ONE: No Worries, Kurt Busch Will Make the Chase
Yes, it has been the coldest stretch in recent memory for the driver of the blue deuce. Two DNFs in his last three races, an average finish of 22.2 over the last five, and no wins since Charlotte back in the Spring have dropped the No. 2 team from fourth to 10th in points. That’s led to talk, in particular during Sunday’s broadcast, of momentum headed the wrong way for Penske Racing’s lone title-contending driver as the Chase approaches.
Well relax, Kurt Busch fans; there’s no reason for alarm here. Busch was right to seem unfazed by his 40th-place run on Sunday, for a number of reasons. First, he’s absolutely correct in affirming the reliability of Penske’s engine department; the failure at Michigan was his first of 2010, the first since the fall race at Texas in 2008 and only the second he’s had since joining the race team in 2006. Second, he’s also absolutely correct that a money stretch of racetracks lies ahead for both himself and the No. 2 team. Between Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, Busch has nine career wins – not to mention an average finish of 7.3 on those ovals this season.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the experience of the man atop the pit box for the team, Steve Addington. Addington lost his job with the other Busch just one year ago because the No. 18 car missed the Chase, the utter distraction of his driver’s minor-league exploits notwithstanding. Penske Racing’s not shortsighted enough to yank him from the No. 2 Dodge, even if disaster strikes and Busch somehow falls out of 12th, but that’s not going to happen – this crew chief’s past trials and tribulations won’t let them. Add in a gargantuan 215-point difference between Kurt and 13th place, with only three races remaining, no less, and it seems lightning won’t strike twice in the world of Busch No. 2.
TWO: It’s Time to Worry, Mark Martin Will Miss the Chase
Just one year ago, Mark Martin won the first race at Michigan and came within a splash of gas of at least a top-five finish in the second one. Now, after a mediocre 16th-place run in the spring race, he was running as a top 15 car again this Sunday before contact with David Reutimann put the No. 5 in the wall, causing enough damage to result in an ugly 28th-place finish that dropped the 51-year-old outside the top 12 in points.
Internally, that’s led to serious cause for concern over at Hendrick. Like Kurt Busch, Martin has plenty of history at the next three tracks on the circuit, with wins on all three to his credit. Unlike Kurt Busch, however, his average finish on them this season is not a top 10… but an ugly 31.0.
Most importantly, Martin’s ace in the hole from last season is gone. One year ago, Martin had the No. 5 team running like gangbusters not just because of his resurgence from returning to full-time competition, but because his team had an understanding with owner Rick Hendrick that they were to get first pick of engines and chassis from the HMS stable all season long. According to sources, this year that advantage is gone, and it seems the No. 5 team is now going through what they should have been during Martin’s first year in 2009… learning their cars and limitations. The equivalent of a nitro boost in terms of equipment last year, now the No. 5 team seems behind their two competitors across the garage at Hendrick… as well as the guys they’re racing with to simply get into the Chase. There’s no momentum, no signs of progression, and no reason to believe that Hendrick’s third car is better than RCR’s this year. Last season’s feel-good story is going to crash back to earth come September.
THREE: Joey Logano Becoming a Protege of Teammates Hamlin and Busch
There was no doubting that Joey Logano got into Ryan Newman and ruined a top-15 day for the No. 39 team. It also seemed fairly conclusive that for as obvious as the incident was, it didn’t seem to be intentional as much as Logano getting in over his head. But none of that mattered to either driver, both of them exchanging heated words post-race before nearly starting a shoving match once Logano brushed Newman while making a gesture. Comments afterwards gave us a general gist of what was going on: Newman was upset over the incident, and Logano tried to retort by arguing the Stewart-Haas veteran was racing him too hard.
It’s sad to see little Joey suddenly demonstrating the same sense of arrogant entitlement on track that his teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have made many a highlight reel demonstrating. Drivers wonder why fans are so sick of this sport; well, who the hell wants to listen to a racecar driver complain that another one is running them too hard? Isn’t that what the whole concept of this sport is all about, giving 110% every single lap? And for the record, Newman was also correct to remind Logano that there were plenty of drivers in the field that managed to both race and pass his Chevy, all without sending it into a 180-mph spin during the process.
Is Logano’s mentality a glimpse into the sport’s future? That when a mistake is made, you can blame a competitor for driving too hard? That racing should only be done at a level to ensure another competitor’s car is not disturbed? I weep for the future.
FOUR: Don’t Leave the Veterans Out of This One, Either
That’s not to say the youth of JGR are the only drivers out there acting as if the purpose of NASCAR’s fields is to fill space on the tracks fans are privileged to see them take laps on. Check out Saturday night’s Truck event at Darlington, where Ron Hornaday spent his post-race press conference after a third-place run discussing nothing but how he felt Norm Benning was both running too slow on the track and not getting out of the way fast enough for the leaders. He even went so far as to suggest his fellow peers within the Truck Series field ought to buy the longtime underdog tires, just to get him up to a more acceptable speed.
Well face the facts, Ron, and every other driver that’s made a remark about someone driving too hard or too slow this year: these rivals are your competitors. They are the opponents that every driver on track has a responsibility to best. Not by them getting out of the way or running a line or speed that makes the leaders’ lives easier. They’re cars or trucks that require a pass. Make the pass. If a driver is that much faster than Benning or any other underfunded ride out there, passing shouldn’t be all that difficult.
Besides, it’s Darlington. Anyone that knows how to get out of the way on that oval isn’t doing it… because they’re running at the front of the track Too Tough To Tame.
FIVE: ARCA Officials Deserve a Pat on the Back
As was covered in Frontstretch‘s live blog this past Sunday, the ARCA Racing Series’ 150-miler at New Jersey Motorsports Park was a fireworks show, to put it lightly. Late-race wrecks eliminating top-five contenders, short tempers and an already close points battle all wound up being thrown into a blender. However, these ARCA officials deserve a pat on the back for taking all those incidents in stride, calling what became an admirable race amidst the chaos.
Having followed the ARCA circuit from Palm Beach to Toledo this year, I have had nothing but praise for the series’ officials willingness to lay off debris cautions, to allow races to flow and to let the on-track product be the star of their shows. More importantly this weekend, they took a path different from NASCAR in their decision-making process – despite what spontaneous emotional reaction could have caused.
Battling for a position in the top five with less than 20 laps to go, Chris Buescher wrecked Justin Marks in what the majority of teams on pit road took as a blatant takeout move. Marks’s team exchanged words with Buescher’s, vowing that he would have nothing left of his car by the end of the next race he ran. But the ferocity of Marks’s wreck led teams not involved in the incident, including the No. 16 of Joey Coulter, to appeal to ARCA officials for a penalty.
They wouldn’t get it. Despite the hock of many fans and the anger of many teams, ARCA refused to make a subjective judgment call. They did the same thing a few laps later, when Casey Roderick made contact with Tim George Jr. that ultimately cost George his first career win in ARCA competition. The officials simply left the racing, and the racers, to decide what happened themselves. As a result, the fans got to see what was one hell of a show, one that topped both NASCAR events at Michigan on a weekend when the racing at MIS wasn’t even bad.
Maybe I won’t weep for the future of stock car racing after all. Just NASCAR’s.