"People used to say, well, if Morgan-McClure was running in the back, they were still getting TV time. They still had fans, and were so important to the sport. We've got to have the last-place car just like we have the first-place car. I think that's the thing we've forgotten about, the last-place cars are as important -- the whole field is important in NASCAR."
It didn't take long for those words to make a connection in my own life. Just hours after a Friday piece that had a snippet evaluating Robby Gordon's Cup future, I was deluged with as much fan "mail" and criticisms as if I was doing an article on Danica Patrick or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. By the time it was all said and done, I easily had one of the better E-mail responses to any article I did all year based on a few short sentences alone.
Certainly, with the offseason you never know what fans will read certain articles on what day and latch onto them, but the passion and persistence behind Gordon's base was striking. Here's an owner/driver who's scored five top-5 finishes in the last six years at the Cup level, was talked about on TV but a handful of times this season and whose program at one point was start-and-parking due to lack of funds. Yet those who follow him remain just as strong and passionate as those who get busy celebrating five-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
It's an important reminder about what makes this sport different, an obsession over a 30th-place finisher easy to forget in a culture where we're taught second place is the first loser. Gordon's always had an outspoken, independent, fiery personality; well before "Boys, Have At It," he was making contact with Jeff Gordon en route to scoring his first career oval stock car victory at New Hampshire in 2001. At one point, an on-track brouhaha with Marcos Ambrose at Montreal three years ago actually got him suspended from a Cup race. It's a type of non-Chase, but pro-independent personality the sport needs, a man so passionate he even got former sponsor Jim Beam to lead a protest over a fine NASCAR issued him in 2008 (can you imagine if Clint Bowyer's group did the same this Fall?). So who cares that he'll never make the playoffs? Keep in mind this sport was never developed on any sort of playoff concept; an even-keeled field of 43 destroys that idea no matter how much the Chase tries to turn it into some type of stick 'n' ball elimination contest for the fans.
As the wheels of change gear up this offseason, the prevailing school of thought is NASCAR remains desperate for some new blood. There hasn't been a first-time Chaser since 2008, this year's rookie award winner was virtually invisible on-track except for his "lengthy" sponsor and everything from the Cup Series champion to the series' Most Popular Driver Award is riding some sort of extended streak at the top. No question, different ideas and people to focus on are needed to turn this sport around for the long-term.
But maybe the first step is to recognize ALL the people already there -- even if they're not running up front every week.
OK, time to get going. Per usual, email@example.com and @NASCARBowles are your connections to me this holiday season. Christmas presents are always accepted if you're up for it ...
Hey Tom, I really enjoyed your NASCAR article Friday except for the part about Robby Gordon. I'm sure someone already told you, but Robby opted out of his contract renewal/option with Monster to pursue his own energy drink. As for full season of Indy for him in 2012, I hope so but highly doubt it. Off-road is his passion and seems to be the way he is headed.-- Nick, Fonthill, Ontario
Nick's was the nicest of a number of emails assailing me re: Robby Gordon. Let's clarify the Monster Energy deal first, because I can see where you misinterpreted Friday's article. A sponsor for Gordon in both off-road and the Cup level this year, multiple sources told me from midsummer it was the Monster deal which kept Gordon hanging around in NASCAR and financially afloat while pursuing one, then two different lawsuits for non-payment from partners (BAM Racing, then Extenze once the season concluded). Without that company in 2010, the No. 7 would have scarcely existed, the owner no longer interested in full-time competition behind the wheel while that side of his business struggled to remain financially viable. At the time, Monster wanted additional NASCAR exposure and Robby gladly gave it to them, although he's spurning their Cup support in 2011 in favor of hawking his own energy drink -- supported by investors -- and doing a potpourri of driving in a variety of different series next year.
We'll get to why Robby's interest in Cup has waned in a second. First, let's talk his short-term future. Aligned with GM over in SCORE's off-road series, where he's a seven-time champion and three-time Baja 1000 winner, a contract extension has locked him in with that manufacturer over the long-term. On the record with an interest in switching to Chevy for NASCAR, that deal makes sense as his current one with Toyota is "eh" at best. Putting your race teams under one manufacturer in all series is the right move over the long-term.
Add in GM's return to IndyCar in 2012 and it's another perfect fit for the former open-wheel veteran to consider a permanent switch. The schedule isn't as vigorous as NASCAR's -- about half the races -- and the new rules plus fewer monopolies and cheaper operating costs mean he could be much more competitive as an independent. It also still allows him to run off-road, possibly devoting more time to that effort depending on what he'd like to do with the NASCAR team past 2011. For now, the Indy 500 is likely the only open-wheel race he'll compete in next year, with Honda power, but if I were a betting man I'd say that's far from the last one he'll run in that series over the next few years.
