Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

On the Track and in Points, Busch Still Chasing Kenseth

By Kelly Crandall (LOUDON, N.H.) – Trying to win your first career championship is hard enough but for Kyle Busch it’s harder when the man he’s found himself chasing the first two weeks happens to be driving the same cars he is.

Busch finished second again and again it was to teammate Matt Kenseth who opened the Chase with back-to-back victories. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates brought home 1-2 finishes in both Chicago and New Hampshire Motor Speedway and sit atop the point standings. While Busch still remains without a Chase victory, he’s off to a solid start when it comes to the bigger picture in a season that many have said is his best chance to win a title.

“Race was pretty good. Certainly we were never as fast this weekend as the 20 was,” Busch said after earning his eighth top 10 finish at NHMS. “They just had a special car. Sometimes you unload with them, and they’re just phenomenal. The 20 had that here this weekend. We tried everything to try to keep up with him and to get pace with him, but it was tough to do.”

Busch started the day 12th but didn’t make solid gains on his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota until late in the Sylvania 300. As the race wound down into it’s final quarter Busch started coming towards the front. Gaining positions on pit road and restarts until finally finding the top five. Except, by the time he had started to chop into Kenseth’s lead it was too late.

“The guys did a great job of working on it for me and getting me better each and every run. I felt like we were making gains. And track position is certainly important, too,” said Busch. “A little tough to pass, but that’s been the name of the game here at Loudon for years.”

Competing with Kenseth, who signed with the team in the offseason and has won a series and career best seven times in 2013, is keeping Busch on his toes. Forcing everything out of him, which might not be enough either. He called Kenseth one of the best, which is why he was hired. Putting him in JGR equipment, with a smart crew chief, isn’t surprising for Busch that he’s putting it all together.

“I don’t think you do anything differently than you’ve done all year long. I think the organization is going to give the equipment to both of us. I don’t think any one of us is going to get better stuff,” Busch said about how the rest of the Chase will play out. “It’s just going to come down to better communication between myself and the crew chief because those are certainly the ways that you win these things.”

Kenseth, Busch felt, lucked into the win last weekend because he didn’t get a good enough restart late in the race to keep up with him. As for the other side of the teammate competition, Kenseth complimented the younger driver as being the most talented in the sport. Explaining how tough it is to race him because you can’t make many mistakes and Sunday Kenseth didn’t want Busch to get any closer. To his seven wins, Busch has four on the season.

The Chase is a whole different animal, something Busch knows about. He’s entered as the favorite as well as the top seed and has missed the postseason before. Two races is still early in terms of setting a clear picture of who will and won’t be fighting for the championship at Homestead, but Busch holds a steady gap on the field behind him with two top three finishes.

“It’s early. I mean, it’s week two,” Busch noted. “Certainly it’s nice to get a strong start. There’s no doubt about it. You’d rather finish first both weeks than 43rd and get yourself up there and get a strong foundation built to where you can continue on down the road and maybe not have so much pressure on yourself to have to perform to catch up.

“But that’s good that we’re both up there like that, that we’re able to do that and that we’re pushing each other hard and that we’re pushing the competition as well, too.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Logano Still Hoping to Defy the Odds

By Kelly Crandall (LOUDON, N.H.) – After fighting to make the Chase, then fighting to defend his spot in it, Joey Logano enters today’s Sylvania 300 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in an up hill battle if he wants to win his first career championship.

Logano carries the banner for Penske Racing in 2013 after defending champion and teammate Brad Keselowski failed to make NASCAR’s postseason. Logano in his fifth full year in the NSCS holds a spot for the first time, doing so with a team full of confidence and belief they had just a good a shot as the rest of the field. But after a blown engine and 37th place finish a week ago, that excitement was lessened.

“It changes the way you look at the race now because before we had a lot to lose and a lot to gain. Now we still have a little bit to lose, but we have a lot more to gain than we have to lose right now, so we can be a little more aggressive,” said Logano after qualifying where he clocked in sixth fastest.

