This is part five in the series, looking at how Cup teams fared in 2008, and where they are headed in 2009. Each post will feature two teams and we will iron out details for the upcoming season and give our own projection for what to expect in ‘09.
Gillett Evernham Motorsports
GEM took some risks beginning in 2008. The three car operation featured Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and open wheeler and NASCAR new comer Patrick Carpentier. Only two of their cars were safely inside the top-35 and that made the difference in Daytona.
Patrick Carpentier, the former Indy Car and Champ Car driver, joined GEM in 2007 for limited races at the end of the season. 2008 marked his first full-time effort in NASCAR’s top series.
While there were certainly bright spots in Carpentier’s NASCAR effort, like his pole at Loudon, he struggled to overcome the learning curve. He failed to make five races including the Daytona 500. Ultimately he posted no top-5s and no top-10s. His best finish was a 14th at Daytona in July. His average finish was just a tick above 30th.
In August Carpentier was made a free agent and ultimately released from the organization in October. GEM finished out the season with Mike Wallace and AJ Allmendinger in the #10.
Elliott Sadler returned to the #19 GEM Dodge in 2008 after a season and a half with the team. His performance improved slightly from the year before, but he too struggled to make his mark.
In Daytona Sadler started on a high note posting a 6th place finish. However the rest of the season really failed to wow. He scored two top-5 finishes and eight top-10s. His best finish came in Indianapolis where he finished fourth. His average finish was 23.7.
Kasey Kahne went into the 2008 season as a favorite to have a break out season (as he is most years). After going win less in 2007 Kahne was looking to end the bad luck.
While Kahne scored two wins at Pocono and Charlotte, he failed to qualify for the Chase. He posted four top-5s and 14 top-10s, finishing the season with an average finish of 18.1.
A highlight of the season for this team was the addition of sponsor Budweiser who left DEI after the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2007. The full time sponsorship is a good match for the GEM team and Kasey Kahne. While they haven’t gotten as much bang for their buck with Kahne, the combination is a good one, and Kahne certainly has a good chance of not only winning races, but making the Chase in 2008.
In addition the team enters the 2009 season with full backing for Elliott Sadler. In 2008 McDonalds, Stanley, and Best Buy adorned the drivers car. While there has been some recent ugliness, the sponsors seem committed to Sadler. Expect Sadler to be mediocre again this season. While the way the whole firing thing went down was ugly, Sadler would have earned his release if they had given it to him.
For next season the team is bringing on Reed Sorenson who left Chip Ganassi Racing in 2008 after 5 years. He brings with him no wins and a scant number of top-5s and top-10s. While he is still very young, his performance has gotten worse every year he has been in the Cup Series. I expect him to be a little better in 2009, but this will be by no means his breakout year.
The merger with Petty just announced a few days ago still leaves open a lot of questions. Rumors were flying just a couple of weeks ago that AJ Allmendinger was replacing Elliott Sadler in the #19. While that did not happen Allmendinger is expected to be in the #10 ride at least part time next season. The team has some sponsorship issues on the #43 and on this part time ride. While they did pick up Air Force from the Wood Brothers, the deal is only for a few races.
I don’t expect GEM to be much improved over last season. Kahne has the greatest chance to shine as does Allmendinger. Their biggest limiting factor though is going to be money. Allmendinger has a shot at winning races, but not if he is only going to be in the car for a handful of races.
2008 was a year of change for the almost 60 year old organization. Between the acquisition of controlling interest by Boston Ventures and the merger with GEM, Petty became a memory of a bygone era.
The team returned in 2008 with Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte behind the wheel of the famed #43 ride. General Mills returned to sponsor the car.
Labonte struggled this season as in years past to return to the success he had at Gibbs. Despite that he was the shining star at a struggling Petty. He had no top-5s and two top-10s. His best finish of sixth came at Talladega late in the season.
Ultimately 2008 became one of the worst years of Bobby Labonte’s career. It was the worst in terms of average starts and second worst for average finishes. He finished the year 21st in points.
Petty fielded a second car, the #45, with Chad McCumbee, Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte and Boris Said. Between the four of them, they posted no top-5s and no top-10s. Despite poor performance, they managed to maintain sponsorship on the car for the entire season.
Terry Labonte ended up with the best average finish of 26.8 in nine races.
The two things that brought Petty down this particular season were the loss of General Mills to Richard Childress Racing and the buyout from Boston Ventures. CEO David Zucker lacked the experience or knowledge to run a race team. And ultimately without even one full time sponsor the team could not possibly hope to continue into 2009. Boston Ventures saw what they thought would be a gold mine, apparently without fully considering what it takes to be successful in stock car racing.
Petty failed to be a stand alone organization the minute they sold majority interest to Boston Ventures. The merger with GEM, while lacking sense, was a good move on everyone’s part at Petty. They maintained the #43 and it sounds like GEM will continue the Petty legacy through its name. While I think it is sad Petty as a stand alone is gone, anything that happened to them was a result of years of failure to innovate and change.