2012-02-09 / Sports

It’s Time To Put Up Or Shut Up

By Gerald Hodges
THE RACING REPORTER

With the season’s first race, the Daytona 500, fast approaching, it’s time for some teams and drivers to either “put up or shut up.”

When a team falls to the bottom of the points standings, who should be faulted the organization itself, or the driver?

In the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr., his team, Hendrick Motorsports, is considered number one in NASCAR, but Earnhardt has yet to win a race with them. He said the first thing a team does when they start losing is blame the driver.

But Earnhardt is not alone. There are several Cup drivers that have what are considered great teams, but either no wins or a subpar performance.

Joey Logano came to the Cup scene with great expectations, but after several years with Joe Gibbs Racing, he has only one win, thanks to a rainout. The other two JGR teams driven by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have several wins.

So the argument might be that Logano just doesn’t have the potential to be a great driver.

Let’s look at the Earnhardt Ganassi team, which fields cars for Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray. This outfit has adequate funding and good equipment. They announced last week that their 2012 sponsorship quota had been reached.

With enough money it would seem any team could “buy” themselves out of a hole, by having the latest equipment and racing know-how.

But this hasn’t been true for Ganassi’s two teams.

A year after combining to win four Sprint Cup races, including the sport’s two biggest events, Montoya and McMurray both went winless last year and finished 21st and 27th, respectively, in points. Both drivers had just two top-five finishes all season and were no threat to make the Chase.

How could an organization that won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and two other Cup races in 2010 fall so far in 2011?

The information highway in NASCAR runs so fast that what is new today may be outdated tomorrow. Rick Hendrick told a group of reporters last week during the Charlotte Media Tour, “If you plan on using last year’s technology and information, you might as well close up shop.”

Ganassi cleaned house during the off season. Gone are competition director Steve Hmiel and team manager Tony Glover, two longtime veterans of the sport. Glover had been with the organization since co-owner Felix Sabates sold the majority of the team to Ganassi and Hmiel came over when the team merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2009.

Crew chief Brian Pattie also is gone, along with several other crewmen and engineers.

Former Roush Fenway Racing manager Max Jones has taken over as team manager, while former Red Bull Racing technical director John Probst is the new technical director at Earnhardt Ganassi.

The first order of business is trying to figure out where the team got off track.

McMurray says simply, “I don’t know.” Asked what changed from 2010 to 2011, he says, “Nothing.”

“That’s what makes it so frustrating for us. We ended 2010 so good and we went into last year and didn’t really change anything and struggled,” he said. “ ... It wasn’t like we went back and tried to recreate the wheel and make things better; we didn’t change anything. We just didn’t have the success that we had, and the cars just weren’t as fast.”

“It seemed like we took just a short break (after 2010), and we went back to the track and no one knew our name; we didn’t know our name. We didn’t know where we were headed for some strange reason. The difficult part is putting our finger on what happened.”

Felix Sabates said that the team’s cars simply were not being built correctly.

“We went to (one race) and both cars wrecked within half a lap of each other. The frame came apart in both cars,” he said.

“ We thought we had something great, and it might have been great for IndyCar, and that’s where we had some of the engineering people we had come from. That doesn’t work. You’ve got to have a guy from (NASCAR) to make the cars go.”

Sabates said another sure sign that the problem was the cars was Montoya’s performance at Infineon Raceway, where he finished 22nd. Montoya has two Cup wins – both on road courses, including a 2007 victory at Infineon.

“When you go to a road course and Montoya is not one of the prominent drivers, that tells you something is wrong,” Sabates said. “That might have been the eye-opener for Chip when he saw Montoya in the back of the pack at Sonoma.”

Sabates said it was difficult to pinpoint the source of the problems, thus the wholesale changes.

“It’s time for us to put up or shut up. This has got to be the year when we shine and show people that we are here again.”

The 54th annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26, will carry a record purse of more than $19 million as well as a new contingency award that will payout $200,000 to the driver leading at the completion of Lap 100. The posted awards for “ The Great American Race” are $19,142,601, with the winner collecting a minimum of $1,431,325. The second-, third-, fourth- and fifthplace finishers in the Daytona 500 will receive a minimum of $ 1,050,075, $ 759,600, $ 609,900 and $486,550. The Daytona 500 Mid-Race Leader Award will reward the driver leading the midway point of the historic 200-lap, 500-mile race with a $200,000 bonus. If the race is under caution at Lap 100, the leader of the race at the completion of the fifth-consecutive green flag lap following the caution will receive the award.

Racing trivia question: How many Daytona 500 wins does Michael Waltrip have?

Last week’s question: Who won the 2011 Daytona 500? Answer. Trevor Bayne.

Contact the Racing Reporter at hodges@race500.com.

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