Second Fiddle: Around the NASCAR Busch Series · Vito Pugliese · Thursday May 17, 2007
We've all seen the new Toyota commercials, heralding their entry in NASCAR's premier division, the pinnacle of American Motorsports. A staccato-riffed guitar theme accompanies a montage of video clips showing successful moments from their Craftsman Truck Series endeavors. The final shot is of one of the Toyota Camrys being pushed by the team into the hauler. With the way the â€˜yotas have been running of late, the question is, are they going to the race in that shot, or are they really just loading it up and going home after failing to qualify for yet another event? While the Toyota teams continue to struggle to have any semblance of success in their first year racing in the Nextel Cup Series, they have actually showed promise in the NASCAR Busch Series as of late.
While Michael Waltrip Racing continues to establish new standards for futility in the Nextel Cup Series, their Busch Series effort in the â€˜ol Aaron's Dream Machine driven by David Reutimann, has actually run quite well this year. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as Reutimann is also the most competitive driver within MWR's Cup operation too, having qualified for eight of the 11 races in 2007. So far, he has surpassed expectations for performance this year. Even with no Past Champion Provisionals to fall back on in Cup he has out qualified his teammates, and currently sits third in points in the Busch Series. Although he has posted only three Top 10s in 12 starts, he has an average finish of 17.4 so far, and has a knack for keeping the fenders on it. His best finish in 2007 has been a second at Nashville, leading 35 laps in the process. Had Carl Edwards and Roush Racing not been making an assault on the minor-league series, David would most likely be in a position to contend for the title.
Dave Blaney continues to be a bright spot for Toyota's efforts in the sedan series. With Toyota’s first Busch Series pole at Fontana, Blaney currently sits fourth in the Busch Series Points, but 36th in the Cup Series. One of the keys to Blaney's success so far has been his ability to avoid the trouble that has plagued his sometimes Braun Racing teammate, Jason Leffler. While his luck in Nextel Cup has been nothing short of miserable, with promising runs almost always sidelined by wrecks or part failures not of his doing, things are looking up in the Busch division. While Carl Edwards is running away with the title virtually uncontested at this point, Blaney, driving for his No. 32 Braun and No. 10 Pollex Toyota teams, is only 172 points behind second place Kevin Harvick, the guy who made an absolute mockery of the series in 2006. Blaney so far has compiled two Top 5s and four Top 10 finishes in 2007, and wouldn't you know it, is heading back to the scene of his 2006 season win at Lowe's Motor Speedway this weekend. This could be one of Toyota's best chances to capture the checkered flag this year, and to do it in the Stockcar Capital of the world, on racing's biggest weekend would be huge.
Jason Leffler has been an enigma in NASCAR for a few years now. This year the No. 38 Braun Great Clips team is campaigning Camrys, and so far, this season has been a microcosm of his career: strong starts stymied by wrecks and incidents not of his doing. As in the past, Leffler has been on the receiving end of some absolutely awful luck. The car seems to be a magnet for accidents, including a particularly vicious wreck that was sustained this spring at Atlanta. The results are certainly no indication of the effort, as he is currently sitting 20th in points. While normally that may not be something to do cartwheels over, considering Toyota's fumbling in the Cup series, good news is welcomed anywhere, and his three Top 10s this year are encouraging. Couple this with the fact that this is a small Busch team running a new car against long-standing Cup operations with Cup regulars who win quite frequently, and you have to tip your hat to them and their new program.
So what gives? Why is Cup such a struggle but the Busch Series seems to allow the Toyotas a chance to actually compete? As much as aerodynamics have become a part of the sport, the Busch Series still does not seem to suffer the effects of contorted-car syndrome to the extent their Cup counterparts have. This could be attributed to their slightly lighter weight, five inch shorter wheelbase, and engine power which is around 100hp less than a Cup car, or a combination of all these factors. Cup Racing is supremely competitive and difficult, even for teams that have been established in the sport for decades. It really is next to impossible to enter the sport, and expect to be winning races right away. Factor in having to develop the traditional car, which will likely only be used through the end of the year, in addition to the CoT, and the task grows exponentially more daunting.
While Nextel Cup regulars continue to dominate the Busch Series (in addition to diluting the spirit of it), it does seem to give struggling operations and manufacturers who are fighting for survival in Nextel Cup a chance to come out and actually race. Much like a major league baseball player that is in the midst of a crippling slump, perhaps it would not be such a bad idea for other teams and sponsors who are loading up and going home every weekend, to check out the minor leagues of the Busch Series. They'd get to race, get some exposure, get more applicable track time, and maybe actually see a return on their investment. And not get lapped before the first pit stop.
The Toyota teams can take heart in the fact that their Busch brethren are making a go of it, and that sooner or later, they'll figure things out on the Cup side. Hopefully sooner.
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