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Monday Morning Crew Chief: Old Not In Way In The Chase

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 14 2009
Mark Martin is just one of the veteran drivers who have put Hendrick Motorsports solidly in the Chase.

Mark Martin is just one of the veteran drivers who have put Hendrick Motorsports solidly in the Chase.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

A different former Washington Redskin football coach came to mind at Richmond after Denny Hamlin won the race in the Toyota of car owner Joe Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl winner with the Redskins. It was the affable but intense George Allen who coined the phrase “The Future is Now” and then created the “Over the Hill Gang” comprised of older players instead of trying to use the college draft to build his team in Washington.

In an era of utter fascination with youngsters in the wheelhouse, team owner Rick Hendrick took a page from the Allen playbook by convincing 50-year-old Mark Martin to return to a full-time schedule and handing him the keys to one of NASCAR’s plum rides. Hendrick also added affiliated drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to his realm of influence and presto!

Including Hendrick regulars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, there’s a gang of five veteran drivers using Hendrick chassis and engines in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Not quite over the hill, although there’s occasionally a weight problem and back issues, these guys comprise nearly half the Chase field.

The future is definitely now for perennial points runner-up Martin, the leader of this gang and the leader of the points heading into the Chase by virtue of his four victories.

In an era when developing the COT is still in its infancy, if  a veteran teammate who could contribute to chassis development had been at Joe Gibbs Racing in the team’s third entry instead of a learner’s permit rookie, Kyle Busch might have made the Chase, too. As it was, when Stewart left to start up Stewart-Haas Racing, teenager Joey Logano was tabbed to replace him. The team of Gibbs, we are told, does not share information well with other Toyota teams under the manufacturer’s system, which could be another factor in Busch’s inconsistent season.

The future of the Chase format, meanwhile, may no longer be dangling from a rope. The drama of four-race winner Busch just missing the Chase in the late stages of Richmond at the hands of Red Bull Toyota driver Brian Vickers was pretty compelling, even if it means the guy who wins the most races does not win the championship.

If KB goes on to win the most races this season, it seems to me that adds a story line instead of subtracting from the championship. Nobody got sideways when David Pearson won the most races for the Wood Brothers and somebody else won the championship. It just gave people more opportunity for name-calling in that ancient comment section known as the CB Radio.

The average sports fan, goes the chant about revising the Chase or points system, doesn’t understand it when the driver who wins the most races doesn’t win the championship or even make the Chase. Well that’s the way racing is. It’s not much different than a wild card team winning the Super Bowl against a team with a better record.

Why not give race winners some additional points during the season? It could come at the expense of a close race during the dog days of summer by those trying to make the Chase. Or it could come at the expense of a close race during the Chase.

The fiddle doesn’t make music unless the strings are tight. They’re wound up pretty good as evidenced by angry driver comments on the team radios coming from those on the Chase bubble on Saturday night. How quickly forgotten are the not-too-distant days at the turn of the century when half the field were “Strumbos” picking up fat checks for just starting and finishing in the latter days of the previous points system.

What about Juan Pablo Montoya points racing to get into the Chase field? I guess the mercurial Columbian has given the media a lesson by constantly giving out his own story line. If the Target Chevy had a so-so day, Montoya was points racing and playing the Chase game. If he had a good day, like dominating at Indy, Montoya was sitting pretty.

Despite the pit road snafu at Indy, Montoya has now made the Chase. More power to him and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. Clearly he’s capable of winning on some ovals, but Montoya already trails leader Martin by 40 points. Fair enough.

When you have a champion who needn’t try to win over the last ten races to bring in the trophy, that’s a real problem – and a pretty boring discussion as well. Presently, those who are in the Chase must win to get the extra points still on the table and those eliminated by the Chase need to win to placate the sponsors. Busch, meanwhile, is perfectly suited to the role of spoiler, one familiar to Gordon, Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when they’ve failed to make the Chase.

Pretty good system, I’d say, given the money today’s drivers are making and the cost of tickets, souvenirs and track food for hard-working fans. If you’re sitting in the grandstands, you’d want to see guys racing like a bounty was on their heads.

What about giving the guy who wins the most races an automatic “wild card” berth? Hmmm. That might actually be worthy of consideration, because it falls under increasing the motivation to win instead of just bringing in points. In such a case, only the driver who wins the most races gets the wild card. If the driver with the most victories is already in the Chase, the wild card gets tossed out. A driver can’t sit on his laurels, because his victory total could always be surpassed.

