By Mike Mulhern
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson may have the easy part of it these final four races of the year, because all they’ve got to do is win a championship. And whichever one wins, they’ll both be celebrating.
But for the rest of these guys the NASCAR season is not winding down but rather cranking up to an even faster, more frantic pace, because in just 65 days they’ll have to be loading their haulers with 2008 Daytona 500 specials for the trek to Florida. And for every team except the Gordon-Johnson-Hendrick juggernaut there’s a long way to go and a short time to get there…which is why there are shakeups galore. If you’re not winning, then you’re losing, and someone gets the blame. And nobody fires the car owner.
So the 2008 season probably starts here Monday, with the next model of that awkward car-of-tomorrow, which promises to be a scary situation for all. Of course Gordon and Johnson themselves are skipping that deal, leaving it up to new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., now the low man on the totem pole, to do the heavy work.
Earnhardt isn’t the only guy with new agendas and new teammates and new goals, and old burdens to shed. He’s not the only winless driver this season.
Start with Toyota:
Still winless this season, its first on the Cup tour, Toyota needs to get a victory under its belt before the end of the year, and that doesn’t look promising. Brian Vickers, who should be carrying much of the freight, just got a new crew chief after missing the past several events. So Doug Richert, his old crew chief, is now working the garage marketplace.
Teammate AJ Allmendinger, who needs a lot of laps everywhere, has been more promising lately, though here he’s not that confident: “The first thing I need to work on is just getting better at the race track. I’m pretty confident we’ll have a good car. More than anything I need to get better around this place.”
Ironically Dale Jarrett is the Toyota surprise so far, starting from the second row. What he can do with one of Michael Waltrip’s cars, though, is uncertain.
Toyota execs themselves may be waiting for next year, when Joe Gibbs and his men – Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – join the camp. All three would be top contenders in the Daytona 500 if they were still in Chevrolets, so Toyota engineers will have to be up to speed very early on.
And then Brent Dewar, here Friday, made another pitch for Stewart not to sign any long-term contract with Toyota or Gibbs, because General Motors – Dewar is the GM VP in charge of sales and marketing, and thus racing too – wants Stewart back in the fold: “We’d love to have Tony Stewart back. If Tony is listening: ‘We love Tony Stewart.’
“He’s our team owner in the USAC series. He has two years left on his contract with Joe Gibbs, so he doesn’t have a lot of options: he has to race with the team he’s with, or sit out a few years, which wouldn’t be good.”
Consider Dale Earnhardt Jr., winless in a year and a half: “We feel we missed a great opportunity this year, with a great chance of winning the championship, challenging for it. We’re really ticked off about that. We feel we’re a top-five team; we’ve run top-five every week. But I don’t think anybody even realizes that, because when we blow a motor and fall out, the story is who won, and we’re lost in the back of the newspaper somewhere, no credit for how good we’ve run.
“I’ve never run up front as often as I have this year, never have. I’ve been in the top-five 95 percent of the races. It’s a shame we won’t get an ‘Attaboy’ for it.
“Because I’m going somewhere next year there’s really no building toward next year, as far as the mentality here with me. These guys who know they’re going to stick around and work on this car next year, they’re probably looking forward to next year and building relationships. And I’m trying to not hurt that or slow that down or get in the way of that.
“I’m trying to drive hard and help them learn what they need to learn and get what they need to get. There ain’t no pressure.
“But I feel ridiculous going winless this year because we should have won. I feel pretty gypped.”
And consider car owner Ray Evernham, who’s suffered through a miserable season.
And consider car owner Richard Childress, who put his three teams in the championship playoffs only to watch veterans Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton falter rather dramatically, in a downer to a turnaround season.
Fellow car owner Chip Ganassi hasn’t had a terrible year, not with the surprising success of newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya, winner in Mexico City and Sonoma. But Ganassi, for his five years on the tour, still hasn’t lived up to reputation and talent. So he’s bringing in another new driver, Indy-star Dario Franchitti (who may have a long, long way to go) and a new competition manager, veteran Steve Hmiel, a classic ‘true racer.’
Hmiel and Earnhardt have both left DEI, an operation that looks increasingly shaky, particularly with team manager Richie Gilmore out of the picture since suffering an aneurysm three weeks ago.
It was in fact more a bit startling to watch Friday’s DEI press conference here, with Chevrolet’s very top brass on the dais announcing a new three-year deal with the team built by the late Dale Earnhardt and now run by his wife, Teresa, who made a very rare – and very brief – appearance (and left without answering any questions, as has been far too typical).
When the Chevy brass shows up like this, they should see their driver-investments wearing something a little spiffier than scruffy black tee-shirts and jeans. One of the first things the Big E taught Jr. was to dress properly (though since his father’s death, Junior has taken off in a different direction, though one certain to change now that he’s with Rick Hendrick.)
