As one of the younger NASCAR writers on the beat, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding a changing of the guard in this sport. So early on, it came as no surprise I was ready to jump on board with a season in which Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards spent the spring and summer trading punches back and forth in their battle for Sprint Cup supremacy. A seemingly unstoppable force on the track and off it, one of the two appeared ready to rise as the first 20-something champion since Busch’s brother Kurt Busch in 2004. And if that wasn’t enough, these men had personalities about as volatile as Mt. St. Helens itself. They didn’t like each other to the point they loved trading verbal barbs, and a title Chase between the two seemed destined for its own set of National Enquirer headlines.
But as August turned into September, both men got busy figuring out the code needed to go from self-important to self-destruct. By September, it was Jimmie Johnson, not those two, which had the upper hand, carrying out this year’s playoffs to perfection in marking his territory across the Sprint Cup leaderboard. And with each passing week, we’ve discovered that the edge Johnson owned could suddenly be chalked up to both Edwards’s and Kyle Busch’s major weakness: experience.
Five races into the Chase, that word permeates anything and everything that’s transpired through the first half of these playoffs. While Johnson has the edge on his third straight title, it’s none other than Jeff Burton nipping at his heels after scoring his second victory of the season at Lowe’s – the first time he’s accomplished such a feat since 2001. Together, the men – along with third-place longshot Greg Biffle – have formed a trifecta that includes 73 wins and over 950 starts in NASCAR’s top-level series. How did the veterans work their way to the front? The answer, my friends, is in the noun which turned Busch and Edwards’s bid into a no-no: experience.
Experience means keeping a level head. Early on this season, Johnson was left for dead after a poor Las Vegas run in March led to a disappointing 28th-place finish. With 1.5-mile intermediate tracks making up five of the 10 Chase races, most thought Johnson’s CoT was so far off the team simply had no chance. “We’re just experimenting,” crew chief Chad Knaus said, but that wasn’t enough to calm the masses, especially when the team remained out of contention through March despite three pole positions in the first five races of the season.
But Johnson never let the early-season troubles tarnish his long-term goals. He and Knaus stuck to their plan of doing a little playoff preparation during the regular season, knowing the team was strong enough to finish well within the 12-man cutoff. And at the end of the summer, when those tests were applied under race conditions, Johnson railed off two straight wins to close as the sudden favorite for his third straight title.
Compare that to Burton, whose five straight finishes outside the top 20 in August left him no higher than 10th on most writers’ Chase prediction sheets. In Burton’s case, the challenge wasn’t so much sticking to the plan as much as getting the team to rally around it. But even when all looked bleak, Burton never panicked, and a solid top 10 at Richmond in September quieted the crowd and got him reset to make the type of championship run we thought this team was capable of early in the year.
“We’ve come into this thing very relaxed,” Burton said Saturday after victory lane. “We’re committed to having a good time, committed to having fun. This year we just said, You know what, we’re going to go, have a good time, race hard, we’re going to do the best we can, and it will be what it will be.”
Compare that with Busch and Edwards, who both have lost their cool under the tremendous pressure of expectations. Busch has appeared visibly frustrated after multiple parts failures left him with an insurmountable deficit, while Edwards’s temper flared in an incident with Kevin Harvick following his Talladega mistake. Busch in public and Edwards in private have both given the impression that it’s been hard to stay loose… when as the top two seeds, they should have been the loosest ones out there.
Experience means veteran knowledge. Five races into the Chase, four of them have been won by the three oldest drivers to qualify: Burton (41), Biffle (38) and Tony Stewart (37). Add in the two-time championship experience of 33-year-old veteran Johnson, and it’s clear this title race is tilting towards those who’ve been there, done that, and want more.
For Burton especially, each year counts down the number of chances he has left at a title. There aren’t many 40-somethings left in the sport, period, let alone those good enough to qualify for the playoffs. And with the experience of winning both the truck and Nationwide series titles, Biffle has the knowledge gap to make up for missing the cut each of the past two seasons. He’s unfazed by when the competition steps it up a notch, crucial for when he’s ready to step it up for the five-race stretch run.
Compare that to Edwards and Busch, who have a combined 297 Cup starts up through now. That’s just 47 more than Johnson and 209 behind Burton, leaving them short in another category in which they’re struggling to catch up. One could also say Busch’s manufacturer, Toyota, was also completely caught off guard by their rookie debut in the playoffs. Entering the Chase with a seemingly insurmountable lead in the manufacturer standings, parts failures on the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Denny Hamlin and Busch have allowed both Chevy and Ford to creep back into the fray with just five races remaining. The engine/rear-end double disaster at Dover was clearly a low point for both the No. 18 and No. 11. While this wasn’t the first rodeo for JGR, the first playoff appearance by Toyota Racing Development will become a lesson in how to push the limit without crossing the line.
Experience means consistency. Johnson and Burton remain the only drivers with top-10 finishes in all five races of the Chase. Like it or not, both have utilized the point system to their advantage, focusing more on finishing well than leading laps and making a statement up front. However, both know you need to win races in order to tie up your championship bid, so they’ve taken advantage of strong cars at both Kansas and Lowe’s to up their victory totals heading into the stretch run.
Meanwhile, Busch has been consistent in another direction – just plain bad – failing to score just one top-five finish and one top-10 start over the past five weeks. Riding his longest winless streak of the season – nine races – the 23-year-old’s consistency has been focused on seeing the title run slip away.
Experience means leadership. As the final races near, Johnson has and will continue to depend on the decision-making skills of Chad Knaus on pit road. Neither driver nor crew chief seems to step over the other, with an inherent trust that comes from having long-term success and sticking with it.
In the meantime, his challenger has picked up Richard Childress Racing by the bootstraps and taught them how to points race. Harvick, once a subscriber to “wreckers or checkers,” took a streak of nine top-10 finishes deep into the Chase. Clint Bowyer, last year’s Cinderella wonder, has yet to finish lower than 12th the second time around. While Edwards wrecked his teammate at Talladega and Gibbs’s team simply fell apart, the three-car RCR juggernaut is suddenly the only one of the Big Four to have all three cars within the top six. And if it wasn’t for Burton’s steadying hand, who knows if that would even have come to fruition.
There’s no telling what the next five races will bring. After all, Burton took the lead at Lowe’s two years ago only to give it up the very next week at Martinsville. Should Johnson have a similar calamity, the standings could change in a heartbeat. But for all intents and purposes, it’s the old guard that’ll be left standing when this title Chase is complete – and that’s nowhere near what we thought as little as seven or eight weeks earlier.
There’s an old saying that goes, “In youth we learn; in age we understand.” For Edwards and Kyle Busch’s sake, here’s to hoping they learn from those above them so next year, they start anew. For in a year in which we all got fooled by change, they’re the two who suffer most of all from the status quo.