By moving to Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing is presenting the NASCAR world a stark reality check. This is a shrewd business decision, strategically clever and quite possibly vital in ensuring the sustained well-being of the company and its 430 employees.
I'm a Chevy guy. I drive a Silverado. A General Motors seat belt clasp like the one in my Granny's Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme affixed to a black belt often holds up my pants. As a race fan I'm not terribly enamored by the karma involved in a team of Gibbs' stature jumping ship.
But from a business perspective this wasn't even debatable.
There is no franchising in NASCAR. It's a performance-based business, and to maintain ample sponsorship backing teams must run up front and win. Consistently. If not, see ya
For 16 years JGR has done that with GM. So why leave? Traitors! Please. The landscape has changed.
Inter-team collaborations such as the Dale Earnhardt Inc./Richard Childress Racing engine development program leave JGR on an island. With whom does JGR align itself? Hendrick Motorsports, RCR and DEI are all positioned as crucial sects of the GM Racing platform, so to distinguish itself Gibbs deemed it best to detach from the GM fold in favor of Toyota.
The move elevates Gibbs from second fiddle to lead dog. That's what the folks at JGR wanted. They will be the chief benefactors of the best engineering Toyota Racing Development can offer, and won't have to wonder whether they're getting what Hendrick is getting. They'll get the best of the best.
That is critical for the future.
Joe Gibbs Racing, see, is just that, a racing team. There aren't 70 car dealerships from which to draw extraneous income. There aren't trucking companies or outside investors. Yes, coach Joe does patrol the sidelines for the Washington Redskins and that helps pay for Tony Stewart.
But all said, JGR must perform on the racetrack to remain operational. Toyota will see to it that that happens.
Some folks wonder how anyone could infer that, given Toyota's struggles in 2007. That's a fair question. But NASCAR is about people -- the cars are all pretty much the same -- and taking the established personnel Gibbs has, melded with TRD, it's a potent concoction.
Stewart is the ultimate barometer. He's here to win.
If he didn't think he could win he wouldn't even be here, much less negotiating a contract extension.
You've said for weeks that Tony Stewart's sprint car teams were a holdup in the decision for Gibbs to move from Chevy to Toyota. Now that they've done it, what does this mean for Smoke's teams? Do they lose Chevy as sponsors?
-- Tim Putnam in Iowa
Nope. Nothing changes there. Stewart said Wednesday the move to Toyota in Cup won't affect his USAC and World of Outlaws teams, and that they'll move forward with Chevrolet as planned. He said it's not much different than when he drove Chevrolets on the Cup side and his sprint car outfit was backed by Mopar.
Smoke on the water: Speaking of Stewart's non-NASCAR exploits, get this -- he's going fishing. Stewart, through his Smoke brand, is an inaugural partner with Total Cast Fishing, a NASCAR-style competitive team of pro anglers who will fish the Bassmaster Elite Series. In essence, he'll help sponsor these guys.
Seems to me that bass fishing is the new NASCAR -- a wildly popular niche market to which fans are ardently loyal. Won't be long before Skeet Reese is a household name, too.
Marty the Party!
C'mon man, I asked you a great question about shared engine programs having a negative effect on competition and you go and stick a half-assed question about a road race in the Chase?
Man, that question's been asked since the damn Chase came around! Get to the meat and potatoes man! If eight teams have the same engine, designed by one of the top-tier teams in the series, how is that fair to a team that doesn't share engine programs?
Can't the top-tier company "keep" the important data that they culled from all the teams buying their engines and use that to better their own team, i.e. Hendrick? Meat and potatoes, man meat and potatoes.
-- JB, Columbus, Ohio
Sure they can, JB. The two real advantages big teams like Hendrick and Evernham receive from leasing engines are the money made in return and the sample size offered at the track each weekend. Running six engines at the track each week compared to two obviously produces three times the results in regard to information that might help prevent future motor failures.
How many teams does engine information-sharing affect? Let's see
Penske Racing has its own in-house engine program that, right now, is outgunning most everyone down the straightaway. Roush/Yates Engines takes care of every Ford team, including the Wood Brothers and Robby Gordon Motorsports. In other words, nine teams get very similar pieces.
DEI and RCR are building engines together, sharing technologies and data. Gillett Evernham Motorsports builds its engines in-house and supplies power to Petty Enterprises. Gibbs, headed by Mark Cronquist, constructs its own power. Toyota Racing Development builds engines for Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull, sharing every nugget possible. Terry Elledge heads up Bill Davis Racing's in-house program with help from TRD. Ganassi Engines is in-house. Haas/CNC gets its power from Hendrick.
So that leaves Morgan-McClure. Ron Puryear, chief engine builder for MMM, is on an island. Is he at a disadvantage? Um, yeah. Are engines the only area where Morgan-McClure is at a disadvantage? Certainly not. I love Morgan-McClure because they're old-school Abingdon, Va. But old-school doesn't cut it anymore.