It was a very odd meeting, which showcased Teresa Earnhardt’s imperial approach to this sport, which she handles with all the enthusiasm of a 401-k, with no apparent zest or even much interest. If it wasn’t for the Earnhardt name on the shop, GM might not be all that willing to ante up the millions of dollars it just did, for a team that some rivals say, without Junior, may be just a museum. It looks like it’s up to John Story to shape things up, and if he can keep Mark Martin on mark, it could work. But it will take a lot of work.
Hmiel says the culture of NASCAR racing has been changing dramatically this season, and it takes a lot just to try to stay on top of things, much less get ahead of the curve.
And Dewar, from a higher vantage point, agrees. It’s his job to focus GM’s money in the right place, and NASCAR is hot, so how to leverage that? “We continue to look at Formula One as an interesting venue,” Dewar says, teasingly. “We’re not sure where the direction of that will go.
“But we have a global brand in Chevrolet. We have a Chevrolet stock car series we support in Brazil; and we want to race against other manufacturers there, so we’re trying to interest them in participating. The number one sport in Brazil is soccer, and number two is racing. Racing is very popular in Brazil.
“There is an interest around the world in this racing series. I think Brazil would accept it. They have some great tracks down there that could accommodate this type of racing. NASCAR has done a great job in Montreal and in Mexico City….and when we sit down with NASCAR I’ll find out what they’re thinking about Brazil. I know a lot about Brazil; I even married a Brazilian.
“As the sport gets more international, there is more interest, and you’ll see more international drivers wanting to become part of this series.
“And anybody who wants to race in a Chevrolet should give me a call.”
Hmiel is looking at things from more down-in-the-trenches, but he’s been doing since the 1970s and his early days at Petty Enterprises and then with Jack Roush, so Hmiel has a good sense of the big picture: The NASCAR culture “has become extremely corporate. There are different layers of ownership. There are all kinds of mergers going on,” Hmiel says.
“It sometimes gets confusing as to who is really in charge.”
So Hmiel senses he’ll be perhaps more comfortable at Ganassi’s, because “he is there. You can talk to him. He is also a real open guy. You can talk to him and hash out things. It is nice to know his main goal is to have a faster car and win races and win championships.
“I’m not saying the sport is changing for the worse; I’m just saying the culture is a little different, with mergers and foreign drivers and young people and old people.
“I’m very privileged to be a part of that and employed by somebody who looks at that as something we need to be working on going forward. It’s a good opportunity.
“Because teams are so large, communication is incredible. Well, some people think communication is incredible…and some people think communication is complaining, when actually communication is having a reasonable conversation and using all the engineering staff. There are so many ideas, and so few things that really solve problems.
“Everybody looks at Rick Hendrick. But we also understand there were times he had a terrible time. But he brought in the right people and got it going in the right direction, and he was able to maintain it.”
But Hendrick seems to be the only car owner at the moment who is going in the right direction. Virtually every other shop on the tour is either in disarray or shaken with loss of confidence, and sometimes downright confusion. Throw in the next phase of NASCAR’s still controversial car-of-tomorrow program – Monday’s test of the new intermediate model, which may not have enough downforce or the right tires for the 180-plus mph speeds here – and it’s easy to see why a lot of these guys have long faces.
Monday’s test should be interesting in another respect – Montrealers’ Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier will be on the track together for the first time in years. They’re both 36, both trying to restart their careers, and both making the dramatic shift from open-wheel to NASCAR. Two kickers: Carpentier is driving for Evernham, who just sold 50 percent of his Statesville operation to George Gillett, who owns the Montreal Canadiens, and Villeneuve is driving for Bill Davis, who is reported to be selling his High Point operation to Villeneuve himself.
Davis, Toyota’s lone veteran operation this year, got off to a fairly good start but didn’t improve much, and problems getting Jeremy Mayfield’s half of the two-car team even in the fields has been a major issue. What lies ahead now with Villeneuve coming in to replace Mayfield, and apparently also taking majority ownership of the entire High Point operation?
Well, Mayfield himself just bailed. He’s now running for Gene Haas and Joe Custer, replacing Jeff Green.
“We had talked about doing some stuff next year, and I wasn’t doing a very good job over at Bill’s,” Mayfield said. “We just weren’t clicking. So we decided to make a change. Joe knew that, so we said ‘Hey, let’s go ahead and do something now and get a jump-start on next year.
“To me it was a no-brainer: jump in and let’s go racing, and do the best we can, and hopefully it will all pay off.”
That seems to be the philosophy of most teams here that aren’t owned by Rick Hendrick.