The Frontstretch: 5 Points To Ponder: A Penske Rebellion? Chase Panic Over Nothing, And The Change We Should Have Seen by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday September 27, 2011

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Editor’s Note: Hey everyone! You’re not used to seeing me in this space, but our “tell it like it is” writer, Bryan Davis Keith is living a hard knock life these days: he got free tickets to the Foster The People concert last-minute. What does that one-day vacation mean for your life? A bit of a switch; I’ll fill in today while Bryan takes over our weekly staple, Did You Notice?, for this Wednesday’s edition on the website.

Loudon, New Hampshire left a sour taste in most fans’ mouths after fuel mileage dominated the NASCAR landscape Sunday. So as we dust off, ignore the Sunoco signs and try to move on, I’ll promise you this much regarding the column ahead: that’s the last you’ll hear about gas or Tony Stewart’s “dead weight” National Enquirer story.

Fat, of course isn’t what Kurt Busch was mouthing off about this week; instead, it’s a more R-Rated version likely to cause a monetary fine from NASCAR. But is the real “F-U” not coming from Busch, per se, but the No. 22 team he works for? That very topic leads off this action-packed edition of Five Points To Ponder.

ONE: Is Kurt Busch’s Team Bailing On Him?

One day after Busch’s Shell/Pennzoil Dodge got held until the final minutes of pre-race inspection, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby reiterated there would be no further fines or penalties for the team. Instead, he’s letting their actions speak for themselves, an ugly history of being late and lazy revealed by owner Roger Penske during a talk with SIRIUS Speedway’s Dave Moody.

“The last two or three weeks, we had been late getting through tech,” he said Monday morning. “Then, if we had a little bit of a problem, we had to go back through again. (NASCAR) said, ‘We’ve had enough of you going back through for little things.’

“I’m going to sit down with (crew chief Steve) Addington and the guys this week and say, ‘We’ve got to have our car in inspection prior to qualifying and also prior to the race on time and not have this happen again.’”

Penske was embarrassed by the incident, one that caused a verbal meltdown from Busch both before and during the 300-lap disaster that was their Loudon. Never in contention, Busch lost it early and often on the radio, part of a trend of lovely gems he’s released for the scanner-listening public:

“Absolutely nothing. Plows getting in, plows through the center, snaps loose off. Got nothing.”

“I don’t need assistance explaining who took what tires. We do need assistance working on a flat track where cars don’t turn or stick. I knew this going in.”

Those, of course, were the G-Rated versions. However, complaints turned so ugly and vicious midway through the race Busch’s spotter and crew chief got on the radio to say, in no uncertain terms, “Keep your head in the game!”

The driver’s response? Throw it back in the face of the crew he abuses every week, angry over the pre-race inspection evident even after he exited the car (“Pre-race inspection set the tone for our day” was the first line in his post-race quotes). Yet as Penske mulls over making changes, you wonder… why isn’t his anger focused on the guy who’s verbally smacking around the rest of the team every week? Couldn’t he be the one causing these inspection issues by the way he’s beating down the team’s motivation?

Is it Kurt Busch’s “knock ‘em dead” personality that has his team dragging their feet to inspection every week? Oh boy…

Being late to inspection is clearly an issue of motivation, not trickery; it’s a routine part of the job. But if you’re on the No. 22 team, tell me – what reason do you have to be excited for the “work” you’re supposed to put into the postseason? The driver you work for threatened to fight a media member in the last month, ripped a transcript out of the hand of another before storming off, and spends his time inside the race car telling you how awful your setup is and that everyone is a piece of sh&t.

So when there’s the pressure of putting the car through pre-race inspection, how is Steve Addington able to whip these guys into shape? That’s the perfect opportunity for the team to make a statement, before the demands of the race begins and the glimmer of sitting on the head table post-Homestead takes over. No one would dare let their guard down then; but during those down times, in pre-race when people have a chance to think about how much they’ve been verbally scarred? It’s certainly feasible playing fire with inspection is a way to showcase their unhappiness with a situation that’s getting worse.

