Even before Richard Petty officially told the Roanoke Times that they'd be going with a two-car operation I long had plans to write an article in support of the team.
Last week I wrote an article comparing NASCAR 1996 to NASCAR of today and how much the sport has changed, and changed for the worst.
Among the reasons for this change was NASCAR's blatant abandonment of the South and its countless race fans.
At the forefront of this national Southern decline is the parrell decline of Richard Petty Motorsports.
Much like when Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) was around, I cannot understand why all the best drivers and sponsors don't want to race for, and financially support this team. If you don't want to race for Richard Petty nor do you want to support Petty as a sponsor, something is wrong with your sport.
Its these two teams that should be the Hendrick Motorsports' and Roush-Fenway Racing of its day. The latter are the two most victorious Cup teams and their success is the same vision shared by all teams, Petty and now-rebranded Earnhardt-Ganassi alike.
The reason RPM fails is the same reason Jeffrey Earnhardt cannot find a "real" ride having to settle for Rick Ware Racing on an inconsistent basis. All the time I hear from friends "If you put the kid in top equipment you would see what he could do" or "then we'd see what he could do (or not do)" but as it is now, with second tier equipment at best, he like so many others struggles just to find and keep a ride.
Musical Chairs: The Music Stopped and they were left standing
Richard Petty Motorsports has been through a lot in recent years. From moving from its original shop in Level Cross, North Carolina where as I understand it, for example, sometimes it was hard finding people who wanted to work for them since they were located way out in the middle of the Carolina backwoods.
As one of the last teams to make the move to the Charlotte hub (AKA NASCAR's unofficial headquarters beyond Dayona's official stop) they faced a disadvantage from the beginning.
Then, while still Petty Enterprises, there was the failed Boston Venture's merger.
I remember watching with anticipation, the ESPN NASCAR Now! one-hour special from Randleman, North Carolina, where King Richard himself was interviewed boastfully speaking with obvious excitement on how this day, was going to be a new one for the company. Also, how he did it essentially to get on a level playing field with the rest of the bigger teams in the sport who had merged with a big-name corporation for financial support.
Roush Racing has Boston Red Sox owner John Henry are ghost-writing checks. Petty wanted and needed to do the same since Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick don't need the same type of corporate subsidy to survive.
You could tell it was a sad day, but a necessary day. I, like Boston Ventures, owner of the Six Flags theme parks, and National Enquirer among other smaller endeavors, wanted to get the team back in Victory Lane and I believed they would, sooner not later.
Bobby Labonte, with his championship experience and provisional in his back pocket signed on in 2008 bringing credibility to the team and hope; only to ask out a year later when the merger fell through. He lost his primary and longtime lucrative sponsor of the team, General Mills, who as we found out shortly after, went to Richard Childress Racing.
With no marquee driver, and the loss of income from the best sponsor they had, in short, the team merged with George Gillette of then Montreal Candian National Hockey League fame, to form a new Gillette Evernham Motorsports. This would quickly, and I mean quickly, change to the more marketable Richard Petty Motorsports team it enjoys today.
Team Downsizes but is it a bad thing?
Why do I like RPM? Not only are they Southern based and Southern owed (at its core with Petty as a figurehead owner), but more importantly, they are a reminder of yesteryear when NASCAR teams didn't just throw four cars out there for the sake of keeping up with the Hendrick's and Roush's.
If you read the second link on this page where I wrote the second of a two-part series on NASCAR in 1996- the last year it was as close to perfect as it could be without actually being the 1970's, when NASCAR was at its height. You will see that with the exception of Hendrick's three car outlier operation and two car team of Robert Yates Racing, every other team had only one car. I am a fan of smaller race teams (note, not too small, start-and-park-ers, you still have to honestly try).
We watched for years as someone did their best to drive the No. 43 while Kyle Petty drove the No. 45 in honor of his son Adam who died in 2000. It was here that Kyle kept saying he drove the car in memory of his son and to further promote the Victory Junction Gang among other notable causes.
While other teams changed and merged, and got bigger and sold out, Petty Enterprises didn't and we all understood why and accepted it.
This year RPM has already lost "star" driver in the overrated Kasey Kahne, whose boyish GQ looks will fit in perfectly with HMS "Hollywood Motor Sports" as I call his new found brood.
True, this surprisingly marketable, but inconsistent driver was the face of the team since they lacked any other real star quality. However, Elliott Sadler could pitch some Stanley and Best Buy product back in the day as well and for some reason, his sponsors seemed to be loyal to him despite not winning.