“After every race we have to take a step back and look at what our point situation is and how we’re gonna attack the next race. That’s what we’ve been doing all year to get ourselves into the Chase. We had a fight like that and fight from behind all year and we’ll just have to keep doing that.”

Logano had led the first 32 laps of last weekend’s race in Chicago after starting on pole. The poor finish however, dropped him to 12th in points and over 50 points behind Matt Kenseth, who went on to win the race.

The Shell / Pennzoil team have been climbing up hill all year which makes this familiar territory. Logano started off strong with his new organization but penalties and then back-to-back 40th place finishes in Daytona and here in New Hampshire, put them 18th in points. But a pole and dominating win in Michigan brought attention back with talk of a potential wild card spot.

Last Sunday Logano had just as strong a car until it expired. Making it the Chase opening race didn’t help matters.

“It’s unfortunate when something like that happens because we had a really fast race car last week, one that I felt like could have won the race, and instead we came home with a thirty-something place finish and that part is just really hard, but it happens,” Logano said. “That’s what our sport is – you have to rely on a lot of things and sometimes you have a mechanical issue like that and the guy who wins the championship usually doesn’t have that, but that’s not to say we can’t come back.”

Weather will be a factor today as rain moved in late Saturday night and left the area water logged. The radar however, is promising that the race will be run. Logano is no stranger to rain in Loudon; he won his first career race at New Hampshire in 2009 when the race was called after halfway. Another win on Sunday would come at just the right time.

“This team is strong. We’ve been digging out of a hole all year and every time we get our head just above water, we get pulled back under again and we keep fighting to get back up,” he said.

“We’ll be fine. I’m not worried about it. I feel like we still could win this thing, but if there was a mulligan, that took it away.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Montoya Excited About Golden Opportunity with Team Penske

By Kelly Crandall – Juan Pablo Montoya hasn’t sat in an IndyCar in almost 13 years, but when the opportunity presented itself to return to his bread and butter, Montoya was like a kid on Christmas.

Nine weeks from now Montoya’s NASCAR career, for the moment, will be over. Earlier this week Team Penske announced the Colombian will join their IndyCar program for the full 2014 schedule. He’ll drive the team’s No. 2 entry and be teammates with current drivers Will Power and point leader Helio Castroneves.

“I was looking at all the choices and everything and when I started talking to Roger [Penske] about it, to tell you the truth, it was a no brainer for me,” Montoya said on Friday at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “It’s something I’ve always loved, open wheel background and everything. I had seven great years here and we’ve still got nine more races with the Target car this year. But you know, when you got a chance to run for Roger, I wouldn’t turn that down.”

Montoya revealed he had all but officially signed with the 78 team of Furniture Row Racing, who’s also looking for a driver as Kurt Busch departs at season’s end. Montoya was notified earlier this year that Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing would not be renewing his contract with Kyle Larson taking over the No. 42 beginning next season. The FRR car is one of the best available out there, until something unexpected came out of nowhere for Montoya.

“I was talking to the guys at the 78 and they’re great people and they work really hard and I think they got a really good team and everything,” Montoya said about how things were progressing.

“There were few conversations with Roger and Tim [Cindric] about [IndyCar] but they were pretty casual and then they called me and said can you come up, I said yeah and that was it.”

His departure from NASCAR after seven years and two career wins to date, is met with nothing but praise from his competitors. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon said on Friday that he has much respect for Montoya and has enjoyed racing with him. But the next nine weeks for Montoya will be more than just a farewell party, he fully intends on winning and closing out his tenure with EGR on a high note.

His two wins came on a road course and he hasn’t hidden the fact that he desperately wants an oval win. It wouldn’t necessarily mean he would leave NASCAR with unfinished business if he doesn’t get one but his hopes are high over the next nine weeks that he can deliver for Chip Ganassi, whom he calls a great friend. And Montoya says Ganassi appeared genuinely happy when hearing he would be leaving for his IndyCar opposition.