Here’s another problem for Busch going forward, one that Penske has yet to wake up and realize. For years, Busch has been light years ahead of his teammates, to the point the organization had no choice but to sit there and take it. But now? With Brad Keselowski third and inching towards championship sleeper status, Busch is suddenly a bit more vulnerable, second in line and will not command as powerful a response to those verbal outbursts that have created major changes in the past. The more Busch struggles, the more angry tirades will do nothing more than fall on deaf ears. That’s why—especially if the No. 22 drops out of Chase contention after Dover—this situation bears watching. As always with the elder Mr. Busch, it’s going to get worse before it gets better…

TWO: Jimmie Johnson’s title dreams are toast? Hardly

I’m getting a good laugh this week from people worrying about Johnson tenth in the Chase. Writers, insiders and fans have penned everything from “he’s a man making moves of desperation” to “Knaus and Johnson are at each other’s throats” after the two had a small, verbal tiff on the radio. (For those who missed it: Johnson got annoyed at Knaus’ cheerleading off the pit box, briefly losing his rhythm for the rarity of ripping his head wrench a new one). Historically, tenth is the lowest position Johnson’s been in the standings after two Chase events, enough for some pundits at the ready to write off the dynasty before this postseason ever began.

Well, sadly, I have news for you people: the demise of the No. 48 has been greatly exaggerated. This weekend marks a trip to Dover, a place where the team has led an astounding 1,192 of the last 2,000 laps run (59.6%). The last two years, this Lowe’s Chevrolet has blistered the field en route to Victory Lane in the Fall and would have won this Spring’s Monster Mile marathon if not for a late-race caution that jumbled up the field through pit strategy. Without question, they’re an overwhelming favorite to win at the same place Tony Stewart finished a ho-hum 29th this Spring.

Quick, guys, just for the heck of it let’s do the math. If Stewart runs 29th again, he’ll earn 15 points while Johnson, if he wins the race and leads the most laps will come up with 48. That’s a 33-point swing, enough to put Johnson in front of Stewart by four with seven races – yes, a full seven – left to go on the calendar.

Chances are a victory won’t put Johnson in the championship lead, because Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Carl Edwards are a good deal of points ahead, too. But Johnson, within six points of fifth in the standings would almost automatically vault into the top 5 with a victory or even a second-place finish, leaving him well-positioned heading towards the next two 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule. And if I remember correctly, it was Johnson who had the second, maybe the third-best car at 1.5-mile oval Chicagoland until fuel mileage turned that race into a strategy run down the stretch.

Now, if Johnson falters this weekend at Dover, running sixth or worse at their best track on the schedule, I’ll start to believe this dynasty’s over. But don’t get a little marital spat—normal in even the best driver/crew chief pairings—combined with your wish for Johnson’s downfall override good, ol’ fashioned common sense.

THREE: Should Joe Gibbs Racing Have Made A Crew Chief Change This Summer?

Breaking News: The Chase Hasn’t Gone So Well for Joe Gibbs Racing …

Duh! So much has been written about the failures of Kyle Busch (sixth in points after entering as the top seed) and Denny Hamlin (dead last) we don’t need to waste space here. How steep is Hamlin’s Chase hill to climb? Even if the No. 11 Toyota won each of the last eight races, leading the most laps in the process, Stewart could still win the title by finishing just fourth or better each week.

But in this world where the postseason rules, you forget there’s a third member of the JGR stable who’s quietly disappeared. Joey Logano, now two years removed from his only Cup victory waved the white flag on his 2011 season back in August. In the last ten races run on ovals, “Sliced Bread” has just one top-10 finish – a fourth at Loudon this July – while seeing his relationship with crew chief Greg Zipadelli turn stale. 21st in points, with just 58 laps led this season Logano has gained little, if any momentum since Carl Edwards’ flirtation with JGR ended in August, assuring the youngster still had a job in 2012.

