NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Kyle Busch is Still Vulnerable, ESPN’s 1-Trick Pony & Nationwide’s Erosion

ONE: Kyle Busch Building “Vulnerable” Momentum

Life is good for Kyle Busch right now. Leaving Bristol, he not only scored a Truck Series victory in his own equipment, got the better of Brad Keselowski battling for the win and dominated the 500-lap night race, he became the first driver to win all three national touring series races in the same weekend. It’s an accomplishment that, if the media is any indication, trumps just about anything ever done in stock car racing – never mind the fact this feat has only been possible since 1995 and only a handful of drivers talented enough to pull it off actually care enough to run tons of minor-league races when battling for a Cup.

But I digress. While the insignificance of Busch’s trifecta can and will be debated until the cows come home and bang on the front door, there’s no debate that this past weekend at Bristol left Busch and his No. 18 Cup team fired up. That momentum couldn’t have come at a better time, with the last intermediate race before the Chase (Atlanta) next up in the Cup Series’ crosshairs. The intermediate ovals have been the one configuration that’s confounded Dave Rogers and his crew in 2010, and the one Achilles’ heel that may well prevent Busch from challenging Jimmie Johnson when the Cup is on the line.

But despite all those feel-good vibes, let’s not get carried away. This momentum is also one bad weekend away from disappearing – which would leave Busch with Richmond as an absolute make-or-break race that could decide whether or not a run at the Cup is in the cards.

Atlanta is next Sunday’s event, one of Busch’s worst tracks on the Cup circuit. Subtracting a 2008 season that saw Busch win the spring race and finish fifth in the fall, his career average finish at AMS is 21.4 with no top-10 finishes. Add that to the fact the No. 18 only mustered a 25th-place result earlier this season, and the chances for a frustrating 500-mile bout with an ill-handling racecar are very real.

Secondly, though, there’s Busch’s continued exploits in the Nationwide Series ranks. Granted, with Rowdy not racing for points in that series, he’s been running fantastically well and winning every trophy in sight. While Busch came out on top in Friday night’s scuffle with Keselowski, that scuffle could have very easily gone the other way. A couple more inches of crush on his right-front fender, a flat tire or Keselowski not being on probation, and Busch would have ended Friday night storming to his hauler with an ESPN camera trailing him, hoping that he’d open his mouth.

That’s the thin line that the No. 18 team is walking. Yes, Busch got the trifecta he wanted so bad. Yes, he’s on a hot streak. But he’s one wrong track, or the wrong pass on it, away from derailing. Two weeks before the Chase, that’s an awfully vulnerable position to be in.

TWO: Johnson Taught a Valuable Lesson Saturday Night… Will it Stick?

For a good part of Saturday night, Johnson and the No. 48 team were looking formidable, in Chase form a few weeks early. That is, until contact with Juan Pablo Montoya sent what was a car capable of winning hard into the wall. The result: Johnson slumped to 35th, his sixth finish outside the top 25 this season. While Johnson enduring rough races in the buildup to the Chase is nothing new for the No. 48 team during their four-peat, that’s more finishes outside the top 25 in the race to the Chase than in any of his other title runs.

Is that statistically significant? That remains to be seen. But, it’s important to note that, correct or not, the perception is out there right now the No. 48 team this year isn’t quite where they’ve been the last few seasons… that maybe they’re missing just a little something.

Montoya’s run-in with Johnson certainly wasn’t a product of a hungry, aggressive driver pouncing on a suddenly vulnerable powerhouse. Hell, the replays couldn’t even clarify how much the incident was a product of Montoya coming down the track or Johnson coming up. If nothing else, Johnson was sternly reminded of just how vulnerable the No. 48 team is heading towards their Drive For Five. Considering the perception that their title run is at risk, Jeff Gordon being overdue for a win, Kyle Busch currently being on the correct side of a hot streak and the ever-temperamental Kevin Harvick in position to make his first serious title run in years, Chad Knaus and Co. have formidable opposition for the championship this season.

Johnson got into a hairy situation with a driver well-known to be combustible on Saturday night, and his squeaky clean on-track profile could do nothing to save him from a hard crash and a long night. It’s a lesson that Johnson was fortunate to learn two races before the Chase – rather than two races in it.

