In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
1. What was the reasoning behind the crew and car swap at DEI?
Spokesmen for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. would have you believe it was based on performance. By giving Michael Waltrip the 8 team’s crew and fleet of cars, it was a show of support by DEI. They were telling him, “We’re giving you the best we’ve got, now go win.”
Well, in a sense it was.
We were also told of the strained relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his cousin/car chief, Tony Eury Jr.
At least that one holds some merit.
When decisions are made for reasons other than winning trophies, good things rarely happen. DEI management, led by Teresa Earnhardt, made a decision based on financial concerns. Waltrip’s sponsor, NAPA, felt the DEI effort focused on the Budweiser team and the company’s championship-contending driver.
The now-infamous team swap was made to show NAPA it was the driver, not the equipment, that was causing the disparity between the teams. When Waltrip inherited a fleet of championship-material cars and could not win — even though the chemistry was never there with Eury Jr. — DEI was able to point to this fact.
The move backfired when Junior could not get Waltrip’s old fleet up to speed. Chemistry with his new crew chief, Pete Rondeau, never developed either. In essence, the cure was the poison. The end result was that two teams suffered from one of the worst management decisions in NASCAR’s modern era.
2. What is the future management team of NASCAR?
Many insiders say it’s a done deal. Others say there is nothing to the rumor swirling around current NASCAR CEO Brian France. What’s the rumor? That France is considering a jump into NFL franchise ownership.
Brian France took over day-to-day leadership duties from his semi-retired father, Bill France Jr., in September 2003. In no time, he shook up the status quo. Changes included a new points format, cutting and slicing of the schedule (dubbed Realignment 2004 and Beyond), welcoming in Nextel as only the second title sponsor of the premier series and lifting his father’s ban on hard liquor sponsorship in the sport. He was also the lead negotiator for both TV contracts. In short, he has been the driving force behind NASCAR’s push to rival the other four major sporting leagues.
However, rumors of his departure have surrounded France since the ban on liquor was lifted for the 2005 season. The NFL talk surfaced after Magic Johnson said he had talked to him about owning a professional sports team.
When Brian France opened the door to liquor sponsorships, a split appeared between Brian and his sister, Lesa France Kennedy, and Jim France (brother to Bill Jr.). If Brian were to leave, it is believed that the keys to the shop would go to Lesa, who is currently the President of International Speedway Corporation.
So what does the future hold? We see Brian moving on to the NFL or some other professional sports league, thereby handing the reins to Lesa. She is regarded as the future of the management team and will be welcomed in the garage area.
3. What’s the story behind Bobby Labonte leaving Joe Gibbs Racing?
Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck Series racing are divided into two camps: Stock car racers who cut their teeth on pavement, and open wheel dirt track racers. These two types of drivers usually have completely different driving styles, requiring different chassis set-ups. They are used to a car feeling a certain way, regardless of whether it’s a stock or open wheel, and that’s the way they prefer it.
As Tony Stewart emerged as the top performer at Joe Gibbs Racing, the technology, testing and engineering drifted away from Labonte’s traditional stock car setup and morphed into a Stewart-style, open wheel method. A tug-of-war ensued, and Stewart won.
At times, Labonte was not privy to the setups under his own car. He was told to learn how to drive what was given to him instead of setting up the car to fit his driving style. Labonte finally had his fill and asked for a release from the team that took him to the 2000 championship.
This was a development that had been brewing, and when it finally boiled over, Labonte was ready to jump ship, even if that meant going to an organization that has not won a race since 1999.
4. Do car sponsors that spend money on television advertising get more exposure on race broadcasts?
Yes, and it’s just short of extortion. One of the sport’s dirty little secrets is that race and team sponsors have to pay to get coverage from the television networks.
Broadcast directors can, and do, control which cars and drivers get more face time. There has even been an ‘FOF’ list made for the TV crews to follow during races. What is ‘FOF’? That stands for ‘Friends of FOX.’ The FOF list alerts the production crew who has paid for advertising and, more important, who has not.
Take a pen and paper and log the commercials that air during a race. Then, log the driver features, interviews and airtime for each team/driver. You should see a connection.
Compare this to teams and drivers that do not advertise, and the game becomes clear. This is not a coincidence. And it is not a new development. It started at the very first race of the network TV package.
If you recall the 2001 Bud Shootout, FOX ran starting lineup graphics of each driver and car during driver introductions. Many cars appeared without their sponsor logo(s). Only the cars that had paying television advertisers were shown in full regalia. Also of note that day, the announcers never referred to a sponsor who was not running ad space. For example, Rusty Wallace was not referred to as driving the Miller Lite Dodge, rather the blue No. 2.
