The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in Chicago (of all places) this week, but I’m not terribly excited. The only way my driver Clint Bowyer was going to get into the Chase was to win Richmond, and he didn’t. The same things that had been going wrong since Daytona in July went wrong there: he spun himself out, strategy didn’t pay off, and a poor finish was the result. With that his championship hopes were done, although they were realistically over after he spun out racing Montoya at Atlanta the previous Tuesday.
That means it’s time for Clint to consider what he’s going to do next year, which isn’t an easy decision. It’s clear staying at Richard Childress Racing means continuing to get short shrift. Although he’s a very talented driver (and could have made a serious run for the championship last year if not for the penalty after New Hampshire), it’s clear that Bowyer comes last, or next to it, at RCR. Harvick is the favored one, Menard brings his own sponsorship, and hell if I know what Jeff Burton is good for but CAT sure seems to like him. Meanwhile Bowyer, who is at least second best in the RCR stable, has suffered the most from Childress’ ongoing flirtations with a four-car team. There’s no prospect of moving up the totem pole, either, since Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon will be moving up to Cup in 2-3 years to take some of the premium equipment.
Despite some early promise, this try at four teams seems likely to end up not much better than the last. At least one of the Childress drivers will make the Chase this year (Harvick), but overall the team performance has been nowhere near good enough. During the Chase, Childress will make the right move and give Harvick the best of everything in a bid to win the championship, but that’s certainly going to rub Clint the wrong way as he tries to be the best of the rest. That has to make that contract he’s received from RPM look a lot nicer.
There’s the rub, though. As sticky as the situation at RCR is, everything else looks even worse. Richard Petty Motorsports managed to win a race this year, and the equipment they’re supplying Ambrose and Allmendinger is pretty good, but that organization has flirted with insolvency for years. Are they really capable of fielding three good teams? Will the contract be worth the paper it’s printed on? Michael Waltrip Racing is also reportedly interested, but that’s even more of a laugh. Their equipment has been inconsistent and the organization has struggled mightily to win. Clint would be top dog at either of these places, but he’d be the top dog of second-rate equipment.
The crazier rumors suggest that Roush Fenway might try to grab Clint. Their equipment is undoubtedly top-notch, but the most likely scenario there is that Clint displaces David Ragan, which would place him at best third on the depth chart, facing the same problem he has at RCR. Gibbs has also been floated as a possible landing spot, and Toyota does want another front-line driver, but I don’t really buy the scenario. For Carl Edwards they might have expanded to four cars or sidelined Logano, but not for Clint.
It’s a tough decision. Childress has undervalued Clint repeatedly (e.g. making him give up his points to Casey Mears during the last four-car experiment), and because he made Clint, he’ll probably always undervalue him. However, all of the alternatives have serious drawbacks and caveats in terms of team stability and development potential. NASCAR is currently contracting, and it may well be that the best Clint can do is to stay put, no matter how unhappy it makes him. Yet the way Clint and Childress are talking suggests that’s impossible. Of course, Childress has let things get this bad before and still gotten a deal done, but that was with Harvick, who he values a lot more than Clint. It’s not a great situation, and it’s a measure of the straits the sport is in that somebody who regularly makes the Chase and has been a factor for the Championship before can’t seem to find the kind of sponsorship that would guarantee him a ride.