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NASCAR Cup Series

Did Jimmie Johnson Just Start Another Dynasty?

By Jerry Bonkowski – Having covered the Chicago Bulls’ run to six NBA championships – a pair of three-straight titles from 1991-93 and again from 1996-98 – I’m well indoctrinated to sports dynasties.

Ditto for having covered each of Jimmie Johnson’s five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.

But one thing struck me Sunday after Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship in eight years, and something that very few media outlets contemplated.

Is JJ about ready to begin a new dynasty?

Think about it:

Had he not fallen short in 2011 and 2012, Sunday would have been Johnson’s eighth Cup championship and would have broken the record of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

Petty and Earnhardt spaced out their championship seasons much more than Johnson did. To win six times in eight seasons is an incomparable feat never before seen in NASCAR annals.

But as incomparable as that feat is, who’s to say Johnson can’t go on to win another two, three or even four more championships in a row to complement Sunday’s crown?

I mean, we could revisit this argument five years from now and be talking about how Johnson just wrapped up his second run of five straight Cup championships?

I admit, when Johnson was en route to his first five straight, I had my reservations about his prowess and, at times, conceded to some of the leading fan criticisms about him and crew chief Chad Knaus.

There were all the past penalties and suspensions for Knaus for pushing the envelope, if not supposed outright cheating.

There was all the criticism of Johnson’s so-called overly vanilla personality, that he was too clean, too much of an All-American boy. Or, as former NFL player Donovan McNabb last week became the latest ex-jock to claim Johnson like most other NASCAR drivers aren’t even worthy of being considered true athletes like their counterparts in stick and ball sports.

There was other criticism that Johnson excelled at 1.5-mile tracks (of which there are five in the Chase), not to mention accusations that the 10-race Chase was set up with tracks that favored Johnson above everyone else.

Those all may or may not have been true at one point in time or other, but I’m here to say I have changed my ways, Ebenezer.

You can’t ignore the fact that Johnson has won six championships in 435 career starts, 241 less races than it took Earnhardt to win seven titles, and nearly 750 races less than Petty competed in to capture his own seven crowns (not to mention 200 wins).

Pound for pound, race for race, season for season and championship for championship, Johnson is beyond compare. I would have said that with gritted teeth a few years ago, but not any more.

Rather, I consider it a privilege that I, along with millions of others, am playing witness to one of the most incredible feats in sports history. Johnson has become to NASCAR what the New York Yankees once were to Major League Baseball, what the Boston Celtics once were to the NBA and what the Montreal Canadiens used to be to the NHL, namely dominators.

Johnson is indeed a dominator unto himself. Sure, he has a great crew chief in Knaus and an exceptionally talented pit crew, but it’s the guy behind the wheel that drives the car to wins and championships.

If you are still reluctant to believe what I’m offering, let’s say for argument’s sake that Johnson on Sunday indeed just kicked off another dynasty like the one he previously had from 2006-10.

One year from now, he potentially can tie Petty and Earnhardt for most championships.

Two years from now, he potentially could become the driver with the most championships in NASCAR history, plain and simple.

And if he somehow is able to maintain his Midas-like touch, by 2017, we could be talking about Johnson’s record-extending 10th Cup championship.

It’s scary to think that someone could be that good, but it truly is a very realistic possibility.

Coming into this season, I didn’t think Johnson would win the championship. In fact, I felt like many others that his run in the sun was over after 2010, that he’d never win another Cup title.

Now that I have eaten crow for my foolishness, I don’t see anything standing in Johnson’s way or stopping him from equaling what he did from 2006 through 2010.

He’s that good.

Heck, after what he showed us this past season, capped off with Sunday’s crowning achievement, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson went on to win the next 10 straight Cup championships.

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Editorial

Why Trevor Bayne Can and Will Get the Better of MS

By Jerry Bonkowski – It has happened yet again, living proof of the old adage, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Indeed, why does someone like Trevor Bayne, one of the most friendliest, honest, cleanest living, pious and inspirational young men you’d ever want to meet, and with a long life still ahead of him, now have to carry the added burden of being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis?

It’s not fair, no way, no how.

Bayne is arguably one of the brightest role models in the NASCAR world, an example of what determination, clean living and outstanding talent can do.

A lot of veteran NASCAR drivers today could take a few lessons in humility and good sportsmanship from Bayne.

