The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Kyle's Still Vulnerable, ESPN's One-Trick Pony, and Nationwide's Erosion by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday August 24, 2010

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ONE: Kyle Busch Building “Vulnerable” Momentum

Life is good for Kyle Busch right now. Leaving Bristol, he not only scored a Truck Series victory in his own equipment, got the better of Brad Keselowski battling for the win, and dominated the 500-lap night race, he became the first driver to win all three national touring series races in the same weekend. It’s an accomplishment that, if the media is any indication, trumps just about anything ever done in stock car racing — never mind the fact this feat has only been possible since 1995, and only a handful of drivers talented enough to pull it off actually care enough to run tons of minor league races when battling for a Cup.

Kyle Busch might be on the top now…How long can he stay up there?

But I digress. While the insignificance of Busch’s trifecta can and will be debated until the cows come home and bang on the front door, there’s no debate that this past weekend at Bristol left Busch and his No. 18 Cup team fired up. That momentum couldn’t have come at a better time, with the last intermediate race before the Chase (Atlanta) next up in the Cup Series’ cross-hairs. The intermediate ovals have been the one configuration that’s confounded Dave Rogers and his crew in 2010, and the one Achilles’ heel that may well prevent Busch from challenging Jimmie Johnson when the Cup is on the line.

But despite all those feel-good vibes, let’s not get carried away. This momentum is also one bad weekend away from disappearing — which would leave Busch with Richmond as an absolute make-or-break race that could decide whether or not a run at the Cup is in the cards.

Atlanta is next Sunday’s event, one of Busch’s worst tracks on the Cup circuit. Subtracting a 2008 season that saw Busch win the Spring race and finish fifth in the Fall, his career average finish at AMS is 21.4, with no top-10 finishes. Add that to the fact the No. 18 only mustered a 25th-place result earlier this season, and the chances for a frustrating 500-mile bout with an ill-handling race car are very real.

Secondly, though, there’s Busch’s continued exploits in the Nationwide Series ranks. Granted, with Rowdy not racing for points in that series, he’s been running fantastically well and winning every trophy in sight. While Busch came out on top in Friday night’s scuffle with Brad Keselowski, that scuffle could have very easily gone the other way. A couple more inches of crush on his right front fender, a flat tire, or Keselowski not being on probation, and Busch would have ended Friday night storming to his hauler with an ESPN camera trailing him, hoping that he’d open his mouth.

That’s the thin line that the No. 18 team is walking. Yes, Busch got the trifecta he wanted so bad. Yes, he’s on a hot streak. But he’s one wrong track, or the wrong pass on it, away from derailing. Two weeks before the Chase, that’s an awfully vulnerable position to be in.

TWO: Johnson Taught a Valuable Lesson Saturday Night… Will it Stick?

For a good part of Saturday night, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team were looking formidable, in Chase form a few weeks early. That is, until contact with Juan Pablo Montoya sent what was a car capable of winning hard into the wall. The result: Johnson slumped to 35th, his sixth finish outside the top 25 this season. While Johnson enduring rough races in the buildup to the Chase is nothing new for the No. 48 team during their four-peat, that’s more finishes outside the top 25 in the race to the Chase than in any of his other title runs.

Is that statistically significant? That remains to be seen. But, it’s important to note that, correct or not, the perception is out there right now the No. 48 team this year isn’t quite where they’ve been the last few seasons… that maybe they’re missing just a little something.

Montoya’s run-in with Johnson certainly wasn’t a product of a hungry, aggressive driver pouncing on a suddenly vulnerable powerhouse. Hell, the replays couldn’t even clarify how much the incident was a product of Montoya coming down the track or Johnson coming up. If nothing else, Johnson was sternly reminded of just how vulnerable the No. 48 team is heading towards their Drive For Five. Considering the perception that their title run is at risk, Jeff Gordon being overdue for a win, Kyle Busch currently being on the correct side of a hot streak, and the ever-temperamental Kevin Harvick in position to make his first serious title run in years, Chad Knaus and Co. have formidable opposition for the championship this season.

Johnson got into a hairy situation with a driver well-known to be combustible on Saturday night, and his squeaky clean on-track profile could do nothing to save him from a hard crash and a long night. It’s a lesson that Johnson was fortunate to learn two races before the Chase — rather than two races in it.

