Jamie McMurray was fifth, squeaking out a solid result, in the August Bristol night race last season. Here’s how that compares to others:

Juan Pablo Montoya is an open-wheel champion, but how much longer can Chip Ganassi afford to wait for him to produce results in a stock car?

*Top-5 Finishes Since Bristol In August, 2011*
Hendrick Motorsports – 59
Roush Fenway Racing – 44
Joe Gibbs Racing – 28
Michael Waltrip Racing – 24
Stewart-Haas Racing – 24
Penske Racing – 22
Richard Childress Racing – 13
Red Bull Racing (equipment sold to BK Racing) – 7
Richard Petty Motorsports – 5
Tommy Baldwin Racing – 1
Front Row Motorsports – 1
Phoenix Racing – 1
Furniture Row Racing – 1
*Earnhardt Ganassi Racing* – 0

Those statistics are simply stunning, especially when you consider the big-money sponsors like McDonald’s, Target, and Bass Pro Shops, who are paying to be on the cars. TBR, FRM and Phoenix maybe have one third of Montoya and McMurray’s funding, combined; yet they’ve been able to produce at least one “quality” result during the past year and a half.

With those types of disturbing numbers, you have to wonder how far Ganassi’s loyalty is going to go. McMurray, now two-plus years removed from his dramatic Daytona 500 win is higher in points (20th) than his teammate but hasn’t had a top-10 result since Pocono in June. The pairing with crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion, untouched now for a three-year stretch, would have ended long ago if the initials were “RCR,” “HMS,” or “RFR” on the entry form. At least you could say, for that team, perhaps a change on top of the pit box would produce results.

But where you can’t say the same, with now six years under his belt in the Cup Series, is with Juan Pablo Montoya. Now 37 years old, Montoya has just two wins in 215 Sprint Cup starts – both on the road courses he grew up on in open-wheel – and is averaging less than four top-5 finishes per season. Combined, throughout his Cup career, the former Indy 500 winner and CART champion has led a total of 986 laps: Kyle Busch, in a down year, has led 1,008 _this season alone._ And while at least Busch, who can get overaggressive at times, can point to his win total, all Montoya has to show for similar miscues are the wrecks. Over six-plus seasons, he has 24 DNFs due to crashes as opposed to just 20 top-5 results.

That’s just the on-track disappointment; off it, a driver who’s often been portrayed as moody and tempestuous has angered more than half the Sprint Cup garage. Take your pick: there’s Ryan Newman, whom Montoya threatened to sue after a Richmond incident led to a punch thrown from his rival in private inside a NASCAR hauler; Mark Martin, who Montoya once referred as “disrespectful” in contrast to the driver’s role model reputation; or Kevin Harvick, whose disdain for the Colombian has never waned after a 2007 Watkins Glen incident that nearly had them come to blows. The list of those on his enemy list, whether it’s fair or not, is long. Their main complaint, that Montoya is impatient and overaggressive, forcing mistakes at the wrong times, still looms large. That can’t be corrected, it seems, despite several crew chief changes through the years designed to get Montoya’s mental rollercoaster, along with his driving style, under control.

Yes, this man is a former open-wheel champion. So is Sam Hornish, Jr. But Hornish, rightfully so, needed a demotion to hone his skills in this type of equipment, then build confidence in a lower series (Nationwide) in order to come back strong. Montoya, unfortunately, has not had that chance, which means that his confidence has to rely on past accomplishments elsewhere. How much longer will _Target_ rely on that? How much does that sponsorship have to do with the open-wheel achievements of Ganassi’s other team, led by Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, than anyone else? And how long will a car owner who’s used to dominance elsewhere put up with outright mediocrity behind the wheel?

Both drivers, as of now, have extensions that take them through 2013 and beyond. But if the season ends this badly, with so many changes producing zero results, at some point you’d think Ganassi would figure this one out.

*Did You Notice?…* How Brian Vickers really can go home again? His decision to return to the Nationwide Series, 10 years later, mirrors the positive career move made by soon-to-be teammate Elliott Sadler. Sadler, after years of struggle in a middle-class Cup ride, chose the Nationwide Series over a long list of lower-tier Cup choices. The theory was, by starring in a championship battle elsewhere, he’d rebuild a reputation, earn the respect of top-tier car owners once more, and have the resume to convince sponsors to give him one final chance before he got too old. Two years later, following the decision to join Richard Childress Racing in that series, Sadler is on the verge of realizing that dream; he’s a 60/40 favorite to take the championship, then will move to Joe Gibbs Racing, where in all likelihood he’ll get a limited Cup schedule and the inside track on a full-time ride down the road. (Key point: Guess who M&M’s sponsored before Kyle Busch? Good for J.D. Gibbs to think backup plan in case their marquee driver chooses not to re-sign).

