NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Etched in Granite

Last weekend’s events at New Hampshire were seasonally-significant, and for more reasons than the relative ease with which fans drove to-and-from the track. Not only was the weekend a stellar showing for Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing, but Saturday saw the breaking of a highly rare barrier: the 100th-career NASCAR victory earned by Kyle Busch. Tossed about in the weekend’s mix was continued frustration for Hendrick Motorsports’ teams, and all the drama and angst that such frustration creates. In other words: it was pretty much a typical weekend in NASCAR Nation.

Kyle Busch’s historic accomplishment on Saturday rattled the cages of many who consider the young driver a plague on everything good and decent. That said; it’s foolish to discount his talent and determination, even though both of these qualities are often overshadowed by his outspokenness and sometimes brash demeanor. We can’t forget that Kyle Busch was the driver most responsible for NASCAR upping its minimum age requirement for touring series drivers’ licenses. Joey Logano, for example, had to delay his eventual NASCAR debut thanks to the skill displayed by Kyle Busch on an variety of regional racetracks, as have several other drivers who appeared capable of racing success at an early age, even though their talents fell short of the “fear factor” NASCAR exhibited when it worried that a kid like Kyle might stink up the show if he was given a competition license before the age of eighteen. Like him or not…. Kyle Busch is a driver with which to reckon, and even more so as he matures into his (gulp!) late-twenties.

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Kyle Busch’s 100th NASCAR win may not sit well with some fans, but it is truly a historic accomplishment.

As I’ve written before: we’ve seen this kind of evolution before. There was a time when a guy named Earnhardt rubbed fans in a variety of bothersome ways because of his skill and his demeanor. We can’t forget that Dale Earnhardt upset people by winning what seemed to be all the time, nor should we forget that Earnhardt had a way with the media; a well-timed, critical comment about a track or a competitor would resonate throughout the sport with lightning speed – and much of this took place in the pre-internet days of “old-fashioned” communications. Earnhardt had a reputation for calling things as he saw them, and many of his calls – whether on the track or off – prompted all kinds of fan reaction.

Unbeknownst to many, however, was the fact that Earnhardt took time to take care of the people who devoted many hours of effort toward his racing success. I met a person once who had close ties to RCR during Earnhardt’s days with the team. The man spoke of how Dale would sometimes stop by the shop late in the evening, at a time when most people would be spending time with their families, or settling down for a good night’s sleep. Earnhardt would see the lights burning and come in to find the fabricators re-skinning what had been a wrecked car, or he’d find the engine guys searching for an extra few horsepower in a new motor. The man told me how Dale, for all of his rough-and-tumble reputation, would quietly go around the race shop and stop to visit with each team member; “The Intimidator” would thank each person for all of their additional time and energy, recognizing that they were working late on his behalf, then slip each employee a little cash “bonus” as a way to acknowledge their “overtime” efforts. The man finally admitted that people could say what they wanted to about Dale Earnhardt and any negative feelings they had regarding him and his years of success, but – in his mind – those “private” moments far-outweighed the “public”.

One can only hope that the same is true for Kyle Busch as he assumes the title of “the driver most fans love to hate”. We’ve seen it before with others like Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and – more recently – Jimmie Johnson, but there’s a moral to the story that always emerges: the attention on these drivers eventually subsides as another hotshoe becomes the flavor-of-the-month. For all the teeth-gnashing and finger-pointing surrounding Kyle Busch at this point in time, you can rest assured that another driver will rile feathers and shiver timbers as races and seasons unfold.

Part of the issue stemming from Kyle Busch’s NNS win last weekend was whether or not his 100th-career NASCAR victory was worthy of being considered a 100th-career NASCAR victory. Shots were fired across NASCAR’s bow from all angles arguing that Busch had numerous wins in the Camping World Truck Series, that he was consistently campaigning in Nationwide events, and that all those “additional” victories weren’t the same as Richard Petty’s 200-career Cup wins (even though some NASCAR historians might argue that if Bobby Allison had been given credit for a Cup win he scored with a Grand American car, that Petty’s total would drop to an ever-so-close 199-career victories, but that’s another can of worms entirely). Others believed that a NASCAR win should count as a NASCAR win, regardless of the series, as was the case with David Pearson and how his solitary Nationwide victory counted toward his second-place, career-win total of 106. One thing’s for certain, as we’ve seen from the events unfolding thus far in 2011: there’s no way to satisfy everyone all of the time. Such is life, I guess….

As a point of argument, let’s consider that Richard Petty scored many of his career victories during a time when NASCAR’s Grand National division routinely ran fifty or sixty events per season. At such a rate of competition, is it even possible to calculate realistic statistics that would correlate drivers racing in 2011 to those who drove in 1961, let’s say. The number of races run each season have decreased over the past fifty years, but might that also suggest that drivers would opt to gain additional experience/”seat time” by competing in other series? If Kyle Busch had the opportunity to race fifty Sprint Cup events each year, might he not, then, limit his efforts to just that series? Drawing comparisons between “then” and “now” is akin to the old “apples and oranges” conundrum. What was “then” isn’t what is “now”, so why try to build a comparative argument?

What we see as the “now” is an ever-tightening “Race to the Chase” scenario. The top-two successes of Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, and their entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization last week added more drama to an already provocative plot. As the number of pre-Chase events begins to noticeably dwindle, we’re beginning to see the making of personnel moves that are intended to insure a fixed position in the post-season. The pressure on Cup teams lingering within or near the top-10 is looming larger, as teams start dropping the hammer on crew members in hopes of finding the magic that will result in a chance for the championship. For all of the pain-and-suffering at SHR so far in 2011, last weekend in New Hampshire was a welcome and much-needed turn of events. For other teams, in comparison, New Hampshire was simply more of the same, just set amongst the trees and streams of bucolic New England. As September draws closer, so do some difficult decisions.

The relative, collective woes of Hendrick Motorsports, circa 2011, continued in the Granite State. Despite a top-5 for Jimmie Johnson (who was defending champion in the event) and an 11th-place run for Jeff Gordon, all eyes continued to fall upon Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The No. 88 team struggled with a pit road miscue that led to a penalty that led to an eventual 15th-place finish for a team that’s scrambling to hold its place within the top-10 in points. Junior’s trials-and-tribulations overshadowed the performances of his teammates (including Mark Martin’s 22nd-place finish), at a time when the series heads to Indianapolis for an event that favors three of the four teams in the Hendrick stable (and the No. 88 isn’t one of the favored three). As NASCAR Nation anxiously awaits Junior’s eventual return to victory lane – and the momentum is still there – the No. 88 seems saddled down with poor results on the heels of poor luck. The dog days of summer tend to be rough on everyone (he writes, on a 100+ degree day in Northern Michigan), but perhaps more rough on a team that is oh-so-close to winning, yet oh-so-close to losing their early-season advantage in the all-important points. If one recent development in NASCAR has passed the test, it’s been the “new and improved” point structure, but I guess that depends on to whom you speak.

So off we go to the Brickyard, for a weekend that promises to be hot and humid at American racing’s most hallowed facility. Last week’s events in the Granite State will be relegated to recent history as drivers and crews seek to kiss the bricks at the start-finish line and etch their names in the IMS record book. That’s not to say that NASCAR’s trip to New England will be forgotten soon, however. Some names and achievements were etched in New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s record book, as well – names and achievements that will shape the course of the 2011 NASCAR season. The Chase for the Championship lies ahead, but it’s getting into the Chase that’s job one, for now. May cooler heads (and temperatures) prevail…

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