NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Cup Be Damned for the Shrub, JRM’s Ego & Mears’s Ride?

ONE: Does Kyle Busch Really Want a Cup Title?

It was a familiar sight in Nationwide Series victory lane on Monday evening. Kyle Busch, fresh off his fifth consecutive win at Texas Motor Speedway, took that series’ points lead… and now, he wants to run for a second consecutive Nationwide title. Busch, in not so many words, made it very clear in his post-race press conference that he is raring to go for another full-time NNS campaign, and so is the No. 18 team, according to team owner Joe Gibbs.

Only one word describes those comments: Wow. The fact that Busch and JGR have not decisively said they won’t be campaigning for the driver title in 2010 begs the question: How short-sighted can this team be? Rewind back to nearly this point last year. After Richmond, Busch had won three of the first nine Cup races, not to mention was already putting a thrashing on the Nationwide Series field. But while Busch went on to hoist the Nationwide trophy at Homestead, he wasn’t even on the Chase stage – an afterthought in the Cup Series garage.

This year, Busch is far from that type of solid start, sixth in points but winless with just one top-five finish in Cup heading to the tough part of the schedule. Even Busch acknowledged to the media on Monday, “How difficult it is to run both and what it takes away from the premium spot, which is the Sprint Cup title.” Yet, Busch and JGR all but appear to be gearing up to do it again.

I have no doubt in my mind that for Busch, running Nationwide is a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t have fun driving the very best cars every week, being all but assured of a top-five run barring any mistakes and winning copious amounts of trophies? But is that what it’s about for Kyle? Quantity, not quality?

It’s the only reason I can think of that Busch is insisting on another title run in the Nationwide ranks, while Jimmie Johnson remains right on track to score five Cup titles in a row. Kind of makes Kyle’s “historic” five consecutive AAA wins at Texas pale in comparison, doesn’t it?

TWO: End of the Road for Casey Mears?

While Denny Hamlin’s apparently no worse for the wear (behind the wheel, anyway) after knee surgery and scoring his second Cup win of 2010 at Texas, the same can’t be said for his relief driver’s career prospects. Based on how Denny has handled the races at both Phoenix and now Texas, it’s clear that Casey Mears will likely not turn a competitive lap in the No. 11 car, and with Keyed-Up Motorsports now scaled back to a part-time effort, Mears appears out of options with regards to finding a Cup Series ride. What’s more, a lack of seat time at JGR, that lack of a chance to steal a top-10 finish and return to car owners’ radar screens, has effectively rendered his temporary move all but futile.

How, you ask?

Last week, Joe Gibbs Racing came out and openly admitted that being unable to commit to running a fourth Cup car made it impossible to make a play and sign Kasey Kahne. And for all of his ability to land quality rides out of a thin career resume, I don’t care how much brass Mears polishes during his time in the Gibbs camp: If JGR can’t commit to running a fourth car for a driver that’s actually made a Chase, won multiple Cup races, and demonstrated an ability to keep sponsors on his quarterpanels, there’s no chance it’s going to start fielding one for Mears.

THREE: How Can JR Motorsports Call This Improvement?

Tell me again why it was so important for JR Motorsports to dump Kelly Bires? Landon Cassill’s debut in JRM equipment resulted in an 18th-place finish, a result that equaled Bires’s worst finish of the 2010 season that didn’t involve a mechanical failure.

But it’s only the first week, right? Well, Bires finished seventh in his first race with JRM.

But, according to Dale Jr., Cassill is easy to sell to sponsors, right? Isn’t this the same Cassill that sat on the sidelines for almost all of 2009 because of a lack of sponsorship?

But it was a chemistry problem, right? Sorry, I find it hard to believe that an owner such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., who in nearly four years of ownership has seen only one driver enjoy sustained success in his racecars, and who openly had to concede following his midseason firing of Shane Huffman back in 2007 that he overestimated how good the cars his team was fielding, can somehow after five races (four of which netted finishes inside the top 20), determine that long-term success between driver and team was not going to be possible.

FOUR: Or Are We Talking Egos?

And then there’s a number of readers who, in response to my column last week on Bires’s release from JRM, noted the young prospect had developed a huge ego after landing the No. 88 ride, an ego that was getting in the way of his team’s ability to perform. Like dealing with egos has led JRM to make rash firings in the past….

Case in point: a well-publicized episode that saw Dale Jr. chastise Brad Keselowski after the then-JRM driver demanded that a JRM staffer carry his firesuit for him. Last time I checked, despite Keselowski exhibiting what Junior called at the time “a terrible confidence,” he didn’t lose his ride over it.

Fact is, JRM doesn’t really seem to have a consistent, coherent rationale for starting the Nationwide version of Series Silly Season in April. Rather, Dale Jr. and the Earnhardt clan seem to have done whatever they wanted because they wanted to.

What was that whole theory about egos again?

FIVE: Jeff and Jimmie Tangle, Is All Well in the Hendrick Camp?

Yes. For crying out loud, I’ve never read so much wasted ink about two drivers trading paint. There’s a combined eight freaking Cup titles between Jeff Gordon and Johnson, not to mention so much corporate spit-shining that you could use the two as a mirror.

There is nothing to be made of any sort of feud, tension, etc. between Gordon and Johnson. Even if they had been involved in a halfway serious incident, there’s no way that the organization they’re surrounded by is going to let a near-decade of dominance crumble. They’re both running up front, they’re both contending for wins and the Cup, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

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