Monday, June 25, 2012

Kurt Busch's Sonoma run makes him more difficult to understand

Just as everyone tried to once again write off Kurt Busch’s career and say he will have trouble ever competing for wins in the Sprint Cup Series, Busch took the unsponsored #51 car Sunday at Sonoma and drove it to a hard-fought, third-place finish.
Remember, this #51 car is owned by James Finch, who has been in the sport for 19 years and had three career top-fives heading into Sunday’s race. Finch has had 25 other drivers have raced a Cup car for him and only three had even recorded a top-five.
By any measure, Busch did a great job Sunday. Not many could take that #51 car and run as well as he has at times this season. He certainly doesn’t have the finishes to show for it, but Busch has driven some pretty good races this season and been in the top 15 before trouble struck late in the race.
And that might be what is so frustrating about Busch. He has a lot of talent. If Busch putted around in the back of the field throughout his career, people wouldn’t care nearly as much about what he does on or off the track. If he did or said something stupid, he would lose his ride and that would be the end of his Cup career. We would likely never hear from him again.
But that’s not the case. Busch is a very good driver. He has won a championship and at least one race for the last 10 consecutive years.
Sometimes Busch is like that kid in school that always got under your skin. At times you would hate that kid to death, but then he or she would do something nice and make you have to reconsider your opinion.
Busch is in the same position. His emotional response to Sunday’s performance shows that he still very much cares about what he does; he wants to remain in the sport and eventually return to a top-notch ride. Who wouldn’t love that redemption story?
Well, that’s the issue. After Penske Racing and Busch parted ways, Busch spent the rest of the offseason talking about how he wanted to do things right and get his career back on track. That’s wonderful. He could put his head down and grind through this season as best he could and then hope one of the big owners gave him another shot.
But just when we think Busch has changed and is dedicated to doing the right thing, he goes and has a dispute with Ryan Newman’s pit crew at Darlington that puts him on probation. He then mouths off to a reporter following the Nationwide race at Dover four weeks later to earn a suspension for the next week at Pocono.
All of a sudden any sympathy for Busch flew out the window. Those acts make him appear as the jerk everyone thinks he is right after an incident happens.
This leaves people into a state of confusion. They don’t know if Kurt Busch is a flat-out jerk who can’t get along with anybody or a good guy who just gets too wrapped-up in his emotions.
Either way, Busch has pushed the envelope to its breaking point. One more negative situation could be the end of the line for him in a Cup car that has consistent sponsorship.
But, as we saw Sunday, top-five runs in an unsponsored car can also expose the world to how good Busch is as a racecar driver. That could be his ticket to get back on a career path that is headed toward Victory Lane.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Rating the Toyota/Save Mart 350: 2 Stars **

The first road course race of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season followed the theme for most of the year so far that the majority of the race should be void of any action. The race at Sonoma had very long stretches of time where everyone just logged laps and talked about strategy. All in all, Sunday’s race gets a generous 2 Star Rating.
Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch did have a good battle toward the end of the race. Busch looked like he might be able to pull off a pass at the end but instead broke a piece in the rear of his car. Instead, he had to work harder at holding off Tony Stewart than catching Bowyer.
However, having Busch in contention for the win certainly added some intrigue to the finish of the race, even if for nothing more than to find out what he said afterward. Still, it is cool to see an unsponsored car challenge for a win or even run near the front of the field, regardless of who is in the car.
The rest of the race left much to be desired. Sometimes long green-flag runs are fun if drivers are sliding around and racing each other, but long green-flag runs at a road course are brutal. There wasn’t one exciting moment for the first 85 laps of Sunday’s race.
Pit stops were about the only things that happened after Jeff Gordon passed Marcos Ambrose on lap 12. Martin Truex Jr. took the lead after green-flag stops cycled around because he came in before everybody else, and then Bowyer would take the lead when Truex Jr. pitted.
The rest of the race wasn’t even just full of cars going around in circles, it was full of cars winding their way through a road with a few hills. Unfortunatly, the latter is worse for NASCAR fans.
Anyway, congratulations to Bowyer, the #15 team and Mikdkchael Waltrip Racing. That organization has improved the most of any group in the sport during the past year. Most people didn’t expect any MWR cars to make the Chase, and now Truex Jr. and Bowyer both sit comfortably in the top 10 in the points standings.
Regardless of driver preferences, it is nice to see another organization step into serious Chase contention. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has a car challenge for a spot every other year or so, but otherwise the Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush-Fenway and Childress organizations dominated the scene. New contenders are always good for the sport.
Although there haven’t been any first-time winners this season, there have been 12 different winners in the 16 races this year. That is an even better rate than last year, when we talked about how many different drivers reached Victory Lane at this point in the season. Only 11 different drivers won the first 16 races in 2011.
So, although the racing hasn’t been particularly exciting in many races this season, at least there has been a bunch of different winners. This would not be a good year to have one driver dominate the entire season, unless it was Dale Earnhardt Jr., of course. We saw how much his wins drum up interest after he won at Michigan last week.
Now the Cup series heads to Kentucky for the second Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Kyle Busch dominated the inaugural event last year that received more attention for the traffic problems than the actual race. If the race at Sonoma lacked action, it is hard to imagine the race at Kentucky will have much more, but we’ll always hope.
Either way, Daytona is only two weeks away.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rating the Quicken Loans 400: 4 Stars ****

