The Frontstretch: 5 Points to Ponder: Cup Be Damned for the Shrub, JRM's Ego, and Mears' Ride? by Bryan Davis Keith -- Wednesday April 21, 2010

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ONE: Does Kyle Busch Really Want a Cup Title?

It was a familiar sight in Nationwide Series Victory Lane on Monday evening. Kyle Busch, fresh off his fifth consecutive win at Texas Motor Speedway, took that series’ points lead … and now, he wants to run for a second consecutive Nationwide title. Busch, in not so many words, made it very clear in his post-race press conference that he is raring to go for another full-time NNS campaign, and so is the No. 18 team, according to team owner Joe Gibbs.

Kyle Busch is loving all the wins in NASCAR’s “AAA” series…but will his Nationwide success ruin his Cup prospects again?

Only one word describes those comments: Wow. The fact that Busch and JGR have not decisively said they won’t be campaigning for the driver title in 2010 begs the question: How short-sighted can this team be? Rewind back to nearly this point last year. After Richmond, Busch had won three of the first nine Cup races, not to mention was already putting a thrashing on the Nationwide Series field. But while Busch went on to hoist the Nationwide trophy at Homestead, he wasn’t even on the Chase stage — an afterthought in the Cup Series garage.

This year, Busch is far from that type of solid start, sixth in points but winless with just one top-5 finish in Cup heading to the tough part of the schedule. Even Busch acknowledged to the media on Monday, “How difficult it is to run both and what it takes away from the premium spot, which is the Sprint Cup title.” Yet, Busch and JGR all but appear to be gearing up to do it again.

I have no doubt in my mind that for Busch, running Nationwide is a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t have fun driving the very best cars every week, being all but assured of a top-5 run barring any mistakes and winning copious amounts of trophies? But is that what it’s about for Kyle? Quantity, not quality?

It’s the only reason I can think of that Busch is insisting on another title run in the Nationwide ranks, while Jimmie Johnson remains right on track to score five Cup titles in a row. Kind of makes Kyle’s “historic” five consecutive AAA wins at Texas pale in comparison, doesn’t it?

TWO: End of the Road for Casey Mears?

While Denny Hamlin’s apparently no worse for the wear (behind the wheel, anyway) after knee surgery and scoring his second Cup win of 2010 at Texas, the same can’t be said for his relief driver’s career prospects. Based on how Denny has handled the races at both Phoenix and now Texas, it’s clear that Mears will likely not turn a competitive lap in the No. 11 car, and with Keyed-Up Motorsports now scaled back to a part-time effort, Mears appears out of options with regards to finding a Cup Series ride. What’s more, a lack of seat time at JGR, that lack of a chance to steal a top-10 finish and return to car owners’ radar screens, has effectively rendered his temporary move all but futile.

How, you ask?

Last week, Joe Gibbs Racing came out and openly admitted that being unable to commit to running a fourth Cup car made it impossible to make a play and sign Kasey Kahne. And for all of his ability to land quality rides out of a thin career resume, I don’t care how much brass Mears polishes during his time in the Gibbs camp: If JGR can’t commit to running a fourth car for a driver that’s actually made a Chase, won multiple Cup races, and demonstrated an ability to keep sponsors on his quarterpanels, there’s no chance it’s going to start fielding one for Mears.

THREE: How Can JR Motorsports Call This Improvement?

Tell me again why it was so important for JR Motorsports to dump Kelly Bires? Landon Cassill’s debut in JRM equipment resulted in an 18th-place finish, a result that equaled Bires’ worst finish of the 2010 season that didn’t involve a mechanical failure.

But it’s only the first week, right? Well, Kelly Bires finished seventh in his first race with JRM.

But, according to Dale Jr., Cassill is easy to sell to sponsors, right? Isn’t this the same Landon Cassill that sat on the sidelines for almost all of 2009 because of a lack of sponsorship?

But it was a chemistry problem, right? Sorry, I find it hard to believe that an owner such as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who in nearly four years of ownership has seen only one driver enjoy sustained success in his race cars, and who openly had to concede following his midseason firing of Shane Huffman back in 2007 that he overestimated how good the cars his team was fielding, can somehow after five races (four of which netted finishes inside the top 20), determine that long-term success between driver and team was not going to be possible.

FOUR: Or Are We Talking Egos?

And then there’s a number of readers who, in response to my column last week on Bires’ release from JRM, noted the young prospect had developed a huge ego after landing the No. 88 ride, an ego that was getting in the way of his team’s ability to perform. Like dealing with egos has led JR Motorsports to make rash firings in the past …

Case in point: a well-publicized episode that saw Dale Jr. chastise Brad Keselowski after the then-JRM driver demanded that a JRM staffer carry his firesuit for him. Last time I checked, despite Keselowski exhibiting what Junior called at the time “a terrible confidence,” he didn’t lose his ride over it.

Fact is, JRM doesn’t really seem to have a consistent, coherent rationale for starting the Nationwide version of Series Silly Season in April. Rather, Dale Jr. and the Earnhardt clan seem to have done whatever they wanted because they wanted to.

What was that whole theory about egos again?

FIVE: Jeff and Jimmie Tangle, Is All Well in the Hendrick Camp?

Yes. For crying out loud, I’ve never read so much wasted ink about two drivers trading paint. There’s a combined eight freaking Cup titles between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, not to mention so much corporate spit-shining that you could use the two as a mirror.

There is nothing to be made of any sort of feud, tension, etc. between Gordon and Johnson. Even if they had been involved in a halfway serious incident, there’s no way that the organization they’re surrounded by is going to let a near-decade of dominance crumble. They’re both running up front, they’re both contending for wins and the Cup, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
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04/21/2010 07:28 AM

To win a cup title you must be dedicated 100% to cup racing, and nothing esle.