It will make things “more interesting and fun next year,” Montoya said as well as a steep learning curve. After finally getting comfortable in stock cars Montoya heads back in open wheel where changes have been plenty. He knows he’ll be make mistakes when he first gets there, but is looking at Power as his teacher notably with the push to pass button, something he’s not familiar with. As a driver that’s adapted his whole motorsports career, when asked to make a change again Montoya never hesitated.

“No, no. It’s something I wanted to do. I’ve been lucky enough to race for Chip in IndyCar, that is one of the best teams out there,” said Montoya.

“I’ve run for big teams and the only one on the list that I haven’t run that I felt like I always wanted to do was Roger. If I can get some wins for him next year I’ll be really excited.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth Not Yet the Favorite

By Matt Weaver – Matt Kenseth avoided one of the biggest concerns for any Chase top seed, spanking the field on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway en route to extending his championship lead over Kyle Busch at the start of NASCAR’s playoff.

It’s a sign that Kenseth is hitting on all cylinders following an extraordinary five-win regular season. It’s also forcing the rest of the field to look at the places where they may have to play catch-up. This weekend’s race at New Hampshire is potentially one such venue.

Despite his vast accomplishments, Kenseth may face his kryptonite in the shorter flat tracks like New Hampshire and Phoenix.

The Loudon short track has been uncompromising to the championship leader as Kenseth has failed to win in 27 attempts. In fact, he’s only scored 12 top-10s and averaged just a 14.0 finish in Loudon. It’s one of the primary reasons that Kenseth doesn’t see himself as the favorite with nine races remaining.

“I think it’s too early to really pick favorites,” Kenseth said on Tuesday. “I think there’s a ton of competition. When you look at the finishing positions last Sunday, 10 of the top 12 were all drivers in the Chase.

“You’re going to have to run really good every week to be able to beat that, because they’re in the Chase for a reason – because they’ve been the best-running cars all year. You’re going to try to figure out how to beat all of them and they’re all going to be really tough.”

While Kenseth has struggled at New Hampshire, Jimmie Johnson has dominated.

His consistency has been stellar, averaging a 7.8 finish over the past six seasons.  Fellow Chasers Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon have had equal amounts of success, all having won at the Speedway and routinely finishing near the top-10.

So the start to Kenseth’s playoff was impressive but he’s not yet the favorite. Sunday will go a long way to determining who actually is.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

MWR Loses Major Sponsor as Richmond Fallout Continues

By Kelly Crandall – Michael Waltrip Racing was dealt another blow on Thursday as a result of the Richmond scandal when sponsor NAPA Auto Parts announced they would not return to the organization following the 2013 season.

NAPA announced the news on their Facebook page this morning, nearly two weeks after the incident.

“After thorough considerations, NAPA has made the difficult decision to end its sponsorship arrangement with Michael Waltrip Racing effective December 31, 2013,” the statement said. “NAPA believes in fair play and does not condone actions such as those that led to the penalties assessed by NASCAR. We remain supportive of the millions of the NASCAR fans and will evaluate our further position in motorsports.”

NAPA has been the primary sponsor for Martin Truex Jr. since he joined the company in 2010. They’ve been a staple in the sport as they’ve appeared on the No. 56 car for every race but have been associated with team owner Michael Waltrip for much longer. The 13-year partnership now comes to a close under difficult circumstances.

“NAPA has been with me from winning two Daytona 500s, to missing races with a new start-up team, and back to Victory Lane again,” Waltrip said in his own statement. “The relationship grew far past that of just a sponsor, but more of a partner and a friend. We will not be racing a NAPA car in 2014, but I have friendships that will last a lifetime.

“To the fans and those who made their voice heard through social media, as the owner, I am responsible for all actions of MWR. I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond. NASCAR met with the competitors in Chicago and we all know how we are expected to race forward.”

