NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side by Side: Who Will Make the Chase Cut, Brian Vickers or Kyle Busch?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s Side by Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers have combined to win the last two Cup races… but both drivers still stand 34 and 39 points out of the Chase, respectively. With only two races left in the regular season, which one has the best chance to crack the top 12?

Big Mo On Vickers’s Side

So, who will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup: Kyle Busch or Vickers? Some might consider the question a “no-brainer.” Smart money might say that Kyle Busch, with a penchant for winning in bunches and coming off an exciting victory under the lights at Bristol, would be by far the better bet. However, do not let Busch’s incredible winning percentage, or for that matter his triumph in the most recent Sprint Cup race unduly influence you. In all reality, it’s Brian Vickers as the driver with the momentum on his side going into the last two races before the Chase field is set.

At the moment, Busch and Vickers are in a virtual dead heat in the driver point standings with Busch, presently 13th in the rankings, holding a mere five-point lead over Vickers – although remaining 34 points out of the 12th and final Chase spot. Busch has won four times this season in NASCAR’s elite series, whereas Vickers’s lone triumph of the season was scored at Michigan International Speedway a week prior to Busch’s most recent win at Bristol. That win for Vickers served to highlight the Red Bull Racing driver’s steady march towards Chase eligibility.

Were it a question of which of the two drivers will post another win first, put your money on the younger of the two Busch boys… but that is not the question. Kyle Busch, despite his win in Tennessee, is at the disadvantage due to his hard-charging demeanor when wins are not necessary, but good finishes are. And that is exactly the situation the two drivers are faced with over the course of the next two races.

Meanwhile, Vickers is peaking in just the nick of time. A disappointing start to the 2009 season that began with a crash and a 39th-place finish in the Daytona 500 continued with poor to mostly mediocre performances through race No. 17 of the Sprint Cup season. After New Hampshire in June, Vickers found himself 17th in points, almost 200 points out of the coveted 12th position in the driver standings. Prospects of qualifying for the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship were becoming increasingly bleak.

However, Vickers and his No. 83 Red Bull Toyota team have experienced an upturn in performance over the last two months, with seven top-12 finishes in the last seven races to move up four spots in the standings and contend for a Chase berth. Clearly, the third-year Red Bull driver and first-year crew chief Ryan Pemberton have finally jelled.

Conversely, Busch has slipped from a Chase-qualifying position of eighth in driver points to being on the outside looking in over the same span of seven events. With only two races left before the Chase field is set, if either driver is to make the final cut they will have to remain composed, patient, and race aggressively… but with caution. Unfortunately, those are not characteristics that the talented, but often over-aggressive, freewheeling Busch generally demonstrates.

Instead, the Big Mo is on Vickers’s side. In fact, the momentum has been building for almost three years, not just the last seven races for Vickers and the No. 83 Red Bull team. Those that have been watching Vickers’s progression since his inaugural year with first year Red Bull team surely have noticed it, and I wrote about it in January’s Driver Reviews: “Brian Vickers could very well be the “surprise” Chase contender following the “regular” season-ending race at Richmond in the second week of September. Having improved 19 spots from 2007 to 2008, moving up another seven spots in points this coming season should not be an insurmountable task….”

Look for the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports entry driven by Kasey Kahne to give Vickers the needed open slot in the Chase. Kahne has done a good job keeping hopes alive for the RPM group, but his team is not of top-12 caliber and probably will falter… just like Busch down the stretch. – Tommy Thompson

Vickers Won’t Best Busch For The Chase

The 2009 season has seen many surprises. We have seen Tony Stewart’s new race team become the class of the field; Jeff Gordon bounce back from a sluggish 2008 to win a race and run consistently near the front; and drivers David Reutimann, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski score their first career wins. We also have seen Carl Edwards go from winning nine races a year ago to still sitting on a goose egg right now, Kyle Busch fighting to get inside the Chase after a horrible summer stretch, and Vickers knocking on the playoff’s door after leading Team Red Bull to its first victory and running more consistently. Yet with Busch and Vickers both on the outside of the NASCAR playoffs looking in, the odds of either one or both of them qualifying are stacked against them. If one does make it, though, Kyle Busch will be the guy.

Despite the hubbub surrounding Kyle Busch about his lack of sportsmanship and erratic driving under pressure, he is still a superior driver to Vickers and drives for a better race team. Ask almost anyone, from the garage to the grandstands, regardless of love or hate for the brash driver, and they would agree that Busch would be able to beat Vickers one-on-one at any moment. And since we are discussing potential performance over only the next two races and maybe not a full season, Busch undoubtedly has the edge over Vickers.

Kyle Busch is also much more of a lock to make the Chase simply because of his stats at the next two tracks on the schedule. While both drivers have a similar average career finish at the next stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Busch’s 18.2 to Vickers’s 18.4) and Vickers has four top 10s to Busch’s two, Busch has run quite well at AMS. He won the March race last season and finished fifth in this race one year ago. He also had three consecutive 12th-place finishes at the track from March 2005 to March 2006, while Busch’s 254 laps led in his Cup career at AMS cast a large shadow on Vickers’s six. With bonus points at premium and very much needed, Busch’s ability to get his No. 18 up front and dominate make him a bigger threat to clinch a Chase spot than Vickers.

The track that really sets Busch apart from Vickers, though, is Richmond, where both drivers have had up and down moments. It was Vickers who turned many heads at RIR at first, becoming the youngest pole winner in Cup history in May 2004 at Richmond. Vickers led 32 laps in that race and eventually finished eighth. But unfortunately for him, that was his only career top 10 at the short track, as 1.5-mile ovals have proved to be much more his forte ever since.

Meanwhile, Busch has been a competitive demon at Richmond, finishing in the top five in every Cup race he has run at the track except for two (15th last September and 20th in September 2007). With so much on the line, you can bet that Busch and the No. 18 will be one of the teams to beat, just as they were when then won at the track back in May.

Now if Busch and/or Vickers are destined to make the Chase, they will have to knock out an existing top 12 driver. While Matt Kenseth seems like an easy pick to lose his spot, betting against the No. 17 team doing just what it needs to qualify for the 10-race playoff is hard to do. Kahne and the No. 9 team are streaky and lost a lot of ground after a bad race at Bristol. That said, Kahne has won before at Richmond and Atlanta and will likely be fast at both tracks. Since Busch and Vickers will have to run up front if they are going to knock one of these drivers out of the top 12, they cannot simply finish sixth and keep their nose clean – they have to get up front and lead laps. Kyle Busch has the talent and team to do so, and should be able to outduel Vickers’ upstart No. 83 Team Red Bull crew in the process. – Doug Turnbull

Listen to Doug during special Atlanta Motor Speedway installments of The Alan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with host Captain Herb Emory Saturady, from 10-11:30 a.m. and Sunday from 2-6 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader with David Chandler, on ESPN 1240 The Ticket in Gainesville, from 10-11 a.m. Saturday and on-demand at ChandlerCommunications.com. You can also hear Doug call the Georgia Asphalt Series race Saturday night at Lanier National Speedway, beginning at 8:30 p.m.

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