To be told you have a disease like MS is earth stopping, if not earth shattering – particularly when you’re only 22 years old, as Bayne is.

But at the same time, Bayne comes from strong Tennessee stock, with a solid foundation of faith and good parentage that raised him the right way.

He’ll get through this.

The question, however, is for how long? Even though he admitted Tuesday that he’s not on medication, it’s likely that sooner or later he’ll have to start doing so.

And as time and his racing career goes on, further symptoms are likely to manifest themselves, potentially shortening what likely would have been a much longer career behind the wheel.

Thankfully, Bayne appears to have a great medical staff that will do everything possible to keep him healthy, hearty and productive.

And with his youth comes the hope that medical science will continue working on further treatments to further attack MS, if not eventually cure the world of it.

If there’s one good thing about Bayne having MS, it’s that the symptoms were caught early and treatment – when needed – can help delay onset of further, more harmful symptoms.

That’s why we shouldn’t dwell too much on the negative of Bayne’s condition. He’s certainly not; he’s going forward to keep his racing career on track and won’t let MS deviate his path.

There’s also no need to hold any type of tag day or the like for Bayne. Numerous celebrities have been diagnosed with MS and have gone on to have productive lives and careers.

Among those: Country music star Clay Walker, actor Jack Osbourne (son of rock legend Ozzy), actress Teri Garr, Ann Romney (wife of 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt), Montel Williams, Alan Osmond (of the Osmond Brothers), late comedian Richard Pryor and late actress Annette Funicello.

If there’s one good thing about MS, its degenerative nature is oftentimes very slow. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part it’s a process that is extrapolated over a number of years, if not decades.

Bayne has a lot of things going for him in his fight. He has youth, a strong family base, his faith, a sport that thinks highly of him, a strong competitive spirit that is as eager to win on the racetrack as it now is in the race to remain in good health, and most importantly, a positive spirit that could be the biggest asset of all that he has – and needs – in this battle.

Don’t believe that? Bayne’s words in Tuesday’s announcement speak volumes of his positivity and optimism:

“I’ve never been more driven to compete,” said Bayne. “My goals are the same as they’ve been since I started racing. I want to compete at the highest level and I want to win races and championships.

“I am in the best shape I’ve ever been in and I feel good. There are currently no symptoms and I’m committed to continuing to take the best care of my body as possible. I will continue to trust God daily and know that His plan for me is what is best.

“I have a great team, a great family and great people all around me. I have been truly blessed in life and I look forward to what my future holds.”

Bayne, of course, will forever be known for his unlikely yet inspirational victory in the 2011 Daytona 500, one day after his 20th birthday, making him the youngest winner in the history of the Great American Race.

That has unquestionably been the biggest moment of his racing career and life up to now by far.

But knowing the kind of person the Knoxville, Tenn., native is and the strong will he possesses, I have every reason to believe that he truly will indeed go on to win more races and the championships he vows to win in his career.

Those are his priorities – and he has them in the right place – because there’s a lot more he wants and needs to do as a driver, a man and a role model.

The hell with MS. It’s going to have to wait a long, long time before it can have its mitts on Bayne.

Categories
XFINITY

Pastrana’s Decision to Leave NASCAR Took Guts and Honesty

By Jerry Bonkowski – Having covered professional sports for over 30 years, I’ve seen more than my share of athletes that hung around too long in their careers.

I’ve also seen athletes that came and went and probably should never have come in the first place.

But it’s rare that an athlete comes into a sport, gives it his best shot and then says, “Thanks, but I realize this just isn’t for me.”

What Travis Pastrana did on Monday, announcing that he will not be returning to NASCAR due to lack of sponsorship for 2014 and overall lack of success and performance took guts.

And I mean that in the best way possible.

The king of the extreme sports world realized that this whole NASCAR thing, while exciting and extreme in its own way, just was something he couldn’t do any more.

I have to give credit to Pastrana for knowing it was time to leave while he could, rather than try to fake it and pretend to be something he’s not: he may be one of the greatest extreme sports athletes the world has ever seen, but plain and simple, he’s just not and likely never will be a great NASCAR driver, the kind of driver so many people expected him to become.

He even said so himself:

“I hate to quit and I hate to fail, but sometimes things work out as they should,” Pastrana said in the statement released on his Facebook page. “I’ve never been able to figure out the finesse required in pavement racing and that is disappointing, but I’m looking forward to driving more rally and racing more off-road trucks and there will be some announcements on those fronts shortly!”