Truex appeared to have made the Chase for MWR and NAPA in Richmond before NASCAR determined that MWR had manipulated the outcome of the race. Teammate Clint Bowyer appeared to have intentionally spun while Brian Vickers along with his team made questionable decisions with suspicious radio communications.

NASCAR penalized the team two days later, indefinitely suspending general manager Ty Norris, fining the company $300,000 and penalizing all three cars 50 owner / driver points. The penalty took Truex out of the Chase and moved Ryan Newman into the final wild card spot. Truex appears to have been faultless and is now 17th in points.

As for MWR, they’ll move forward with their three teams. However Bowyer’s sponsors, 5-Hour ENERGY has said they are also internally reviewing their sponsorship relations. Bowyer is the only MWR car in the 2013 Chase. He’s ninth in points with nine races remaining.

In a statement after NAPA’s announcement MWR said, “Michael Waltrip Racing respects the decision NAPA announced today following the events at Richmond. There is no doubt, the story of Michael Waltrip Racing beings with NAPA Auto Parts, but there are many more chapters yet to be written. MWR has the infrastructure and support of Toyota for three teams plus three Chase-caliber, race winning drivers. With the support of our corporate partners we are preparing to field three teams in 2014. MWR is a resilient organization capable of winning races and competing for the championship and that remains our sole focus.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Adversity is Like the SEC?

By Matt Weaver – Kurt Busch made a college football analogy to describe overcoming adversity in the Chase for the Championship on Tuesday afternoon.

When speaking of the sizable gap Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano dug for themselves on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the older Busch said that their chances are pretty bleak unless everyone else in the Chase has similar luck at least once over the next nine weeks.

“A lot of us in the South love SEC football,” Busch said during a Tuesday teleconference. “And every one of us has a team that we would root for. If you find yourself early in the season with one loss, your hope is that the other groups of guys beat up on each other and everybody has got that one loss.

“When that happens, then you have a legitimate shot at getting back in this for a championship run. So until everybody has one loss or one big moment, no, there’s no way they can overcome that.”

The challenge ahead for Logano and Earnhardt is pretty steep.

Both drivers suffered an engine failure on Sunday night at Chicagoland and sit at 52 and 53 points behind leader Matt Kenseth respectively. It’s especially difficult to overcome because 48 points is the most a driver can earn in a single race and both drivers have not proven themselves capable of winning multiple races this season either.

The duo are now hoping to replicate the championship run achieved by the Alabama football last season, when the Crimson Tide lost to Texas A&M in November but lucked back into championship contention when both frontrunners — Kansas State and Oregon — lost in the penultimate week of the regular season.

Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson occupy the K-State and Oregon roles and Logano and Earnhardt — possible Alabama’s — need some luck during the Chase of their own to get back into championship conversation.

“The problem is that it’s only 10 races and that makes it hard,” Logano said after the race on Sunday. “This team has shown how good we are. It’s always a bummer when you have a mechanical failure like that when you can’t really do much about it…

“It is a tough break for this team. We are strong. We have battled through a lot of adversity this year and we will keep doing it.”

Earnhardt wasn’t as confident after the race.

“The average finish is going to be inside the top-10 to win the championship,” Earnhardt said. “So you can do the numbers, you can do the math.”

The Chase standings entering this weekend’s New Hampshire race can be found below:

1.) Matt Kenseth Ldr.

2.) Kyle Busch -8

3.) Jimmie Johnson -11

4.) Kevin Harvick -15

5.) Carl Edwards -23

6.) Kurt Busch -23

7.) Jeff Gordon -24

8.) Ryan Newman -28

9.) Clint Bowyer -28

10.) Kasey Kahne -31

11.) Greg Biffle -31

12.) Joey Logano -52

13.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. -53

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Going Through Changes: 2014 Cup Schedule Could Hold Surprises

By Vito Pugliese – While the rest of the racing world is still atwitter (and on Twitter) regarding last week’s onslaught of accusations and unprecedented action by NASCAR adding Ryan Newman in the mix, booting out Martin Truex, Jr., and then inserting Jeff Gordon as the 13th driver of the Chase field. This coupled with a change to the restart rules and a directive to give 100% all the time (still trying to figure out how that applies to a series with 600 mile races and fuel mileage decisions), and a 5-hour energy draining rain delay at Chicagoland Speedway it was a carpal-tunnel inducing week for everyone involved in motorsports media.