Sadler will soon find himself either in the Nationwide or Camping World Truck series where someone of his talents would be better suited and where he can actually compete for titles and wins on a consistent basis. I think he could be the next Mike Skinner who similarly couldn't cut it at the Cup level but who found later success in the second and third tier circuits.
Finally, the team smartly cut ties with silver-spoon self-made millionaire Paul Menard, whose daddy owns a series of midwest-based hardware stores that bears the family name and whom sponsors his rides. With guaranteed sponsorship money comes a guaranteed ride. Must be nice.
While critics will note the loss of income to a cash-strapped team isn't smart, by not having to waste any more time and effort in a driver like Menard who also clearly belongs in a lower division evident by his current fifth place points standings compared to 23rd in Cup, the team can focus on the two drivers it has and make them better on a weekly basis.
So who do they have, exactly?
The team just re-signed A.J. Allmindinger, who finished 2008 very well for Team Red Bull, only to be given his walking papers in order to make room for another Californian in Scott Speed, who likely will also find himself without a Cup ride. As a cruel twist of fate, Kahne will have his spot next year, but only for that year before he goes to Team GQ (Hendrick Motorsports).
Why does Allmindinger matter? He's 22nd in points right now, which doesn't look good on the surface until you consider he's a streaky driver, unlike Millionaire-Menard, who brings nothing short of cash, to the table. This streak caused many fans to wonder why Allmindinger wasn't getting a ride post-2008 after finishing six of the last eight races with top 16 finishes for a similar two car team.
Many, myself included, thought he deserved a contract extension right then and there. After all, A.J.'s done and seen it all. From not qualifying some events in 2007 and 2008 to finding sporadic sponsorship similar to Travis Kvapil by the name of Hunt's Pizza, to a road course background, the kid had paid his dues.
The problem is what to do with Allmindinger. He's not very good on an oval but his qualifying has been getting better starting out on average 18th position this year, easily a career best. He's also won a pole and led the most laps of his short career.
So why do you get him?
I think Richard Petty Motorsports knows they don't want to see him flourish with another team should he be let go and he is good for one thing: Road course racing.
Why does this matter?
Ask Boris Said what one win can do for you and your career. RPM has to know they are taking a step backward next year with no Kahne but rebounded very nicely in singing Allmindinger and new teammate Marcos Ambrose.
At least we know they'll be competitive in two races: Watkins Glen and Sonoma. With any luck, they may be able to notch two top five's with one (Amborse) a real threat to bring home a win. If you told RPM they would have a really good shot at two wins next year, as they clearly will with these two drivers and these two tracks, don't you think they'd take it?
After all, it beats what they have now and next year should be much more cost efficient.
Ambrose Signing a Big Deal
Not only were there rumors of the Tasmanian driver going back to Australia to race, but with his signing the team assured themselves of being competitive for at least two races but they proved to skeptics that they are a free agent destination.
As one of those spectators who is surprised RPM has managed to last this long, they proved to me that drivers still recognize them as being a legit signing point.
Consider, they needed to replace up to three drivers in a single offseason. If not Ambrose then who?
Considering the circumstances, I think they did very well for themselves.
Rumors have it that Stanley/Best Buy will stay with the organization, although it is unclear to which driver they will sponsor. That has to be considered a big save since Best Buy as I understand it, is one of the better in the sport.
Ambrose, who made his name with Ford, gets to return to the make that made his name. That can't be under-estimated and has to be seen as some kind of wildcard for 2011 if all goes well.
Additionally, you have to understand from Ambrose's standpoint, while having a down year statistically this year, long term he's actually moving up to a more stable organization, from the single car JTG Daugherty Racing team that which he's leaving.
Finally, he's excited, likely again because a bigger team means more attention and more opportunities to be competitive.
Think how good he did at tiny JTG-Daugherty. Imagine what could do at RPM next year.
Sure, you could take it one step further and say the same thing, only greater, should he be a 4th car at Gibbs or Childress, where Menard went.
Then again, more time and effort would be split among larger crews and resources meaning he'd likely have to settle for 4th best which is what Menard will find out next year.
In all, we'll see how good it works. If they need any more inspiration, they should look for two-car team Red Bull as inspiration. I wish them the best of luck. They will need it and our support going at it alone in a world of four car conglomerates.
If America truly loves and underdog, their search should start and end here as far as the world of NASCAR is concerned.
Information and Statistics from ESPN.com, The Roanoke Times, Jayski, Fanhouse.com, Wikipedia, and SceneDaily directly contributed to the content of this article.