Race Weekend Central

Fact Or Fiction: Chase Clinching, Shifting Gears And Point, Kyle

_As NASCAR shifts gears from Pocono to Michigan this week, one of the sport’s big question marks is whether Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick can finally shift the focus away from their feud. Who came out the winner in their latest scuffle? That’s just one of several Sunday storylines tied up in this latest round of Fact or Fiction._

Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress should have left Pocono smelling like roses. So why was it Kyle Busch who seemed to transform into the classier-looking flower after Sunday’s race?

*FACT: The Latest Twist The Busch – Childress Saga? Point, Kyle*

Just days after punching Kyle Busch, Pocono should have been the weekend where Richard Childress came out smelling like a rose. While Busch was on his heels, playing defense for 15 minutes in the media center Friday Childress issued a small statement, a 45-second climax of the most hastily called non-presser in history and then pressed the button marked, “I’m done.” For the rest of the weekend, he stayed in the background and let others do most of the talking, like the heartwarming support of grandson Ty Dillon and driver Clint Bowyer who talked about RC’s “passion” and “love.”

But in the midst of Childress coming out all warm and fuzzy, something intriguing happened on the Kyle side of the arena: he was holding his own. Answering every prying question with confidence, not cockiness Busch went about his business of trying to move forward while seemingly taking advice his brother had given him earlier in the week.

“I just told him, don’t waver to what’s gotten you to this point,” said Kurt Busch. “Stay true to yourself. Stay firm with how you’re racing on the track. Don’t change. At the end of the day, just try and smile more.”

“Ultimately, that’s what we’re all worried about, how the car performs and we want to win. Then there’s the identity that you create, the icon that you become, the role model that you are to kids. There are so many different hats that you have to wear at this level. But at the end of the day, it’s just a matter of making that car fast and trying to get it to Victory Lane.”

Such advice proved perfect timing for a track that’s left Busch in tatters even during the best of times. With just two top-5 finishes in his first 13 Pocono starts, in theory it was shaping up to be another difficult weekend for Kyle: on Saturday, he qualified just 34th. But there was something about the way he conducted himself this weekend, zoning out in the face of constant criticism – heck, everywhere you turned there were stories on drivers hating him, fans despising him – while staying focused on charging that Toyota towards the front. And you know what? By the checkered flag on Sunday, no RCR car could say they finished in front of Kyle; Busch had a podium finish, third on a day where the best his car owner rival could do was Kevin Harvick running fifth.

But there’s more. Harvick bullied the No. 18 like his personal pinball Sunday, running the M&M’s Toyota all over the track whenever both cars were within 50 feet of each other. It got to the point NASCAR issued a warning, which finally made things settle down until Harvick piped up with some cryptic comments after the race.

“He knows he’s got one coming,” was Harvick’s mantra after finishing fifth at Pocono Sunday, two spots behind Busch. “I just wanted him to think about it.”

Hmph. Not exactly the most endearing comment when all you have to do to keep the fans on your side was… well, nothing. Sensing an opening, Busch played it perfectly by maximizing the opportunity to make someone else the bad guy.

“I was running my own race,” he said. “Seemed like he (Kevin Harvick) was trying to make it awfully difficult on me. There’s a couple times where I just had to back off and wait, got back to him and tried to pass him again. Maybe kind of shows his character and who he is, how he feels he needs to race on the racetrack. But it’s not my fight. He’s trying to turn it into one.”

That’s right; in a heartbeat, the man besieged with blame had a chance to throw that anchor on someone else. And now, with a car owner fine and NASCAR watching him closely it’s Harvick who’s finding himself in a rather difficult position. Inexplicably, RCR handed this latest round to Busch.

*FICTION: Drivers Should Never Be Penalized For Being Too Low In Post-Race Inspection*

It’s one of the sport’s most controversial penalties, its actual advantage on certain tracks debatable at best. So measuring in too low, especially after passing pre-race inspection has never resulted in a killer penalty from NASCAR officials; under the old point system, it was 25 points and a $25,000 fine for the crew chief almost automatically. NASCAR kept that fairly consistent, socking Busch with a six-point deduction and handing Rogers that $25K fine after the No. 18 Toyota didn’t match the templates Sunday night.

Some thought the penalty was harsh, particularly because Busch passed pre-race inspection _and_ suffered a significant amount of body damage during the race. But to establish consistency, NASCAR must stick with precedent on penalties and you never know what type of contraptions these crew chiefs have set up for in-race “strategy.” Note that JGR hasn’t chosen to appeal this decision; they not only accepted it but “notified NASCAR” of their findings upon getting back to the shop. Sounds like a team that knows they were playing a little outside the box, right?

That’s proof, more than ever that penalties are justified whenever a car falls outside the templates. Too low, too high, or too sideways everyone needs to be judged by the same rules, consistently; so NASCAR was right on this call.

*FACT: Pocono Shifting Is Here To Stay*

Tony Stewart gave a rather nasty “thank you” to NASCAR over the radio Sunday,
angry over shifting that left his transmission dropping 3rd gear in the race’s second
half. Stewart wound up 21st, one of five drivers with this type of problem in the first race where new ratios allowed that wrinkle to come back into play. Is that enough for NASCAR to change back the rules?

I say no. As tough as Pocono was too watch at times Sunday, can you imagine how nap-inducing that race would have been without the unpredictability of mechanical failure? It’s so rare these days we run the risk of DNFs, teams mastering the art of running 500 miles with all their parts and pieces instead of blowing an engine, brakes, or some sort of rear end part every other week. Can we go old school, allowing for durability to come back into play even if it’s only twice a year?
In reality, Stewart wasn’t so mad about the shifting, of course as he was frustrated his car couldn’t hang on for 500 miles. The timing and way those drivers used it allowed for more ways to get by people (Clint Bowyer jokingly referred to it as a “Push To Pass” button) and serves as a driver aid on everything from restarts to rhythm. So Smoke, you’ll have to swallow hard and get used to it; changes appear highly unlikely, in my opinion for August or even for 2012.

*FACT: Jeff Gordon Has Clinched A Chase Bid*

Could you believe the nerve of that Jeff Gordon, insinuating he hasn’t clinched a Chase bid on the heels of two victories? Let’s get real, buddy; you may be turning 40, but that doesn’t mean you have to be overly courteous to all those young whippersnappers fighting behind you. Let’s check out the stats:

– No driver inside the top 20 has one win, let alone two with twelve races left. That means two drivers would have to _both_ win twice, _then_ finish higher than Gordon in the season standings for him to fall out.

– Gordon, at 11th in points has over a full race’s worth of cushion on 21st. So barring an epic collapse, he’ll be within the top 20 cutoff to use those victories.
For me, that’s ‘nuff said; Gordon joins Hendrick teammates *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* and *Jimmie Johnson* in “lock” territory after Sunday.

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