This week, there are some new equally earth-moving potentially happenings in 2014, with regards to the yet to be released Sprint Cup Series schedule, as originally reported by Mike Mulhern.

As has been the site of the season finale since 2002, Homestead-Miami Speedway may no longer be the site of Ford Championship Weekend for NASCAR’s touring series, or a Chase race. It may possibly replace Phoenix as the second race of the season – which would make sense to have the teams travel a few hours south, versus a two day trek across the country after spending half a month on the beach. Phoenix could replace Homestead which would be interesting – particularly given the shenanigans that occurred there last season between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer.

While it is still a rumor only, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin may become the third road course on the schedule. Some left-turn only fans might be hard pressed to admit it, but road courses have become the new short tracks of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Schedule. Over the past five years, some of the most controversial, crazy, and best races have been road course events. From Robby Gordon and Marcos Ambrose in Montreal, Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Brad Keselowski versus Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose at The Glen, and Jacques Villeneuve….well, being Jacques Villeneuve, they usually end with somebody mad, guys scrappin’ in the pits, or in the case of Mike Skeen, their ladies going after drivers too.

Forget the Formula One/wine-and-cheese crowd comparisons: these things have been more South Boston than Sau Palo.

Continuing the right/left theme, Sonoma may also be added as a Chase race to the schedule. This would help serve to have some exposure in the world’s sixth-largest economy, as well as add a road course in the Chase, so all disciplines within NASCAR are represented in the 10 race playoff format. Since Auto Club Speedway stopped attracting spectators and offered up competition that rivaled Ambien without the fun side-effects, it lost its Chase spot, and now runs one spring event – which naturally, has now produced some amazing racing and wild finishes the past few years.

Of all the changes rumored, perhaps the most noteworthy and one that traditionalists will smile on, is Darlington may once again be ran on Labor Day weekend, returning the Southern 500 to its roots. NASCAR’s original speedway had lost its Southern 500 slot in 2004, which went to Fontana – as anyone will tell you is nowhere near Florence. It would still likely be a night race, as appealing as it is sitting elbow to elbow with fellow race fans on a humid 95-degree day alongside a ribbon of asphalt. Atlanta could then be run on Mother’s Day weekend, which would help that track as well – which has struggled as well with filling the stands on a holiday weekend.

For a series that typically tweaks the schedule once every few years, any of these updates would be considered sweeping, and I feel a boon to the sport on a number of levels. NASCAR has made great strides and efforts the past few years to address concerns regarding the appearance of the cars and product on the track. The Generation 6 car has worked its way through some of the early teething problems, and has steadily improved as the season has progressed. Addressing the integrity of the sport was needed after the events in the closing laps at Richmond, putting those in charge in the unenviable position of having to make difficult decisions which would incur the wrath of fans who support one driver or another.

What more could be done to the schedule? I’ve long had a laundry list of requests, although those above had addressed a few. Here’s some more food for thought on what could be changed going forward:

– A week off after the Daytona 500. After two weeks of being away from home, give the guys who build these things a break.

– Date deletion. Basic economics: scarcity of product increases demand. Things seemed to work the best when there were 30-32 races a year. Leave them wanting more and don’t over-saturate the market. Besides – less races, less money needed, more sponsors willing to contribute. Of note, Dover may potentially lose its current Spring date.

– Return the July Daytona race to an 11:00am start time. Never really cared for a night super speedway race, and those at home can catch the race and still enjoy the holiday festivities away from a television. Besides, if it rains, gives you another half a day to work with.