He did it. NASCAR’s most famous son won his first race in four years at the same track and on the same holiday as the last one: on Father’s Day. Dale Earnhardt Jr. spanked the field Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. Although all of the attention will obviously focus on Dale Jr., there was also the rest of a race, and it gets a 4 Star Rating.
It took 143 tries since that June day in 2008 when Earnhardt Jr. coasted across the finish line to win his last race. Now, I’m not going to say it is better to have it this way because fans of any driver would say life would be great if their driver won every race, but Earnhardt Jr.’s odyssey to reach Victory Lane made Sunday a pretty special day.
As we said last week after Joey Logano’s win at Pocono, for whatever reason getting that first win, either in a career or a very long time, is extremely difficult. Just ask Martin Truex Jr. or A.J. Allmendinger.
Logano got caught up in a wreck at Michigan, but don’t be surprised if he contends for several more wins before the season is over. The same can also be said for Earnhardt Jr.
Like it or not, Earnhardt Jr.’s win Sunday was a big moment in the sport. The stands at a racetrack haven’t shook like that since … well, a very long time. Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver in the sport, and therefore a large portion of the NASCAR fan base had been sitting on its collective hands for four years.
People will also talk about Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team now as a legitimate championship contender. However, that team would’ve contended for the championship with or without a regular-season win. This is a Hendrick Motorsports team that has run as consistently well as any team in the sport this year. It was just a matter of time before the win happened.
The race itself was OK. The action on the track might have been a tad better than expected aside from Earnhardt Jr. pulling away from everybody during the final run of the race. However, NASCAR and Goodyear narrowly sidestepped the second edition of the 2008 Brickyard 400 when the race had to be stopped every 10 laps or so because tire wear was so horrible.
Plenty of teams had issues with the tires Sunday, but thankfully no tires blew out while at speed on the track. Drivers entered Turn 1 at 215 mph. A blown tire at that point would’ve been plenty dangerous.
Instead, Denny Hamlin provided the danger highlight of the day when he spun out on lap 133 and his car caught on fire as he drove down pit road. He was OK, but that will also likely be forever imbedded in the highlight package for Earnhardt Jr.’s streak-busting win.
So, next week the series heads out to California for the second time this year to bob-and-weave through the myriad of turns at the road course in Sonoma. That might be a bummer for Junior Nation considering he has never had a top 10 at that place.
Anyway, now that the trip through the repaved tracks is over, the upcoming schedule should be entertaining. The road course is next week, followed by the return to Kentucky and the Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona.
Hold on to the couch with both hands next week. Sonoma has been the site of intense races in recent years, and that should be no different this weekend.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rating the Pocono 400: 4 Stars ****

