Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters

Did You Notice?… We’re four races in and Toyota hasn’t made it to Victory Lane? Their 0-for-4 performances, thus far highlight some weaknesses at both Joe Gibbs and Michael Waltrip Racing. Combined, Toyotas have just one top-5 finish out of 20 recorded thus far in 2014; only two drivers (Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth) sit inside the top 10 in Cup Series points. That’s a far cry from last year, early in the season when JGR looked to be the fastest team on the circuit.

Toyota’s struggles in Sprint Cup this year have Joe Gibbs wondering what the fix is.
Toyota’s struggles in Sprint Cup this year have Joe Gibbs wondering what the fix is.

What’s the issue? The manufacturer, who had just ten cars in Sunday’s field at Bristol has the lowest number of full-time teams compared to Ford and Chevrolet. Five of those come from JGRand MWR, exclusively while the other five are a hodgepodge of underfunded operations (two-car Swan Racing, two-car BK Racing and an MWR-Jay Robinson Racing Alliance). Swan and BK, with four rookie drivers on their roster offer limited feedback and are simply trying to finish races. MWR, while using Jay Robinson Racing as a satellite operation is still reeling from its reduction to a two-car program.

That leaves JGR, carrying the banner on an island of sorts when the currentNASCAR trend is to use satellite teams to improve performance (hang on; we’ll get to it). What satellite team can JGR use to fix its problems? At best, they can dip down into the Nationwide Series, running circles around the competition with Kenseth and Kyle Busch while keeping confidence high for Sunday’s big race. But the Nationwide and Cup cars are different animals; there’s only so much you can learn in-house. JGRis learning that the hard way because…

Did You Notice?… The way to keep up with the Joneses these days is by having a “test team?” It’s a process that’s irked Matt Kenseth, to the point he called out Michael McDowell and small-time Leavine Family Racing. The No. 95 car, who receives chassis and engines from Penske Racing has been running the distance this year after start-and-parking for most of 2013. However, their partnership likely comes with a benefit to both sides: Penske gets to use their new “client” as a place to experiment with setups, engines, and feedback to make their team better.

“Without opening a can of worms, it’s my understanding that they (Team Penske) got to do a lot of testing,” Kenseth said over the weekend. “I think they’ve been to all three tracks with their ‘satellite teams’ – Michael McDowell…”

It should be noted Kenseth is part of JGR, struggling and without the “satellite support” these other teams are seeking. And there’s no doubt, the new wave is smaller teams saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Here’s a look at the current breakdown of information-sharing inside the garage:

Hendrick Motorsports/Stewart-Haas Racing partnership: 8 cars
Richard Childress Racing: 3 cars in main team plus 3 “satellites” (JTG Daugherty, Germain, and Furniture Row)
Roush Fenway Racing/Richard Petty Motorsports partnership: 5 cars, plus 1 “satellite” (Wood Brothers)
Penske Racing (connected in part to the two teams above): 2 cars, plus 1 “satellite” (Leavine Family Racing)

That’s three main partnerships (four if you separate Penske) accounting for 23 of the 43 cars on the grid each week. That number could even be listed higher; Chip Ganassi Racing, for example gets their engines from Hendrick Motorsports, while Tommy Baldwin Racing gets theirs from Earnhardt-Childress. It’s part of an incestuous relationship where the top teams keep the smaller ones in business, removing the worries of short fields (and potential caps on spending that come with them) while ensuring, as the main supplier they stay a step ahead of those paying for equipment. Why build cars that are going to beat you every Sunday? Or engines? Both sides are to blame for this difficult dance, allowing the largest teams and the biggest names to stay on top.

It also produces a class system that, for the most part this season has stayed in place. Those lines won’t be crossed until a team like BK Racing, on its own can make engines, chassis and other mechanical “musts” in-house for a fraction of the cost —then go out and contend for wins every week. I vote that, until that happens, David beating Goliath I get to move to the Caribbean, living on the beach for free. Seems like a great place to live out the rest of my days, because evening the playing field is harder to accomplish than ever with the way Cup’s allowing itself to do business.

It’s been awhile since we saw Smoke smiling the way he was this Sunday.
It’s been awhile since we saw Smoke smiling the way he was this Sunday.

Did You Notice?… There’s a spring in Tony Stewart’s step after Sunday’s fourth-place finish? Smoke, who has been contentious with the media in recent weeks appeared to be breathing a sigh of relief after a weekend where he qualified 37th. Spending the whole race working through traffic, the No. 14 Chevrolet got better as the race wore on, a first for this year before settling into the top 5 comfortably by race’s end. Crew chief Chad Johnston, for the first time seemed to connect on figuring out what his new driver needs out of a race car.

The bigger issue, though and one that could give Stewart confidence going forward is his physical condition. Bristol, in any circumstance is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. To spend eight hours there, with two rain delays, run 500 laps and still walk when exiting the race car? That’s pretty damned good for someone whose leg was broken in pieces last August. Stewart isn’t there quite yet, limping notably at times but Sunday showed him 80 percent is still enough for him to contend. Even the best need a boost, mentally when injuries leave them sitting on the sidelines. Don’t be surprised now, after getting over that hump if Stewart can get a string of top 10s going over the next few weeks…

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

– Bristol ratings were down seven percent, year-to-year based on the live coverage we saw during the first 124 laps. But what really popped out at me was the 1.8 Nielsen number, an over 50 percent decline in viewership once the race was moved to FOX Sports 1. What that tells me is two things. One, the network did a poor job of informing viewers how and where the race would be televised once it did resume. Two, fans, as I mentioned Monday simply ran out of time and patience, other priorities taking over even if they thought the racing was great. Neither option should be one NASCAR is hanging their hat on.

– Count me among those who think we haven’t seen the last of Joey Logano – Denny Hamlin. Fontana might be a place too fast for either side to seek revenge, even though Hamlin’s injury happened there one year ago. But Martinsville? Next week? A wreck between the two of them simply wouldn’t surprise me. The new format leaves both sides with little to lose, points meaning less and their truce is awkward at best.

– Goodyear has six tests scheduled, five of them at tracks where the racing has dragged as of late: Michigan, Kansas, Dover, Kentucky, and Chicagoland. That should mean, once their two-day test is done the racing should be significantly better the next time we visit those facilities, right? Otherwise, why is everyone wasting their time and money? Too many tire tests, in recent years have ended with everyone still shaking their head instead of working toward solutions. That can’t happen in 2014, even if extra days must be added or time spent in R&D to perfect the product they’re giving each weekend.

About the author

Tom Bowles
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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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