The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Who Crashes And Burns, A NASCAR Bridesmaid In Crisis And A+ Attendance... How? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 6, 2012

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Did You Notice?… The problems for Kurt Busch aren’t just happening off the track? No need to go any further on his probation-turned-suspension; you’ve already read 50 articles about it at this point (or hit your brain’s all-too-convenient “ignore” button, reserved for overkill scenarios like these or your least favorite relative). Instead, what I want to bring up is that, during a season where Kurt Busch is trying to keep his career intact, building a foundation with an underdog team, he’s instead developed a habit of bringing his car home in pieces.

It’s a problem that hasn’t gone unnoticed, with car owner James Finch speaking the words “don’t wreck racecars” Tuesday when referring to his pending Kurt Busch ultimatum, right up there with being nice to people on his list of demands. Why? Let’s take a quick look at the Sprint Cup drivers involved in the most accidents this season. Note: This list includes wrecks that have brought out the in-race caution flag only. Practice incidents are not counted here; drivers who “retired” due to crash damage, like Josh Wise at Richmond but never actually got involved in a yellow flag were counted as “one accident.”

In-Race “Crash” Leaders – Through 13 Of 36 Events

Kurt Busch – 5
Carl Edwards – 5
Tony Stewart – 5
Marcos Ambrose – 4
Dave Blaney – 4
Casey Mears – 4
Juan Pablo Montoya – 4 (includes Daytona jet dryer incident)
Ryan Newman – 4
Regan Smith – 4
A.J. Allmendinger – 3
Aric Almirola – 3
Kyle Busch – 3
Jeff Gordon – 3
Brad Keselowski – 3
Joey Logano – 3
Jamie McMurray – 3

“Accident-Free” In 2012: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin (he and Junior did have contact in Vegas… but no yellow)

A bit of a surprising tie at the top, right? But while Stewart and Edwards, last year’s championship 1-2 and among the sport’s Goliaths, have the resources to replace crumpled racecars, Busch’s unsponsored “David” outfit can’t exactly keep up. When you add in equipment destroyed in both practice and exhibitions, Finch claims the number of Chevys Busch has wrecked since the start of the season is 14. At this pace, Busch is prepared to wreck more equipment than even the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Jimmie Johnson “supershop” keeps on hand.

All too often, this has been the nightmare result of Kurt Busch and Phoenix Racing as Busch struggles to find speed in ways he’s never had to before.

How do you fix it? Unlike his off-track personality, where Busch has failed to reshape his image, the way he’s driving on the track has changed. A few weeks ago, Busch admitted to going “110%” and that aggression, while appreciated by fans, has been backfiring a bit. As the race draws on, and Busch falls further behind or gets in a position where a top 10 appears within reach, he’s losing sight of driving within his limits. That’s as much a mental problem as it is a physical one; I’ve noticed the more frustrated he becomes on the radio, the quicker that car winds up going in the wrong kind of circle.

Will Busch take the next week to work on reforming his off-track personality? That’s still wide open for debate. But if he doesn’t fix the on-track one, this team is only going to be forced to use even more outdated equipment, winding up well behind the curve. That may give Finch the out he needs to dump this former Cup champ for “racing-related reasons” – even if the off-track problems become too much to ignore.

Did You Notice?… Who else is on the top of that incident list? Yes, it’s Edwards and Stewart, our 2011 combatants turned 2012 enigmas. What sweet irony in the case of Stewart, whose satirical tirade over drivers “needing to crash cars” at Talladega is proving true in his case; after all, the No. 14 car was at the epicenter of Sunday’s Lap 10 wreck that wiped out nearly a quarter of Dover’s field. So what’s up with Smoke? After all, in the last two races no one on his Stewart-Haas Racing team has finished higher than 14th place; in contrast, none of his Hendrick Motorsports suppliers has run lower than 13th.

I think, in Stewart’s situation, it’s a case of getting aggressive with poor (yet experimental) setups knowing that two wins have all but “locked in” a spot inside the Chase. While other drivers are hanging back, Smoke is going for it knowing that there’s little if any gain at this point in pacing yourself to run 25th. Momentum during the spring and summer months meant nothing for him during a Chase run to the title that came out of nowhere. So why worry other than having to pay overtime for a few fabricators? If only more drivers were putting the pedal to the floor in quite the same way… or willing to think outside the box.

As for Edwards, it’s been a case of bad luck more than anything else. Restrictor plate Russian roulette struck at both Daytona and Talladega; it didn’t hurt him so much in the 500, where his his car was still capable of rallying to a top-10 finish, but ‘Dega left him 31st, causing a single DNF after a 2011 season during which he had, well, none. Like we’ve seen with Jeff Gordon, luck has a way of balancing out and for Edwards, it seems he’s falling victim to the type of “runner-up curse” we’ve seen the year after drivers win the title of Chase bridesmaid. (Ask Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin or even Edwards himself – this type of struggle last happened to the driver of the No. 99 in ’09, one year removed from his last second-place finish in the points).

