Thomas Bowles · Tuesday May 3, 2011
Hard to believe, but NASCAR’s regular season is already one-third complete. The secret of who’s an early season contender has been revealed, and for those off to a slow start? They’re quickly reaching a “now or never” point of no return. For everyone, perfection is next on the agenda; the Lady In Black, Darlington Raceway has no time for mistakes or those who are a little off their game.
Bad news, indeed, for today’s first Fact or Fiction candidate…
FACT: Kurt Busch Has Become The Most Vulnerable Chaser
On the stat sheet, Darlington serves as the cure for what ails Kurt Busch. Third in the race last Spring, that served as a catalyst to his outstanding May; by Memorial Day, he’d won the All-Star Race and the Coke 600, had a Chase spot all but secured and was looking like Jimmie Johnson’s most fearsome foe.
But now, those who fear Busch the most are the ones that wear his same uniform. While younger brother Kyle has matured, it’s Kurt who’s regressed to the type of Snooki-style, temper tantrum antics that must have crew chief Steve Addington and company at their wits’ end behind the scenes. And now, a season that got off to such a strong start stands on the brink this trip down to South Carolina; while sixth in the standings, Busch hasn’t had a top-5 finish since his season debut at Daytona, has run no better than 10th the last five races and sits just 26 points in front of A.J. Allmendinger in 11th.
It’s not helping that Busch’s teammate, Brad Keselowski has a list of more cars he’s made contact with lately than laps led. With no other Dodge superteam out there to compare notes with, Penske Racing is left to dig out of their deepening hole alone… with a leader behind the wheel whose hobbies include burning bridges with the crew on race day. That means the No. 22 team is behind the eight ball, a fire starting that could derail their season… someone better bring the water to snuff it out, and fast.
FICTION: David Ragan Is Definitely Out At Roush Fenway
For months, heck the better part of a year Roush Fenway’s youngest Cup driver has had to deal with the whispers. He’s too inconsistent… peaked as a second-year driver in 2008 … Trevor Bayne is younger, hipper, has more potential. Many, including yours truly had Bayne pigeon-holed for the No. 6 ride in 2012 mere days after the Daytona 500 was a study in contrasts: Ragan shot himself in the foot by jumping the restart while Bayne displayed pinpoint accuracy in using the two-car draft to take the checkered flag first.
But just like those trumpeting Obama’s automatic reelection… not so fast. Rides change hands in November, not February and the last three months has seen a decided tilt back in Ragan’s direction at Roush Fenway (where he’s technically signed through 2014 as it is). A fourth-place run at Richmond was his best of the season, leaving him 19th in points, armed with a faint pulse of Chase contention and pulling enough improvement this season to give the wandering eyes of that little brown packaging company who backs him some pause. Add in Bayne’s recent health trauma – for all we know, a Brian Vickers situation could be developing there – and the door has definitely cracked open for Ragan to keep himself in place.
The key is probably getting UPS to bite, not an easy task considering their near-decade of frustration with drivers that didn’t pan out. But in this dicey NASCAR world, Ragan’s at least given himself a shot to stay in place for the long-term.
FACT: Darlington’s Mother’s Day Race Works
Yes, I know the Darlington Labor Day Tradition gone away is a wrong that needs to be righted. Until the Southern 500 returns to its rightful place in history, there are a small section of NASCAR fans that won’t even turn on the television.
But should the sport come to its senses, may I make one suggestion? Go ahead and give Darlington two dates again instead of one. The attendance hasn’t suffered there as much compared to other tracks, and I think that’s because there’s something magical about this Mother’s Day event that has struck the right cord with many. Whether it’s the drivers’ moms introduced before the event, the beauty of racing under the lights or the perfect Spring weather, NASCAR has hit on a combination that’s working for them. Hopefully, as other tracks wither into irrelevancy Darlington’s ability to promote itself effectively will be rewarded.
FICTION: Cup Races Are Exactly The Right Length
I bring this last point up as the age-old argument rages: should we be shortening races? I still think there’s some value to long distances, but one bullet in my old arsenal about why has lost its effectiveness: cars aren’t being tested mechanically anymore.
Looking through the 400-lapper at Richmond (and yes, I know it was only 300 miles) there were only five DNFs: four for start-and-parkers and one for a wreck. Engines, brakes, most major parts are near-automatics to last for the major teams, meaning the nervous anticipation of whether a runaway leader will finish that way is gone. Sure, Joe Gibbs Racing has had an engine hiccup or two, but for the most part these modern-day, multi-car shops have their I’s dotted and their t’s crossed. It’s up to the driver and crew chief to perform because the car? It’s finishing the race… and that’s why I’m now beginning to wonder, especially if engineering is restricted whether the racing should take longer than two hours each week.
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