There’s no shame in not succeeding in a four-wheel sport that, for all intents and purposes, was a bit foreign to a guy who made much of his previous athletic living on two wheels and other varieties of four-wheel racing.

I commend Pastrana for taking the leap of faith that he could do for NASCAR what he did in extreme sports. He brought a well-known name, a quirky yet refreshing personality and fans into the sport who otherwise wouldn’t have done so had it not been for his surname and past rep in other forms of racing.

Other drivers who likely will never cut it in NASCAR could take a cue from Pastrana’s decision to get out while the getting’s good. He came to realize that four top-10 finishes in 32 races (one ninth-place finish and three 10th-place showings) just wasn’t good enough to continue on.

Pastrana qualified and started each of the first 32 races this season, completing 5,408 of 5,812 laps (93 percent). He led five laps and wound up with an average start of 16.8 and average finish of 21.4. He also failed to finish six times, all due to crashes.

I have to guess that Pastrana spent the last few weeks looking at his track record and came to the conclusion he wasn’t fooling anyone else, and most certainly wasn’t fooling himself, with that kind of performance.

Still, Pastrana deserves a lot of applause for actually going through the process. He came into the sport making no guarantees, other than he’d work hard to learn and do his best whenever he was behind the wheel.

That, my friends, is a man who lived up to his word. Unfortunately, his talent wasn’t able to transcend from off-road or rally or motocross racing to pavement racing.

I also have to give Pastrana credit for deciding it was time to let his wife, Lyn-Z, pursue her own athletic dreams, which she abruptly put on hold to support her husband’s chasing of his NASCAR dream.

While he won’t be back in a NASCAR race car anytime soon, if ever again, I hope Pastrana does not become a stranger and leave the sport completely. He brought in an excitement and curiosity factor that the sport, particularly the Nationwide Series, needed.

I’d hate to see him walk away and totally put stock car racing completely in his rearview mirror. Even if he stops by a few tracks periodically just to hang out and say “hi” to friends and fans he’s made, that would be outstanding.

After reading the statement he made Monday that revealed his decision to end his NASCAR career, I started thinking about whether we’ve seen or heard the last from Pastrana when it comes to competitive racing.

Maybe he couldn’t cut it in NASCAR, but I have to wonder if perhaps Pastrana might one day wind up in the new united sports car series that debuts in 2014 or perhaps even IndyCar.

I mean, he’s only 30 years old. And it’s not an embarrassment not having been able to cut it in NASCAR. Look at guys like Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, Kimi Raikkonen, Patrick Carpentier and soon, Juan Pablo Montoya. They all gave NASCAR a shot, fell short and either moved back to what they did best in their former racing series or ventured off in other directions.

I admit, I’m going to miss Travis. He was a breath of fresh air, most notably when it came to interviewing him in-person.

The biggest thing that always impressed me was in several interviews I had with him, both one-on-one or in group settings, was his honesty. At times, he was so raw in that honesty that I’m sure it probably made some folks at Roush Fenway Racing or some sponsors cringe.

But that’s what made Travis, Travis. He was honest to the media, honest to the fans and, when it came time to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life, he was honest with himself that NASCAR just wasn’t for him.

How can you not admire and like someone like that?

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Penalties Set an Example

By Jerry Bonkowski JOLIET, Ill. – Faced with conclusive evidence, NASCAR did the right thing in assessing the penalties it did to Michael Waltrip Racing and several of its officials and crew chiefs. It also did the right thing by its unprecedented move to put Jeff Gordon into the Chase, making it a 13-driver field for the first time in the 10-year history of the playoffs.

But there’s one thing NASCAR forgot or overlooked: to make a scattered, fragmented Chase whole, they should have reinstated Truex into the Chase and made it a 14-car field this one time.

Why? Truex was as much of a victim in the whole MWR shenanigans as Gordon was indirectly. And if the argument passed muster to put Gordon in the Chase, it should have been the same for Truex.

From everything I’ve seen, read or heard, Truex had no knowledge of the events that took place to get him into the Chase. For lack of a better phraseology, he was simply along for the ride while others attempted to pull a fast one, even if it was to ultimately benefit Truex.

There’s no question the driver of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota drove his butt off the last few weeks to make the Chase – even having to put up with not one, but two broken bones in his hand, suffered in a crash at Bristol a few weeks ago.

