Friday, January 28, 2011

A Big-Name Cup Driver Doing the Double...Keep Dreaming

For a while there, it was common to see a driver do double duty and race in both the Indy 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day.

John Andretti was the first driver to attempt the feat in 1994, while Robby Gordon doubled up four times and Tony Stewart ran both races twice. Stewart is the only driver to finish on the lead lap in both races (1,100 total miles) by finishing sixth at Indy and third at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2001.

In throwing around ideas to improve the profile of the 500, the thought of a big-name NASCAR driver running both races has started to make the rounds every so often. Randy Bernard stirred the pot when he and LMS owner Bruton Smith thought there should be a $20 million bonus opportunity to the driver that could win both events, and Jimmie Johnson admits that he would like to because he wants to drive in the 500, but would more than likely pass.

Stewart at Indy in 2001
This topic of a NASCAR driver doubling up will always be out there, but outside of the lesser drivers who want to add a cool accomplishment to their career resumes, the idea of a Jeff Gordon, Johnson or Stewart giving it a try is not going to happen. It's just a lose-lose proposition in so many ways.

The risk of jumping into an open wheel car for a one-off is just too great. With their busy schedules, they would get little to no time behind the wheel of an IndyCar before the month started, and they wouldn't be able to focuse solely on getting in laps and miles because they would have their other commitments as well.

Don't forget, before they even did the double, Robbie Gordon, Andretti and Stewart had significant time in both disciplines. All three have won NASCAR and CART/IRL races, and their career paths of having driven in several types of both open wheel and stock cars have made them very adept at adjusting to different styles of racing.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who won Indy in 2000 and is a former CART champion and F1 driver, would join Stewart as a guy who could jump in and compete quickly. But for the other drivers, no matter their skill, there would still be a learning curve, especially at Indy.

With seat time and experience, a top-level Cup driver would probably do fine in open wheel. They wouldn't have that in this situation, which would also raise safety concerns, both for themselves and their competitors.

Racing is big business, drivers-get-paid-like-corporate-CEOs business. Millions upon millions of dollars are floating around, and more is at stake than there might have been in years past. If a guy like Johnson had a Mike Conway-style wreck and was hurt for the rest of the year, they would take a significant financial hit. And what if they had one that ended their careers?

Sure, they have enough money already, but that isn't the point. People work hard to get where they are and to accomplish great things, and to see that get affected as the result of a high-speed, high-risk side project isn't worth it.

On the series' sides, there is also nothing to gain and a lot to lose. 

Weighing the odds, a NASCAR driver has a greater chance of failing at this venture than winning the race. Given NASCAR calls itself the greatest racing series in the world, what would it be like if one of their marquee guys struggled? What if they had some bad luck and crashed in practice or the race, or, racing gods forbid, failed to qualify?

That would look bad. It would look really bad. Most of us true racing fans would understand, it's happened to some of our own greats before. But NASCAR's public perception among many would take a huge hit.

On the flip side, how would it look to IndyCar if one of them showed up, found the right combination and had a dominating month before ultimately winning the race? That would look even worse. Think about some recent history...while it was probably a good idea to begin letting CART drivers back into the 500 in 2000 as it ultimately brought Penske and Ganassi (and finally the rest of the teams) back to the series, Montoya's win was humiliating to the IRL.

Ganassi's team showed up and just drilled everyone, took the Borg-Warner Trophy and went home, which Penske then did the next year with Helio Castroneves. The series' credibility took a big hit when CART teams showed up and did better in the unfamiliar equipment than the regulars could.

Call it a conspiracy theory, but I also think part of the Cup drivers' reluctance to come to the 500 is due to pressure from above. Prior to the 500 pushing back the start time from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Stewart had already announced he was no longer going to run both races in order to focus on his Cup team, but I firmly believe that wasn't wholly his decision. He's a racer, he loves to drive, and his results doing both races spoke for itself.

NASCAR rules its series with an iron fist. Every decision -- yes, even on race day -- is made with the series' popularity and perception in mind, and that's it. There is no way that they are going to make (or sign off on) any decision that helps IndyCar. Giving them drivers that would presumably help ratings or call more attention to the 500, especially given they have a big race of their own the same day, doesn't make sense from a business side.

You get an idea of NASCAR's opinion of IndyCar when you see how poorly the series was treated at tracks that were run by the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which NASCAR happens to own and operate. They were such poor business partners that IndyCar had to drop tracks from its schedule, which by the way in the end will be a good thing for IndyCar.

I think if the 500 start is pushed up again, a guy like Robby Gordon or Andretti might give it a try, but if we think any of the others are coming, we are just dreaming.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure what I think on the Double. I can see NASCAR trying to stop it, but if General Motors in 2012 or beyond want one of their drivers to do it, NASCAR's pretty much got to let them. This year, Kahne and Montoya both have a decent shot of doing it, and with the new Chase eligibility rules, if Toyota doesn't throw a fit, Kyle Busch likely could do it. So I don't know...