Editor’s Note: Jeff Meyer is on vacation, so his usual Voices from the Heartland column will not be run. Look for a new version to return next week; in the meantime, the Voice of Vito‘s Vito Pugliese proves a fine substitute with his special column of the week.
With only three races remaining before the 2007 Chase for the Championship begins, the question of who will be the final qualifier for the 10-race playoff became a little more clear on a foggy and soggy Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn, Michigan. For the second time in three races, Kurt Busch drove the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger to Victory Lane, in a performance that, while not nearly as dominating as his win two weeks earlier at Pocono, was convincing nonetheless that a playoff push has come ever closer to paying off.
Need proof? Well, Busch is now just 157 points behind younger brother Kyle Busch, eighth in points – making him closer to moving up than moving out of Chase contention. Behind him, he leads Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 163 and stablemate Ryan Newman by 171 in the quest to claim the 12th and final spot in this year’s championship battle. With NASCAR’s new seeding procedure, the No. 2 team’s second win in three races makes them a legitimate championship contender for 2007. In the meantime, Busch’s triumph at the 3M Performance 400 this Tuesday merely places another obstacle in front of a certain very popular red beer wagon’s chances of making the Chase. And the No. 8 team isn’t helping their cause, either, after seeing its fair share of smoke trailing from under the hood in recent weeks.
Despite the success of this summer, the 2007 campaign has been rocky at times for Busch. He started off the season with Roy McCauley as his crew chief; but McCauley took a leave of absence in April, choosing instead to care for his ailing wife, battling leukemia back at home. Engineer Troy Raker stepped up as interim crew chief in his place, but the chemistry just wasn’t there, and things weren’t coming together like the team had hoped. Well, they say the third time’s a charm, and what a charm it was, indeed; fellow Roush Fenway Racing expatriate Pat Tryson quickly became the missing piece to the Penske puzzle since he was hired in June.
Not only has Tryson given both his driver and crew confidence, but in short order, he has been able to transform the Dodge Charger from a wobbly box – with handling and aerodynamic balance that could best be described as “theoretical” – into a proven winner. True to the Charger’s muscle car heritage, the Penske cars were fast in a straight line… but a handful in the corners. It’s a struggle in which Penske Racing hasn’t been alone; the other Chargers haven’t exactly been keeping pace with the Monte Carlos or Fusions, either.
But at this point, with other teams riding a roller coaster of high points and foils, Busch has instead been riding a steady, cresting wave of success. Now, it would appear that the Chase field is all but set, with little drama or last minute theater taking place at the final race at Richmond before the playoffs (raceoffs?) begin in September. Don’t think Busch is a lock? Well, just take a look at his stats on the tracks leading into the Chase, as well as those in the 10-race championship format: Busch has a total of five wins at Bristol, a 2003 win at California Speedway, and a trophy from the Richmond night race back in 2005. He’s not the only one with the solid track record, either; Pat Tryson even scored a win at Bristol in 2001 with Elliott Sadler.
Should these stats repeat themselves, Busch looks very good to be a serious title challenger – the tracks that make up the Chase are favorites of both driver and crew chief. Busch has a pair of wins at New Hampshire to go along with victories at Atlanta, Martinsville, Phoenix and Homestead. Tryson, meanwhile, has wins at Dover and Kansas. During the 2005 campaign while paired with Mark Martin, Tryson-prepared machines scored six top-five finishes in the 10 Chase races. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget that Kurt Busch won the inaugural Nextel Cup in 2004 – a feat he accomplished by racing as much with his head as he did with his lead foot. He raced smart, overcoming trouble during the race at Darlington and Homestead to seal the deal and bring Jack Roush his second straight Cup title after 15 years of battling to get just one.
Guided by Tryson’s veteran leadership, Busch has been building momentum during the last two months while the crew has been building new racecars. Finally having the tools and personnel in place to help resurrect what he was able to do a few years earlier with Jimmy Fennig, Busch and the Penske South organization are a perfect example of both a driver and team that are peaking at just the right time.
Both Busch and Tryson have a bit of a chip on their shoulder following their tenures at Roush Racing. To quote from Terminator 3, “Anger is more useful than despair.” Should Busch and Tryson continue to channel that energy into their monster Mopars, Roger Penske could very well be in the process of winning his first Nextel Cup championship, along with the first Cup championship for Dodge since Richard Petty did it in his 13-win season of 1975.
On their way, they would also be bringing down the party for a lot of guys wearing red in the process.
Hey, Junior! So Sorry Bud, but Busch blew by you!