The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Smoke Rises, Onion's Folly, and Newman, Atlanta Fall Short by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday September 6, 2010

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ONE: Two Seasons Diverge for Stewart-Haas Racing

Sunday’s 500-miler at Atlanta Motor Speedway provided both Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart with the respective watershed moments of their 2010 seasons. For Stewart, that moment came under the seventh yellow flag of the evening for Brad Keselowski’s spin. After a night that saw the No. 14 a true contender for the race win, with laps led and a car that short of restarts was among the class of the field, Darian Grubb’s pit crew delivered on lap 297, earning the team the biggest gain of any car in the top 10 and allowing Stewart to start second. Being that far up front for the restart on lap 300, Stewart was quickly able to recover from spinning his tires at the drop of the green (a problem that dogged the No. 14 team all night long), pass Carl Edwards one lap later, and drive off to score his first win since Kansas nearly one year ago.

Tony Stewart has a tendency toward a summer hot streak. Could the win at Atlanta be the start of one of those streaks?

The win can best be described as better late than never for Stewart, with the summer stretch that has long been his bread and butter coming to a close. And it also could not have come at a better time for a driver who won the 2005 Cup title largely thanks to turning the momentum of one win into a hot stretch that no one had an answer for; Stewart followed his first win of the 2005 season up by winning four of the six that followed. There are few drivers that tend to hot streaks as much as Stewart…and he’s yet to have one this year. With the first Chase race merely two events away, Stewart’s pit crew may well have put their driver in position not just to win on Sunday…but to win Cup number three.

On that same lap 300 restart that saw Stewart ride off to victory, teammate Ryan Newman also had a punctuation mark put on his season. Tonight was do-or-die for the No. 39 team, a squad that despite breaking a long winless streak back at Phoenix in the spring was at best a fringe candidate for a slot in the Chase. Saddled with what was a top 15 car and running merely on the lead lap for much of Sunday, Newman went for broke on lap 300. Making the most aggressive move he has on track since the one that took him to victory lane earlier this season on a green-white-checker at PIR, Newman went three-wide entering turn 1 on the restart and mashed the throttle, passing over half a dozen cars and brazenly forcing his way into the top 5, even making contact with Kasey Kahne (the driver of the No. 9 was none too happy with Newman for the contact, exchanging words following the race).

For Newman, it was what his team needed, a top 5 run on an intermediate track and a finish ahead of Clint Bowyer. But unlike teammate Stewart, a run at the 2010 Cup did not prove to be in the cards. The car was not there, and despite all the aggression Newman was unable to best Bowyer, unable to stay in the top 5, and unable to make up the ground needed to stay a viable Chase candidate. Though 13th in points and not mathematically eliminated, the chances of Newman making up 117 markers on Bowyer, especially at Richmond, are slim to none.

Two seasons diverged in Atlanta for Stewart-Haas Racing. This year, the team’s namesake will go on his own in pursuit of a Cup.

TWO: Nothing to Worry About for JGR’s Engine Program

Denny Hamlin emerged from his crippled top 5 car, robbed of any shot at victory after a blown motor ruined a weekend that saw Hamlin score his first pole since Fontana last October. His first remarks to the media? “Reliability is still somewhat of a problem.” Teammate Joey Logano limped home to a 27th place result with a wounded motor that was unable to keep the No. 20 car moving on the straightaways.

That said, Hamlin’s statement was a bit paranoid, considering that his DNF for engine failure on Sunday night was the first for any Joe Gibbs Racing Cup car in 2010. But it’s also hard to come down on him for expressing concern, seeing as how the No. 11 team suffered two DNFs from blown motors in last year’s Chase.

Considering all of this, here’s all that needs to be taken away from JGR’s engine woes; there is nothing for JGR fans to be concerned about. As much as the No. 11 team will stick with their story that Atlanta marked the first Chase race for them, anyone that buys the notion that JGR’s engine department isn’t using the last few races before Loudon as a chance to try stuff out and push limits is kidding themselves. It’s common practice, and has been for years now, for teams that have Chase berths all but assured to use the races leading up to the 10-race playoff as test sessions, to prepare for their runs at the big prize. As for teammates that have no prayer of Chase contention? Guess what, those same teams will throw experimental parts and setups into their cars as well.