The penalties against MWR, the indefinite suspension of general manager Ty Norris, the points penalty against Clint Bowyer and the probation for each of the organization’s three Cup crew chiefs all notwithstanding, Truex should not have been the fall guy for the actions of everyone else that was punished.

Ryan Newman was placed into the Chase when Truex was DQ’d. Gordon was placed into the Chase when shenanigans between Front Row Racing and Penske Racing that all but guaranteed Joey Logano made the Chase came to the fore.

So why not put Truex back in the field, where he rightfully belongs, in my opinion?

Honestly, I’m hoping Truex goes on the run of his career. I’d love nothing better than to see him do what Tony Stewart did in the 2006 Chase, winning three of the playoffs’ 10 races, even though Stewart failed to qualify for that year’s Chase.

Unfortunately, it appears that someone will have to be made an example of, and Truex is forced to play that role – even though he’s the guy who had the least amount of culpability in this whole thing.

In the whole bigger scheme of things, NASCAR officials like Chairman/CEO Brian France, President Mike Helton, Vice President Robin Pemberton and Sprint Cup Series director John Darby, to all their credit, realized they were faced with not only the biggest scandal of the 10-year history of the Chase, but one of the biggest scandals in the 65-year history of the sanctioning body.

It would have been easy for them to look the other way, to sweep it under the rug or try to minimize what was a maximum bone of contention from fans, media and even fellow drivers and crew chiefs.

But instead, France, Helton, et al, stepped forward and did the best they could in a situation where they were damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

The big key is they indeed took action. They did call out drivers and teams that deserved to be called out – and penalized them appropriately. They listened to and heeded the outrage of the fans and media.

For too long, cheating in NASCAR has been unofficially tolerated. Call it what you will – working in the gray area, pushing the envelope or “it ain’t cheatin’ if you ain’t caught” – but there is no room for outright cheating. I don’t mind a little innovation, even working in the gray area to an extent, but when a driver, crew chief or pit crew members intentionally and blatantly break the rules, there’s no place in the sport for that.

France, Helton and the rest of the sport’s top officials are all very intelligent chaps. But for too long, they’ve let drivers and teams police themselves, only to see things happen like what resulted at Richmond.

It’s no secret NASCAR has lost a large number of fans, not to mention seen dramatic drops in at-track attendance and TV viewership ratings over the last six seasons. Sure, some of the blame can be placed on the downturn in the economy in 2007, which has continued to the present, but fan disenchantment has definitely taken an obvious toll.

With what it’s done in the last week, NASCAR has made it clear that if the fans aren’t happy, NASCAR isn’t happy. So going forward, we’re likely going to see a whole new sport with a whole new sanctioning body attitude.

One thing I learned long ago, no one is above NASCAR. The late Dale Earnhardt wasn’t, five-time champ Jimmie Johnson isn’t, and even a legend like Richard Petty still isn’t.

In the most basic terms, it’s become crystal clear in recent days that that if drivers and teams don’t stick to the rules and adhere to the tenets of sportsmanship and fair play – the basic bedrock the sport was founded upon, but somehow seemed to get away from in recent years – NASCAR will make sure they do, one way or other.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Staff Weigh-in on Chase Propositions

Predictions are fun.

They’re fun not because those who make them are often correct — but because they have the chance to be. The Chase for the Championship often plays out like a lottery, making it hard to predict but the staff of Popular Speed gave it their best shot this week and our predictions can be found below.

We tackled everything from the final running order to number of wins it will take to win the Sprint Cup championship. Read our predictions and tell us what we got right or wrong on our Facebook page and on Twitter @PopularSpeed before making a few picks of your own.

We’re going to repost these in November after Homestead. Will it prove us to be brilliant prognosticators or abject fools?

Let us know!

How many races will be won by non-Chasers?

Mike Calinoff – 3

Amanda Ebersole – 4

Jerry Bonkowski – 2

Matt Weaver – 2

Kelly Crandall – 1

Vito Pugliese – 3

Unique Hiram – 3

How many drivers will be mathematically eligible entering Homestead?

Mike – 5

Amanda – 3

Jerry – 4

Matt – 3

Kelly – 3

Vito – 3

Unique – 3

How many points will the champion win by?

Mike – 9

Amanda – 9

Jerry – 27

Matt – 8

Kelly – 10

Vito – 11

Unique – 5

How many races will the champion win during the Chase itself?