THREE: “Boys, Have At It” Didn’t Come to Fruition on Saturday Night

Just as there was a day earlier, Saturday night at Bristol offered plenty of side-by-side racing, even as Kyle Busch was making the race up front a snoozefest. However, unlike Friday night, the evening-defining conflict between two drivers never came to be; no defining wreck, no real controversy — none of the fireworks that ESPN’s broadcast crew couldn’t stop assuring fans during pre-race coverage they would see.

Is this a bad thing? Not from a racing standpoint…the new Bristol continues to provide drivers with the ability to pass, to run side-by-side, and to race with more than just their bumper. But did Saturday night seem to feel like a bit of a letdown, especially after all the speculation as to whether Brad would go after Kyle, or if Jeff Gordon would get his comeuppance at the hands of Martin Truex, Jr., etc.? One could argue that it did.

While Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, and Ryan Newman all delivered needed top-10 runs to keep their Chase hopes alive as Mark Martin flopped, David Reutimann threatened to score another Cup win, and Jeff Green made his return to Cup racing, the wreckfest that was promised didn’t occur. Yet, that was all that was marketed and previewed on this Saturday night in Thunder Valley.

It’s a dangerous blowback of the “Boys, Have At It” movement in NASCAR. Yes, it’s the right thing for the sport — and the philosophy’s added some needed vitality to the 2010 season — but it’s not a cure-all, either. The broadcast booth would do well to remember that in future races.

FOUR: Nationwide Series Pay Cuts to Cut Ranks of Independent Teams Further

Competitors learned less than a month before the season opener at Daytona that their purses would be cut 10% for the 2010 Nationwide Series season. It set independent teams scrambling, some wondering how they’d be able to get through the season without starting and parking (with some teams falling by the wayside in the process).

This time, NASCAR at least gave some advance warning — but it doesn’t make the fallout any better.

For 2011, those purses are being cut by another 20% in an effort to make hosting the Nationwide Series a more profitable venture for race tracks. There seems to be a rationale for this concept, given that some events have drawn less than 20,000 fans, even on Cup companion weekends (Charlotte), and that Gateway International Raceway declined to host their two race dates next season.

Problem is, there’s no profit to be made hosting Nationwide Series events if the product continues down its path to irrelevance. That’s exactly what purse cuts are going to exacerbate. With winnings cut, only Cup teams with bigger budgets are going to be able to allocate the necessary resources to develop the new Nationwide Series car and improve on the track. In short, the independent teams of which NASCAR has already lost boatloads are going to take the brunt of this latest rule change.

Further, with less money to be made, more sponsorship is going to be needed to fill the holes in the operating budget. And as has been seen time and time again, sponsors are going to go with a proven Cup driver over a development or career Nationwide Series driver nine times out of 10. In short, the cuts are going to do nothing but further the gap between the haves and have-nots, providing yet another incentive for Cup drivers to run Nationwide Series races. The means the two biggest contributors to the Nationwide Series losing its profit margin are going to be reinforced by this latest change.

How significant is the pay cut? 20% of the last-place share that Jeff Green took home on Friday night amounts to roughly $4,081. That’s several sets of tires, entry fees, all kinds of expenses that, over the course of a 34-race season, are really going to add up. Somehow, though, I doubt the Gibbs and Hendrick camps are going to feel that pinch.

FIVE: Carl Edwards to Run the Full Nationwide Series Schedule in 2011

Until a report by the Sporting News on Monday that NASCAR was (surprise) giving a second thought to putting restrictions on Cup driver participation in the Nationwide Series starting in 2011, the rumored rule change likely to be made was to prohibit Cup drivers from competing for the NNS driver title.

Yet even in the face of such a restriction, Carl Edwards still announced at Bristol over the weekend that he would be running the full Nationwide schedule in 2011, the seventh consecutive season that he will run both Nationwide and Cup full-time. Who can blame him? Even if NASCAR puts a rule in place that prevents Edwards from going for the championship, he’d still be free to run 34 races, racking up plenty of trophies while winning millions that Nationwide Series drivers and teams are going to be in even more desperate need of next year.

NASCAR doesn’t seem to get it. If Cup drivers can still run all 34 races even without winning the title, they’re still going to win 90% of these events, take huge chunks of the purse, and dominate TV time. They’re still going to provide sponsors with an incentive to go with a proven star over a development driver.

Sound familiar to point number 4? It is. That’s the point: If NASCAR keeps making the same mistakes, the same exploitation is going to continue by the same folks who’ve been abusing the system for years — leaving Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and even Brad Keselowski to continue to be the face of NASCAR’s minor leagues.

I guess that’s the best you can do if you can’t topple Jimmie.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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DoninAjax
08/24/2010 09:42 AM
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What are the chances NASCAR cut their sanctioning fees? Not much.