Treating it as a Chase race or not, Hamlin’s team was pushing themselves on Sunday. Chances are Joey Logano’s team was doing the same thing for them. JGR went too far, but learned invaluable lessons about what they can and can’t do when Hamlin and Busch begin their latest attempt to topple Jimmie Johnson in a few weeks.

Move along people, there’s nothing to see here.

THREE: On the Other Hand, Kurt Busch Fans Do Have Something to Worry About

Kurt Busch may well have had the gutsiest performance of any driver in the field Sunday night, enduring hundreds of miles of running like junk and countless ineffectual adjustments only to lead laps, contend for the win late in the running and score a top 10 finish with a damaged race car. It was the type of performance championships are made of.

But once the feel-good luster of this effort wears off, Penske Racing’s performance as a whole on Sunday exposed just how unlikely it is that the No. 2 car will ever seriously contend for the 2010 Cup. This was the same track that Kurt Busch absolutely dominated on earlier in the spring, yet his team was up a creek without a paddle all night long. Steve Addington, crew and driver were flat lost for the majority of Sunday evening. Their saving grace was pit strategy…and the fact that in clean air a 21st place car can suddenly run like a first place car. Further, after making contact with Kasey Kahne with less than 25 laps to go, another late-race caution, the reset of the field and a chance to cool down his tires were all beneficial in allowing Busch to keep his car in the top 10.

Again, a great clutch performance. But circuits like Atlanta are the strong point for the No. 2 team. What does that say for their title hopes if it took pulling rabbits out of a hat to finish well on their best track?

Further, the rest of the Penske camp effectively proved on Sunday that they’ll be of no help whatsoever to the No. 2 car as the Chase unfolds. Brad Keselowski never cracked the top 20 all evening, eventually falling back to 25th by race’s end after a late race spin of his own making. And as for Sam Hornish, well, any time a team’s crew chief is telling his driver that the car his team gave him isn’t much (which Travis Geisler did), chances are they’re probably not an outfit to ask for favors and advice on how to setup a car.

The No. 2 team may as well be running as a single-car heading into the Chase, and now they’ll be doing so after they came up lame at one of their best tracks. Performances like Sunday are special because they’re rare…the No. 2 team can’t expect to to do that 10 times in the Chase.

FOUR: The Other Busch Taken to Task…for No Reason Whatsoever

Before the first Nationwide Series car took to the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, the Truck Series took the green flag at Kentucky Speedway on Friday night. That race culminated in one of the most heated exchanges anywhere in NASCAR this weekend, with Todd Bodine emerging in victory lane not joyous, but furious with Kyle Busch for what he perceived as dirty racing (Busch gave little quarter to Bodine as he tried to pass on the high side of turn 4, taking air off Bodine’s spoiler and sending him into a spin).

Rather than summarizing Bodine’s list of gripes with Busch, check out Frontstretch’s “exclusive interview” with the Onion on the matter.

Frankly, Bodine’s right on the money. For his considerable talent, Busch acts like a cross between a punk and a four-year-old way too often not to be taken down a peg or three by his peers and fans alike. Problem is, Bodine’s rationale for finally speaking out and taking Busch to task for his attitude and on-track persona is fatally flawed; that is to say, Bodine has no legitimate gripe with Busch stemming from Friday night.

Fact is, Kyle raced Todd hard on Friday night…and clean. There was never any contact made, even any deception by Busch as to what he was looking to do in racing Bodine. Kyle took the air off of Todd’s spoiler, an effective and long-time utilized tactic to pass on intermediate circuits. Busch raced exactly how the majority of race fans wish he would all the time. And for that reason he gets called out by Bodine?

Bodine’s harsh criticism of Busch is well-founded. Busch electing to confront Bodine in victory lane, in street clothes, because he didn’t like the name he was called on TV was petty. His bowling ball move on Jennifer Jo Cobb at Bristol in a Truck race last month was unnecessary. His decision to skip the drivers’ meeting because he had to start at the back anyway for Friday’s race reeks of disrespect. But all of that is based on a misguided perception by Bodine that Busch wronged him by racing him close on Friday night. That’s all the ammo that Busch, and his fans, are going to need to prevent this episode from being one that had the chance to finally wring some sense into NASCAR’s most volatile and destructive presence.

Well, except for Carl Edwards’ in a fit of ‘roid rage anyway.