Mike – 2

Amanda – 2

Jerry – 3

Matt – 3

Kelly – 2

Vito – 4

Unique – 3

How many DNFs will the champion ultimately have during the final 10 races?

Mike – 0

Amanda – 0

Jerry – 0

Matt – 1

Kelly – 1

Vito – 0

Unique – 0

What is the most important race in the Chase?

Mike – Chicago (Critical to get off to good start, make statement)

Amanda – Talladega (Takes a smart plan, dumb luck to survive inevitable carnage)

Jerry – Texas (Will come down to final four contenders)

Matt – Talladega (Survive the Big One)

Kelly – Martinsville (Crunch time in Chase and could get crunched on the paperclip)

Vito– Martinsville (True contenders don’t fail here)

Unique – Talladega (It’s a chess game and one wrong move can change the face of the Chase)

NewChartChase2

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Why Saturday’s Richmond Race is a Can’t Miss

By Jerry Bonkowski – In the previous nine editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup (nee Nextel Cup), there have some good races in the final qualifying event at Richmond.

Then again, there have been some not-so-good races, as well.

But I don’t think there’s ever been as great a lineup or as many different storylines with so many drivers on the bubble as we have for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400.

Think of it: from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh, 31 points ahead of 10th place) to defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski (15th, 28 points behind 10th), there are nine drivers that will play a four-wheeled game of musical chairs on Saturday.

And of those nine, six will make the Chase and three others won’t.

It doesn’t get much better than this, for sure!

Without question, the guys with the most to lose – and, conversely, practically must have the race of their lives to qualify for the Chase – include Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Keselowski.

It’s no coincidence that none of those four have won a race yet in 2013. And that’s why they’re all in the mess they’re in right now, worrying and fretting and nibbling their nails in angst that they’re going to fall short.

And even though Earnhardt is still 31 points to the good coming into Richmond, one need only look at what’s happened to teammate and points leader Jimmie Johnson in the last few races to see that Earnhardt’s Chase bid is far from secure. Johnson lost 35 points after finishing 40th at Michigan and lost another 25 points after finishing 36th at Bristol.

So if Junior fans think their driver is secure to make the Chase, they may want to reconsider.

In fact, it could be one of the greatest ironies of Chase lore if either of Earnhardt’s other teammates also trying to make the playoffs, Gordon (six points out of 10th) or Kasey Kahne (10 points out of 10th), rally to make the Chase and knock him out in the process.

Gordon took a huge step towards that end by winning the pole Friday.

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the nine drivers vying for those six locked in or wild-card spots are going to be driving like men possessed in Saturday’s race.

In fact, I’m going to go on record and predict that we’re going to see a Talladega-style race Saturday more so than the typical Richmond affair.

In other words, lots of drivers taking crazy chances – much crazier than they’d normally take – to make the playoffs. Ergo, more craziness will likely equal a lot more wrecks than usual, given the significance of this race.

And we know what happens when there lots of wrecks: innocent drivers get caught up in someone else’s mess. All it will take for guys like Earnhardt, Busch, Gordon or Keselowski to wreck – or more importantly, BE WRECKED – early in Saturday’s race and their Chase hopes will quickly be over.

For some reason, I draw a similarity between what may take place Saturday to what happened to Jimmie Johnson in the final two races of last season.

Think about it: Johnson fell too far behind Keselowski and the rest of the field too early at Phoenix, uncharacteristically got flustered, tried to gain back big chunks of ground too quickly – and ultimately wrecked.

Johnson was so far behind the eight ball to begin with going into Phoenix that after pushing too hard, he wound up being behind the nine ball, too.

And then going into the season finale at Homestead, Johnson knew what he had to do and began doing it – only to fall victim to an unexpected and rare mechanical failure that came at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ergo, Keselowski went on to win the championship and Johnson’s day and season ended early.

Saturday’s race at Richmond will be like a microcosm of how those last two races in last year’s Chase played out for Johnson. And therein lies the rub for the nine guys still hoping to have a chance to make this year’s playoffs.

Gordon and Kurt Busch are in the driver’s seats, at least for the first few laps, by virtue of sitting on the front row Saturday. Unless something unexpectedly goes south in a hurry immediately after the race-starting green flag is thrown, it’s a safe bet that they have the best chance on paper to make the Chase going in.

I’m also not totally convinced Earnhardt is going to make it, and likewise for Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.

In fact, when all is said and done, those three drivers could be the three that don’t make it.

