October 3, 2008
By Rebecca Gladden
If the phrase "Straight Talk Express" wasn't already taken by presidential candidate John McCain, it might have been co-opted by NASCAR driver Kenny Wallace.
Wallace, who's been racing in NASCAR since 1988 with nine victories in the Nationwide Series, also serves as a commentator for the SPEED TV network, co-hosting the NASCAR Race Day and Victory Lane programs each week.
"I was born and raised in racing, and I know the truth about the sport of auto racing," Wallace told me via phone Tuesday. "My job is to make people knowledgeable and make them know what's going on in NASCAR."
The plain-talking Missouri native, youngest of the three racing Wallace brothers, prides himself on his forthright explanations about the inner workings of the sport.
Wallace spoke out in bold fashion this week in an article he wrote for the SPEED TV website entitled, "Chase - Car or Driver". He quantified the potential for success of this year's 12 championship contenders, who he believes have "equitable abilities," as 70% car, 30% driver.
As Kenny himself noted, this estimate runs counter to one of NASCAR's goals for the Car of Tomorrow, now in its first full-time season of competition - that is, to put races back in the hands of the drivers.
In 2007, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said of the COT, "There will always be room for imagination and ingenuity in the sport. But we don't want this thing to revolve around technology. It's important to keep it in the hands of the drivers."
So, how does Wallace's Chase article square with France's sentiment?
"I'm not saying anything bad about NASCAR," Wallace said. "I always say in our sport we talk in watercolors. What I mean by that is, people put spins on things the way they want them to be. I'm black and white. The reality of it is, right now we're in an era where this is a brand-new car, and some teams have figured it out better than others. I don't ever get in trouble with NASCAR because I explain everything in detail - I say that a team is struggling, and here's why they are struggling."
Wallace adds that the article was in part a defense of the drivers and owners who've struggled in the Chase and are harangued by fans as a result. "People want to put too much pressure on Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Once a driver becomes great, people think that driver is so great that he can just win all the time. Don't get all over Rick Hendrick, the car owner, and say, 'Why don't you give Dale Earnhardt, Jr. better cars? Why don't you give Jeff Gordon better cars?' The reality is, it's a complete team effort. And that's why I spoke up - to remind everybody, 'Look, it's not all driver. Right now, it's 70% car and 30% driver.'"
When he refers to the car, Wallace is actually including all of the factors that go into putting the best racecar on the track week in and week out, which involves continuous team testing. It's a complicated puzzle and the driver is one small piece, though he hopes that as teams grow in experience with the COT, the driver's contribution will become more relevant. "Right now, with this car being so new, there are teams that are finding things - they're finding them out before other teams. But at this moment, it's more about the car than the driver. I think once we get more knowledge about the car, once we become smarter about the new car, then I think the driver might be able to play a little bit more of a role."
In support of his theory, Wallace points to Kyle Busch's precipitous postseason fall - from Chase points leader to bottom feeder in just two races. "As soon as you say that it's all driver or all car, then something happens like what happened with Kyle Busch. We gave Kyle Busch all the credit in the world - then the car let him down two weeks in a row. That's why I wrote the article. We know Kyle Busch is a great driver, but if he's such a great driver, what happened? There are a lot of smart people in our sport, and one driver and one team can't be on top forever."
While acknowledging that the No. 18 team had been struggling prior to Busch's arrival at Joe Gibbs Racing, Wallace says their recent success is only partially attributable to Busch himself. "I can't blame that all on [previous No. 18 car driver] J.J. Yeley," he said. "The 18 team did a lot of work over the winter time. Sometimes, it's all about timing."
Timing … and teamwork, which was the ultimate message of Wallace's astute article. Still, he admits even the experts can be mistaken. "Look at Greg Biffle. If we all know everything, then why didn't somebody pick Greg Biffle for the championship? That guy - he went to work. That team went to work. This is a team sport. The championship is going to be won by the team that makes the least mistakes, prepares the best, and has the driver that does his job. I just think that to win that championship, it's going to be a complete team effort."
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