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2007's 13 Tough Questions

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 2007 Athlon Sports Racing annual

1. Can a Toyota win a Cup race in 2007?

First, we need to take a look at the lineup:

Michael Waltrip Racing: Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann.

Bill Davis Racing: Dave Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield.

Team Red Bull: A.J. Allmendinger and Brian Vickers.

Throw out Jarrett, and we have six drivers who among them own zero Cup championships and 10 wins on the Nextel Cup circuit. Add in the fact that heading into the 2007 season, only Dave Blaney (by virtue of being in the top 35 in Owner’s Points) and Dale Jarrett (Past Champion’s Provisional) are guaranteed spots in the show. Take into account that Reutimann and Allmendinger are rookies with one career start between them, and you start to realize the mountain Toyota is climbing.

With the Car of Tomorrow becoming the Car of Today in March, the Toyota teams are not only building standard cars, but COTs as well. This issue alone is considered a full plate of work for an established team, much less start-ups.

The answer, however, is yes. Yes because anything can happen. Pack racing at Daytona and Talladega lends itself to being at the right place at the right time. Jarrett knows that better than anyone, as he won the 2005 UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega by acting as the caboose of the freight train until the race hit its final stage. DJ drafted to the front, nosed in front of Tony Stewart on the backstretch on the last lap and was the beneficiary of a multi-car accident that broke out behind him. NASCAR went to the loop data, and DJ, leading all of one lap, was declared the winner.

The most common way to steal a win is by winning a fuel mileage battle. We can cite BDR pilot Jeremy Mayfield on this one. Running mid-pack all afternoon in the 2005 GFS Marketplace 500 from Michigan, Mayfield and crew decided to take the fuel gamble as the laps wound down. Mayfield was able to stretch it, leading the final six laps for his lone victory of the season.

The larger problem these teams face is just getting in the show. As mentioned before, only Blaney and Jarrett are guaranteed spots, and for Blaney, only for the first five races. Don’t be surprised to see three or four Toyotas miss races on a weekly basis. When cars don’t make the show, sponsorship dries up. And without sponsorship, teams cease to exist.

2. Did Brian Vickers wreck Jimmie Johnson at Talladega on purpose?

Kurt Busch, who probably had the best seat in the house, said it best: “He had every intention of helping his teammate. It just didn’t turn out that way.”

No. Vickers, although on his way out at Hendrick and already on Jeff Gordon’s bad side from hard racing at New Hampshire, was doing what he is supposed to do: Going for the race win.

Vickers said as much in the post-race interview.

“If I would have not touched him and laid off of him, we would have finished 1-2-3, Junior, Jimmie and me,” Vickers said. “I apologize. That is the last thing I want to do is to get into Jimmie. But when the 8 chopped him, and Jimmie swerved, I just got him.”

Since we imagine Junior is second only to Bear Bryant in terms of popularity in the state of Alabama and that Vickers will be driving a Toyota — a make we can’t imagine the Talladega fans cheering for in the first place — it’s assured Vickers will be hearing about this one for years.

3. Will the Car of Tomorrow be accepted?

Well, it’s not off to a good start, that’s for sure.

The major issue with the fans is that the look of the car itself is heinous; it is a shoebox with a wing on the back. Come to think of it, that’s what most of the drivers think, too.

Drivers, team members and owners have been warned about negative comments directed at the car, but our guess is the first driver to bust a splitter at Bristol is going to go ballistic, and as is usually the case, the media will run with it.

So no, the car has not been and most likely will not be accepted. But the fact is, no one has a choice. This has been NASCAR’s baby for three years, and they are going to proceed regardless of what anyone — fans, drivers, owners — think.

The shame of the situation is that NASCAR wants you to believe this is only about safety. And no one has a problem with that; every fan, driver and owner will say that safer is better. But the safety features included on the COT could be implemented on a standard stock car.

NASCAR’s underlying agenda is to level the playing field. With an IROC car, they can take that dream one step closer to reality. What was supposed to be a cost-cutting measure — the idea being that teams did not have to build cars for different types of tracks — has become a money pit. Owners are spending hand over fist to keep up with an ever-changing, NASCAR-mandated template.

We believe this is one of the biggest mistakes NASCAR has ever made. The gap between the haves and have-nots will widen to the point where four, five, maybe six owners will own the entire field.

In the end, what the car was supposed to do — encourage new ownership because the sport is more affordable — will do just the opposite. The rich will get richer and the poor will watch from the grandstands.

4. What’s wrong at Penske Racing South?

Roger Penske has engineered an impressive 55 career wins in 23 years of competition on the Cup circuit, but Rusty Wallace’s glory years of the mid- to late-1990s have passed.