If you can’t tell, I’m excited, pumped – use whatever verb or adjective you want – about Saturday’s race. But no matter who makes it, they’ll have fought just a little harder and dug just a little deeper than the three guys that ultimately don’t make it.

For the record, here’s the 12 drivers I see making this year’s Chase:

Given: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

Will earn their way in Saturday: Gordon, Kahne, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman.

Won’t make it: Earnhardt, Keselowski and Truex.

Who do you think will or won’t make it?

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

With Kurt Busch, Will SHR Become NASCAR’s Baddest of Bad Boys?

By Jerry Bonkowski – How do I say this in a nice way?

Stewart-Haas Racing just became NASCAR’s equivalent of the Oakland Raiders in their glory years.

With Tuesday’s press conference announcing that Kurt Busch had signed a multi-year deal with SHR, which will in turn expand to a four-team operation next season, one of the biggest collections of NASCAR’s baddest bad boys just came together.

Will it work? Time will tell.

About the only piece of the puzzle missing is Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother, but that still could happen a few years from now when KyBu’s contract is up with Joe Gibbs Racing.

I tried to think of another similar example, but honestly, it would appear that never in the history of NASCAR has such a conglomeration of both talent and tempestuousness been brought together.

It also shows that what sportsmanship and fellowship can’t bring together, money can.

Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick have both had numerous run-ins with the elder Busch brother over the last decade. While I don’t have the exact number in front of me, I’d venture a guess that between tumultuous trio, there’s been at least a dozen dust-ups.

Scratch that … it’s probably more.

Harvick on numerous occasions has publicly criticized Busch. Stewart and Busch have also run afoul of each other, including a less than gentlemanly skirmish between the new teammates earlier this year that people are still talking about.

And then there’s Danica Patrick, who essentially is SHR’s Ringo in all this: she doesn’t have a dog in this fight, she just goes along with what the boss says and wants. She’ll leave it to John, Paul and George – err, make that Tony, Kevin and Kurt – to be the front men of this band.

The first question that came to mind when I heard that the rumored union of Busch and SHR was finally consummated was simple:

“How will NASCAR’s newest version of the three amigos co-exist from here on out?”

I’m wondering if Harvick knew this was coming, might he have stayed at Richard Childress Racing instead of also jumping to SHR for 2014.

It’s like you take three of the most mischievous troublemakers in a school and put them in the same detention period for any number of infractions.

That’s just a recipe for disaster waiting to boil over. But in this case, is it – or is it a stroke of genius, where one bad boy will elevate the game of the other two bad boys on the team?

Will Busch help SHR? Of course. Even with the incidents that KuBu has gotten himself into throughout his career, including the most notable one at Homestead in 2011 that cost him the best ride of his career (up to now, at least), there’s no question the guy can wheel a race car with the best of ’em.

Look at what he’s done thus far this season for the single-car operation of Furniture Row Racing. If things stay the same in the next two races, Busch will become the first driver in the 10-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup to make NASCAR’s marquis event from a single-car team.

And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised that with the season he’s had to date, coupled with the knowledge of where he’s going after this season, it inspires and motivates Busch like he’s never been – and then goes out and wins this year’s championship.

“This is the kind of situation every driver wants to be in, and I’m grateful to (SHR co-owner) Gene Haas and Haas Automation for providing me this opportunity,” Busch said in a statement Tuesday. “I didn’t think anyone wanted to win as much as me until I met Gene Haas.”

I still think Busch would have been a better fit at Richard Childress Racing or Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, where he’d be either the No. 1 or No. 2 driver with either operation.

At SHR, he’ll be third in order of strength behind Stewart and Harvick, and fourth on the seniority list.

That is, until he proves otherwise and potentially becomes the organization’s top gun. Don’t think that can happen? Think again.

Stewart proved less than a month ago that he’s human and fallible when he suffered a broken leg that ended his Sprint Cup season. At the same time, Stewart is now 42 years old. He has to be thinking – or at least starting to think – about potential retirement and segueing into a full-time owner-only position.

Look at Indy car racing’s Michael Andretti. He stopped racing full-time before he even hit 40 years old (he had six other one-off starts between 40 and 44 that were part of building up his own organization) and has gone on to build one of the strongest teams in IndyCar.

You don’t think Smoke hasn’t noticed that?