A weird, largely confusing day at Pocono Raceway ended with Joey Logano getting his first full-length Spring Cup Series win as he nudged Mark Martin out of the way with four laps to go. The first race on Pocono’s new pavement gets a 4 Star Rating.
This was a huge win for Logano. He set a new track record with his qualifying speed Saturday to win the pole, and then he won the race Sunday that was littered with pit road speeding penalties.
We’ll get to the speeding issues in a bit, but Logano went from possibly losing his ride in the #20 car at the end of the year to a legitimate Chase contender in just one weekend.
He now sits tied for 14th in the points standings with Ryan Newman. Newman holds the tie-breaker because he has one more top-five finish than Logano, but those are the two drivers currently battling for the second wild-card spot. That’s not bad for a guy who came into the weekend with no wins, no poles, no top fives and just four top 10s in 13 races.
The way he won the race was also impressive. A debris caution within the last 10 laps of the race forced a late-race restart. Mark Martin lined up next to Logano and took the lead. Most people probably thought the veteran Martin would not get beat by a 22-year-old Logano who had just one rain-shortened win in 2009 at New Hampshire to his credit.
Instead, Logano closed in after Martin bobbled in Turn 3 and moved Martin up the track just enough in Turn 1 to take the lead and never look back. Logano had the best car this weekend, and he was able to close the deal.
That could be huge for him heading into the summer stretch of the season. Drivers often really struggle to break into Victory Lane for the first time, or even for the first time in a long time i.e. Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, once a driver gets a win, they tend to carry that momentum for several weeks and perhaps the rest of the season. Brad Keselowski did so last year after his win in the spring at Kansas Speedway.
As for the rest of the race, the uncertainties about the track after the repave proved to be nothing more than worries. The racing was fine for the most part, and it was better than what we see in the first races at many other tracks after a repave.
But, the racing took a back seat to all of the confusion on pit road for much of the first part of the race. NASCAR handed out 22 pit road speeding penalties throughout the race. NASCAR moved the timing lines during the repave, but many teams failed to realize the difference before the race, causing mass confusion as driver after driver served a penalty.
The penalized drivers are lucky this happened at Pocono. Many did not lose a lap, but a ton of cars would’ve fallen multiple laps down if this had happened at a short track.
People have debated, vehemently in some cases, where to place the blame in this situation. Most, if not all of the blame, should rest on the teams’ shoulders because they failed to include that detail in their pre-race checklists.
Sure, NASCAR could’ve made an announcement at the drivers meeting or something, but the pit road map was available to teams all weekend. Some checked the map and others didn’t. The ones that didn’t check felt those consequences Sunday.
Now the series will head to another repaved track at Michigan International Speedway. Drivers sped into Turn 1 at Pocono at nearly 210 mph, and the speeds heading into Turn 1 at Michigan could be even higher.
That should certainly make for some tense qualifying laps. Hopefully the race is just as intense.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Kurt Busch has been the most interesting driver of 2012, but for all the wrong reasons

Although Jimmie Johnson has won three of the last four weekends and Mark Martin leads the Sprint Cup Series with three poles at 54 years of age, Kurt Busch has drawn the most attention this season.
Unfortunately, he has drawn exclusively negative attention of late, and that will continue for at least another week.
NASCAR suspended Busch until June 13 for remarks he made to a media member following the Nationwide race Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Busch was already on probation from an incident on pit road with Ryan Newman’s #39 team after the Southern 500 a few weeks ago at Darlington so his antics last weekend sent him to the bench for this week’s race at Pocono Raceway.
Obviously, this isn’t anything new for Busch. Well, the suspension is something new, but he has filled his career with regrettable moments that keep him from being lauded for his driving ability as a NASCAR champion.
He lost his first Cup ride a year after his 2004 championship run in the #97 car for Jack Roush after he was cited for reckless driving.
Busch quickly found a ride with Penske Racing and had several incidents that eventually led up to a profanity-laced rant at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch during the final race of the season at Homestead.
That rant cost him his seat in the #22 car, so this year he had to make do with the mostly unsponsored #51 car furnished by the singe-car operation of Phoenix Racing.
Busch could have used the setback to collect himself and make a second career out of returning to the top of the sport, but this suspension likely rules out the possibility of that happening any time soon.
People will long debate whether Busch’s penalty was too harsh or too lenient. Either way, Busch’s previous incidents clearly factored into the severity of his penalty, the same way they did when his younger brother, Kyle Busch, was parked for the Texas Nationwide and Cup races after he drove Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall during the truck race.
In this sport, drivers can act foolishly and get away with it to a certain extent. Carl Edwards intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski twice in 2010, but NASCAR placed Edwards on probation only after the second wreck.
Fans might also remember that he faked throwing a punch at teammate Matt Kenseth following the fall 2007 race at Martinsville.
Since those incidents, Edwards has not had any problems and nearly won the 2011 Sprint Cup Series championship. He is also one of the most outgoing and polite drivers in the sport.
Perhaps Edwards learned his lessons and matured beyond the extracurricular games that tend to crop up during a long season.
That’s part of what makes Busch’s most recent actions even more surprising than the fact that NASCAR suspended him.
Busch is a Sprint Cup Series champion. That type of success carries a lot of weight in NASCAR. Champions rise above other drivers in the sport both on a competitive level and a respect level. Busch’s repeated mishaps simply aren’t fitting of a champion in this, or any, sport. had absolutely nothing to gain by arguing with reporters after the Nationwide race and a heck of a lot to lose.
What makes difficult to understand are instances such as the Nationwide race three weeks ago at Iowa Speedway. He acted like a gentleman after the race even after he was punted on the final lap while running third. He ended up finishing fifth and had to make a remarkable save to do so.
So one week Busch is polite and the next he is threatening to beat up reporters.
Even Busch haters might be a little confused at this point. Sure, it’s fun to root against drivers you don’t like and in some ways it is rewarding to see them struggle, but this has gotten out of hand.
At some point people will dismiss Busch as a lunatic and stop rooting for or against him. They will simply stop caring.
He will miss this week’s race at Pocono, but he could also be on the verge of irrelevance to the point that people will only tune in to see what he does off the track rather than on it.  
That could eventually take away his spotlight, which might be the worst consequence of all.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rating the FedEx 400: 2 Stars **

