What Makes Dollars And Sense?

Sometimes you have to know when to pull the plug or when to leave well enough alone.

It seems "Silly Season" starts earlier and earlier each year as teams scramble to find the perfect chemistry between a driver, a crew chief and the supporting cast of characters.

Usually, owners will not have a fairly good indication of how the team will perform together until it is thrown into race conditions. As the pressure rises, the men are quickly separated from the boys and the veteran racers who work the smartest will prevail.

Then factor in the sponsors who invest up to $10 million-plus and expect immediate returns. For most of the sponsors, it's not about racing, it's about image and exposure. This is why some of the contracts contain clauses upon clauses upon clauses. There are performance clauses and moral clauses and clauses that are structured just for the sponsor to have an easy way out if their patience wears thin.

Pity the poor teams that were desperate enough to take a measly $1.5 million from a client who turns out to be a control freak. For some owners, the inquisition begins on Friday afternoon: 'Why aren't we sitting on the pole?' 'Why didn't we win the race?' Then there are those supporters who are a bit more realistic: 'Why didn't we make first round qualifying?' or 'Why did we go home?'

Joe Gibbs is a proven winner in both NASCAR and the NFL. But the three-time Super Bowl champ, who currently sits on top of the Winston Cup leader board with driver Bobby Labonte, was not an overnight success. In the process, one of the hardest transitions he had to make was accepting losses. In football, when his 47-man squad took to the field, Gibbs knew he had at least a 50-50 chance of posting a win. On any given race day, the odds are 43:1 –- although, admittedly, the odds are better if you're driving for Gibbs, Jack Roush, Richard Childress or Rick Hendrick.

"It took me a long time to get used to the fact that we weren't going to win every week," Gibbs said. "But there are so many factors that go into a team's performance each week and even more variables on the track that are unpredictable."

Gibbs is one of the best "people persons" in the sport. He instinctively knows what relationships will prosper and has preached the team concept for such a long period of time that it is a natural part of his delivery. Gibbs’ decisions are methodical. Although he can be quite emotional, you won't find Coach making snap judgments in the heat of the moment.

Mike Skinner, driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet, opposes owners who are in search of that quick fix. He has watched his fellow drivers get the short end of the stick when an owner's pipe dreams have not evolved. Skinner finds the process unfair, especially in the case of rookie competitors who have not been given ample time to make the equipment transition.

"Take your (rookie) driver to a test and see if you can get clearance from NASCAR," Skinner said. "Or even someone from another series a veteran driver, to go and actually get in that car and drive the car and see how their speed is compared to your rookie driver or your existing driver and see if the feedback is approximately the same. I honestly think, from a driver's standpoint, you need to have the benefit of the doubt."

A.J. Foyt Racing team manager, Waddell Wilson, faced that dilemma with Mike Bliss. Was it the driver or was it the car? When Bliss failed to make three of the first four races, Wilson enlisted the assistance of veteran driver Dick Trickle for a second opinion. Trickle's ability to qualify 12th at Darlington, indicated the team's qualifying package wasn't the reason the No. 14 Pontiac wasn't making the show.

"I think if you run two or three races and you're not having any success at all and you have reason to believe it could be behind the steering wheel," Skinner said. "Then I think you need to put a veteran driver in that car, run 'em back to back with your driver and see how he does in it. If he doesn't do any better than the driver you've got in there, changing the driver is not going fix it.

“If you put Rusty Wallace in the car and he runs half a second faster, chances are you need to change your driver. If he runs the same speed your guy is running, then you need to look in another area."

Skinner, who was originally hired to drive for a research and development team to benefit Dale Earnhardt's campaign, quickly proved he was a competitor himself when he captured the pole for the Daytona 500 in his rookie year.

It didn't take Childress long to realize he had two contenders under his roof when Skinner finished in the top 10 in points after only three seasons. Skinner has persevered, but if through some strange twist of fate he found himself in Bliss' position, would his dismissal have been appropriate?

"From the owner's standpoint, this is a performance business," Skinner said. "Usually, what happens it's the crew chief's fault or the engine's fault and then it's the driver's fault. In some cases, they rule those out and go straight to the driver.

"It's really tough. I think they need to give the drivers the benefit of the doubt and give them every test, every opportunity they can to prove themselves. Then if they don't prove themselves, they don't have any choice but to replace them. It totally depends on the situation."

Has the quality of the sport diminished due to the added pressures from the sponsors? Perhaps it's time that we turn our attention from the bottom line back to the finish line where it belongs.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2000

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