That's my take. Now here's the word from the source. I asked your question to Jeff Andrews, head engine man at Hendrick. Here's his take:
"I think the best explanation would be that first, our engines are leased out and not sold," Andrews explained. "HMS owns the engines and they are returned after each race to be rebuilt and have any updates or technology changes that have occurred since the last build installed during the rebuild.
"We have no specific engines for any specific team, we build 10 identical race engines every week and [they] are distributed to teams. Only the cars in the Chase are given any preference as to engine power once in the Chase.
"During the season up to that point, all cars share equal opportunities in regards to engine power. All engines must be within 5 horsepower -- which is less than 1 percent -- of each other. Per Mr. Hendrick, HMS cars [are] lease-engine cars, or they do not go out the door to the teams to avoid any questions in regards to engine performance at the track.
"During a race, there is no information gathered from our lease teams in regards to chassis info or specific setup issues. Actually, on the contrary, we have a Technology agreement with HAAS Racing where they are given the information used on HMS cars that is needed to set up their cars and chassis similar to HMS if they desire."
Hope that helps, man. I learned something.
All that's being said about Scott Riggs is that his future is in doubt. Scott can drive a race car as he proved in the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Series. He has been slowed down for the last four years by mediocre equipment and personnel swaps.
He always seems to get the leftovers from the organization he's with, like Nemechek at MBV/MB2, and now Kahne/Sadler at EMS/GEMS. Of course they are driving junk this year too. Personally, I wish Scott could hook up with the fourth RCR car.
Any word about Scott and where he will be in 2008? Come on, Marty, I need some answers!
-- Mike Hudzinski, Hillsborough, N.C.
I spoke to Riggs Thursday morning and he's still in limbo as to his future plans, Mike. He has spoken with Yates in the recent past, and since J.J. Yeley chose to sign at Hall of Fame Racing, Riggs could be in line for the No. 88. It would be a good fit for him.
The fourth RCR team would be a great opportunity for Riggs, but again, having no points to start the season makes that a much more difficult decision than it might seem based on level of equipment alone.
Kasey Kahne has had two really good weeks in a row, a welcome bright stretch in a tough season to be a Kasey fan. Is this the light at the end of the tunnel? Are we Kasey fans to believe it's getting better?
-- Mary Ann McFarland, Oxford, Miss.
Go Rebels! I hear Oxford is one of the most glorious places in all the land to engulf oneself in collegiate football joy. Give me the true scoop, Mary Ann. If it's legit I might just be coaxed into checking it out.
Anyway, to your question. I spoke with Kahne this week about his recent success -- a runner-up effort at Bristol and a 10th-place run at Fontana -- and he still doesn't feel Gillett Evernham is quite dialed in. He called it a "fine-tooth comb between being good and [being] real bad." But he quickly backed that up by saying they've most certainly improved.
He praised crew chief Kenny Francis for making little gains. When you see how badly Elliott Sadler is struggling, and consider that Kahne has the same car, it shows you how even minute adjustments have a profound effect in NASCAR.
I also asked Kahne if he felt the new management, which will enable Ray Evernham to focus more on making the cars better, has helped. The answer is yes. Evernham is a detail guy. He sweats the small stuff. And now that he's turned the sponsorship-development and business-to-business focus over to George Gillett's group, he can worry about the fine details that make for fast race cars.
Since Montreal, I have followed Marcos Ambrose closer than I ever did before. I was really impressed with the way he handled that situation and it made me a fan. Is he going to go to Nextel Cup anytime soon? And if so what car would he drive?
-- Gina, Grapevine, Texas
If Ford Motor Co. has anything to say about it, yes, Gina. Ford officials told me earlier in the week that if sponsorship can be located they'd like to arrange a full Busch Series schedule for Ambrose and "move him to Cup along the way."
If nothing else, they want a solid partial season. A lot depends on sponsorship, but Ford officials said the search is going quite well.
Ironically, the Montreal escapade with Robby Gordon may have been the best thing that ever happened to Ambrose's career -- for exactly the reason you stated. The manner in which he reacted and responded to the disappointment of dominating the race, only to be dumped late, impressed a lot of people, including potential sponsors. Suddenly he had a household name in racing circles. He was thrust into the limelight -- and possibly into a Sprint Cup opportunity.
It is unknown right now for whom he might drive at the next level, but Wood Brothers/JTG Racing -- the team that owns his No. 59 Busch car -- is in the market for a new driver. If Bill Elliott can keep the No. 21 in the top 35 in owner's points -- right now just four points separate the No. 21 and Bill Davis' No. 22 -- Ambrose might just be the guy.
Time to blast. We're headed to Richmond a day early to show off my little man to the grandparents. Gotta love it.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.