The Dominator dominated Dover on Sunday to simply reinforce the fact that Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team are hands down the best there is in this era of NASCAR racing. However, dominating performances rarely make for exciting races, and Sunday was no different. The first Dover race of the season gets a 2 Star Rating.
Johnson did have one challenger at Dover: his teammate in the #24 car. Jeff Gordon led 60 laps throughout the first half of the race, but then his team remembered this is 2012 and didn’t get all of the lugnuts tight on the left rear tire during a pit stop on lap 251.
That forced Gordon to try and play a different strategy to recover and still challenge for the win, but he was only able to get back to 13th by the time the checkered flag flew.
Gordon did move up one spot to 21st in the points standings and is one point behind Juan Pablo Montoya for a spot in the top 20. But, that is certainly not where the driver with the most laps led should be in the points standings after 13 races.
This could have been a race that jumpstarted Gordon’s climb back into Chase contention, but now the pressure to be perfect the rest of the regular season continues to mount. It’s going to take quite an effort from Gordon and the #24 team to make the Chase this year.
As for Johnson, Sunday’s win added another stat to prove he is one of the all-time great NASCAR drivers. He has now won at Dover, which many drivers consider one of the toughest on the schedule, seven times. That ties him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most wins at the Monster Mile.
This was Johnson’s 57th career win and his second of the season (third if you include the All-Star Race). Maybe it’s coincidence, but ever since Johnson won the Southern 500 at Darlington to get the 200th victory for Hendrick Motorsports, the entire organization has taken its performance to another level.
Perhaps there was pressure to win #200. That type of pressure obviously affects athletes in other sports when they approach a major milestone, but it is a little more surprising for it to affect an entire racing organization.
Either way, Hendrick Motorsports is once again on quite a roll. That could make for a long summer for the rest of the garage. Right now Roush-Fenway Racing has the top two spots in the points standings and is most likely the biggest threat to stop another Hendrick championship this season, but they have a lot of work ahead of them.
Oh, by the way, there was a wreck in Sunday’s race and it still didn’t get more than a 2 Star Rating. Sure, it was the biggest wreck of the season, but most of the cars involved were start-and-parkers. The wreck just parked them all at the same time.
Besides that wreck on lap 9, the remainder of the race was as clean as the rest of the season. The racing will get better at some point, but it is unlikely to get significantly better anytime soon. The upcoming tracks don’t usually produce thrilling racing, and there is little reason to think it will be any different this summer.
That said, these races are still a vital part of the schedule. June has always been a crucial month in the NASCAR season. The tracks, including Dover, challenge equipment more than most, and it is a time for teams to sharpen their setups as the Race to the Chase approaches.
Now it’s on to the first 400-mile race in the history of Pocono Raceway. I don’t see how shortening this race by 100 miles will make it any more exciting, but we’ll see. The only difference might be that fewer cars drop out because of mechanical issues.
Have a great week, everybody, and brace yourselves for what might be another summer dominated by Hendrick Motorsports. It sure is shaping up that way.