Of course, turmoil ensued, as sponsors who were not running TV ads cried foul. NASCAR claimed to have no prior knowledge of the tactic, and FOX eventually relented for the running of the 500 the next weekend.
In short, the networks have a racket. They overpaid for the television rights and are attempting to make it up on the backs of the sponsors that keep the sport alive.
5. Does Shane Hmiel deserve a third shot in NASCAR after failing two drug tests?
Ask Brian Rose. The young and talented driver from Bowling Green, Ky., was just starting to make a name for himself in the Craftsman Truck Series when he was suspended indefinitely in April 2003 after failing a drug test. Today he is less visible than Jimmy Hoffa. He threw away his chances and was blackballed from the sport.
Shane Hmiel is another story. He failed his second drug test last year and has been on an indefinite suspension since. His family has been involved in the sport for years; his father, Steve, has served in the DEI and Roush organizations, among others, in various capacities.
While we do not believe Hmiel received special treatment, it is reasonable to assume that his last name got him chance number two.
But the question remains: Should there be a third opportunity for the young man?
We say no. NASCAR has a chance to step up and make the statement that Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA have all failed to make: ‘No matter who you are, this type of behavior will not be tolerated. Period.’ Unfortunately, it is time for Hmiel to leave the sport for the safety of the drivers and crew members.
Rusty Wallace said it best in the drivers’ meeting at Homestead: “Driving race cars is a privilege.” If a driver fails to recognize that fact, he should find another field that tolerates his habits.
6. Is driver/crew chief chemistry overrated?
You hear it on broadcasts all the time. Even throughout this magazine. Everyone talks up team chemistry, especially between a driver and his crew chief. Is it all it’s made out be, or is it simply a sexy term that is easy to throw around?
Start by asking Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne. Right out of the box, they hit on a combination. Granted, both are wildly talented, but would either have been as good with other mates? The answer is no.
The dynamic duos of today come in two different categories: learning together and teacher-student.
The aforementioned DEI experiment took chemistry and wrecked it. The driver swap did not work largely because the new teams never found the right chemistry. Neither Michael Waltrip nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. could perform up to the standards of the previous year when each driver was more familiar and comfortable with his crew chief.
A driver must be able to relay information to the crew, and the crew must be able to speak his language to adapt to the changing conditions. Sometimes it is simply the tone of a voice, or a term a driver uses. Ryan Newman has described his car as having too much yaw. While most would scratch their heads at a term like ‘yaw’ when applied to a stock car, Newman’s and crew chief Matt Borland’s engineering backgrounds tell them that the car had too much side-to-side movement. A perfect example of driver/crew chief chemistry.
Once said chemistry is lost, it takes a long time to find it with another. Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon had won three of four Winston Cup titles when Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports. It took Gordon going through one crew chief before finally settling on Robbie Loomis before he won another in 2001.
Harry Hyde was known as Tim Richmond’s mentor in the 1980s. The movie Days of Thunder was loosely based on the story of how Hyde taught the hardheaded Richmond how to race in the series.
Today’s best example of a teacher-student relationship may be the Jimmy Fennig/Kurt Busch partnership. Though they would seem to be polar opposites, Fennig’s guiding hand led a raw but talented Busch to a 2004 title.
For first-hand proof of whether chemistry is key, observe both Fennig and Busch this season, as each will be paired with new partners.
7. What happened to the DuPont team in 2005?
Jeff Gordon’s streak of 11 consecutive top 10 points finishes ended last year. The 2005 season started out as planned with three wins in the first nine races, including the Daytona 500, but it went south from there.
The problems surfaced with poor performances on the cookie-cutter tracks through the summer. The DuPont team could not find the aero balance needed to compete on the intermediate tracks. To make matters more frustrating, Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was excelling.
The underlying issue was not with Gordon, but with crew chief Robbie Loomis. The grueling work and travel schedule took their toll on Loomis as he dealt with the health care of his mother. With Loomis stretched too thin, the DuPont crew lost its edge.
It soon became apparent that Loomis needed to pull back on the travel and day-to-day duties that consumed the majority of his time. To his credit, Loomis put his family first and stepped down as the crew chief on the 24. Although results were slow in coming with new chief Steve Letarte, they did surface eventually, as evidenced by the team’s stellar run in the season’s last five events.
Loomis joins Petty Enterprises in 2006 in a managerial role that will reduce his travel schedule.