Ken Smith
08/24/2010 10:32 AM
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NASCAR to cut Nationwide purses 20%. Who owns NASCAR? The France family! Who owns half the tracks? The FRANCE family!! Who benefits the most from the purse reduction? THE FRANCE FAMILY !!!!

PCarp
08/24/2010 11:03 AM
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The first paragraph is dead on, thanks for making that point clear. This “feat” is really not that big of a deal when all the details surronding it our laid out.

Bob Chimento
08/24/2010 11:43 AM
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I have but one thing to say:

Brain France… you are killing your grandfathers dream!

Bette
08/24/2010 12:24 PM
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Concerning Sprint car drivers running in Nationwide,Has anyone thought about how many people would lose their jobs if the ‘Big Boys’ quit?

Gordon82Wins
08/24/2010 06:50 PM
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Brad might indeed have exacted some revenge on Kyle if he weren’t on probation—for racing Carl Edwards hard in the “have at it boys” era.

Not complaining Bryan, just a reminder.

DoninAjax
08/24/2010 07:04 PM
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Maybe Brad’s probation should only extend to Carl.

wingcars6970
08/24/2010 08:27 PM
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This N-Wide is a messy catch 22 deal. How about no points or purse money for the “Claim Jumpers” 25th or better in Cup points? I too love paragraph 1…Two Thumbs Up!

DoninAjax
08/24/2010 09:25 PM
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How about Cup drivers get half points and half prize money and the money goes back evenly to the Nationwide regulars?

dave in ohio
08/24/2010 10:11 PM
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Y’all keep whining about “cup” drivers running in the Nationwide series, but who would be racing there without them?

I just went to jayski’s nationwide page and checked the points standings. To this point in the season only 14 (yes, that’s right, 14) drivers have started all 24 races this season, and only 7 more have started 20 or more races. My math adds that up to only 21 “full time” Nationwide teams, and 4 of those are “cup” drivers, leaving only 17 “full time” Nationwide-only drivers.

Do you seriously expect to run a supposedly premium national series with only 17 full time drivers? Anyone with any bit of sense would have to say no you cannot. At this point the series could not fill fields without a few “cup” drivers. By the way, those drivers also fill the stands, and draw tv viewers, all of which gives more desparately needed exposure to smaller teams.

All of that is beside the point, which is traditional racing. Meaning that anybody that shows up at the track with an entry fee and a legal car gets to race (or at least try to qualify) and nobody gives a hoot what that person does the other 6 days a week. The fastest 43 cars on the grounds get to race. Period. No politically correct BS about who does or does not “deserve” to race that day.

Shut up and race.

Dave in Ohio

ex-Na$car fan
08/25/2010 08:29 AM
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These Cup drivers are taking money out of the pocket of the little guy trying to make it, which is what this series started for. If all the Cup guys weren’t racing it would move some of the mid-pack NW only drivers up to the top where they could make more money to keep the team alive. Bette says look at all the people who would lose jobs if the cup boys weren’t there. Well look at all the jobs being lost with teams folding because they can’t compete with the cup boy. Just another case of the rich getting richer & the poor just getting booted out the door.

midasmicah
08/25/2010 11:36 AM
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The nationwide series will be even more irrelevant next year. I quit watching the “cup light” series earlier this year.

EZ
08/25/2010 12:44 PM
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Racing for the win(as should always be done) is always walking the thin line.That’s what makes it exciting.

Steve
08/25/2010 03:18 PM
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Dave in Ohio said: To this point in the season only 14, and only 7 more have started 20 or more races.

Stop and think a minute Dave. There were 7 NW regulars that went home on Friday night because of more than 12 Cup guys entering the race.

Its not by choice that they are not racing in the series. And some are just plain staying home because they know they will get knocked out by a Cup regular so why spend the money.

This is the problem. Get the Cup guys out and sponsors won’t have any choice but to sponsor an up and coming driver. More teams will show up to qualify and more teams will have an opportunity to win races. It will also force guys like Roush, Gibbs, etc to put NW regulars in their cars.

Alot of things would change for the better if the Cup guys were gone. But France seems to think he will make more money with more Cup guys. He doesn’t get it. Apparently he never checked out the series about 10 years ago. There were few Cup guys and the up and comers used to put on a great show. These drivers are now our stars in Cup.

I cringe at what’s going to happen when guys like Tony, Jimmie, Jeff, Jr all retire. Whose going to take their place?