News & Media

Smack: Bayne smart with his decision to stay the course

February 24, 2011, ,

Debating the 500 winner's future, Johnson's pursuit and NASCAR's resurgence

1. Should Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers have tried to run the full Sprint Cup schedule now that they've won the Daytona 500?

David Caraviello: Bayne was on a conference call Tuesday and basically said he's sticking to their original plan, which is a limited Cup schedule and the full Nationwide slate. That's the smart move. Winning the Daytona 500 is a great thing, but it's such a different animal compared to the rest of the season. It's a little premature to extrapolate greatness for 36 events based on Bayne's one run at Daytona.

Joe Menzer: I'm still trying to figure out how they were granted the option. I thought everyone had to choose a series in which they wanted to run for the championship prior to the season. Now it's like Bayne was granted a do-over option because he won the Daytona 500. I understand why -- I'm just not sure I agree with it.

Dave Rodman: Classic case of Monday morning quarterbacking. Even given the fact that they've won the Daytona 500, hats off to Trevor for cautioning everyone to keep this in perspective. Actually, the Woods' 18-race Cup schedule is an awful lot more solid than Bayne's totally unsponsored Nationwide gig -- which may not have much of a shelf life.

David Caraviello: Joe, I will agree, that did seem like an odd rule alteration on the fly, as if NASCAR's new exclusionary championship system was put to the test the very first week, and somebody in a corner office went, "Uh-oh ...." But either way, they're making the sensible move here and continuing with the plan. The Woods won the Daytona 500 in part because they've been running a limited schedule and not overextending themselves. They don't have the sponsorship to go the whole way, and they realize it.

Joe Menzer: I believe Bayne's win will help him get that Nationwide car sponsored for at least a large portion of the season in short order, so I don't think that's going to be an issue. But you can't just have a plan in place to run 18 races for the season and all the sudden double that in the blink of an eye, no matter who you are or what you've done recently or in the storied past.

David Caraviello: Joe, I don't know about that. I mean, it sounds completely reasonable, but sponsorship is often so slow to come together in this post-recession economy, that things don't happen instantaneously anymore. Maybe Trevor will be different -- goodness, you'd wonder how he could not be. But the kid can't change economic conditions.

Dave Rodman: I know I've said this before, but after listening to the kid for two days, and having watched him since he made his Nationwide debut at Bristol for Jimmy Means, Trevor Bayne really is special and, I think, may be the best-equipped of the current crop of young hooligans to really make some noise in Cup. Just look at his Texas debut! He and the Woods are made for each other.

A star is born

Trevor Bayne recaptured the magic of David Pearson in the Wood Brothers throwback No. 21 Ford at Daytona.

Joe Menzer: Maybe so, Rodman, but how long are they actually going to race together? Not past this year, I don't think.

Dave Rodman: Joe, I got an update late Tuesday on the championship situation. Any driver can change his or her declaration at any time. However, they will only begin gathering points in the "new series" from the time they change the declaration, which in most cases will make it a moot point..

Joe Menzer: Wow. An update Tuesday. Two days into the season and already they've changed a rule again! Sorry, guys, but that's ridiculous. NASCAR is coming off a great opening weekend, but part of their problems in recent years has been a constant tinkering with all the rules. This continues that bad trend. Do something and stick with it for a while for a change.

David Caraviello: Well, Trevor isn't going to try to change series, so the point is moot anyway. And that's the right thing to do. To me, it all goes back to the fact that Daytona is simply not an accurate barometer of the season as a whole. He won Daytona, and yes he was good at Texas last fall, but let's see how he does at Las Vegas, Bristol and Fontana before we begin assuming he could vie for the season championship in Sprint Cup. The feats of last week aside, that's a massive bite of the apple right there.

Joe Menzer: As for Bayne and sponsorship, No. 1, we're talking about him trying to get something on his Nationwide car, not a Cup car. Two, that's a Roush Fenway car and they are going to be positioning him for a push to a full-time Cup ride, probably next season in the No. 6 car if David Ragan doesn't get his act together. So that's less money and a big bang for some sponsor's bucks if they get hooked up with Bayne for all or part of this Nationwide season. I'll bet it happens, and it will say something about Bayne's wide appeal when it does.