Robby is a very diverse driver and you should be giving kudos to his efforts for the Dakar Rally - one of the very few that does not have corporate manufacturing support for this endeavor. He does it on hard work and determination and whatever he can to raise the funds to support his employees and race. Robby is a success in spite of the odds in NASCAR which has become all about the mighty dollar and has practically wiped out the little guys; another step to making NASCAR the WWF of autoracing and the only place where someone with no talent and money can race.-- Karen, Aiken, SC
Karen, I think Gordon's Dakar dedication is exemplary, especially after losing a reported $4.5 million in 2008 when the African race was canceled at the last minute. There's no question Gordon is a superstar in off road, deserving of the kudos he gets in that series. But in NASCAR, he's on the way out. Consider:
- Two lawsuits remain of the three mentioned Friday (a logo dispute over Specialized Bicycles has been settled without costing Gordon a ton of money). The other ones, versus BAM and Extenze, are irrelevant in terms of courtroom victories: screwed out of money, you can't collect when neither party you're fighting has the cash you want them to give up, right?
- Gordon claims he's switching to a part-time schedule in 2011, running the first five and then "fun" races while utilizing investor support and money collected from SPEED Energy. Not the first time we've seen a product launched through NASCAR, but most of the energy drinks we've seen do it (Wave, START, MC2 ... the list goes on and on) were based on a percentage of sales from distribution, which fell flat and never really resulted in proper funding. Sure, SPEED tastes good but it's not exactly challenging Red Bull for top of the line just yet; rest assured there's not $20 million, top-dollar support behind this sponsorship. Did people suddenly forget Gordon's team "start-and-parked" a half-dozen times to simply stay afloat last season (something the 40-year-old said he'd "never do"); what do you think happens in 2011 when there's no money?
- Nothing describes the man's current state of mind than Homestead's season finale. With a top-35 spot seemingly assured in his mind, a 115-point cushion technically left the door open -- but he wasn't worried about a miracle. In fact, the owner didn't bother to return from off-road in the Baja, leaving struggling rookie Kevin Conway with the surprise of driving the car all weekend. Gordon went MIA, one of a handful of instances he didn't even show up to the track during a race weekend, then sued Conway's Extenze backer shortly thereafter.
Look, I'm not after Robby. I think the intro makes it clear how much his personality is good not only for NASCAR but racing in general. That said, this owner/driver's been around in Cup a long time, and he knows his competitive goose is cooked except for the road courses. The way the gap between rich and poor has widened, the No. 7 team doesn't have the technology, the funding, or the personnel to pull off more than the occasional top 20 finish on ovals. Fair or no, for eight of nine months out of the year Gordon's NASCAR career has become virtually irrelevant, a non-factor in a world where his model is increasingly outdated and pushed towards extinction.
So, of course we should salute him for Dakar. That's where he's successful, it's where he's talented and ultimately it's where he'll focus while figuring out the next stage of his career. But unless NASCAR makes rule changes to help his team close the gap, it's hard to see this Californian ever running full-time in stock cars again.
OK, enough of Robby. Let's move on...
You really need to lighten up on the start and parks. Yes, for some it may be a strict, make money only model. However for most I bet you would find owners and drivers that would race the entire race if it made some economic sense. But with the price on tires, engines, crews, etc. it is the only way for these people to survive. The small purses they make hardly pay for travel, parts, building the cars, paying the rent and shop employees. The only solution to this "problem" is to increase the purses for the lower half of the field or reduce the size of the field to 35 or so. I don't think that Tommy Baldwin or Joe Nemechek are becoming wealthy under the current system.-- Bob, California
Sure, they're not making Bill Gates money Bob; but it's still a pretty good living, and consider they're mooching off you. What about your hard-earned money these teams are using up when you're sitting in the stands? Could you imagine if all 43 teams pulled off the "start-and-park" model, running slowly single-file before pulling in after 50 of 200 laps to collect a check? Would you come to watch the races then?
I understand the motive of some of these teams; it gives crewmen jobs while sustaining the organization as they look for sponsorship. But can you name me one car that went from a start-and-park model to a successful top-10 contender? How in the world can you court sponsorship when you run cautiously off the pace, you're not shown on TV and pull the car in before the first pit stop?
It's unfortunate that great people are out of work because of NASCAR's poor economics. But fans attend a race to see great competition, not serve as a charity to help keep one-quarter of the starting field employed. When a baseball free agent is out of work and nobody signs him, there's not a 31st team formed just so these players can keep collecting a paycheck, right? For me, the whole system just doesn't make sense.