Personally, I don’t look for a rule change that caters to this year’s flavor of the moment — even if the younger Busch should win four more races. On those occasions when he’s disses the media or is just holding himself aloof during race weekends, Busch says he’s preoccupied with his busy schedule and winning. This will be a good opportunity for KB, who was gracious to post-race cameras at Richmond, to keep adding to his already impressive career victory total.

While taking in this year’s much talked about Chase up in sports mogul heaven, Bill France Jr. is probably discussing motivational techniques with guys like Allen. Now that the former NASCAR president is gone, there’s some tangled lines about where exactly the idea of the Chase came from. I suspect he doesn’t mind who gets the credit for setting in motion the change in the points system as long as the drivers are working hard for the money and earning their way.

* Quick Hits: We caught up with Doug Duchardt, vice president of development for Hendrick Motorsports, prior to the shootout for the Chase, which went pretty well for the Hendrick team.

RacinToday: What can you say about Hendrick Motorsports’ success this year apart from the usual sort of thing like working hard and being dedicated?

Duchardt: It’s hard to say this year versus past years. We haven’t done anything different from the way we approach what we do since 2006. This sport is cyclical, it’s always been that way. There’s been years when people are good and then years when they’re not as good. This year we’ve had three teams that have run well and I think the No. 88 team is starting to run better. Our affliated teams have run well, too.

RacingToday: Without testing, if you fall behind is it harder to catch up?

Duchardt: Without testing you have to rely on different tools more. We’re fortunate to have a seven-post rig, we have a strong computer simulation program. You just work on your fundamentals and at the race track try to go execute. Luckily, some of the things we hit on last year and over the winter have continued to work this year.

RacinToday: Does the affiliated team at Stewart-Haas Racing help when there’s no testing?

Duchardt: Certainly that’s a help, when they’re running better than you and you can see what they’re doing that’s a benefit. It’s a benefit for morale to the guys who work on the chassis and engines. They’re proud of the success that Stewart-Haas Racing has had. It’s been positive in the shop.

RacinToday: It looks like Dale Earnhardt Jr. has really turned a corner. What are your thoughts on that?

Duchardt: I think through the summer we’ve run better with the 88 car. We just weren’t able to get a finish for where we were running, for whatever reason. It’s been a time to build a relationship between the crew chief and driver and those guys have started to see that working. Understanding each other and how they’re approaching things. It’s good to see a spring in everyone’s step again. It was fun to see Tony Eury Jr. help on the Nationwide car in Atlanta, too, where they sat on the pole and ran third.

* Verbal fisticuffs: Perhaps the most telling comment caught by TV microphones at the U.S. Nationals was uttered by Robert Hight after his “winning” pass versus his team owner, John Force. “I can’t believe we did this,” said Hight while sounding more ashamed than exuberant. The Tony Pedregon versus Force chin-to-chin over fixing the race came later. …The shouting match was more over money, not pride or fan interests. If the stink is enough to get the NHRA to reduce the number of entries per team in each category to below four, it would cost Force a major sponsorship and a lot of money that could end up elsewhere. …NASCAR’s Sprint Cup participants seem to have followed the rather embarassing NHRA dust-up on Labor Day closely. The Richmond race, where any manner of skullduggery could have influenced the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, was the cleanest at Richmond in years.

If Monza winner Rubens Barrichello, 37, wins the Formula One championship, where he currently trails Brawn teammate Jenson Button by 14 points, he would only be the fifth oldest title winner. Giuseppe Farina won his first at age 44 and Juan Manuel Fangio won his first at age 40 and his last at age 46. Sir Jack Brabham was 40 when he won his third and final F1 title in 1966. Graham Hill was 39 when he won his second title in 1968. …That’s a reminder that Lee Petty didn’t start his career until age 35 and won his third Sprint Cup title at age 45 in 1959. …Plenty of time for Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.!

Rumors are hot and heavy the NASCAR team owner Kevin Buckler will enter a Mercedes E-class car in the Grand-Am Series built by Pratt & Miller Engineering for the GT class. Pratt & Miller is the builder of the Pontiac GXP.R in the Grand-Am, the Corvettes in the American Le Mans Series and is the engineering “skunkworks” for GM in the Sprint Cup. …Can Danica Patrick repeat her victory from last year at Motegi in Japan? We’ll be there this weekend to find out.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 14 2009
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