Although Wallace was not as competitive in his final few years, he did act as a stabilizing force within the organization. However, dating back to the late 1990s, personality conflicts with the drivers plagued the organization. Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield never truly saw eye-to-eye, nor did they play team ball. When Ryan Newman was brought in in 2002, the same problems were evident.

To prove that Wallace was not solely at fault, we now have Newman and Kurt Busch filling the seats of Penske machines with the same problems. It seems Mr. Penske is not a good matchmaker. While it’s always tough to tell how two drivers and/or teams will jell, at some point the owner has to sit down with the parties and iron things out. It’s apparent this has not been done.

Also an issue is the fact that Penske remains a two-car team. In a day when three-, four- and five-car organizations bag all the race trophies and championships, Penske Racing South has held fast to its two-car setup. Whether they got burned with the Brendan Gaughan experiment or just don’t feel the overriding need to expand, results have not been forthcoming in the last three years.

The organization needs to make wholesale changes or risk becoming an also-ran. One of the brighter minds in the garage — Matt Borland — has already defected. They can’t afford to lose any more like him. Management, philosophy and strategy are problems that start at the top.

5. Can women compete in NASCAR?

“There has been a big change in reaction to me. The hostility has cooled down quite a bit. I think the worst is over. The initial reaction to me was one of a lack of respect. What you really need is endurance. And some tests show that women have more endurance then men. But that’s not the point. I’m not trying to establish the superiority of one sex over another. I’m a good driver, but no superwoman. What I’m trying to emphasize is that a driver is primarily a person, not a man or a woman, and that a great deal of driving is mental. You cannot afford to get angry behind the wheel. A good driver needs emotional detachment, concentration, good judgment, and desire.”
— Janet Guthrie in an interview with The Sporting News, July 1, 1978

Janet Guthrie is arguably the greatest female racer NASCAR has seen. In 33 career starts from 1976-1980, she posted five top-10 finishes. Her words above ring just as true today as in 1978, when she competed in seven of the circuit’s 30 events.

The fact of the matter is that there are no women competing at higher levels of racing currently aspiring to make the jump into Nextel Cup racing who are good enough to do so.

Danica Patrick’s media-play last season was done in order to land more money in her new IRL contract. She has no interest in a jump to NASCAR and, in all honesty, would probably be the best female on the radar for a job.

Shawna Robinson gave it a go in Cup racing, competing in eight events in 2001-02. Deborah Renshaw participated in 38 Craftsman Truck Series races in 2004-05, and in her case it was a “Pay-to-Ride.” Erin Crocker has made 37 CTS and Busch Series starts over the last two seasons and, well, we’ll get to Ms. Crocker later in the feature.

The point is, this a performance-based sport and thus far, none of the woman trying to make it to Nextel Cup competition has proven worthy enough to get there.

The true question is not whether a woman can compete; it’s have we found a woman who can? So far, we have not, but she is out there somewhere.

6. Can Juan Pablo Montoya win on the Nextel Cup circuit?

Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. It’s safe to say, however, that it may take some time. Montoya is employed by one of the weaker organizations in the business. Both his teammates were rookies in 2006 who combined for one top 5 and five top 10s (all by Reed Sorenson). A veteran teammate would go a long way in making Montoya’s transition a smoother one.

Former driver Rusty Wallace was approached about serving in a driver-coach role for the Colombian, but his network duties prevented him from doing so.

The two events where JPM could realistically shoot for a win are the road courses at Infineon and Watkins Glen. Of course, the heavier stock cars that lack the technology of an F1 car will take a while to master. They will seem sluggish and awkward, but Montoya, like any great driver, will adapt.

Montoya’s first visit to Bristol will be worth watching. They’ll more than likely peel him out of the car a la Cole Trickle. If he can make it out of Thunder Valley with a lead-lap finish, his stock will shoot through the roof.

It will also take his fellow drivers a while to fully trust him, especially at Daytona and Talladega. Until they learn his style, he will be treated like any other rookie.

The odds are against Montoya this year, but he is a special driver. The odds are long that he scores a win, but in the event he does, it will make international news.

7. If not for the “personal relationship,” would Erin Crocker still have a job?

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We don’t think so. In a world where winning is everything, poor performance is a ticket to the unemployment line. Crocker’s on-track performance has been mediocre at best.

Crocker was tabbed as the first woman to break through into the Cup ranks and be successful. It was a welcome thought. Driving for Evernham Motorsports in ARCA, Busch and Truck races, she was on a fast track that many have used to reach the Cup Series.

It was common knowledge in the garage that team owner Ray Evernham and Crocker were dating. But it wasn’t until months later that the cat was let out of the bag for the public’s prying eyes. In court proceedings between Jeremy Mayfield and Evernham Motorsports, Mayfield claimed Evernham’s “close personal relationship” with Crocker led to the downfall of his team and ultimate dismissal.