It’s hard to believe that, despite “tying” for the 2011 title, Edwards has now gone 46 Sprint Cup races without a victory. That makes Pocono and Michigan, the next two tracks on the schedule, critically important; they’re two of his most successful tracks, ones where he has a total of four victories and 14 top-5 finishes in 29 starts. The time to build momentum and cash in, especially with his Roush Fenway counterparts 1-2 in the standings, needs to be now. Otherwise, you’re pinning hopes on places like an unpredictable Bristol, two road courses (Edwards has just two career top-5 finishes at Infineon and Watkins Glen) and Daytona in July. The driver is one of the best at putting on the “anti-Kurt” in public, ever the optimist; but his watching the race by himself at Dover on Sunday while the team fixed his destroyed No. 99 and Bob Osborne spoke out animated orders (can’t remember the last time he swore) spoke volumes about the increasing level of concern here.

Did You Notice?… That giant “yellow-out” section at Dover International Speedway heading into Turn 3? Thousands of fans congregated there, in a place far removed from where any other group of fans were seated (after all, Dover was at about 60-70% capacity) as a result of an Ollie’s Bargain Outlet promotion. The company ran a great deal where customers, at one of 120 store locations, could buy discounted tickets to the race in exchange for learning about the Kevin Harvick Foundation, hoping they’d contribute to the cause. Boy, did they ever. The charity, which supports kids in every way from college scholarships to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, earned nearly $59,000 through cash donations of generous fans; an Ollie’s check that was given to Harvick in a full ceremony Sunday before the race.

Fans who attended the event didn’t lose out, either, as several who attended won all types of prizes that totaled up to $6,000. For DIS, it was also a lifesaver as without those extra bodies, attendance compared to last year would have been flat or down a handful of percentage points. And for plenty of kids in need, they’ll be reaping the benefits of every single cent.

I bring up this new concept because it’s a great way to bring new fans into the sport. Not everyone may be a NASCAR fan, but there’s a great many people who spend at least $25 in charitable contributions each year. Why not put this type of program together if you’re a pro-NASCAR company, offer discounted tickets and coax people out to see a stock car show they might have otherwise ignored? So many companies are buying “banner space” in the stands, covering seats that might not otherwise be occupied with their logo. But if you have fans wearing shirts with your company’s name on it, combined with this type of in-store promotion won’t you accomplish the same type of marketing success? I’d much prefer to see live bodies in your seats, trumpeting the generosity of your company over a logo.

Just one gripe with the whole thing going forward: why didn’t Ollie’s get their logo on the No. 29 car? I can understand not backing Dave Blaney and Tommy Baldwin Racing, a team they’ve supported in several races this season, due to the KHF connection. But if you’re spending all that money to get to the track, why not give the fans someone specific to root for? At least slap your logo on the hood of the No. 29 car.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off:

- We mentioned in last week’s column about how AJ needed to turn things around at Dover. It didn’t happen; as our Bryan Keith mentioned Monday, their struggles there offered no greater example of how chemistry is lacking between driver and team. Consider Sunday the moment dirt was poured on this grave in one of my big disappointments of 2012.

While Tony Stewart has struggled as of late, for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., things are looking up as his quest to end the nearly four-year winless streak continues.

- Yes, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t had a car capable of winning races, more often than not this year. But if you’re a fan of his, you have to be excited at how the team is running well at places where they’ve typically struggled. If you remember, the Monster Mile a few years ago was one of the low points of the Earnhardt-Lance McGrew era, where everyone on the No. 88 appeared to be at odds over a disastrously handling car, one that required multiple green-flag stops for mysterious problems never solved. To come back and get fourth place there, Earnhardt’s best run there since the Fall of 2007 tells you the right buttons are being pushed. Now, can they keep the driver from getting frustrated if no win ends up coming before the Chase? I don’t see an opening in the next few weeks, unless Michigan goes surprisingly well for them.

- I just don’t get it. Chip Ganassi dominates the Indy 500, has Scott Dixon win Belle Isle and appears to be at the top of open-wheel. Yet over in NASCAR, his two-car team could not be further out in left field. Penske Racing doesn’t have this problem, with Brad Keselowski already posting two victories this season to go along with Helio Castroneves’ and Will Power’s IndyCar success. So after a full personnel overhaul, clearly recognizing the technical deficiencies over at the No. 1 and No. 42 teams, why can’t they get it together? And how long before that puts McMurray, who now hasn’t had a top-3 finish since winning Charlotte in October 2010 on the chopping block?

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