“When Gene Haas laid out his plans for what he wanted to do in regard to this race team’s future, which included bringing Kurt on board in a fourth car, it was impressive,” Stewart said in a statement. “You can’t stand still in this business. You have to constantly improve. Gene’s investment in this race team ensures the success of Stewart-Haas Racing for many years to come.”

What’s more, as much as he loves racing on any level, I don’t think you’ll see Stewart follow in the footsteps of his No. 1 idol, A.J. Foyt, and continue racing until he’s almost 60 (Foyt finally hung up his firesuit for good at 57 – that is, if you don’t count the one Sprint Cup and three other Camping World Truck Series races he competed in between the age of 59 and 61).

I was at Road America in 1990 when Foyt suffered the worst crash of his career. He was 55 at the time and came very close to dying that day. After months of recovery and recuperation, Foyt got behind the wheel of an open-wheel Indy car 12 more times, with 11 of those times resulting in nothing more than also-ran finishes.

It was only after his final appearance in the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 (finished ninth) that Foyt finally realized his best racing days were ultimately behind him and it was time to turn over his car to someone who may not have been quite as talented, but surely was far younger, more agile and could recover from injuries much faster.

Kurt Busch just turned 35 earlier this month. He still has a good five to seven more years in him.

Harvick will turn 38 in December. He has probably another good five years left in him.

And Patrick is only 31. If she starts showing marked improvement, she probably has a good seven or more years left in her, as well.

So hiring Busch isn’t as crazy as it sounds. While some could likely make a case that Ryan Newman should have been kept instead of being cut loose at the end of this season, it’s not every day that a former Cup champion becomes available.

Even with the baggage he’s accumulated, why do you think so many teams were chasing Busch to sign with their team?

Partners Stewart and Haas saw that and jumped at the chance. Call it a leap of faith, if nothing else. Haas was so enamored with getting Busch that he put his own money where his mouth was: he’ll personally sponsor Busch in 2014 unless other sponsorship is obtained.

“Kurt Busch is a premier talent, one who gives you the opportunity to win races every week and contend for a championship every year,” Haas said in a statement. “When he became available, we seized the opportunity to make him a part of Stewart-Haas Racing. This is an organization built on winning, and Haas Automation is a company built on performance. Kurt embodies each of those qualities, and it’s why we’re investing in his abilities.

From a talent standpoint, the amalgam of Stewart, Harvick and Busch is close to stock car racing’s equivalent to the New York Yankees’ fabled Murderer’s Row: Four Cup championships and 93 wins between them.

With that kind of lineup, SHR now has the potential to out-perform every other team in NASCAR and become the most-feared organization in the sport from a competitive – and temper – standpoint.

If there ever was a perfect example of the old phrase, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” it happened Tuesday.

Going back to my reference to the Raiders, they were an organization that was made up of players that didn’t always like some of their teammates, but also knew that they were stronger as a whole together than divided individually.

SHR will be the same, in my opinion.

Do I expect Busch, Stewart and Harvick to kiss and make up over past indiscretions between them? Nope.

Do I expect Busch, Stewart and Harvick to become Facebook friends? Unlikely.

Do I expect Busch, Stewart and Harvick to become fishing buddies? Not a chance.

But what I do expect is that their union will put every other team on notice, much like the Raiders did in their hey days of the 1980s and 1990s: you don’t mess around with SHR.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Is Stewart-Haas Racing REALLY the Best Place for Kurt Busch?

By Jerry Bonkowski – I would never stand in the way of someone pursuing what, at least on the surface, may be a better situation than the current one he or she finds himself in.

Such is the case with Kurt Busch.

First of all, there is no question of the immense talent the elder Busch brother has. Plus, he’s a former Sprint Cup champion, having won the first Chase playoff in 2004.

Granted, Busch has had some issues in his career, most notably his forced departure from Penske Racing after an ugly incident with ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch in the final race of the 2011 season at Homestead.

To his credit, Busch has worked his way back, worked on himself and the results have shown in a big way with what he’s done for Furniture Row Racing in 2013. What makes Busch’s achievements thus far this season all the more to be appreciated is he’s in only a one-car operation, yet has raced his way up to ninth in the standings with three races left to make this year’s edition of the Chase.

He has a real chance to become the first driver from a one-car team to ever make the Chase.

That says a lot.

But this week’s numerous news reports, media speculation and fan consternation about Busch potentially going to Stewart-Haas Racing next season are somewhat confounding.

