Decision to keep underachieving Sadler shows sponsors rule in NASCAR, not talent
That leaves A.J. Allmendinger still looking for a job, as the fourth car in the newly merged GEM/Petty team will at this point only run a part-time schedule, at best.
The very weak explanation for the backtracking was given by GEM's CEO Tom Reddin, who said: "We had some differences; we're a family. We love Elliott. We got everything resolved."
This move was cowardly by the organization, and is the ultimately proof that the only thing that really matters when it comes to who will get a ride is what the sponsor wants. A couple weeks ago, the news allegedly got out among team members that Sadler was to be replaced by Allmendinger in the #19, and that Sadler was going to be released. He apparently didn’t know it was coming, and threatened to sue if he was released. Even more worrisome for the organization is that some of the team’s sponsors were not happy with the change.
At the time, I applauded the GEM team for their courage to put a clearly better driver, Allmendinger, in the car over a likely washed-up Sadler who had long past the days of competing for wins in the Cup series. For once, I was happy to see that talent landed a driver a ride instead of the fact that he had a sponsor he could bring along. In the final five races of 2008, Sadler averaged a finish of 31.8. Allmendinger: 16.4. You do the math.
But sure enough, just days later, my applause has turned into boos after hearing this latest news. I can’t remember the last time I remember seeing Sadler being competitive in a race, and that leaves only one possibility: The team bowed to sponsor demands and kept Sadler, leaving Allmendinger once again in the lurch and without a ride. He has no contract with GEM, and could end up elsewhere if another opportunity arrives.
It’s pretty simple here: Sadler has become a middle-of-the-pack driver who will blend into the pack and rarely distinguish himself. But he’s good with the media, and just like Michael Waltrip and Kenny Wallace (with similarly unexceptional, yet long, driving careers) will be preferred by sponsors. Never mind the fact that Allmendinger would probably improve the finishing position of the #19 car by 10 spots each week … he can’t sell as many flat-screens at Best Buy.
A.J. is a good driver and will eventually land a good ride. With nothing left right now, his best hope is that the #10 team will find enough sponsorship to run the full season. Otherwise, he may just be a part-timer for 2009, or take another ride over when someone gets fired. Considering how this team has just disrespected him, I hope he is picked up either this year or next by a top-level team that will actually appreciate his talent and not shove him aside to keep a driver who has been far from competitive for years.
I’m not naïve, and I know money runs this and every sport, but keeping Sadler is just plain stupid and shows how sponsors, not team owners, make most of the decisions in NASCAR. They should have paid Sadler off in the lawsuit and moved on to greater heights with A.J. Instead, they’ve accepted mediocrity just to please some sponsors.
Merger good for Petty legacy
While the Petty name will likely be preserved in the newly merged team’s name, it’s a sobering fact that the family that has been around since Day 1 in NASCAR no longer can afford to operate a team without help. It’s the end of an era for the team that won big with Lee Petty in the first years of the sport, won much bigger with The King for decades, and has provided so many highlights that will never be forgotten.
As sad as this is for fans of the sport’s history, this merger is actually a good thing. The team’s legacy has grown increasingly tainted in recent years by the unimpressive cars it has been putting on the track. Rather than carry on forever with a car that is just making laps, maybe the #43 car will actually do well on occasion now that the merger is done. Considering the above-mentioned poor judgment of the GEM team, and the fact Reed Sorenson will be driving the #43, I highly doubt it. But a three-car or four-car team will have a better shot at success than a standalone Petty entry.