In addition to marquee drivers that currently run regular schedules, full or mostly full in Nationwide: Busch, Edwards, Hamlin and Bowyer. There are several drivers that are owners or part owners in top NASCAR series. Tony Stewart, Dale Jr., Kevin Harvick, and yes even Jeff Gordon.

Many folks have pointed out that guys who drive full-time in the Nationwide Series have NEVER won a Sprint Cup Series. But guys who have become owners haven’t won won since they took on that role.

If you eliminate Stewart, Gordon, Busch, Junior, Harvick, Hamlin, Bowyer, and others divulging in other areas… you might as well rename the Sprint Cup the Knaus Cup (Sorry… Jimmie Cup just sounded wrong!)

04/21/2010 08:48 AM

Point 1: Just because it is April, don’t count Kyle out as a cup contender. If you go back over JJ’s short but illustrious career, you will notice that the first three seasons he started HOT and failed to win a championship. It was when he was more smooth and gained momentum during the season that his dominance truly began. Kyle COULD be the first driver to hoist both championships when the checkers wave in Homestead. My money is still on JJ though for Cup

Point 2: Casey’s career was over when he took the job with Keyed-up Motorsports. He did NOTHING at Ganassi, granted the Dodges were junk, and Ganassi’s cars were the worst of the Dodges. He went to Hendrick and won 1 race. On fuel mileage. Granted the win still counts, but it is HARDLY a thrilling victory. Face it, winning on fuel mileage means you are really good at driving consistently SLOW. Then he went to Childress and once again did nothing. He’s had his chances and he did nothing with them, send him packing and bring in NEW talent, or ANY talent.

Points 3&4: Aside from his name, Junior has VERY little to do with the operation of JRM. His sister handles the day to day business aspects. He said so during the lead-up to an over-rated open wheeler being hired to drive some of the time. Yes the arrogance and standards set at JRM are ridiculous. If any driver shows Jr.‘s lack of pace, prima donna attitude, or inconsistency they are terminated. I firmly believe that if the late great Dale were still alive, he would stick his foot so far up Jr.‘s backside that Jr. would taste the rubber sole. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, THAT IS THE MOTIVATION JR. IS LACKING. Otherwise, let them run the company into the ground, it just doesn’t matter.

Point 5: A non-issue. Gordon and Johnson have traded paint in the past, they will do so again in the future. The media (I refuse to call them journalists) are employed, not to cover stories, but to create drama.

04/21/2010 11:30 AM

Bobby Labonte is the only Busch/NW Champion and CUP Champion. However, if anyone can break this record, it will be KyB.

I have a problem with CUP drivers going for championships in the lower series. Yes, let them race, just make a rule change that they can’t win the championship. Don’t the CUP guys just race in NW for fun? Or, so they say.

04/21/2010 12:31 PM

Mears hasn’t been a top-tier driver, but he has had modest success in the Cup series. He had stretches of solid runs when he was at Hendrick, and he had a pretty strong finish to 2009 at RCR. They just lost the sponsor and couldn’t find a replacement; otherwise he’d probably still be there. I have a feeling he’ll end up back in Cup somewhere…and it could still be at RCR depending on what happens with Harvick.

04/21/2010 01:08 PM

The feud between jeff and jimmy needs to continue. Jeff needs to continue to drive like he did in the last race. Passing and bumping with jimmy gave him the spark that carried him through that race.

04/21/2010 01:22 PM

Those “Junk” Ganassi Dodges almost won the championship until Marlin broke his neck.

04/21/2010 06:40 PM

If “chemistry” is the problem at the JRM #88…it’s a cinch that the crew chief isn’t going anywhere.

04/21/2010 07:33 PM

Marlin’s “near championship” run was in 2002 in an Intrepid. The Intrepids were fast. Once they switched body styles, the Dodges were JUNK. And Ganassi’s Dodges were the WORST. Well, maybe Petty’s were THE worst, but it’s a toss up.

Aside from 2002, feel free to go back as far as you want and find a competitive season. I’ll help you. In 1992, Kyle Petty went to the Hooters 500 in Atlanta with a Mathematical shot at winning the Cup. Alan Kulwicki ended up champ. Otherwise whether it was SABCO or Ganassi, the team has been off pace. In Chevys the team doesn’t look so bad, but facts are facts, and the history of the team is INDISPUTABLE.

04/21/2010 07:39 PM

@djones: I simply meant that Kyle could be the first driver to hoist both trophies in the same season.

Mike Neff
04/22/2010 01:59 PM

Dis all you want on those junk Ganassi cars, the end result is still that the best point finish in Mears’ career came in Ganassi equipment. The same is true for Jamie McMurray, David Stremme, Reed Sorenson and Sterling Marlin. People are always bashing Ganassi because other than 2002 they have never really been close to a title. The fact remains, drivers leave for “greener pastures” and find out that they never had it as good as they did at Ganassi.

04/23/2010 08:03 AM

That’s Hilarious Mike. You are absolutely right. I’m sure that 90% of the field would rather drive Ganassi equipment than Hendrick equipment. Or Rousch equipment. Ganassi definitely has the superior equipment. As a matter of fact, I heard a rumor that Jimmie Johnson was just waiting to be offered one of those sweet Ganassi rides.

That was sarcasm. The only thing consistent with Ganassi cars is their consistent lack of pace, and the consistency with which they suffer mechanical failures.

Maybe you are a Ganassi fan-boy. I myself never understood why Ganassi can’t seem to put together a decent Cup car. His Nationwide efforts are solid machines. And he has NO problem fielding open-wheelers running 230+, but the Cup team has NEVER found success.