FIVE: Atlanta Gets A Lot Right This Labor Day…and It Still Wasn’t Enough

There wasn’t an advertisement run in support of AMS’ Emory Healthcare 500 race weekend that didn’t emphasize how the facility and fans here in Atlanta were establishing a Labor Day tradition, the Southern venue that landed one of the most significant dates on the Cup calendar after a disastrous five year experiment in Fontana.

Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend deserves a lot of credit for the marketing they did leading up to this weekend. As Jim Utter astutely observed on Twitter throughout the afternoon Sunday, ever since the inception of the Chase back in 2004, as well as the demise of the Southern 500, a lot of NASCAR’s races have lost the special feel they long used to enjoy of being events in themselves far more than No. 25 of 36. This one was not one of those. Atlanta marketed this race not as the race before the Chase cutoff, but NASCAR on Labor Day. This was not the next race in the Cup season, but the nation’s largest Labor Day party. They went big with the marketing, they went big landing Foreigner for the pre-race concert, they went big with Bruton Smith not only confirming he was already trying to get AMS a second race back, but also dropping hints that he wanted the track to get its spot back as the finale event of the season (Smith remarked that he didn’t believe it was good for NASCAR to end its season in “North Cuba;” read, Homestead).

But despite their admirable efforts, the crowd fell short. Despite a healthier than expected Nationwide Series crowd and a buzz surrounding this event all weekend that hasn’t been felt by this writer since the season opener in Daytona, the crowd on Sunday night fell well short of this event even one year ago. The frontstretch grandstands were visibly bare in a number of places, and a number of figures in the media center were noticeably disappointed by what was seen looking out at the bleachers.

Blame the economy all you want, this was largely out of Atlanta’s control. Because no matter how much one advertises as such, tradition cannot be manufactured. Sure, rock concerts and big parties are a blast, but Atlanta Motor Speedway is not Darlington. And this was not the Southern 500. Having racing on Labor Day back in the Southeast is great, but the Emory Healthcare 500 is not an event that’s ever going to replace the gaping hole torn in NASCAR fans hearts from having the most significant race not run at Daytona taken away from them.

What we learned on Sunday, unfortunately at the expense of Atlanta’s tremendous efforts, is that the damage has been done. NASCAR’s Labor Day tradition will never be the same again. And all those empty seats are going to leave a dark shadow over what was a great race and a thrilling weekend.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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phil h
09/06/2010 01:07 PM
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North Cuba? LOL

RamblinWreck
09/06/2010 01:29 PM
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Hm, Bruton Smith is trying to get Atlanta a second race?

I think Atlanta had two races a year every year until Bruton Smith got rid of one.

Our hero.

mkrcr
09/06/2010 02:39 PM
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Todd Bodine always seems to forget his past. He’s the pot calling the kettle black.
Here’s a modified, more accurate interview, with Amy in April.

“Henderson: While some teams often get the reputation of “points racing,” your team is not one of them. You race for the win every week, but how do you balance trying to win races with needing to capitalize on points?”

Well Amy, our philosophy is simple, the more drivers I crash out the more points I collect. That is not just a philosophy, it’s a family tradition.

“Henderson: You’ve been known throughout your career as an aggressive driver, a style which seems to fit in the Truck Series. Why do you think your style is so well-suited to this particular series? You seem to have found a niche here.”

Absolutely Amy. Our family philosophy didn’t work out so well on the Cup side. But here in a series where everyone crashes, it’s easier to hide my lack of skills and carry on the tradition.

“Henderson: You not only have a great relationship with your team, but you have a special relationship with Toyota, having won them their first Series title and manufacturer’s title. Can you talk a little about your team’s relationship with Toyota and their strength in the Truck Series in particular?”

Well, Toyota is so hungry to be in American racing that they really don’t care what their teams and drivers do, just as long as we put them in the spotlight. So, there again, it’s a great fit for our tradition. If I don’t make it to the front, at least I show the Toyota toughness in my wrecks.

“Henderson: Who has helped you the most over your career?”

Easily, everyone I’ve drivin’ over and the list is long.

“Henderson: You’re headed to the grocery store. What one item is guaranteed to be on the list?”

Onions

nc1fish
09/06/2010 03:55 PM
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The cars are all clones, the drivers are clones, the blondes are clones,the tracks are clones. Why should I want to pay to watch ///NAS///CLONE///.

