When Hall of Fame Racing fired J.J. Yeley last week, it couldn't have come as a shock to anyone, including him.
The team and the driver never connected in their first season together. Yeley had started the year in the top-35 in the owner points, was out of them in eight races and never made it back. Forced to qualify into races, Yeley missed four, something HoF had never been through in its initial two years in Sprint Cup.
Now with the No. 96 Toyota 39th in owner points, 236 behind the 35th-place Red Bull Racing Toyota driven by A.J. Allmendinger, the obvious goal for the final 14 races is to climb back into the top-35.
Conventional wisdom says it's a job for a veteran, preferably a driver with a champion's provisional. Terry Labonte, a two-time Cup champion, drove for the team under the previous ownership. He's not available this weekend at Michigan, where he will drive for Petty Enterprises, but he could have filled in some gaps in the schedule. Tony Raines did a good job for the team, driving 29 races in 2006 and 34 (all but the road courses) in 2007. He was 29th in the driver points and the team (with help from Ron Fellows) was 25th in the owner points last season. Johnny Sauter, Jason Leffler and John Andretti are also available.
HoF went in the opposite direction, hiring Brad Coleman for the rest of the season. Michigan will be his first attempt at qualifying for a Cup race.
Coleman's selection is reflective of the dilemma midpack-and-back teams face in trying to get into Chase contention. Want to make races and stay where you're running? Hire a veteran. Want to make the quantum leap forward? Go for a prospect. HoF is hoping that Coleman becomes the next Carl Edwards or Denny Hamlin or Clint Bowyer, relative unknowns who arrived quickly into Cup and started making the Chase.
The 20-year-old Coleman is driving his first full Nationwide Series this year for Baker Curb Racing and his results are nothing to write home about. He's 16th in the points and his top finishes are ninth at Las Vegas and 10th at Watkins Glen in 24 starts. But he had three top-fives, including a second at Kentucky last season, in 17 Nationwide races driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Coleman was a development driver for Gibbs, who also had Joey Logano and not enough sponsorship to run both drivers full-time in Nationwide this year. Coleman had that opportunity at Baker Curb, which doesn't have a Cup connection, and wisely took it. He needs experience more than results, although it would be best to have both.
Gibbs must have had good things to say about Coleman, who also signed a contract to test and drive in seven Cup races with HoF last fall. HoF has bought its chassis and engines from Gibbs since it began operations. Coleman has tested the Toyota Cup car for HoF at Pocono, Nashville, Kentucky and Road Atlanta.
What HoF has done by hiring Coleman now is increase his race schedule by five races. The difference is he won't have a teammate to help him with information to improve the car. They've also added the pressure of being the team's primary entry and the weight of go-or-go-home is on his shoulders. HoF has thrown Coleman into the deep end.
The team undoubtedly must have liked what it saw from him in testing, but fast times there don't always convert to good race results. Michael Waltrip Racing put Michael McDowell in the No. 00 this season, largely on what it had seen in testing. McDowell took over after five races from David Reutimann, who had the car 27th in owner points, and McDowell has driven it out of the top 35. Waltrip has replaced McDowell with veteran Mike Skinner at Michigan.
Coleman's situation is very challenging, but it isn't hopeless. He hasn't won in 43 career Nationwide starts, but he's been competitive and led laps. He's only 20, which screams of potential. Coleman wouldn't be the first driver who blossomed at the Cup level. Tony Stewart was winless in 36 Nationwide starts when he moved into Cup in 1998 and he won three Cup races in his rookie season. Experts say making a successful transition has everything to do with adapting to the car and learning quickly how to race it.
Running at the front also requires a strong team and HoF clearly has some progress to make. Yeley was 21st in the points last year for Gibbs. Coleman and HoF are embarking on a journey into the unknown together.