Dave Rodman: Phoenix is only the second race but it's the first in which none of the Roush Fenway Nationwide cars are sponsored -- at least as of Tuesday they weren't (if you don't count "Ford" backing on Edwards' car). I bet the money on the 60 is predicated on Carl driving it, so it can't be spread to the "two kids'" cars. It'll be interesting to see just how much "boardroom clout" a Daytona 500 win carries. Potential sponsors have certainly seen what TB has to offer!

David Caraviello: In a perfect world, you guys are absolutely right. But things in the sponsorship market simply don't move that quickly these days. Companies burned the last recession are being very, very careful about where they spend money.

Joe Menzer: Well, the wild card in the Cup debate for Bayne was, in fact, the new rule regarding two wild-card entries into the Chase. History has shown that two wins probably will guarantee at least getting into the Chase as a wild card, and Trevor was already halfway there.

Dave Rodman: Like so much else in racing, this is a tangled web. Yep, I think the heat in David Ragan's area of the world just went up a few thousand degrees. I think Ragan can handle it, and deliver -- as he and Drew Blickensderfer began to prove at the end of 2010, and during Speedweeks. But that head-to-head battle will be interesting in these first six races. Despite Ragan's 14th-place finish in the 500, I'd say they were neck and neck for 99 percent of the 500 -- but that last 1 percent -- wow.

David Caraviello: Listen, I don't want to take anything away from Trevor Bayne. What he did was phenomenal. But goodness, people are projecting a lot onto him based on that Daytona 500. He's 20, and just barely. He'll have plenty of seasons to vie for a Sprint Cup crown. The Wood Brothers just aren't in position to scrap their plans and go racing full-time, which is what dug them into such a deep hole in 2008.

Joe Menzer: And I'm not totally disagreeing with you, David. I just think they'll be able to make something happen with Bayne. In an odd way, it's more likely to happen for less money on the Nationwide side than it would have been for the Wood Brothers to find another half of a season to fund a full Cup campaign all of a sudden. Another reason why it's obvious Bayne made the right call here.

David Caraviello: And let's remember -- Jamie McMurray proved that a successful season isn't necessarily dependent on the Chase. Ideal situation for the Woods: they win another plate event, they get the ball rolling on full sponsorship for 2012, and they come out full-time that year ready to contend for the championship. That's a more realistic plan than jumping right into it now.

2. Daytona is just one of 36 races, so now it's on to Phoenix. Can Trevor Bayne keep it going there? Or is this where Jimmie Johnson takes his first strides toward title No. 6?

Joe Menzer: Jimmie loves Phoenix. And if anyone thinks he's going away anytime soon in his vigorous defense of his five consecutive championships, they are very naive. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Jimmie wins this race. In fact, I'll go ahead right here and now and say I think he will.

Dave Rodman: There's no question the true championship contenders will step up big time at Phoenix. The best thing for Trevor Bayne and the Woods is that they're locked into the first five races, so he'll get plenty of experience. But I see Phoenix being a reprise of the 2010 Chase drama: Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin -- and after the Daytona debacle for all three, believe me they'll have plenty to prove. And this point scheme is so new, and potentially so bizarre, I don't think anyone is too keen on test bedding how far behind they can fall and still make a comeback into the Chase.

David Caraviello: Looks like Bayne has three Nationwide starts at Phoenix -- two with Waltrip, one with Roush -- with an average finish of 20th. He's never made a start there in the Cup Series. Of course, he'd never made a Cup start at Daytona, either, and look what happened. Regardless, whatever he does this week is icing. After winning the 500 and the subsequent media blitz, I'll be amazed if he's just awake at the end of the race. May not be fair to expect another stunning result this Sunday.

Dave Rodman: You gotta take a real wait-and-see attitude. The Woods and Donnie Wingo have some real credibility. But they haven't done this in a while, and Bayne never has. So let's wait and see.

Jimmie Johnson

Phoenix stats

David Caraviello: Let's remember, some strange things have happened in this first Phoenix race over the past few years. It's been moved up on the schedule a few weeks, but this was the race last year that Hamlin competed in days after knee surgery, and where Ryan Newman earned his first victory since the Daytona 500 two years earlier. Two seasons ago ageless wonder Mark Martin went to Victory Lane. So expect the unexpected, perhaps. Or Jimmie, who has won four times there.