– Watkins Glen ran in the fall and becomes the road course chase race. Nothing would look cooler than seeing the field streak through the esses with a firey backdrop of orange and yellow foliage. Potential downside: cars would require deer whistles.

– Season finale at Charlotte. It’s the hub of the sport, a night race, and one of the greatest showplaces on the circuit. Besides, have you seen the Panthers act this year so far? No worries on competing for attention regardless if you run it on Saturday or Sunday…

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Power Rankings: The Fast Fifteen

One of the strangest weeks in NASCAR history saw the outbreak of a cheating scandal, the Chase for the Championship altered and redefined twice, all before the tour got back to racing with Matt Kenseth picking up his sixth victory of the season.

The trip to Victory Lane cemented his standing as the playoff’s number one seed and also saw him ascend to the top spot in this week’s Fast 15 Power Rankings. The updated list, which ranks drivers from all three national tours, can be found below.

1.) Matt Kenseth (LW: 3)

The 2003 Sprint Cup champion entered the Chase as the number one seed and backed it up on Sunday, dominating the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway before and after the rain delay. His sixth win of the season is the most he’s ever had in a single season and he’s doing it in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. Impressive.

2.) Kyle Busch (LW: 6)

Despite his longstanding history of autumn slumps, Kyle Busch entered this year’s Chase looking like a man intent and capable of winning his first Sprint Cup championship. He didn’t win on Sunday but finished second and held his own against six championships between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.

3.) Jimmie Johnson (LW: 4)

Despite four finishes in a row outside the top-30 leading up to the first Chase race, the five-time Cup champions turned it around as soon as the playoffs began, finishing fifth at Chicagoland. Did you expect anything less?

4.) Kurt Busch (LW: 1)

Furniture Row is the single-car team that could and keeps doing as Kurt Busch opened his bid for a second championship with a fourth-place run at Chicago. The 2004 champion is just 23 points out of first place with still nine races remaining.

5.) Kevin Harvick (LW: 5)

It’s a cliché at this point but Kevin Harvick really does just come out of nowhere when it matters most. He finished third on Sunday to start his final Chase with Richard Childress Racing and he may have a legitimate gripe that he should have been the leader on the final restart.

6.) Jeff Gordon (LW: 8)

The most controversial Chase entrant in the decade-long history of the format responded to criticism that he didn’t belong by leading laps, coming back from a flat tire and losing a lap, all to finish sixth at Chicagoland. Count out the four-time champion at your own peril.

7.) Clint Bowyer (LW: 10)

Despite storming away from the media following Sunday’s race, Clint Bowyer should feel pretty confident in his ninth-place showing. He leaves the first race of the Chase ninth in the standings, 28 points out of the lead.

8.) Carl Edwards (LW: 2)

An 11th-place finish was a somewhat disappointing showing given the momentum from his Richmond victory. It wasn’t a mulligan either. Just a day.

9.) Ryan Newman (LW: 7)

Placed in the Chase following the “Spingate” debacle, Ryan Newman opened his championship bid with a 10th-place result. Solid.

10.) Kasey Kahne (LW: 12)

Happy to finish P12 after getting stuck deep in the field for most of the race.

11.) Brad Keselowski (LW: 15)

The defending champion rebounded from missing the Chase with a seventh-place finish at Chicagoland. He was the best finishing non-Chaser, a status he hopes to hold for the rest of the season in advance of a title run in 2014.

12.) Juan Pablo Montoya (LW: NR)

It’s been a heck of a week for JPM. His Sprint Cup drive on Sunday ended with a cut tire and a battered race car. But it was offset by the announcement that he would return to IndyCar next season with the high-powered Team Penske operation.

13.) Sam Hornish Jr. (LW: NR)

Hornish is slowly but surely pulling away from his closest Nationwide Series championship rivals, 17 over Austin Dillon and 36 over Regan Smith.

