JR Motorsports has released Kelly Bires from his contractual driving duties of the team’s No. 88 Chevy just six races into the Nationwide Series season. Jamie McMurray has been announced as his replacement for the next six Nationwide races. He’ll drive three more races in the No. 88 during the season. No driver has been named for the remaining races.
Bires piloted the JRM Chevy for five races this season, after Dale Earnhardt Jr drove the season opener at Daytona due to the sponsor’s wishes. Bires was set to pilot the team’s second car at Daytona, but after Danica Patrick posted an impressive sixth-place finish in the ARCA RE/MAX Series race, she was given the ride.
Bires made his debut in the No. 88 the following week in the Stater Bros. 300. He posted a seventh place finish in his first start with the team. One week later, he crashed out of the Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas. He finished 42nd. At the next two Nationwide Series races, he posted back-to-back top 15 finishes, with a 12th at Bristol and a 14th at Nashville. At Phoenix in the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200, he was running in the top 10 late in the race. But, after being involved in a late pileup and contact on pit road, he finished 17th.
Bires’ release has many scratching their heads, considering he had an average finish of 15th, and was 20th in points despite missing one race. JRM general manager and co-owner Kelly Earnhardt offered some clarity. She said:
We are extremely appreciative of Kelly Bires and wish him the best. Internally, it was evident the chemistry that is imperative for us to succeed in this highly competitive industry was simply not there. That is the fault of no one person. We owe it to our fans and sponsors to make necessary adjustments in an effort to put our best product on the track, and we’ll continue evaluating our progress until we are confident that our full potential is being reached.
After reading this statement, the question I’m left asking is, “Is a five-race span long enough to develop chemistry?” I don’t think you get an accurate representation of team chemistry in such a short period of time.
Looking back at Keselowski’s performance over the same five races (Daytona and Texas are not included because Bires has not competed at those tracks this season), Keselowski posted back-to-back 27th-place finishes, a 12th, and back-to-back 3rd-place finishes, compared to Bires’ finishes of 7th, 42nd, 14th,12th, and 17th.
No one can argue that the two top 5s are better than one top 10, but Bires’ average finish (18.4) wasn’t that far off of Keselowski’s (14.4). Some would argue that a four-spot difference isn’t enough to lose a ride.
But, Bires’ release is the latest indication that sponsors (and their money) are dictating (if even indirectly) what team owners can and can’t do. Gone are the days when a team could develop a driver behind the wheel for a few seasons. Sponsors want results now.
Kelley Earnhardt discussed the decision on SIRIUS XM Radio today. She said that the sponsor did not ask for the change. She said that the decision to release Bires was made by JRM officials. They feel like the No. 88 is a top 5 team, and they want to keep the team in the top 5 to keep the sponsors happy. And while the sponsor did not specifically say that they wanted Bires out of the car, I think Earnhardt’s comments indicate that sponsorship considerations played a part of it.
To me, Earnhardt said that if the No. 88 is not in the top 5 in points, and is not running up front week in and week out, the sponsor will be unhappy. And, if that’s the case, why wait until the sponsor is actually unhappy to make a change? You don’t. You make a change now, before the sponsor becomes unhappy – especially if you want that sponsor to stick by you long term.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this decision had just as much to do with team chemistry as it did with sponsorship. From what Earnhardt said about having a negative attitude and a lack of confidence in the team’s ability to compete, there were certainly issues. But, is a five-race span enough time to build chemistry? Conventional wisdom would say no. Are five races enough time to know what you have? Probably not.
But, when I think about the fact that the JRM officials who made the decision (Rick Hendrick, Tony Eury Jr, Dale Jr, and Kelley) all agreed this was the right move, I have to think it was.
And, at the end of the day, when sponsors are involved you don’t have a lot of time. You have to do everything you can to put the best product out there. And with Bires’ release, JRM thinks it did just that.