Exit Strategy

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This year’s grossly inappropriately named “Silly Season” is in full swing, with another plethora of rumors coming to light over the Dover race weekend. There’s no sense even listing them all right now because in an hour there will be more names in the hat and more rumors in the mill.

Let’s suffice to say it looks evident that by the start of next season even hard-core long time race fans are going to need a program at Daytona to figure which driver is in which car.
The combination of a certain team and a certain driver doesn’t work out sometimes for various reasons. Often the driver is very talented and the team is very good as well, but there’s something about the combination that just doesn’t click. Sometimes after a reasonable amount of success for a driver-team combination things just stop working. The kiss of death is when a driver gives up on his team or a team gives up on its driver, and they’re all just going through the motions, no longer believing they can win but wanting to get paid for the week anyway.

The equipment suffers and the drivers commitment suffers often setting off a long downward spiral where futility breeds futility. Perhaps that’s why Richard Childress made the drastic decision to swap the 29 and 31 teams starting this week at Pocono.

Many pundits will say once a situation is allowed to degenerate to that level, it is best for the driver and team to part ways immediately rather than wait for the end of the season as the Wood Brothers have chosen to do with Elliott Sadler. Last year when it became evident he wasn’t going to driving for the same team this year, Mike Skinner decided to step out of his ride to get some long needed knee surgery done so he could be 100% this year when he started with a new team.

Likewise last year once it became obvious to Roger Penske that Jeremy Mayfield would be leaving at the end of the season, he released him immediately. Not too many years ago when Cale Yarborough learned Jeremy Mayfield was going to leave his team at the end of the year to drive for Michael Kranefuss Cale arranged a mid-season driver swap where Kranefuss got Mayfield and Cale gave his ride to John Andretti who had been driving for Michael up until that point.

Swapping horses mid-stream is a good idea for teams who have a very definite idea as to what driver they want to drive their car next year. (Such as the situation which appears to be brewing with the 36 team and Jerry Nadeau.) If the team is already hopelessly out of points contention, the mid-season driver swap gives them a head start for the next year. The driver and team get to know one another and the crew chief gets to understand what the driver needs in the car. All important lines of communication are opened and with nothing left to lose the team is free to do some experimenting with the cars looking for a better setup.

Imagine the time the Wood Brothers could waste this year improving their cars until Sadler thought they were great only to have their new driver hop into one of the “improved” cars at Daytona next year and announce the setup was hopelessly not to his liking. Recall Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield both won races while driving for Roger Penske, but they hated one another’s setups and couldn’t share notes. Neither solution was right or wrong. One was just better for each driver’s comfort level and driving style.

So why would a seasoned team like the Wood Brothers who have employed a virtual who’s who of Winston Cup drivers leave a lame duck driver in the car? The other side of the coin is to not make moves out of desperation. They can study the drivers who are currently seeking rides either immediately or for next season but as crazy as things are right now there’s no telling which drivers could become available in the coming months. There’s no sense signing a guy you think might be able to do a decent job right away when the driver you’ve been after for years might come knocking next week.

In some instances, such as Roger Penske with Mike Wallace last year or Rick Hendrick with Joe Nemechek this year, a team owner might choose to “audition” a driver for the rest of a season to see if he is a good fit and will succeed in the car. If things don’t work out there’s no long term deal the lawyers need to wriggle out of. And often a change of driver will let a team owner know if it’s his previous driver that was really at fault or the team and equipment aren’t up to the job.

The downside of the “Gong Show” strategy is if the team owner doesn’t have confidence he wants to sign a certain driver full time, there’s usually a reason. Every week that team and driver goes out and runs poorly lowers the stock of the outfit in the eyes of other drivers who might be looking for a ride. Also if you sign a driver to a short term deal and he does perform well almost certainly other team owners are going to go after that same driver offering bigger paychecks.

Honest to God, it’s so cutthroat in the Winston Cup garage these days I figure during some race we’ll see a driver start for one team, then get out of the race at mid-event and start driving for a new owner.

There’s a third factor in the equation of course, the all important team sponsor. Sponsors share one thing in common. They all want results now. But they take different approaches to how they capitalize on their involvement with Winston Cup. Some sponsors (think Michael Waltrip and NAPA and Mark Martin with Viagra) make the driver a high-profile spokesperson in their TV ads and point of purchase-merchandising. For those sponsors, replacing a driver mid-season is a marketing nightmare because it means new commercials have to be shot and campaigns redone.

Other sponsors (think Cingular) make the car the star without ever mentioning who drives it. (Probably very wise on these folks part.) A mid-season driver change isn’t a big deal if you haven’t promoted the driver just as long as the car looks the same and gets some camera time on Sundays. Trust me, none of that is accidental.

When Bayer was deciding how to use their Busch series involvement as a marketing tool they decided to go with images of the car not then driver Andy Houston, knowing the car would probably be around longer than the driver.
In a way having the sponsor having such a say in who gets to drive the car (Find me the next Jeff Gordon! ) is a sad state of affairs. I’d guess if Dale Earnhardt circa 1979 was trying to find his first Winston Cup ride today he’d never make it. Dale was twice divorced, had an eighth grade education, a reputation for rough driving, tended to speak in a mixture of grunts and muttered obscenities and despised working with most of the media. He eventually became sponsor friendly as well, but even back in 1979 as he was at the time of his death Earnhardt was the greatest driver of a generation.

You have to wonder what other incredibly talented kids from the Carolinas are sitting on the sidelines right now because they won’t make good corporate spokespeople.

I’d say the decision to keep a driver on until the end of the season or make a mid-season replacement is a high stakes game, but this isn’t a “game.” The future of teams, the careers and finances of crewmen and woman, and drivers futures are all at stake. These are real people and businesses that need to get through tough economic times just like the rest of us. More than one promising driver has had a career cut short by making a bad decision about which team to throw his lot in with. There’s nothing silly about silly season anymore.

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