Hamlin’s effort has been a little different—suffering more from bad breaks than bad chemistry—but it’s undeniable the relationship with crew chief Mike Ford has remained tenuous at best since losing that title bid in 2010. So what should JGR do? It’s unlikely any changes will happen now, with Busch still on the fringes of title contention and no ripples of distraction needed in a shop that’s already on edge. It’s a tough pill to swallow, considering a ten-week trial combining Zipadelli and Hamlin (with Logano and Ford paired together) could have given this organization a head start on whether they need to look elsewhere for 2012. Now, if the switch happens in the offseason and the new personnel doesn’t mesh, they’ve cost Hamlin another year in his prime… all in the name of fighting for a championship the No. 11 program had no chance of winning in the first place. Any casual observer knew heading into the postseason the title was a longshot at best for Hamlin; so if you’re switching engines, already giving the experimental TRD stuff to the No. 11 why wouldn’t you go full bore and make a head wrench change on top of it?

Of course, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback in hindsight. But considering how badly this postseason has gone – and make no bones about it, things have been awful for all three teams – it’s a legitimate criticism in the face of almost certain changes that now have to wait until November, ruining a two-month test session that could have served as an excellent advantage for 2012.

Jeff Gordon was probably not thinking too highly of the wave-around rule this past Sunday.

FOUR: Did The Wavearound Cost Jeff Gordon a Chance at a Loudon Victory?

I’ve made no secret of the fact I hate the wavearound rule. In this age of NASCAR parity, I think it gives people their laps back way too easily, causing too many free gifts instead of letting the race naturally play out.

We saw a great example of how it can work against people on Sunday, when Jeff Gordon had the field covered by staying out longer during a green-flag stop around halfway. Once the caution came out, that left Gordon one of just four cars on the lead lap along with David Ragan, Kasey Kahne, and Mark Martin. Under the old system, without the wavearound and double-file restarts that would have left Gordon with plenty of cars ahead of him and the chance to pit in peace; the aggression of trying to stay in front of the No. 24 would have almost certainly led to better racing. Something entertaining to watch for at least a few laps…

Instead? All those cars trapped a lap down during green-flag stops got theirs back immediately by staying out on the track. They got their full lap back instantaneously, starting right behind the No. 24 and were not penalized for the unpredictability of the race playing out. One of those guys who got the wavearound, by the way? Tony Stewart. We all know where he finished.

Look, I understand the confusion of trying to find the leader during these types of caution flag situations under the old system. But what’s wrong with asking people to learn the rules? Every sport has the occasional complex scenario, one where new fans need to sit down and look for an explanation from the experts. Does it stop them from watching a sport they’re falling in love with? Probably not. So in this case, we’ve oversimplified the rules for no good reason, reducing the ability for unpredictable finishes and greater aggression in the process.

FIVE: Think This Title Race Is A Runaway? Well…

Certainly, this season is one where people think the Chase made things worse, not better with the point standings. Under the current format, if the regular season continued we’d have four drivers within 13 markers of the lead after Loudon. With the reset? We have four drivers within 14 … not exactly the way to create more excitement.

But for those worried this playoff’s about to make you hit the snooze button, I did a little experiment. Assuming everyone finishes the same way they did at Dover this Spring (and yes, that’s with Johnson landing ninth, not first) here’s the way the standings would look three races into the Chase:

Kevin Harvick: 2121
Carl Edwards: 2118 -3
Matt Kenseth: 2115 -6
Brad Keselowski: 2114 -7
Tony Stewart: 2109 -12
Kyle Busch: 2108 -13
Jimmie Johnson: 2102 -19
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: 2101 -20
Jeff Gordon: 2098 -23
Kurt Busch: 2096 -25
Ryan Newman: 2083 -38
Denny Hamlin: 2056 -65

If history repeats itself, Stewart falls back to earth while Harvick is pretty much kept in check. Phew! Still, when will NASCAR get the message, especially in a year we’ve had 16 different winners: Cup doesn’t need the postseason format to make this type of close competition a reality!

