I love Bristol. Always have, always will. From the very first race I witnessed at the famed half-mile bullring, I was utterly hooked at the nail-biting competition we so often have at Thunder Valley. After a week off, like many of you I was more than ready to settle down and watch some serious action from the track with the self-titled moniker of the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”
But as I watched the race unfold Sunday, I couldn’t help but feel a little depressed. You had Kurt Busch practically eviscerating the field, leading on ten separate occasions for a total of 278 of the 500 laps. But right along with him was Jimmie Johnson, running second and contending at a track, I might add, where he had never won. And it got me to thinking, given the fact that the four-time champion is about as popular as a scorching case of syphilis, what could be worse for the overall health of the sport than Johnson winning again? I couldn’t help but feel that Kurt winning a second straight race had to happen instead – but as we all know now, he couldn’t close the deal. Rather, it was the relentless automation that is the four-time champ with his iron-clad, drive it straight to victory lane approach that prevailed on a late-race restart. Breaking an 0-for-16 lifetime drought at Bristol, his 50th win made it three victories in five races for the No. 48 in 2010.
Kurt, as you might expect, reacted to the unpalatable defeat like he was drinking a cup of cold sick. “I’d rather lose to any of the other 41 cars out there than the No. 48 car,” he said after slumping to third at the finish. “I thought we had him beat. I gave it my heart today… but we came up short.”
In the last four years, coming up short to the No. 48 car has been a far too regular occurrence, so it’s not like Busch is in the minority here – not by any stretch of even the wildest imagination. All luck aside, some of Johnson’s dominance is simply a question of one team being unbelievably synced as a group in a way no one else quite is. I’m not knocking the efforts and good intentions of the rest of the competition; it’s just the No. 48 group is that historically and unprecedentedly good. Actually, scratch good – make that phenomenal.
So what can be done? Not an awful lot, it seems, especially as we head to a track where double J is unconscionably outstanding: Martinsville. Let’s review his stats there for a minute because, simply put, they’re frightening. We’ll start with five wins in the last seven races at the paperclip, an average finish of 5.1, 15 straight top 10s and 1,551 laps led. Incredible. Then, after the off week for Easter, we head to Phoenix where Johnson also has an average finish of 5.1 – not to mention four wins in the last five races. So there’s every reason to believe that once we’re done with the first race in the desert out West, the presumptive five-time Champ will have five wins in the first seven races, collecting fifty bonus points for a Chase he’ll already be a cinch to make. Before we even hit Mother’s Day, the No. 48 will be in perfect position to press the cruise control button – and fans will have already had enough.
So what’s the solution – if indeed there is one?
Well, here’s an idea. Have at it, Mr. Busch. Have at it.
What I’m talking about is taking on Jimmie with the force of his front bumper, at a track where it makes sense to do some judicious rubbing. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating Busch employs the sort of lack of thought and idiocy we saw at Atlanta between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. Rather, I’m suggesting the man start to back up his words in any way possible that’s not putting innocent lives at risk.
It’s one thing to say, “I’d rather lose to anyone else,” but it’s another to actually do something about it. Actions always speak louder than words – so can Kurt step up to the plate?
It won’t be easy. Martinsville is not one of the favorite venues of the man who won the inaugural Chase by a measly eight points back in 2004. Statistically speaking, the lil ol’ paper-clip is Busch’s worst track, where he carries an average finish of 21.5 and has nary a top 10 since the spring race of March 2005. He does have a win, but that was in the Jack Roush-powered Rubbermaid Ford back in 2002 – right about the time Joey Logano was getting his first pair of long pants.
So what better place is there than Martinsville for Busch to back up his words by ruffling Johnson’s seemingly impervious feathers?
It’s clear the reigning four-time champ has the respect of most in the garage, but it’s also clear it’s about time someone shook him out of his comfort zone. In the last couple of years, it’s all looked a little bit too easy for Jimmie: someone needs to shake him up.
Don’t think it can happen? Let’s not forget this man was still bleating about the tangle he had with Sam Hornish Jr. in the Texas Chase race last year headed into the 2010 Daytona 500. A little over three months had passed, but the three-time IndyCar champ was still boiling the blood underneath this NASCAR champ’s typically unyielding skin.
So Busch needs to do exactly that – and more – this weekend to keep his momentum rolling.
How will it work, you ask? Well, let’s start with the media. Busch is an eloquent guy. He needs to reinforce his comments during Friday’s pre-race publicity, making the point that the time has come to see Johnson’s rhythm get interrupted. Make a statement that gives him something to think about; and at the same time, he needs to put out the clarion call to his fellow challengers to rough up the champ – giving Johnson a taste of the unpalatable medicine most other drivers are forced to slurp up each week.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating someone intentionally wrecks Jimmie. But there’s no reason why, when the time comes, Kurt can’t leave a fender where it doesn’t necessarily belong. Don’t give the champ an inch. In fact, don’t give the champ so much as a millimeter. Make him uncomfortable, a little edgy, as it’s perhaps the only chink Busch can make in Johnson’s armor. Make the champ fear seeing the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge in his rear-view. Who knows, some judicious reminders for Johnson that his car is still made of bendable sheetmetal, and his tires of breakable rubber, might just endear Busch to a fan base he’s never quite won over.
Likely the only way he’ll do that is by getting tough. Tell NASCAR Nation you’ve declared war, in the words of that legendary cartoon character Popeye: “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!” Then get out there on the track and back it up. The gloves, per the governing body, are off. You can deliberately wreck a competitor, even if you’re 150 laps down, and get away with it. So I don’t think stepping up the aggression a bit will do him one bit of harm – and at this point, he’s got nothing to lose.
So have at the champ, Kurt. It might be the only way anyone can stop him.
One final thought: Congratulations to Justin Allgaier on winning his first ever Nationwide race this past weekend. Seeing a first-time winner in victory lane is amongst the more special aspects of our great sport, and I couldn’t be happier for the kid – snagging the trophy in just his 43rd race in NASCAR’s number two series. I actually got the chance to interview Allgaier for Frontstretch last season, and I was struck by how level-headed and decent he so clearly was. It’s not often the good guys win one, but Saturday afternoon’s race was just such an example.