Given what he’s done at FRR and what appears to be perhaps one of the best ownership situations he’s ever been part of, not to mention Kurt being happy where he’s at, it’s probably a likely safe bet that Busch could stay there as long as he wants.

But let’s face it, the one-car FRR operation doesn’t have the resources that other multi-car teams that have been rumored to be part of the Kurt Busch sweepstakes have, including Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and now Stewart-Haas Racing.

I’m glad to see Busch having so many options. Who knows, maybe he may have a few others that haven’t been publicized. As the saying goes, “Good on him!”

But is SHR really the best place for Busch?

Consider:

1) Team co-owner and No. 1 driver Tony Stewart hasn’t exactly had the most friendly relationship at times with Busch over the years.

2) Kevin Harvick will join SHR in 2014 and by default will become the No. 2 driver on the team. Harvick and Busch have had a long dislike for each other over the years. Are they immediately going to kiss and make up if they become teammates?

3) Danica Patrick will remain a big part of SHR’s 2014 plans and beyond.

4) Rumors have SHR’s other co-owner, Gene Haas, footing the bill to sponsor a full-time car in Cup for Busch next season.

That leaves Kurt, in essence, to be the No. 4 driver on what would be an expanded four-driver team. (Okay, maybe I would rank him No. 3, ahead of Patrick.)

And, maybe it’s just me, but why hasn’t there been more said about how Ryan Newman was told before last month’s Brickyard 400 that he wouldn’t be coming back to SHR next season, with one of the main reasons cited being sponsorship – and yet, less than two weeks later, Busch and SHR were reportedly talking a deal for an in-house sponsored car?

Newman will likely take Quicken Loans’ 18-race sponsorship with him wherever he winds up at in 2014, which is a big plus. But how can SHR justify cutting loose a guy who has a half-season sponsorship deal in his back pocket, to bring on a guy who will likely run an in-house sponsored car (pending the addition of more sponsorship if Busch does indeed sign with SHR)?

Sorry, but the math doesn’t compute there. Or are there other reasons why Newman will be leaving at season’s end? It does make you start to wonder, doesn’t it?

Why wouldn’t Busch want to become the No. 1 driver at EGR instead? After all, he’s done a heck of a lot more in his career than Jamie McMurray has and could reenergize EGR with Juan Pablo Montoya bidding adieu at season’s end.

Or why wouldn’t Busch want to go to RCR as either No. 1 or No. 2 in 2014 with Harvick leaving at this season’s end?

What about Busch going to Richard Petty Motorsports, which would immediately improve with him on their team?

Do you honestly think Busch will be happy being No. 4 or maybe No. 3 (if you rank him above Danica) on a four-car team when he could achieve so much more as a top driver somewhere else?

Admittedly, it’s been a very strange season at SHR. Danica won the pole at Daytona, finished eighth in that race and then has essentially faded from view ever since. There’s also been far too much – and unnecessary coverage in my mind – of her relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (whose business is it, really, right?).

Then Stewart got off to the worst start of his Cup career before starting to find his way around mid-season … only to see his 2013 campaign come to an abrupt end nearly three weeks ago when he broke his leg in two places in a sprint car crash in Iowa.

Will SHR be stronger in 2014 with Stewart back and Harvick in the fold? Yes, that’s very likely. Will it be stronger if Busch joins the team? Yes, very likely as well.

But I just can’t see how Busch, who has been so used to being No. 1 at Roush Fenway Racing (for at least his championship season), Penske Racing, Phoenix Racing and now Furniture Row Racing, will be happy playing second-, third- or even fourth-fiddle at SHR.

If he’s that far down on the totem pole, will he get as good of equipment as Stewart or Harvick or even Patrick? Will he become the designated test driver for the other three?

And if those scenarios do play out, how long will Busch remain happy if he gets lost in the crowd of the four-car team?

Even though I wish Busch the best, wouldn’t anyone else be a bit suspect of making a deal with a team that only a couple weeks earlier cried poor and let Newman go at the end of the season, only to start talking a deal with Busch shortly thereafter?

And what happens if Newman makes the Chase three weeks from now as SHR’s lone representative and then pulls a Brad Keselowski-like move and somehow wins the championship – only to be without a job the following day? Shades of Darian Grubb in 2011, wouldn’t you say?

Maybe that’s the solution: Busch should talk to Grubb or Newman about what he might potentially be getting himself into at SHR before he signs on the dotted line.

Just sayin’.

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