We wonder, though, if Crocker would still have the ride after the performance of the last two years. In 10 Busch starts in that time she has averaged a 31.1-place finish and a 26.7-place finish in 27 Truck starts. Not exactly contender material. In fact, just last season, Mark McFarland and Burney Lamar were dismissed in midseason from their Busch rides with better numbers.

In her defense, there have been superstars who struggled in their early years. A young kid named Jeff Gordon kept the fab shop busy his first year, and Kasey Kahne was horrible in his first year in the Busch Series.

Crocker has left a trail of dented cars and bruised egos in the last couple of years. Would a male driver hired by Evernham still have the ride with the same results? Answer that one yourself.

8. Did Jeremy Mayfield hit the wall on purpose at Indy?

Popular opinion says yes, but only Jeremy knows for sure.

This is part of a larger question about the drivers and their agendas. Will a competitor in the sport lay down in a lame-duck situation, hurting the team’s standings, or try to purposely get fired for poor performance? That was the accusation by Ray Evernham in documents when Mayfield filed a lawsuit to block his termination and gain compensation upon his dismissal.

At Pocono, Mayfield was accused of pitting due to a non-existent flat tire. The following weekend at Indy there were bets in the garage before the green flag fell that he would do something to retire the car. His relationship with Ray Evernham was heading south in a rapid descent, and speculation was that Mayfield was trying to get the car outside of the top 35 in Owner’s Points.

His wife, Shana, had even been quoted by a member of Mayfield’s team as saying, “...he better not have that that car in the top 35 at the end of the season.” What was already a testy situation was quickly becoming ugly.

Mayfield already had the reputation of a malcontent. He fussed and argued himself out of Roger Penske’s Mobil 1 team to find a home with Evernham. Once that did not work out, he pulled the same stunt with EMS and will now move on to Bill Davis Racing.

If Mayfield wrecked the car on purpose, as some believe he did, why would another team owner hire him? This is a harsh indictment, as maybe the wall slap was just coincidence, the ill effect of a bad-handling racecar. The tag of ‘bad teammate’ seems to follow Mayfield, and incidents like these don’t help his reputation.

9. Why did NBC leave NASCAR?

This one is pretty cut-and-dried. As always, it boiled down to money. NBC split half of NASCAR’s 36-race schedule with FOX as part of a six-year, $2.8 billion deal that began in 2001. The rights fees to broadcast NASCAR events were too high to recoup with advertising revenue. Even with the hottest sport going, NBC could not generate returns that justified the investment.

Now, with a ratings dip that has become alarmingly apparent — although some would place the blame on NBC’s lack of promotion — it has become more difficult to sell the ad time needed to break even.

Some might say NBC was sold a bill of goods. Everyone deserves a profit, but NASCAR cares only about NASCAR. When a big-name sponsor came on board in the series, they were ‘asked’ to sponsor a race, a contingency award, etc. on top of the car or event they initially signed on for. The cost of fulfilling NASCAR’s sponsorship requests prevented some sponsors from buying commercial time. So when NBC got a chance to sign up with the NFL, they dumped racing in a heartbeat for the proven gridiron winner.

It made no sense for NBC to continue losing dollars, and the fault lies with NASCAR for demanding astronomical rights fees.

The new deal NASCAR inked this past season will split its schedule among four networks for eight years. ABC, ESPN, FOX and TNT will collectively pony up $4.8 billion.

10. What really happened at Robert Yates Racing?

When two winning drivers leave an organization in the span of a year, something is amiss. Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler both left the company for greener pastures, leaving Robert Yates scrambling to fill seats.

It seems Yates is simply burned out. He handed over a large portion of the day-to-day management of the company to others, and a sharp decline ensued. The team has gone from contender to mid-packer in no time.

The Yates teams use the same engines as Roush Racing, proving engine reliability and horsepower are not the problems. Rather, engineering shortcomings and aero deficiencies have doomed the team.

Also holding the team back is the two-car structure currently in place. Two-car teams are quickly becoming obsolete as DEI, Joe Gibbs and Ray Evernham will tell you. However, a third team cannot be formed without the financial resources a primary sponsor will provide. The vicious cycle is apparent when one realizes that performance is what attracts the sponsors in the first place.

Having an unproven driver step into one of the most recognized cars on the circuit will not help matters in the short term, either. David Gilliland was called upon to fill the seat left vacant by Sadler when he jumped on board at Evernham Motorsports in August of 2006. Gilliland scored the upset win of the decade in the Busch Series last year. Driving an unsponsored, home-built car, he drove to victory at Kentucky Speedway. Yates offered him a job in spite of his 30th-place finishing average on the Busch and Truck circuits in 12 races over the last two seasons.

The coup of the offseason was Yates signing on veteran Cup driver Ricky Rudd. Rudd drove for the team in 2001 and 2002, recording three victories and finishing as high as fourth in the ’01 Cup standings.