I get what you were saying on Friday about Sam Hornish, Jr. and Michael Jordan. But if you look back at the improvements Jordan made while in the minors, plus how well he was actually playing during the Winter AA ball, had it not been for the 1994 baseball strike he probably could have made the majors in his second year of baseball. He was, of course, a much better basketball player, but he was such a great athlete that he was actually becoming a good baseball player. Unlike racing, there is not a huge difference in physical shape between Indy and NASCAR drivers: you just need to be in shape. But, there is a major difference between baseball and basketball. Once Jordan got in baseball shape, he actually was improving quickly. Bottom line, we haven't seen the performance improvements from Hornish as we saw from Jordan in baseball.-- John, Washington, D.C.
Jordan's baseball numbers from the minors (AA): 127 games, .202 average, 3 HR, 51 RBI. Sorry, friend, we'll agree to disagree; hard to believe you'd be able to make a major-league jump from that so quickly.
On Hornish, I do think you're right on the money, even more of a reason he'll be so much happier once he's forced to go back to open-wheel. I give him so much credit for sticking in there -- the only real failure in life is the failure to try -- but there comes a point where enough is enough.
Regarding your recent mailbag article, there are many J.J./No. 48 fans out here, and I am one of them! I hope J.J. wins one or two more in a row, though I don't think he will. Actually, I'd like to see someone else win one and then see J.J. come back and win the next year or so.-- David Harding, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Appreciate your readership and your passion for the sport, David. But as a Johnson supporter, didn't you just prove my point? When even the fans of the No. 48 want someone else to win the title in '11, you know this reign of dominance isn't catching on with the public...
The only reason Danica's around is because it's politically correct. She could not have competed in open-wheel racing were it not for the lack of the qualified racers from CART in the "bush league" Hulman's grandson created. Can you imagine what A.J. Foyt would have done to her if she came down the pit lanes and threatened him; not to mention what would have happened on the track with Foyt, the Unser brothers, Mario, Rick Mears and the rest. She's a joke! I really doubt she's going to push around Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Biffle and the rest in today's NASCAR either.-- Don Hann, Rochester, Minn.
Pushing around Jeff Gordon? Whew! Some high expectations there; let's just see her get a top-10 finish in the "AAA" Nationwide Series first. Those in the know have told me Patrick's car was being given "Cup level" support financially in 2010, a number that was virtually unmatched except for maybe Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. All that money ... for just one top 20? Fo' shame.
It just goes to show you even with a tint towards engineering, not driver talent, money still can't buy you everything in NASCAR. But before we start piling on Patrick, the best move JR Motorsports ever made is putting her in contact with Mark Martin. The man has a future as a driver coach, and if there's anyone that can make Patrick a weekly contender, it's his guiding hand.
As for Foyt? I shudder to think what might have happened. I'll say this much: Danica would have ended up in the wall at some point...
When did Jeff Gordon ever have pink on his car? Oh I remember... NEVER!-- Chuck Johnson, Boiling Springs, SC
Sure he has! If you don't feel the early-to-mid 1990s version was pinkish enough, then try out this September paint scheme on for size. That's what happens when your three-year-old daughter is allowed to design the car ... although not quite as cool as the Sponsafier Seals scheme Kyle Busch ran at Richmond this Fall. THAT's a pink car we can all live with...
And finally, our "out of left field" email of the week has a musical tint...
Thanks for keeping us updated during the offseason with solid NASCAR news.
Next time you see Mr. Gordon, you should let him know to check out an old song called "Candy Apple Red" by the Robbin Thompson Band from the late 70's (He used to play in a few early bands with Springsteen before going out on his own; maybe not such a good decision in hindsight). It would fit in very well with his new paint scheme.
Have a great holiday season.
Consider the man publicly informed, and feel free to listen to the song here. I'll be honest, though; not really sure how the lyrics apply. Feel free to write back and explain...
On another note, this album was recorded in 1980, one year before I was even born; thanks for giving me the holiday gift of reminding me how young I still am!
Before we take off, a reminder: Goodyear tire testing at Daytona is this Wednesday and Thursday, drivers testing out the new pavement extensively for the first time. And since we've got all the Robby Gordon angst going on, let's go with this week's offseason trivia question: Who's the last single-car team to win a Cup race? This one should be a piece of cake, and it comes with a reward, too: the first one to get it right gets their name in the Mailbag next Tuesday!
Trivia Answer From Last Week: Geoff Bodine lapped the field during a 1994 race at North Wilkesboro, the last time anyone has won a Cup race by a lap or more.
Tweet of the Week: "@nascar attendance is a lot better then America's #1 sport. Game is going on. You tell me #nascar #nascarwearsfire http://twitpic.com/3fcqx4" -- Josh Jones (otherwise known as @mother_function), Kevin Harvick's business manager snapping shops from Bank of America stadium (Carolina Panthers) while trying to prove a point that every sport can suffer from empty seats