Dont Quit Your Day Job

Friday’s Busch race at Richmond was a brutal affair that saw a record number of cars unable to complete the race. Johnny Benson got the worst of it, ending up in a hospital with a broken rib. While it’s unclear whether Benson suffered a concussion, his crew chief said Benson was “dazed” after the wreck. Concerns for his health forced Benson to sit out the Richmond Winston Cup race. Joe Nemechek filled in admirably finishing in 12th place. Could Benson, with more seat time in the car and better communication with the team have done better? That’s impossible to say. Sunday’s race was a wreck-fest as well. But Benson clearly had a shot at victory last weekend having posted the fastest time in two practice sessions.

Benson’s misfortunes are likely to once again stir up debate between the team owners, sponsors and the drivers concerning Winston Cup drivers running in NASCAR’s other touring series. Financially most Cup drivers don’t need to run the Busch or truck series events, as they’re paid pretty well for their day jobs. Some perceive the drivers who run companion events as having an advantage over the other Cup drivers in that they get to turn all those laps on the track prior to the Cup event. Busch and Cup cars are far more similar these days than they were in the past so perhaps they are some pointers Cup drivers can pick up in the companion events.

But as this weekend highlights, the down side is a driver can be hurt in a Busch race. Benson is the latest driver to have that happen to him. Fortunately his injuries are nowhere near as severe as those suffered by Steve Park in last fall’s Darlington Busch race. (Coincidentally Benson was driving for the same team as Park was back when he got hurt.) A few years back Bobby Labonte broke his shoulder practicing a Busch car, and either he or Joe Gibbs decided it just wasn’t worth getting hurt when a driver is in contention for the Winston Cup championship.

For some sponsors the specter of having their spokesperson/driver hurt in a Busch race looms larger than others. Some sponsors rarely feature their driver in marketing programs preferring just to show the car in its war paint. Others (like NAPA with Michael Waltrip or Home Depot with Tony Stewart) feature their driver prominently in their marketing programs. Having a substitute driver rather than the driver who does all their commercials is a real problem. Drivers’ contracts also require them to make a certain number of appearances for their sponsors. Such “meet and greet” events are often heavily promoted and planned long in advance. Fans and contest winners are eager to meet that driver. If he’s hurt and recuperating at home, obviously the driver can’t make his scheduled appearance and some substitute has to stand in, usually disappointing the fans.

And as we’ve seen this year, getting banged up in a wreck isn’t the only problem a driver can face running in another NASCAR racing series. Kevin Harvick’s “aggressive” driving in the Martinsville truck race caused NASCAR to suspend him from running his Winston Cup car the following day to the great annoyance of his team owner and sponsor. Childress has apparently put his foot down since and we won’t see Harvick running any more truck races any time soon.

For some drivers it’s not just seat time at the track that draws them to compete in other types of race vehicles. Guys like Kenny Schrader and Tony Stewart just flat out love to race just about anything with tires and an engine. Schrader regularly competes in late models, sprint cars, and the truck series. When Stewart’s boss Joe Gibbs will let him, Stewart will race about anything (ranging from Indy cars to greyhounds; dogs not buses). Both drivers say they find running those other sorts of vehicles relaxing and a good way to blow off some of the pressure inherent in Winston Cup today. But the fact remains that even in a sprint car or a go kart, the right sort of wreck could cause a Cup driver to shatter bones and miss significant amounts of Winston Cup races. Stuff happens. Bill Elliott once missed races after tripping over a rake in his garage and breaking his knee. (You’ve got to imagine he’s hired a landscaper since.)

Fortunately the state of safety in racing is steadily improving, lessening the likelihood of severe injuries in racing. But that risk can never be reduced to zero. While Benson contemplated missing Richmond’s Cup race (which some would argue was a blessing in disguise) Steve Park, who missed the end of last season and the beginning of this one after that freak Darlington crash, caught wind this week his “day job” with DEI is at risk. How much risk is a matter of interpretation but no one in the DEI hierarchy has gone out of their way to endorse him and his future with the team. Park is still relatively young and he’s a talented driver so if he is released he’ll probably find another ride somewhere, though it’s hard to imagine he’ll end up with a team of the same caliber as DEI.

In the future I’d guess more and more Winston Cup drivers are going to find clauses in those contracts that guarantee them the big bucks stating while they’re free to watch other forms of racing (wearing a safety helmet with a spotter beside them if they are more than three feet from the ground) they may not participate in them.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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