The decision against hiring J.J. Yeley to drive the No. 88 Ford by Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing executives was really all Doug Yates needed to see. It wasn't a deal breaker, per se, but from his estimation was a stark indicator of the commitment level of his new partners.
Yates really liked Yeley, and felt he was a talented and quite marketable young man. But Newman/Haas/Lanigan dragged its feet, prompting Yates to change direction toward an alignment with Roush Fenway Racing.
"All three of those guys are great people. We had good intentions," Yates said of team owners Paul Newman, Carl Haas and Mike Lanigan. "The deal was a handshake deal and a letter of intent, and there wasn't enough commitment there.
"Some things came about that we really needed to make decisions on and nobody would move on it. In this sport windows of opportunity open and close quickly, and some key ones came and went and it just wasn't moving fast enough.
"Drivers are very important in this sport. The driver and the sponsor are connected. That was one of the milestones that came and went and shouldn't have. I'm looking ahead, though. Everything works out for a reason -- and the last thing we want to do is do any harm with [Newman/Haas/Lanigan], but the fact of the matter is it was time to make something happen. That's when I talked to my dad and decided to move this thing in a different direction."
So on he trudges. Roush Fenway will provide parts and pieces, engineering and technical support. They'll assist with marketing and new sponsor development, too, which is of the utmost importance these days. Especially so for Yates right now. Yates doesn't yet have financial backing for his two teams next year, but he is confident he'll get both teams funded with Roush's help.
"That's one of the reasons we wanted to get this announcement out early at Richmond, to give people that are still out there looking for a good situation an opportunity to be on board with us," Yates said. "We have some things in the works, but we don't have anything solid yet."
For the first time in a long time, Yates has a clear vision.
His team had lost its course. A standard-setter as recently as 2002, the team has fallen into mediocrity in recent years. The unwillingness to conform to the new engineering-driven NASCAR is partly to blame. The old way always worked, and Yates officials were hesitant in transitioning to a new thought process, thinking it would only make things worse.
They've tried direly to right the ship. There was talk of a merger with Robby Gordon. They entertained the idea of merging with Dale Earnhardt Inc., but staunch loyalty to Ford Motor Co. disallowed that. They contemplated an alignment with Medallion, an investment group. Then, six weeks ago in Indianapolis, they announced a technical alliance with Newman/Haas/Lanigan from the open-wheel ranks, under which they would receive engineering assistance.
Now, it's on to Roush Fenway.
"The last year and half has been really tough," Yates said. "This sport's tough enough when you're focused, and competing day in and day out. But when you don't know where your future is, it really wears you out.
"So trying to figure out the right situation for our company into the future has been the focus for over a year now. I think we've made the right choice."
It's not clear whether Newman/Haas/Lanigan thinks it's the right choice, according to a statement on the team's Web site.
"Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing LLC was excited about its future plans with Robert Yates Racing and were quite surprised by the announcement of Robert Yates' retirement from racing and handing the team over to his son Doug. We wish Robert the very best in retirement. At this time we are continuing to explore several exciting opportunities for the 2008 NASCAR season."
Really love your work. Let me preface this by saying I'm a big Dale Jr. fan and I'm real bummed he didn't make the Chase. He ran great all year long. That said, don't you think it's strange that he's blown six motors this year? How's that possible?
I know DEI's not in the same league as Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress, but come on. DEI's stuff should be better than that. How come no one's talking about DEI's engine shop and the fact that it just doesn't measure up? The company's producing some real junk! Thanks, and keep up the good work.
-- Tom, Minneapolis
Let me say this plainly: The notion that Dale Earnhardt Inc. sabotaged Junior's season is utterly asinine. Granted, it is suspicious that Earnhardt has blown five engines in 26 races -- including three in the past seven -- while his teammates have three failures combined in competition. Paul Menard, though, has broken some engines during practice, and to be fair, at least one of Earnhardt's motor failures was his own doing when he over-revved the engine at Watkins Glen.
Junior said he's unaware of any extra aggression in the engine configuration by his engine boys, and DEI has run the older model SB2 motor in favor of the new R07 engine in search of reliability.
Earnhardt had to win at Richmond. Fifth was as good as 43rd, and the fact is, when the engine blew Saturday night he was already out of Chase contention.
The team told me he cut an oil pump belt. It was not an internal engine failure. And let's suppose someone did doctor that belt. It would have broken a helluva lot earlier than it did.
All said, let's rationalize this: Regardless of the level of disdain Teresa Earnhardt may have for Dale Jr., and vice versa, it would have been far better for all parties had he made the show. DEI is trying to lure a big-time, long-term replacement for Earnhardt, and offer an enticing sponsorship platform to new partners. Making the Chase is the best possible scenario on both fronts.
A friend of mine made the key point: If you want to get back at Junior, win it all. That'd make him rethink his decision more than anything.
Ultimately, those failures greatly overshadow how well they've run. Earnhardt feels this is the best he's run in his career, including the six-win 2004 campaign.
Thanks for the love, too, man.
With JGR becoming Toyota's flagship operation, what does that do to Michael Waltrip's team? He's been woefully underpowered all year. Will he get engines from Gibbs or will Waltrip Racing continue to struggle? I have been watching this team all year and it doesn't seem like they are making much progress. Unless they do a major restructure, I would say they are in trouble for the future.