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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09/27/2011 03:38 AM

Tom, I think the wavearound rule was implemented more because of safety. Having 10-20 cars restart on the tail end of the lead lap creates a desperate situation for many drivers, which often result in large wrecks that tear up tail-end cars and race leaders alike (Dover 2004 & Kansas 2007 among the examples).

Had the old rules been in place this past Sunday and a wreck broke out on that restart, Gordon could have very well ended the race with a torn-up car instead of a 4th place finish.

09/27/2011 07:44 AM

I think one option should be added to the poll, and that’s to keep the wave-around rule, but eliminate the lucky dog. Now that the opportunity exists to get back on the lead lap albeit with old tires and less fuel, let them play that strategy card. At least it’s not just an arbitrary “give one guy a lap back.”

Bill B
09/27/2011 07:50 AM

Kurt Busch is one of the biggest D-bags I’ve ever seen in any sport. His team should bail on him.

I don’t like the wave around rule because it has become an entitlement. It occurs waaaay more often than guys used to be placed at the tail end of the lead lap. Maybe once in 5 races you’d encounter cars placed on the tail end of the lead lap. The wave around sometimes happens 5 times a race. Why is that? It has also made the first half of the race less important because getting lapped early doesn’t really matter like it did before the wave around rule.

09/27/2011 08:53 AM

so last year Nascar penalized Clint Bowyer’s team a bunch of points for a minor infraction in inspection – they never recovered from it during the chase.

But this year, Kurt Busch has a problem during inspection and there are NO penalties?

Different rules every year.

Bill B
09/27/2011 09:05 AM

You are right but look a little bit deeper and you will notice that no one has been fined any points for anything this year (at least that I can remember). Can you remember a year where there were fewer points penalties than this year? It seems that when NASCAR changed the points system they also got rid of points penalties.

09/27/2011 09:15 AM

The wavearound rule is nothing more than, like double file restarts, an attempt to artifically inject some excitement into races that quickly get strung out and boring.
As far as the other stuff, these crews are professionals, paid to perform, just like the guys down at the mill. Crew chiefs are like supervisors, if the guys dont perform they are empowered to correct the problem. Bottom line.

09/27/2011 09:20 AM

There are occasions where the wavearound rule is abused and people who don’t belong on the lead lap are able to get a lap back that way.
When a caution comes out during a round of pit stops it works very well. Guys who were still out get to pit under caution and great track position. Guys who have already pitted are not penalized a lap.

Michael in SoCal
09/27/2011 11:07 AM

I’m with Dave on the wave around, and with the entire world in my total disgust with Kurt Busch. He makes Kyle look like an angel.

Bill S.
09/27/2011 12:28 PM

Tom, why is it that FACTS trip you up so often? According to NASCAR, Kyle Busch is 6th in the points right now, using their own tie-breaker rule, not ninth as you stated. You are (shockingly) correct in stating that Jimmie Johnson is tenth, but you bow down to kiss 5-time’s butt, while writing Kyle and JGR off when they are in a slightly better position with more points and fewer drivers to pass than Mr. Johnson.

And don’t give me history. This is 2011 and in the head to head confrontation between Ky Busch and JJ late in the race, Kyle absolutely refused to give an inch to JJ, even though Jimmie’s car was clearly faster. When that little dust-up turned them both sideways, Kyle recovered quickly and finished 11th while JJ was stuck in 18th.

It is too early to write anybody off, except maybe Hamlin who came in with no expectations. And it is also too early to hand the hardware to Jimmie or Carl or Kevin or any of your chosen ones. Let us recall the FACT that no Chase leader after the first 2 races has ever won the championship.

As for your vilification of Kurt Busch, many of your colleagues were giving him credit for the turnaround of both the 2 and 22 mid-season, supposedly because his tirades caused both crews to work harder. Now the same behavior is the cause of his team’s problems, according to you. You people can’t have it both ways.

And Bill B., Kyle’s team was penalized points earlier this year for some kind of minor infraction, so there is a precedent.

09/27/2011 12:37 PM

ok no one asked but here’s my 2 cents worth.