14.) Joey Logano (LW: 9)

All the momentum gained prior to the Chase came crumbling down in one race as the Chicagoland pole-sitter dropped an engine late in the GEICO 400 and will enter the second race of the Chase 12th in the standings and 52 points behind leader Kenseth. It’s going to take a momentous comeback to even get back into the discussion.

15.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 12)

The most logical way for Earnhardt Jr. to have contended for a championship was going to be continued consistency and hoping to pick up at least one win during the final 10. Now at 53 points back, Earnhardt needs multiple wins and some good luck. That may be too much to ask given that no one has come back to win the championship after leaving the first race in dead last.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

As Kurt Busch Grew so Did the Positive Perception

By Kelly Crandall – Perhaps for the first time in a very long time, things are going well for Kurt Busch.

The 35-year-old Las Vegas native has found relevance again in NASCAR’s top series. More importantly, it’s positive relevance. For Busch, the last three years have played out like a horror movie in front of millions – firings to suspension and public blow-ups – but now, the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion is a sympathetic underdog.

“It’s going great, just success on the racetrack is one thing and getting your priorities in life in order is another thing,” Busch said when asked on Tuesday afternoon if he was back and felt comfortable in his own skin. “Sometimes you have to take a step back to make two steps forward.”

Busch and Furniture Row Racing are the only single car team in NASCAR history to make the Chase, a tremendous accomplishment for the young team as well as a big personal one for Busch, who returns to the postseason for the first time since 2011. Now though, he does so with much more support than he’s had in years past.

First those around him, like girlfriend Patricia Driscoll and her eight-year-old son Houston. Both of which Busch acknowledged after making the Chase in Richmond. Driscoll is President of the Armed Forces Foundation and along with Busch, have brought more attention to supporting injured troops and their families. And it’s here that’s helped Busch in more ways than one.

“The number one thing, I’m not looking for attention or recognition. It’s just the work with the military, and seeing men and women who are in uniform and coming up and shaking my hand or giving Patricia a hug,” Busch said.

“It means a lot, and she says that she’s never seen this type of reaction, where people are genuinely going out of their way to say thank you. It means that we’re making a difference and we’re helping our military families who have sacrificed so much and served our country that they want to come to the racetrack and be part of the NASCAR Troops to the Track program as well as if they’re just a fan and they’re a military member they come up because they’re seeing that Patricia’s foundation is making a difference.”

And it made a difference on track. It was through the foundation Busch was able to run special paint schemes like Talladega Nights and Days of Thunder. He didn’t just drive those cars; he imitated Ricky Bobby and Cole Trickle. He became those characters and in the process Busch became liked.

Because finally through James Finch and Furniture Row the humbled, hard working and bare-knuckled driver began to resurface.

“Well, it’s been a long journey, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I chose to settle into this program with working with Phoenix Racing and finding that genuine fun of what it meant to go back to the racetrack because of all the distractions, requirements and monotonous things and situations that kept developing with a big team like at Penske Racing,” Busch revealed. “So it was great to get a breath of fresh air, roll up my sleeves blue-collar style and work with the guys, and then to do the same thing with the Furniture Row group who’s a step up from where that Phoenix Racing team was and then to try to get the results side of it back, and we’ve done that.

“It’s been neat to have those small goals set forth, and then to achieve those goals, and then to set new ones.”

Having fun is a fundamental, a back to basics. Racing is fun for more than just the fans who hang onto their seats, but he drivers who make it happen. Except when it’s not anymore and after struggling with that for so long, Busch has found it again. He’s gone from radio sweetheart, which isn’t the compliment it sounds, to the Outlaw.

An accepted Outlaw by fans who have come to respect a driver that has a determination and will to win unmatched perhaps only by his little brother. Fans who even though they’ve been die-hards of others can’t seem to turn away from a redemption story.

As he’s done so, those who once criticized his every move are now openly rooting for his rise back to the top.