Yates took a step in the right direction when he lured Rudd out of retirement, but the hill they have to climb remains a steep one. A strong management structure and a new approach to attracting sponsors are required for this once-proud organization to regain its spot among the sport’s elite.

11. Is the allure of NASCAR ruining open-wheel racing in America?

The success — or lack thereof, whichever the case may be — of A.J. Allmendinger will go a long way in determining how healthy open-wheel racing remains.

Allmendinger was Champ Car’s next big thing, and America’s only true star in the sport. With his defection, interest in the Champ Car Series will most likely be at an all-time low.

Of course, Allmendinger is not the only open-wheeler to make the jump. Some of the more successful names include Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart. As children they dreamed of winning the Indianapolis 500. As professionals, they realized quickly that the big money was in stock cars.

Defending IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. jumped into a Roger Penske Dodge for two races in the Busch Series last year. To have another series’ defending champion looking to pack up ship and trade in a front wing for fenders is almost unheard-of. That in itself makes a statement about the state of professional open-wheel racing in America.

Juan Pablo Montoya will have the world watching him this season as he makes the transition to stocks. While Formula 1 is in fine shape with or without Montoya, American open-wheelers will learn that international attention is no longer focused on the IRL and CART. His appeal alone will make race fans in South America and Europe sit up and take notice that Daytona has surpassed Indianapolis in American auto racing.

IRL and CART were in trouble before Allmendinger, Hornish and Montoya decided to rub fenders. If they find success in a stock car, and an another established star — Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves — makes the jump in the next year or two, expect another wave of open-wheel drivers to land in NASCAR.

12. Why can’t Jamie McMurray compete?

Jamie McMurray was touted as one of the next big stars after his shocking win at Lowe’s in 2002. Driving for an injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray, in his second career start, pulled off a huge upset win.

He found minor success in 2003, ’04 and ’05. Although he did not record any more wins, he finished 13th, 11th and 12th in the points standings. His best season was ’04, when he posted 23 top-10 runs. The hot commodity he was at the time — young, good-looking, media-friendly — earned him big bucks when Jack Roush came calling in 2005. After a nasty contract dispute that resulted in McMurray being freed from his then-current deal with Chip Ganassi, he jumped in a Roush Racing Fusion and hasn’t been heard from since.

McMurray has the same equipment and engines as the other Roush teams, but the results are nowhere near the same. McMurray fails to allow the crew chief to do his duty, trying to make the calls himself, which results in horrible finishes. New pit boss — his fourth in a little over one season — Larry Carter had to deal with the same circumstances when he served as Rusty Wallace’s crew chief. If Carter learned from that experience, he may be able to straighten McMurray out.

In the meantime, McMurray is on thin ice with the Cat in the Hat. It is time for him to step up or rumors about changes, and this time not in the crew chief, will flare up.

At least rookie David Ragan gives McMurray a chance to move up to the fourth-best Roush team.

13. Why are the TV ratings slumping and the events having trouble selling tickets?

This one is going to hurt. There are several issues that bring us to the decline, starting with ticket sales.

For the spring Atlanta event in 2007 the cheapest grandstand seat costs $60. For a family of four, that’s $240 just to walk in the gate. Throw in a souvenir, a hot dog and a couple Cokes, and suddenly it’s at least a $300 day.

The hotels are who really gouge the fans. People staying anywhere near the track have to buy a three-night minimum at an escalated price. One hotel we contacted raised rates to $125 a night, up from $55.

Another reason for both slumping ratings and slow ticket sales is the on-track product. When aerodynamics overcame horsepower and driver skill, the sport took a downturn. The sport has always fought the shallow-minded assertion that racing is just cars going around in circles. Unfortunately, that is exactly what it has become at many tracks. Did anyone catch the California race last February? If you claim to have watched that snoozer from beginning to end, you’re flat-out lying.

Finally, the drivers themselves have become vanilla. Occasionally Tony Stewart will say or do something that harks back to a time when drivers weren’t concerned that they would offend a sponsor, or worse, upset NASCAR and get some ultimatums thrown their way. They walk the company line because they realize, regardless of their on-track performance, that if they say or do the wrong thing they’ll lose the ride.

We believe this is one reason for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity. He attracts the “Bubba Fan” that NASCAR wants so desperately to shake. With a beer sponsor, a southern drawl and an everyman personality, Junior is not seen as a spokesman chosen to represent the company. He’s a racecar driver hell-bent on winning.

Add the Car of Tomorrow and Toyota to the mix in 2007, and the popularity could continue its downward spiral. It seems the sport’s popularity with the Johnny-come-lately fan is fading. The question then is whether there are any traditional fans left.

Or have they gone the way of Wilkesboro?