Michael in SoCal
09/06/2010 05:20 PM
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The cars have been clones since the mid-90s, but never has there been such a preponderance of cookie-cutter mile and a half (and a couple of two milers too) tracks with less than exciting racing. That, for me, is where Nascar’s biggest issue is.

Kevin in SoCal
09/06/2010 06:00 PM
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So what was the attendance at Atlanta? Was it more than the 66,000 that Darlington holds?

Kevin
09/06/2010 06:28 PM
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I really enjoyed the Cup race & I believe in AMS. The cars are mostly all the same. They can mitigate these circumstances by going to interesting, historic tracks. A second AMS race is in order.

thomas dalfonzo
09/06/2010 06:55 PM
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Why should any track have two races? If every track had just one event, think of all the possibilities you just opened up?

With the exception of the Daytona 500 on President’s Day weekend, the World 600 on Memorial Day Weekend, and the Southern 500 on Labor Day Weekend, you can move the races to whenever you want.

The NASCAR Cup circuit could be visiting, in addition to Kentucky, Gateway, Memphis, Nashville, Milwaukee, Iowa, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, and Pikes Peak if you follow this plan.

Another massive advantage is that you have a few slots open for new tracks to be built. Just pick your markets and build away. But whatever you do, don’t you dare make more 1.5 mile tracks.

I think that this is how the scheduling should be done. Every track will hold one race. That is the perfect way to balance the old and the new.

Bad Wolf
09/06/2010 10:02 PM
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Foreigner was the perfect fit for the “New Labor Day Tradition”. They got rid of “The Singer of Yesterday” Lou Gramm (one of the best rock voices ever) and replaced him with some younger hip frontman (Singer of Today) who can’t hold a candle to Lou Gramm and alienated the old fans.

Good to see the Jr. Debrie caution is still in full effect, wouldn’t want the handfull of Jr. fans on hand Sunday night to go home early.

Did you notice Rick Hendrick in Victory Lane congratulating his driver Tony Stewert after the win?

I remember back in ’94 Todd BoWhine took out his brother Geoff, along with Dale Jarret during the Inagural Brickyard 400 using one of his patented bonehead moves. Used to be if there was trouble on the track a BoWhine was close by.

Bad Wolf
09/06/2010 10:05 PM
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I think I have to corect myself. It was Brett BoWhine who did the deed at Indy in ’94, but the BoWhines are all the same.

MUBS
09/06/2010 11:43 PM
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Although I like your writing, you have to get over your hate for Kyle. It ruins what would be a good article week after week.

Ghost of Curtis Turner
09/07/2010 08:38 AM
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As Terry Labonte once said “ If your in a race with a Bodine somebody is going to get wrecked….”

and bring back the Southern 500 at Darlington…please….

Mike McLain
09/07/2010 08:57 PM
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I very much agree with the one race thing. And if they ever really wanted to fix the NW series all they’d have to do is not hold a sister event every weekend. Move some of the NW dates to places other than where the cup dates are and only have 2 cup races at daytona talladega martinsville richmond and the rest get 1 and include montreal gateway milwaukee PIKES PEAK and Rockingham. And I bet the attendance was less than 66000 that Darlington holds.

Steve
09/08/2010 01:09 PM
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Bodine just said what thousands of fans have been saying about Kyle for a long time now. He has been the only one with the guts to call Kyle out on it.

Nascar won’t do anything about it so its going to have to be a driver putting him in the wall or a physical confrontation before Kyle will start to get it.

Pretty low class of him to not only purposely miss the drivers meeting (where’s the fine?), but go to Victory Lane to confront another driver.

Susan
09/08/2010 03:21 PM
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Kyle Busch is outrageous, aggressive, unrepentant and the most talented driver in NASCAR – qualities he shares with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Far from being a “destructive presence” in NASCAR, he is the best thing the sport has going for it right now. NASCAR lets him “get away with it” because he knows where the line is drawn – unlike Brad and Carl. In a sport that is routinely criticized for boring cars with boring drivers leading to boring races, Kyle is NASCAR’s most valuable commodity. The drivers who criticize him are the ones who can’t compete with him on the racetrack, but know they can talk trash and the media will lap it up. Pure cowardice.

Kyle has apparently bruised a lot more egos than he has sheet metal!

And as for Carl’s alleged “roid rage,” Bryan, just where is your evidence to back up that libelous statement?