Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Good And The Bad Of JGR/Ginn Moves

This week’s moves involving the Joe Gibbs and Ginn Racing teams showcase what is best and worst about big-time professional motorsports.

Both teams confirmed today what Sirius Speedway first reported Monday; that JGR has granted Aric Almirola his release, allowing him to compete for Ginn on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series this season.

“This is a bittersweet moment for us,” said JGR President J.D. Gibbs. “Aric is a tremendous talent, and he had the opportunity to do more races in a shorter period of time than we could provide to him. Everyone at Ginn Racing was extremely professional in the way they expressed their desire to put Aric in their racecars. The fact that Aric will be mentored by Mark Martin made our decision much easier. We will always consider Aric to be a part of the JGR family, and we wish him the best in his new opportunity with Ginn Racing.”

In addition to sharing the #01 Chevrolet with Martin this season, Almirola will honor the remainder of his contract by running five more NASCAR Busch Series races for JGR.

Almirola’s move to Ginn Racing – and JGR’s decision to allow it, despite the presence of a signed contract – is a prime example of decency overriding pure business sense. JGR is in the enviable position of having too many talented young drivers in its stable. With Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and JJ Yeley already filling three Nextel Cup seats, and 17-year old superstar-in-the-making Joey Logano tearing up the Busch East Series, Almirola was clearly the odd man out at JGR.

Even if Gibbs elected to expand to four Nextel Cup teams in the near future – something team officials have said they are in no hurry to do – Almirola ranked no better than fifth on the depth charts. By freeing their young protege to accept a Nextel Cup opportunity with Ginn Racing, JGR did what was best for Almirola, if not for themselves.

Almirola expressed appreciation for the move, saying, “I can’t thank Joe Gibbs Racing enough for what they’ve done for me. They saw what this opportunity with Ginn Racing meant to me, and they didn’t stand in the way. Joe Gibbs Racing will always have a special place in my heart.

“They allowed me to get to this position by giving me a chance at a time when I had a lot of desire, but little money. The equipment they gave me and the people they surrounded me with made me a better racecar driver, and a better person.”

While JGR’s decision to grant Almirola his release showcases what is best about the sport, the termination of veterans Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek offers a glimpse into the harder side of NASCAR racing.

Marlin, 50, confirmed to Sirius Speedway yesterday that he and Nemechek have both been relieved of their driving duties, with Marlin being replaced by 23-year old Regan Smith.

“I talked to (Ginn Racing CEO) Jay Frye at Daytona,” said Marlin. “He said, `everything’s fine,’ but it obviously wasn’t. They called me late (Monday) and told me what was going on, and it caught me by surprise. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do, but I have a valid contract with them. As long as they do everything they say they’re going to do (contractually), everything’s going to be fine.”

Earlier this year, team owner Bobby Ginn pledged that Marlin could drive for the team as long as he wanted. Yesterday, asked if he felt betrayed by his former car owner, Marlin said, “You can read between the lines. I can look in the mirror and know I done everything right. That’s not the case on the other side, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Asked if Ginn’s problems can be solved with a simple driver change, Marlin said, “We’ve had a pretty good car at times this year – better than last year – but they’ve had a lot of problems on their side that still need to be addressed. Maybe now, they will. I know I can get up in the morning and look in the mirror knowing that I drove my heart out and done all I could do.

“I’ve got nothing to hang my head about. I done all I could do with what I had.”

For his part, Frye said the team is looking to the future by moving to a younger driver lineup.

“We are starting our future now,” said Frye. “(Aric Almirola and Regan Smith) are the groundwork for future success. We appreciate everything that Joe and Sterling have done for us. They have been a class act.”

Both Marlin and Nemechek are among the most popular drivers in the Nextel Cup garage. When word of their firings became public yesterday, internet message boards lit up with comments critical of Ginn Racing. Ginn’s own Fan Forum was shut down late Tuesday, after fans clogged it with scathing criticism of the team.

Unfortunately, NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing is about results, not popularity.

One year ago, the #01 U.S. Army Chevrolet (driven by Joe Nemechek) languished in 29th place in Nextel Cup points. Today, the same team ranks ninth in points, with the only significant personnel change being the change in drivers.

Nemechek has recorded just one top-10 finish in 19 starts this season -- a fifth in the Daytona 500 – en route to 33rd place in points. Marlin stands 29th in points, with a season-best 13th place finish at Darlington. Neither driver has proven attractive to sponsors, as evidenced by the team’s blank quarterpanels in a number of races this season.

As hard-hearted as it may sound, in the big-time world of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, poor on-track results, plus an inability to attract sponsorship equals unemployment. Whether your name is Nemechek, Marlin or Earnhardt, those are the harsh realities of the business.

Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek aren’t the first to feel the harsh sting of that reality, and they won’t be the last.

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