All of that brings us to Vickers, who has already benefited from the quality choice of a limited Cup schedule this year, driving for an upper middle-class team rather than making, say, a choice similar to the one made by David Ragan and running 25th every week with Front Row Motorsports. Eight times this season, Vickers has entered a Cup race and the vast majority of those times he’s had a chance to win, bringing him three top-5 finishes on that limited schedule. That’s turned the right heads, in the right race shops. So why blow it now and go with, say Phoenix Racing where even former champ Kurt Busch couldn’t make the equipment work for him?

That mediocrity pales in comparison, of course, to what Vickers gets in a lower series. Considering the track record of JGR’s Nationwide cars the past few seasons, Vickers will automatically find himself a title contender. In fact, despite the presence of Trevor Bayne, Hornish, Austin Dillon and Sadler, I’d be so inclined to label him the favorite. And should Vickers succeed, winning races in both his Nationwide and Cup rides (remember, the MWR limited schedule in Cup continues next season), his age of just 29, coupled with his prior experience, makes him a more attractive long-term option than almost any top-level prospect out there. His last, best chance at a Cup title could be with the No. 55, _or_ with JGR, _or_ with a team we don’t know about yet. It’s the best path available to create your own options; all you need is patience.

Good thing Vickers has some, for it’s served him well thus far.

*Did You Notice?…* This Chase is all about the Chasers? Sometimes, we hear about how no postseason would have changed the course of the title race, once and for all. But the strength we’ve seen from both the No. 48 and No. 2 has shown us that they were the top two teams all along. Consider the point standings without the Chase system:

Johnson, Keselowski –19, Biffle -46, Kenseth -49, Bowyer -55.

Jimmie Johnson’s 22 Chase wins – a full quarter of all Chase races – are a formidable number, but he’d have an even bigger points lead this year with no Chase.

Based on what we’ve seen all season, that ranking seems just about right. Biffle, while slumping at the wrong time, led the points for a huge chunk of the season and had Kenseth-like consistency that would have earned him that third-place ranking. Remember, it seems like eons ago, but The Biff has already won twice. Bowyer, who had a slow start would be climbing back for a fifth-place result, good but not good enough which is also the theme of his Chase. And Kenseth? From the Daytona 500 to his victories this postseason, it’s clear that the No. 17 has had the speed to contend – just not the consistency over a full season. So yes, we could have determined the outcome of 2012 without a 10-race, playoff format but the drivers involved would not have been dramatically different.

What about those who missed the Chase? What if they snuck into the playoffs? Kyle Busch clearly stands out; his five top-5 finishes are proof that the No. 18 is back on track. But even with those quality performances, inconsistency would leave Busch fifth if he had made the postseason as a wild card, some 65 points outside the title race with two events left. And unlike last year, where we could point to drivers like Jeff Burton and even AJ Allmendinger building momentum among non-Chasers, it’s really been Busch … and no one else. Take a look at this list below:

*Top-10 Finishes By Non-Chasers Since Chicagoland: 2012*
Kyle Busch – 6
Joey Logano – 5
Carl Edwards – 2
Mark Martin – 2
Ryan Newman – 2
Regan Smith – 2
Aric Almirola – 1
Jeff Burton – 1
Kurt Busch – 1
Travis Kvapil – 1
Bobby Labonte – 1
Paul Menard – 1
David Ragan – 1
Brian Vickers – 1

It’s hard to say two top-10 finishes in eight races, which would translate to less than 10 over a full season, constitutes any sort of momentum. So you’re left with Busch and Joey Logano, who, with five top 10s, is experiencing “lame duck” success that means little when transitioning to a whole new team and manufacturer for 2013. Maybe, just maybe, you could say Aric Almirola, through his Kansas and Martinsville performances and qualifying efforts overall, has flashed some speed; that’s about it.

So are we looking at a year ahead filled with the same old, same old drivers contending? Maybe. The only bright spot is the 2013 car, which will throw a lot of old notes out the window and allow those struggling now to have a better chance when starting from scratch.

*Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before taking off:

– Whoever picks the host for NASCAR banquets has got to have a weird sense of humor. Jay Mohr? Howie Mandel? Sure, I know Colbert or even a Jay Leno would be an impossibility but there’s got to be _someone_ better. I guess there’s no need to get sleep in Vegas, because you’ll be all prepped to go to the after parties following the banquet nap.

– Everyone says to ignore the Phoenix stats from Brad Keselowski. He’ll certainly do well there. But check out this stat from Jimmie Johnson: in his career, since a Phoenix debut in 2002 he’s _never_ finished lower than 15th place. That stat is simply incredible; in fifteen of those 18 starts, he’s at least run seventh or better. So let’s say Johnson is seventh, leading a lap, while Keselowski somehow bucks the trend, wins Phoenix and leads the most laps. _Best case scenario,_ he’d go to Homestead up three points and both drivers still control their own destiny.

That’s why, for so many experts, it’s hard to bet against the No. 48 right now. This Chase, “as I wrote about Monday,”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/42010/ will be more about what the No. 2 didn’t do to put this one away… because now it’s getting taken away.

*Connect with Tom!*

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

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