8. Can Jimmie Johnson and the Lowe’s team win a Championship?
Team Lowe’s has climbed the championship mountain three straight years, only to find that someone has beaten it to the summit each time.
Johnson’s performance over that time has been exceptional. He has recorded 15 wins and, most telling of all, has led the point standings after 25 of the last 58 races.
Winning four of the last six races in 2004 showed that this team can never be counted out, even when the odds are all but impossible to overcome. However, confidence has to be shaken after three straight years of coming close. Rumors have flown during the offseason that defections from the team, including crew chief Chad Knaus, were imminent. While these rumors are just that, one wonders whether doubt is creeping into the 48 camp.
All this aside, we believe the Lowe’s team will be back and as strong as ever in 2006. The Hendrick organization is solid and built to last. JJ will get his Cup. It’s only a matter of when.
For inspiration, the team needs only to look to Bobby Allison, who played the role of bridesmaid five times before finally earning his title.
9. Can the Busch Series survive without the Buschwhackers?
Cup drivers who participate in Busch Series events have drawn fire over the past several years. The knock is that the more experienced Cuppers hold an unfair advantage over the Busch drivers who are trying to cut their teeth in the world of big-time auto racing.
As with any issue, this one boils down to money. Track operators are put in a tough position. While Cup participants sell tickets, they are also running the Busch teams out of business.
By winning the majority of the purses, the powerhouse Cup organizations are elbowing out the fledgling Busch teams while also using the Busch races as test sessions for Sunday’s Cup event.
In looking at 2005, when a Busch race was a companion event to a Nextel Cup race, the Cup drivers won 22 of the 27 events. Of the Busch winners, Martin Truex Jr., out of the DEI stable, won five times. Only two full-time Busch drivers with no Cup ties won races: Johnny Sauter won in Milwaukee and David Green won Pikes Peak.
If this trend continues, the Busch Series will fold, which will adversely affect the sport and ruin a great training ground for future drivers.
This is a critical issue that must be addressed soon, as the security of the sport is at stake.
10. What is wrong with Richard Childress Racing?
Richard Childress’ three-car stable has failed to make the Chase for the Championship since its inception. Since losing Dale Earnhardt in 2001, this team has employed eight full-time pilots but has not found the right combination of driver, crew chief and crew.
When Dale Earnhardt drove the 3 car, the RCR bunch only had to build a car that was close to a winner and Earnhardt would do the rest. He could win with a third-place car by using his experience, talent and savvy.
In 2001, Childress put Kevin Harvick in the seat of the Goodwrench Chevy. With the Earnhardt setups, he was a front-runner on most weekends. However, after that first year, the operation fell off and has not been a consistent threat since.
While the revolving door of drivers has not helped, the technology and aerodynamic aspects cannot be overlooked. With Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports on the cutting edge of the sport, the RCR operation has simply tried to keep up.
Until the right drivers are paired with the right crew chief, the slide will continue. Harvick’s split with the team is rumored for 2007, when he may be heading to the Toyota camp. A new season brings new hope, as rookie Clint Bowyer may be the young hotshoe Childress is looking for who can lead the team into the future. However, if the company cannot catch up in the aero and technology departments, it may not matter.
11. Are there too many events on the Nextel Cup schedule?
This depends on who is asked. The drivers, vendors, NASCAR officials and crew members will all reply with a stern, “Yes.” Time away from home is cited as the No. 1 drawback to the NASCAR lifestyle.
Assuming that all the drivers and teams are based in the Charlotte area, meaning that the three Lowe’s events don’t count as travel weekends, the circuit is on the road 36 weekends per year (including Preseason Thunder at Daytona in January). From the Feb. 11th Bud Shootout to the Nov. 19th Ford 400 in Homestead, the series is on the road each weekend except for three. That leaves the participants with 16 race-free weekends. However, throw in sponsor appearances/obligations, and that number dips even further.
Last season, Rusty Wallace stated that if the season were only 30 races long, he would continue driving in the Nextel Cup Series. Let’s take a look at that idea. How could we whittle away at the 36 weekends drivers are currently on tour?
Six event weekends must be dropped, so let’s start by taking away one of the two longest and most boring events; therefore, race No. 14 at Pocono loses a date. Next, we eliminate weekends No. 16 and 22, the road courses. Yes, they have their merit, but we have to get rid of weekends somehow. Would you rather we eliminate Bristol?
From here on, we take dates only from tracks that have two races. The folks in Texas whined for two or three years about deserving two dates. Once they were given them, they failed to sell out. So, there goes our fourth date.