-- Matt Beckner, Council Bluffs, Iowa
I spoke with MWR general manager Ty Norris for you, Matt, and he tells me they'll still get engines from Toyota Racing Development in California. The Gibbs relationship with TRD, he said, is such that the development will be done in concert with Gibbs/Toyota, which will improve the overall product for all Toyota teams.
What is the story with all the Simpson logos being blurred out in the movie "Dale"? I'm guessing it had something to do with the past legal issues between NASCAR and Bill Simpson.
Whatever the reasons, it was a really lame job by the filmmakers. You can't tell me that with all the technology available today that was the best they could do. I've seen better blur jobs on "Cops."
-- Ron Baker, Iowa City, Iowa (I'm a Husker, not a Hawkeye)
Great observation, Ron. According to production officials from the film, the Simpson logos were obscured for precisely the reasons you mentioned. Several other old sponsors and affiliates of Earnhardt were altered at the request of Dale Earnhardt Inc., too, so as to not offend any current corporate partners. (There's a blurry Sun Drop can in there, too.) These requests were made in the late stages of editing, so the production staff was left with few alternatives. If they'd had George Lucas' budget, they'd have used computer-generated imagery to edit them out. But they didn't, so they couldn't.
With Joe Gibbs Racing currently [running] Chevy but going to Toyota next season, what are they running during COT testing, Chevys or Toyotas? Can he run Toyotas to prep for next year while still under "contract" with Chevy this year? Thanks in advance for your reply.
-- Eck Huelsmeier, Sedona, Ariz.
Chevys, Eck. J.D. Gibbs said last week during the press conference they wouldn't field a Toyota until the 2007 season is complete. That's not to say they don't have a research and development team working feverishly on the Toyota engine -- by far the biggest obstacle in the manufacturer changeover -- because they do. But you won't see Tony Stewart in a Camry until January testing at Daytona.
Staying with Gibbs, briefly …
When JGR goes with Toyota next year, will they keep the points they have for the first five in '08? I know other teams have bought and sold car numbers for points, but it was Chevy team to Chevy team.
-- Kelly, Portage, Mich.
Yes, Kelly, they'll keep the points earned in 2007. The switch to Toyota in no way affects their top-35 status.
I enjoy reading your columns and insider reports, and I might be jumping the gun on this question, but oh well. What's your take on Dario Franchitti [moving] to NASCAR? I don't really care whether or not he does -- well, actually I do, but I want to know if you think it's a smart move for him.
I don't think Chip Ganassi is making a smart move by fast-tracking him to Cup. Dario is no JP, nor will he ever be. Maybe this is just bias from my old CART days, but he doesn't seem to have the talent that JP does. Nor the concentration -- hello Kentucky. Besides what about all those developmental drivers racing for Ganassi?
I understand that NASCAR is the premiere racing series in America, but you'd think he might try and keep him in the IRL and maybe add a third car to that operation. Apparently, I don't think like a team owner. I've never really doubted Ganassi's decisions in the past. He's been pretty spot on, but this one makes me a little nervous.
Another point, I'm a Reed Sorenson fan and it seems as though Ganassi is throwing him under the bus. If Dario makes it to NASCAR, when is Reed going to be told it's OK to look at other options? Although, I'd rather he go to a team that can give him feedback, instead of being the veteran driver in his third season of Cup competition.
Nothing against him as a driver, but history has proved that having veteran teammates helps. (Example in IRL: Anthony Foyt moving to Vision this year with Tomas Scheckter as a teammate. Anthony's season was amazing compared to those when he raced with Grandpa.)
-- Sydney Davis, Cypress, Texas
It's a very difficult transition, Sydney, one few drivers have successfully made. Tony Stewart and JPM are most certainly the exceptions to the rule. Franchitti is good, and like most open-wheel guys, he'll excel at road courses and big ovals.
But Martinsville and Darlington and Bristol are going to eat his lunch.
His learning curve is massive, but fortunately for him the IndyCar Series shares nine tracks with Nextel Cup. And four other IndyCar tracks -- Milwaukee, Nashville, Iowa and Kentucky -- are all tested to death by Cup teams. So he's seen a lot of NASCAR venues. That will be of great benefit to Franchitti.
Reading your comments last week about Marcos Ambrose and finding sponsorship for him, it strikes me that Outback Steakhouse would be a perfect sponsor for the Aussie! Whatcha think?
-- George, Bradenton, Fla.
Love it, George. Or Foster's beer. The oil can!
Speaking of Outback in NASCAR, remember those Dale Jarrett Outback Steakhouse commercials with John Madden, when they sang classic Christmas carols? Eeesh …
With the Nextel/AT&T settling, I see the AT&T logos will be allowed until the end of the year, but not allowed in 2008 or beyond. Any word on who the sponsor will be for the No. 31 next year?
This seems a little late in the year to have to start a search for a sponsor. Hopefully Childress already saw this coming and started the sponsor search a while ago. I'd hate to see Burton in the same shape he was his last year with Roush.
-- Brady Smith, Laurel, Md.
AT&T is on the 31 through the end of the 2008 campaign, Brady, so RCR was given a viable window in which to secure future backing. But they still lose two-thirds of a brand-new financial agreement, signed after AT&T won the initial injunction against Sprint.
And that, folks, still smarts like hell.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.