Bowles - Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday April 8, 2007
As family, friends, and co-workers all know, there are times when I'm not exactly the most organized person in the world. Spring Cleaning for some means a quick dust and a vacuum; for me, it's the time I rediscover things buried in piles and closets from sometime last May. Sifting through items long forgotten, cleaning provides that rare moment of opportunity to appreciate what those things sitting in the corner once meant to me. It's one last change to acknowledge their existence before they get shuffled back into a drawer somewhere for the foreseeable future.
During the Busch race at Nashville, you couldn't help but feel those same kind of emotions when seeing solid runs enjoyed by drivers shoved off center stage long ago by Cup veterans pulling double duty. Names like Jason Leffler, Stephen Leicht, and Bobby Hamilton, Jr. might not ring a bell right away, simply because they've been spending way too much time with my socks in the corner of the closetâ€¦away from the spotlight and far outside the public eye. After all, with Nextel Cup drivers putting a whooping on the Busch Series fields every weekend, who needs other drivers to market in this series? If you listen to NASCAR's positive PR message locked off on repeat, things are fine just the way they are; please ignore those empty seats behind the curtain!
With that mindset, the big brass down at Daytona probably didn't raise an eyebrow at the hair-raising run by Leffler, giving Carl Edwards the stiffest challenge for a win by a Busch-only driver this season before fading to fourth by race's end. You may have last heard of Leffler when he was thrown to the curb by Joe Gibbs and a struggling Fed Ex No. 11 operation back in 2005; when a certain driver named Denny Hamlin took his spot, Leffler's future Cup prospects took a major hit, as Hamlin's overnight success quickly made it easy to blame Leffler for failing to bring that operation up to speed. But while Leffler may never find his way back toward's racing's top ladder, he seems to have found a permanent home in Busch. In his second year with Braun Racing, he's connected with one of the few Busch-only teams left in the series; while Braun Racing employs Cup driver Dave Blaney for their second car, they have no current aspirations to go to Nextel Cup, instead concentrating on building a future in a series that doesn't want to build around them. Still, the No. 38 Toyota gave its manufacturer a rare taste of glory Saturday, part of a 2-3-4 finish that gave Leffler just the first Top 5 finish for a Busch-only driver running a full schedule this year. Leffler can only hope runs like those will be enough to keep one of the few loyal Busch sponsors left (Great Clips) in the fold for the next few seasons.
Further behind, Leicht came home 8th, Robert Yates' child prodigy finally showcasing the massive potential he'd seemed capable of providing this time last year. Once on the fast track to Nextel Cup, Leicht was put in a full-time Busch car instead, and has watched the Cup guys run roughshod over his operation for each of the earlier races run this season. Media-friendly and armed with a personality that's capable of making him a fan favorite, Leicht was looking to put the Busch Series back on its own map this yearâ€¦but it's hard when Cup guys force him back to a 22nd place finish each and every week. Finally given a chance to shine, Leicht pulled through and showcased what the series used to be about - developing young talent to compete at the highest level.
Then, of course, you had Bobby Hamilton, Jr. Coming home 9th, the former Cup veteran turned Busch Series regular was reminded of his late father at every turn, yet still was capable of turning a difficult weekend into a momentum-building finish for his team. Deservedly getting the press he deserved for a solid performance, Bobby, Jr. helped hold up the banner for Busch only drivers that proceed to take six of this week's Top 10 spots, a season high. In fact, excited that reporters were actually running up to him rather than nearly knocking him over to get to Burton, Kenseth, or Busch before they crossed over to the Cup garage, Bobby, Jr. actually had time to open his mouth long enough to explain why the Busch guys might have been so competitive.
"(Cup drivers) didn't get two or three hours of practice before our race," he explained with a smile. "That tells you right there how we can fix (the disparity). There's nothing wrong with letting (Cup) guys run with us, but you have to at least give some of (the Busch guys) a fighting chance. (Cup guys) get two hours of practice before the race starts, and they kill us, and you can't even keep up with them."
"Today was a prime example (with Carl Edwards). He was on the same schedule we were and was an average car through the race. At the end of it, he got better and better, which they adjusted better; but we all had a fighting chance up to that point."
With proven track records and impressive talent, a fighting chance truly is all these guys need in order to put themselves in position to win. Hopefully, someone, somewhere in a position of power took the time to listen to Bobby, Jr. and is willing to make some changes . He's absolutely right; I'd have asked Bobby a follow-up question for this column, but Texas is just five days awayâ€¦over 20 Cup regulars will be on the preliminary entry list, and he's already fading back to the sidelines of yesterday's news.
In other words, these drivers are about to be hidden back in the drawer. Oh, well; I guess there's always next Spring. Hopefully, they'll still be around by then.
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