THREE: “Boys, Have At It” Didn’t Come to Fruition on Saturday Night

Just as there was a day earlier, Saturday night at Bristol offered plenty of side-by-side racing, even as Kyle Busch was making the race up front a snoozefest. However, unlike Friday night, the evening-defining conflict between two drivers never came to be; no defining wreck, no real controversy – none of the fireworks that ESPN’s broadcast crew couldn’t stop assuring fans during pre-race coverage they would see.

Is this a bad thing? Not from a racing standpoint… the new Bristol continues to provide drivers with the ability to pass, to run side-by-side and to race with more than just their bumper. But did Saturday night seem to feel like a bit of a letdown, especially after all the speculation as to whether Brad would go after Kyle, or if Gordon would get his comeuppance at the hands of Martin Truex Jr., etc.? One could argue that it did.

While Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman all delivered needed top-10 runs to keep their Chase hopes alive as Mark Martin flopped, David Reutimann threatened to score another Cup win and Jeff Green made his return to Cup racing, the wreckfest that was promised didn’t occur. Yet, that was all that was marketed and previewed on this Saturday night in Thunder Valley.

It’s a dangerous blowback of the “Boys, Have At It” movement in NASCAR. Yes, it’s the right thing for the sport – and the philosophy’s added some needed vitality to the 2010 season – but it’s not a cure-all, either. The broadcast booth would do well to remember that in future races.

FOUR: Nationwide Series Pay Cuts to Cut Ranks of Independent Teams Further

Competitors learned less than a month before the season opener at Daytona that their purses would be cut 10% for the 2010 Nationwide Series season. It set independent teams scrambling, some wondering how they’d be able to get through the season without starting and parking (with some teams falling by the wayside in the process).

This time, NASCAR at least gave some advance warning – but it doesn’t make the fallout any better.

For 2011, those purses are being cut by another 20% in an effort to make hosting the Nationwide Series a more profitable venture for racetracks. There seems to be a rationale for this concept, given that some events have drawn less than 20,000 fans, even on Cup companion weekends (Charlotte), and that Gateway International Raceway declined to host their two race dates next season.

Problem is, there’s no profit to be made hosting Nationwide Series events if the product continues down its path to irrelevance. That’s exactly what purse cuts are going to exacerbate. With winnings cut, only Cup teams with bigger budgets are going to be able to allocate the necessary resources to develop the new Nationwide Series car and improve on the track. In short, the independent teams of which NASCAR has already lost boatloads are going to take the brunt of this latest rule change.

Further, with less money to be made, more sponsorship is going to be needed to fill the holes in the operating budget. And as has been seen time and time again, sponsors are going to go with a proven Cup driver over a development or career Nationwide Series driver nine times out of 10. In short, the cuts are going to do nothing but further the gap between the haves and have-nots, providing yet another incentive for Cup drivers to run Nationwide Series races. The means the two biggest contributors to the Nationwide Series losing its profit margin are going to be reinforced by this latest change.

How significant is the pay cut? 20% of the last-place share that Green took home on Friday night amounts to roughly $4,081. That’s several sets of tires, entry fees, all kinds of expenses that over the course of a 34-race season are really going to add up. Somehow, though, I doubt the Gibbs and Hendrick camps are going to feel that pinch.

FIVE: Carl Edwards to Run the Full Nationwide Series Schedule in 2011

Until a report by the Sporting News on Monday that NASCAR was (surprise) giving a second thought to putting restrictions on Cup driver participation in the Nationwide Series starting in 2011, the rumored rule change likely to be made was to prohibit Cup drivers from competing for the NNS driver title.

Yet even in the face of such a restriction, Carl Edwards still announced at Bristol over the weekend that he would be running the full Nationwide schedule in 2011, the seventh consecutive season that he will run both Nationwide and Cup full-time. Who can blame him? Even if NASCAR puts a rule in place that prevents Edwards from going for the championship, he’d still be free to run 34 races, racking up plenty of trophies while winning millions that Nationwide Series drivers and teams are going to be in even more desperate need of next year.

NASCAR doesn’t seem to get it. If Cup drivers can still run all 34 races even without winning the title, they’re still going to win 90% of these events, take huge chunks of the purse and dominate TV time. They’re still going to provide sponsors with an incentive to go with a proven star over a development driver.

Sound familiar to point number 4? It is. That’s the point: If NASCAR keeps making the same mistakes, the same exploitation is going to continue by the same folks who’ve been abusing the system for years – leaving Edwards, Busch and even Keselowski to continue to be the face of NASCAR’s minor leagues.

I guess that’s the best you can do if you can’t topple Jimmie.

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