Joe Menzer: As for Bayne, one race does not make a wonder boy. He's got all the goods, no doubt about that. But I agree with what one of you said earlier. It will be considered a stellar season if he wins another plate race or contends in one, and does little between now and then. We have to be realistic here. Don't expect much from him at Phoenix. I don't. But if he proves doubters like me wrong, wow, look out.

David Caraviello: Speaking of Jimmie Johnson ... boy, what a quiet Speedweeks for the No. 48 car. Were they even there? You had to wonder sometimes, they were so below the radar. But Daytona hasn't been very good to them lately, and they've still managed to run roughshod over the competition the rest of the year. Phoenix, a place where Jimmie is often so strong, will be a nice first indication of what he has under him in 2011.

Joe Menzer: Here's the way the new points deal may profoundly affect this season: you could see guys like Johnson, Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin, Kyle Busch and so on -- veterans of past Chases -- really pushing the envelope through the first 10 to 12 races to get wins in the bank this season. But once any of them get to two victories, which will virtually assure they're in the Chase via the wild card if not points, then I think you may see them start building toward what they want to do in the Chase. That, in turn, could open the door for others to come out of nowhere and contend for wins over the last half of the "regular season."

David Caraviello: So what you're saying, Joe, is instead of forcing everyone to go all-out for victories, some guys might stick a few in the bank and soft-pedal? I don't know about that. We're all making a great leap assuming that two wins would get you in, but we don't really know that. I don't think these guys are just going to assume two wins are enough. You think Chad Knaus operates on assumptions? You think Johnson doesn't want to go out and beat everyone else every week? This is all extending our logic to them, and I'm not sure if that works.

Dave Rodman: The raccoon in the woodpile on that strategy, Joe, is that I hope you're not dismissing how hard everyone is already trying to win every week as it is. I don't think any of those teams have anything magical that will enable them to wave a wand and everyone else will freeze and they'll waltz into Victory Lane. I think how this is going to develop will be a thrill. As of Phoenix, the Daytona 500 winner becomes a footnote because in terms of the Sprint Cup championship, neither he nor his team are a factor in the title hunt. Johnson, Harvick, Stewart, the Busch brothers, Hamlin, etc., on the other hand, are very much in play.

David Caraviello: I wonder if Denny Hamlin has this race track circled after what happened at Phoenix last fall. Or if he feels like a win here would send a message, given how it's kind of been Jimmie's house, and how it effectively lost the Chase for him last season. Either way, if the situation calls for it, I bet he'll save fuel whether he's told to or not.

Joe Menzer: What I was saying earlier, Caraviello, is that if Jimmie Johnson gets two or three wins in the bank early, yes, he and the calculating Chad Knaus will start prepping to kick everyone's butts in the Chase again. That means they'll do some experimenting, and some days they might hit and some days they might miss. On the days they hit, they'll still contend for wins; on the days, they miss, Jimmie probably will still cajole a respectable finish out of a balky car. But when the Chase then commences, look out. So in a weird way, this new points system might play exactly into Five-Time's hands.

David Caraviello: So what makes that any different from the last five years? Whatever system is presented to them, they've been able to use it to their favor. That's one thing that's made them great --- and over the past half-decade, unbeatable.

3. The Daytona 500 crowd was bigger. The television numbers were better. The sponsorship market is stirring. Is NASCAR on the brink of making a comeback?

Dave Rodman: Again, like with so much else we've talked about, it's week to week. Gosh, we won't really be able to assess that until what, April?

David Caraviello: Well, let's not get crazy. This was the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest and most important race of the year, so if the numbers are ever going to get a boost, it's going to be here. And the end brought a once-in-a-lifetime storyline that put NASCAR everywhere from Conan to network nightly news programs. No question it was the day they needed. NBC News anchor Brian Williams called it "NASCAR's best day in about a decade," and he was right.

Joe Menzer: Well, I guess you all know I wrote a post-race column about this. The entire Speedweeks, capped by a great Daytona 500 that drew an outstanding crowd and improved television ratings, was just what NASCAR needed. But now they have to build on that momentum. I personally think they will. I think it has that feel to it.

Dave Rodman: Daytona is Daytona, on the one hand. But its attendance and ratings had flagged, of late. How much of a factor was the paving and the hype? Who knows? What will Phoenix, Vegas, Atlanta and Bristol lean on? I'll tell you this -- I'm anxious to see where it goes, but (and I hate to lean on this phrase for the third or fourth time), let's wait and see.