1. if i remember correctly a certain someone gave kurt a pop to the schnoz that calmed him down for quite a few years. (maybe penske needs to hire spenser for some old school tutelage.)
2. i still say the driver of the 48 is making moves that look as if they are borne out of frustration/desperation. there might be a small hole in the dike, but noooooo way am i counting chad out this.
3. Deny needs to come to terms with how much his reputation outshines what he actually delivers. joey, although far more likable, is just as much a product of the media. Gibbs needs to find a driver that can truly help develop the car to kyle’s style. crew chief swaps aren’t going to help the organization as much as a little more counseling for kyle to help prevent him from self destructing again.
4. even though i dislike it, eliminating the wave around isn’t going to fix anything. there are bigger problems afoot with the “racing” like driver motivation, the amount of money involved and aero push. i really don’t see what was wrong with racing to the yellow. to my knowledge, i don’t recall a situation where anyone was actually jeopardized and if there is such a situation, do what the dirt guys do. red flag it and the drivers can come to a stop as soon as they deem safe. duh.
5. yes, the chase is assanine.

Managing Editor - To Bill S.
09/27/2011 12:38 PM


Appreciate the correction on Kyle Busch. Kurt is ninth, Kyle is sixth so I literally mistranscribed between the two. The point still sticks, though; he’s had two straight finishes outside the top 10 to start the Chase. Not what you want when you’re the top seed heading in… the difference between 26 and 28 points (and I knew the deficit, just mistranscribed) is marginal at best.

And if you’re not going to buy history as an answer, well we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Busch has a history of choking in the Chase, making a good start critical to boost his team’s confidence – and overall chances. Johnson, of course has a history of doing no such thing… so he gets the benefit of the doubt.

I wouldn’t believe in history, personally, except for the whole bit about it repeating itself. That’s what gets me ;O)

Kevin in SoCal
09/27/2011 01:00 PM

I find it funny that back when NASCAR first announced the “double file restarts” and the “wave around rule,” the media and most of the fans were in favor of it. It made NASCAR’s rules more like the local short tracks. Now, there’s been a 180* switch and some people are saying they dont like it. How fickle people are, changing their opinions as often as the wind blows.

JD in NC
09/27/2011 01:23 PM

Yep, Bill S. is correct. Kyle was penalized six points back in June at Pocono for failing post race inspection. The front left corner was 1/16th” too low. I also agree with Michael in SoCal. Kyle is certainly looking like the more mentally stable of the Busch brothers. Kyle still has the personality of a spoiled brat, but Kurt is a world class a**. I can certainly understand the crew having zero motivation to help him succeed on the track, even to the detriment of their own personal success. I don’t think Kurt is in Jimmie’s head, I think he is in his own head.

09/27/2011 03:32 PM

The wave around condition was pretty much existing for years before it just depened on the track…It creates a gamble for reward situation (ya know Entertainment)

09/27/2011 04:50 PM

Tom I think I’ll agree with some others in that the “Chase” will be decided a few race’s from now…So while you cheer (usual bias) for your fav’s nobody’s going to win for a while (you must be a gas on the first lap)…If I was with kurt busher I’d be happy to see him fail…Hamlin should have had a new crew chief by July (I could hear it in the spring) the relationship is dead there..Wave around is GREAT for entertainment (these cars these tracks) we don’t need to lose any more entertainment…Try to evolve some with Nascar..Just another opinion from a long time fan

Bill S.
09/27/2011 06:02 PM

To Managing Editor: “Choking in the Chase?” Would that consist of a blown engine and various and sundry mechanical failures in 2008? Seems to me those are not in the control of the driver to “choke on.” Neither is fuel mileage miscalulation. And talking about splitting hairs – Kyle was 11th at Loudon with a crap car, and yes, that means two finishes outside the top ten. In the olden days (last year), a top five or top ten was worth proportionately more than it is now, so that statistic is meaningless this year except to try to prove a point. And until this mess is over, one point of view is as valid as the next.

With so many races decided on race strategy, isn’t it really a misnomer to even call it a driver’s championship any more?


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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