We never understood why the Chase started at Loudon, so New Hampshire, you lose weekend No. 27. The last one is tough, but Michigan — you’re next. There goes the sixth date. We’re down to 30 races, with nine off-weekends spread throughout the season.
Of course the other side of the argument is that racing, like most commodities, is a supply and demand issue. The planned expansion to the northwest, New York City and other rumored markets shows no signs of letting up. Whether these planned venues would replace existing dates or open new ones can only be answered by the brass in Daytona Beach. And we have a feeling even they don’t know yet.
We believe racing would improve with fewer races, less testing and less time away from home. The overall quality of the product would increase, while the demand would go up with less supply.
The people who count — the drivers, owners, crew and support staff — would love to cut the number, and their families would vote the same. The 36-race schedule has cost us Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, and soon, Mark Martin. These guys are still top-of-the-line competitors and are an asset to the sport. Let’s hope something is done about the grueling schedule before we lose drivers like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon to burnout.
12. How many chances should a driver get at the Cup level?
The 2005 season saw the dismissal of Jason Leffler from the FedEx team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Leffler joins Mike Bliss, Dave Blaney and Mike Wallace as drivers who have had multiple opportunities in the Nextel Cup Series without scoring a win.
Leffler’s run with Joe Gibbs was his third opportunity, as he was dismissed from his Ganassi ride after 30 races in 2001. He got a ride with Gene Haas for 11 events in 2003 and ’04. Which led to last season, when he lasted with the Gibbs operation for only 19 races.
Dave Blaney’s résumé included rides with Bill Davis and the Jasper team before landing with Richard Childress in ’05. After losing that ride, he is returning to Bill Davis for another shot in the No. 22 Caterpillar Dodge.
Mike Wallace lost his ride to Scott Wimmer in the Morgan McClure Chevy this past season; both are recycled drivers.
It has been said, “Why not take a chance on a driver who might get it done instead of a driver you know has never succeeded?” Each time a driver succeeds in his first attempt, the sledding gets tougher for the retreads. The immediate success of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin is cutting into the odds of re-scoring rides.
Our opinion: Give the up-and-comers a crack at the show. Sure, many will try and fail, but that is the nature of the business. The simple fact is that not everyone is cut out to handle auto racing at this level. As teams look for those diamonds in the rough, our hope is that we will see an increase in drivers like Edwards or Busch. Not only will this spread the opportunities around, but it will also give struggling organizations a better shot at finding the next Big Thing.
13. Would Kurt Busch have been suspended if he were running for a Nextel Cup Championship?
To put it simply, there is not a snowball’s chance in Daytona. The well-publicized and over-reported police incident involving Kurt Busch at Phoenix leads to a tough question for everyone involved.
If the incident had taken place in 2004 while Busch was in the thick of the championship race, as opposed to being a lame duck driver at an organization he was leaving, there is no way Jack Roush would have cut ties.
Roush saw the opportunity to get some payback for the six years of documented arrogance and half-season of contract squabbles. Very little was on the line, so the decision to pull the trigger was an easy one.
Again, this issue comes down to dollars and cents. Roush could plug in a substitute driver and still earn his share of the purses. But to risk a championship? Never. There is just too much money on the line. Had the police incident occurred with Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth or Carl Edwards, they would have received the proverbial slap on the wrist.
Which brings us to a bonus question:
Can Kurt Busch make amends with the fans?
A dramatic moment in Busch’s career was his win in the 2003 Sharpie 500 at Bristol. His primary sponsor was also sponsoring the event. After winning the race to the delight of the Sharpie VIP’s in attendance, Busch pulled in to Victory Lane to a chorus of boos. Needless to say, the smiles on the faces of the VIP’s turned south.
Of course, this all stemmed from his incident with Jimmy Spencer the prior weekend at Michigan when the two feuded on track and off. Busch walked away with a busted nose, and Spencer walked straight into a one-race suspension. Mr. Excitement is always a fan favorite at Bristol, where his driving style meshes well with a half-mile short track. Subsequently, Spencer’s popularity soared while Busch’s plummeted.
The answer to the question is yes, Kurt Busch can gain back the respect of the fans. We’ve seen Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace all vilified for their colorful behavior. Fans love to hate a driver as much as they love to pull for one. If Busch would go to men like Waltrip or Wallace to receive some mentoring, he could straighten up and fly right.
We hope this happens. Busch is an amazing talent who could be one of the better drivers of his generation. Time heals all wounds. Let’s hope this comes to pass with Busch.