David Caraviello: And yet ... I do see hints of a comeback. Joie Chitwood says Daytona ticket sales were well up for the full week, even before we knew Bayne would come out of nowhere to steal the spotlight. You could sense that hospitality events were back. There were more social occasions during the week that invited media, which I know Joe Menzer: took advantage of. Those may seem small, but they take money to put on, and in recent years they've been nonexistent. Those are good signs.

Dave Rodman: The neatest thing about this Speedweeks? You needed a social secretary.

Joe Menzer: As for the social events I attended, are you talking about the cookout at the NASCAR.COM RV site? Or when I met my cousin to reminisce about my childhood?

David Caraviello: Joe, they didn't call you "Pinot Grigio" Menzer for nothing.

Joe Menzer: My nicknames aside, I'll tell you another positive move NASCAR made during Speedweeks, and that was announcing that they're moving the Daytona 500 back one week beginning next year. It will give them more space between the Super Bowl and take away potential conflict from both a potentially expanded NFL season, and the NBA All-Star weekend in nearby Orlando next year. It will help ensure that they have a marquee weekend all to themselves.

David Caraviello: The key is going to be how much the Daytona bump extends to the rest of the season. Obviously, you can't have Trevor Bayne win every week, and his accomplishments were a large reason why the television numbers went through the roof. You have to assume that some people are going to tune into Phoenix to see if the kid can do it again. And if he doesn't, and they lose interest as a result? That's going to be the real test.

Dave Rodman: This Phoenix race will be critical in a lot of ways. If the championship contenders can have a real knock-down, drag-out race, it will be big. And depending on who wins, particularly early in the season, it casts a dimension that has never existed, and who knows what that ripple effect will be. I can't wait to see what happens the next three or four weeks -- at least through Martinsville.

David Caraviello: You just look at little things. More teams announcing agreements with associate sponsors. More free stuff given out to the media during last month's media tour. Again, I know that sounds crazy, but they're signs that corporations are coming into this will a little more cash to spend. And that lifts everything else as a result.

Joe Menzer: We now come back to the fact that Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in a Wood Brothers Racing Ford. That is a great story that NASCAR can and should capitalize on. In a year when they feel like it's critical to re-engage fans who make up a younger demographic, they are in the best position they've been in for a long time.

David Caraviello: The strange thing, Joe -- the really magical thing about last weekend -- is it does both. Nothing I've ever seen in NASCAR engaged young and old at the same time as much as Bayne winning in a Wood Brothers car. It was a fresh face the kids can relate to, in a car owned by a team that the purists revere. That's just a perfect combination. Everybody wins.

Joe Menzer: I don't think Trevor Bayne winning is the reason the television numbers went through the roof. How can that be when he wasn't leading until the very end? The numbers went through the roof because it was on-the-edge-of-your-seat racing throughout the day with Dale Earnhardt Jr. charging from all the way in the back to run up front much of the day, along with some of the other big names in the sport -- and others, like Regan Smith, who seemingly came out of nowhere to run with the big boys all day.

David Caraviello: If I have my facts right, the numbers peaked sometime after 5 p.m., when the hardcore types realized, "Oh my gosh, the Wood Brothers could win this thing," and the casual fans flipping over went, "who is this kid?"

Joe Menzer: There was suspense all day. You had a sense that anyone could win the race, and "anyone" did. That it turned out to be a fresh-faced kid with a charming personality who was riding in a car owned by one of NASCAR's most storied families was merely a large heap of icing on a cake that already was sweet in the center.

Dave Rodman: I said it from the lead-up to the Budweiser Shootout -- and particularly in the Shootout itself. We had never seen this extent of two-car drafts. The precision and driver ability needed to execute that strategy was fascinating, compelling -- downright riveting. To see veterans like Michael Waltrip and Tony Stewart execute it sometimes, but fail miserably in others, and to have a "know-nothing kid" like Trevor Bayne execute it to a T and win the sport's biggest prize -- it don't get much better.

David Caraviello: And yet, Bayne carried the day. He galvanized viewers and nontraditional NASCAR media outlets alike. The test comes at Phoenix to see if he, and NASCAR, can keep this roll going. Speaking of Phoenix, I believe Joe needs to call his social secretary and see what's on tap. Wine tasting in Scottsdale, perhaps, Menzer?

Joe Menzer: How about beer-tasting in Tucson instead? More my style.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.