“Ultimately we want to be in Victory Lane and making the Chase was a great feather in the cap, and it’s been nice road back,” said Busch. “And all along though, it’s been about having fun and working with the crew guys and letting a story be told without people’s visceral opinions changing the way that things are really actually unfolding.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Restart Rule Change Gets Positive Reviews

By Kelly Crandall – Hours before Sunday’s first race of the Chase, the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland, NASCAR announced one more change during the driver’s meeting concerning a new policy for restarts.

Per NASCAR, the leader still has control of the restarts in the designated areas marked on the track. However, once the leader gets going the second place driver is now allowed to beat the leader to the start/finish line. For NASCAR, it’s about not having to police restarts as closely and leaving things in the hands of the drivers.

Sunday the new rules were already in effect. Following the race’s first caution and subsequent pit stop, new leader Jimmie Johnson lined up on the outside for the restart with second place Kyle Busch on the inside. Johnson restarted the race but Busch beat him to the line. As part of the new change, Busch was credited with leading the lap even if the race was still technically under caution.

“I thought restarts were good. Jimmie had enough of a draft on me he was still able to prevail through one and two,” Busch said after his second place finish. “I thought the restarts were fine.”

Every restart through the 400-mile event went smooth, even after the rule change was met with mixed reaction from drivers. Some in favor of the leniency, others like Mark Martin fearing that it would create more gamesmanship.

Kevin Harvick, who finished third, never got a chance to restart on the front row but gave Matt Kenseth the winning push on the final restart.

“I think everybody can be a little bit more aggressive as you saw at the end, not worrying about shoving the other guy in front,” he said. “I think when the green flag goes, you just start going and make a decision as to whether you want to go low or push the guy in front of you. As you saw at the end with Matt, I was able to be really aggressive on that restart and keep shoving him.”

The change comes after season long controversy, including last weekend in Richmond. No, not the Chase chaos but when Carl Edwards beat leader Paul Menard to the line on the final restart of the race and went on to the win. And Johnson has had his own share of problems throughout the season.

A potential win was taken away at Dover when NASCAR deemed he jumped the restart on leader Juan Pablo Montoya. Then in Kentucky he spun himself out in turn one after which he felt Kenseth slowed down the restart. And then there was Michigan, in which he claimed he almost got wrecked because he had to back down in order to not beat teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the line.

Elliott Sadler last year in the Indianapolis Nationwide Series race a win was taken away when NASCAR penalized him for beating the leader to the line. However Sadler had been pushed by Austin Dillon who was lined up behind him. Heartbreaking a year ago, it’d be legal this time around.

And Brian Scott who was looking for racing perfection last weekend at Richmond felt he was robbed on two final restarts by Brad Keselowski.

Things have been tough for NASCAR recently with many continually calling for restart changes. As well as offering ideas on what the procedure should be, the most suggested being that the flagman start and restart the race.

But for Kenseth who won on Sunday for the sixth time in 2013, the change is just right.

“I think sometimes you have things that are so simple like that, that you never really think of. I think once they said it, you walked away from there, at least for me, and I thought about it for an hour or so, I was like, ‘Why didn’t we do that a long time ago?’” he said.

“From the restart box to the start/finish line, there’s a lot of things that can happen. As long as they police the leader, gets on the gas to go, as long as he does that first, he’s ahead of the second place car, then it’s a good idea to race to the line.”

Through its first race, there were no complaints from drivers on the new rule, most agreeing that they felt just like restarts had always been.

“You’ve seen all kinds of different situations this year where the leader took off first, but then he spun the tires real bad, the second car starts beating them, the second car would have to let off the gas, they would go three-wide,” said Kenseth.

“Once, I don’t remember where it was, you come out of turn two in sixth place. I think it’s a good call, actually makes a lot of sense. It will take away a lot of NASCAR having to decide, ‘is that too much? Did he give it back? Didn’t he?’ It’s easy: as long as he moves first, as long as you stay in your line like it used to be, it’s a good restart.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall