Jennifer Jo Cobb was supposed to drive at last Saturday's Nascar Nationwide race, until the owner of her car told her to "start and park." Rather than pretend to race, Cobb quit — and won a bigger victory.
Cobb, 37, has been slowly working her way up the ladder of Nascar series over the past several years, with some moderate success in truck racing. This season due to a change in Nascar rules, she had to pick one series to earn points in and she chose Nationwide — a sort of "Junior Varsity" level for stock cars drivers who hope to next tackle the big-league Sprint series. But running on the fringes of Nascar often means scraping for every last dollar, and teams in the Nationwide series frequently drive a car onto the track for a few laps, then pull into the pits and collect the money for a back-of-the-pack finish, a stunt known as "start and park."
The economics and rules of Nascar conspire to make this fake racing a necessary form of survival for smaller teams. The difference in prize money between 40th place and 20th isn't worth leaving a car on the track long enough to require several tire changes, a pit crew or risk major damage that wipes out what little cash a team has. Like many drivers, Cobb avoids start and parks, saying false starts hurt her chances to further her racing career.
Cobb had a five-race contract for the Nationwide series with car owner Rick Russell of 2nd Chance Motorsports, which included last Saturday's race in Bristol, Tenn. Following damage from a wreck in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Cobb says she, Russell and the crew agreed during a meeting Friday to run a conservative race, preserving the car for this weekend's run in California. (She also says she heard rumors that Russell wanted to replace her for this week's race, but ignored them.)
Cobb bought tires for the Bristol race, and had her crew ready to go — but says Russell told her ten minutes before the start of the race that she would start and park. Cobb said she offered to do so if Russell was letting her drive in California, but he confirmed instead that she would be replaced, despite their contract. Both sides agree Russell threatened to have Nascar black-flag her if she started the race but refused to pit.
"I thought about it for about 10 seconds, and I grabbed my gear and I walked off," Cobb said Saturday. "Why would I change my entire philosophy of my racing career to start and park for somebody to conserve a car that he's breaking the contract on, that I'm not even getting to race?"
Russell has an entirely different take, saying he told Cobb and her crew they were to start and park at the Friday meeting, that Cobb went ahead and planned to race anyway, and that their contract was invalid due to some business with engines in Vegas.
"She waited until five minutes until start time and told her crew chief and her other people that worked for her and they left," Russell told Landmark Newspapers. "I'm sitting on pit road with a car without a driver and made myself look stupid, NASCAR look stupid, the whole bunch of us look stupid.''
Russell found a replacement driver and his car did start, pulling into the pits after 5 laps for 41st place and $16,775. It was one of five cars that started the race but came out with fewer than 10 laps.
So far, fan opinion and what little corroboration has slipped out favors Cobb's versions of events; and following the dust-up over her decision, Cobb signed with Rick Ware racing for this weekend's race, where she will have a chance to do more than drive a few laps and shut the engine off. Who looks stupid now?