_13 days. Hard to believe, but that’s all that’s left in a NASCAR season which has spanned the better part of nine months. Vacations for the disenfranchised, which in some cases will last half the winter, are close enough to see on the calendar. Sprint Cup championship week, filled with parties, million-dollar paychecks and five days of pure celebration in Vegas looms for the lucky in late November._
_In other words, for fans and drivers weary of a tiring, 38-race schedule the end is well within reach. Couldn’t Kyle just take a deep breath, recognize that upcoming trip to Tahiti and keep himself off the back bumper of Ron Hornaday, Jr.? Seriously? That’s like throwing a hissy fit about your poor seats at the football game with oh, about 3 minutes left in the 4th quarter. What does that solve?_
_With that, let’s quickly touch on the topic du jour as we begin the penultimate “in-season” edition of Fact or Fiction._
*FACT: Kyle Busch’s Future Is In M&M’s Hands*
NASCAR threw the hammer down on Monday, or they slapped a guy on the wrist, depending on which side of the aisle you’re on. A $50,000 fine, probation through the end of the year, and some harsh words for Kyle were the parting shot from the powers that be after parking him for the weekend. But – and here’s the most important part – the punishment stopped short of banning him from racing Cup the rest of the season.
Why? We can go into a long-term discussion of consistency versus other penalties here. But from the start of this mess, as I mentioned yesterday, I have always felt the harshest consequences for Kyle would come straight from the pipeline of the people who pay him. As you read this article, high-level meetings are happening everywhere from the Joe Gibbs Racing shop to Mars, Inc. — a sponsor clearly frustrated with Busch’s knack for bad publicity. Releasing a statement they were “disappointed” is the tip of the public iceberg; in private, they could be doing anything from making outrageous demands to triggering an out clause.
Several reports yesterday insisted some sort of “escape” existed for Busch’s bad behavior, written in at the beginning of the contract. The real truth remains open to conjecture, but as the week goes on their reaction becomes a story worth watching. Keep in mind 55% of fans on national television (ESPN) were surveyed and said Busch would be fired, tens of thousands of voices turning their opinions public. Countless emails, Facebook postings, and Twitters have gone out claiming boycotts of the company until a change is made.
Some might say, well hold on a minute! Home Depot had to deal with Tony Stewart, knocking a photographer into oblivion in ’02 and all they did was force anger management classes on the guy. But the difference between then and 2011 is instantaneous reaction; now, more than ever, the disenfranchised can make their voices heard to the right people through social media. So until he turns the publicity tide Kyle has a wave of angry, vocal detractors, and that’s likely to cause at the very least additional penalties from Gibbs and keep an outright pullout of M&M’s on the table going forward.
*FICTION: The Chase Keeps “Cookie-Cutter” Races Exciting*
For a lot of people, Sunday’s race was borderline classic in the same way Martinsville was last week. In one corner, you’ve got Tony Stewart, two-time champion and 2011 challenger running at the front of the pack. And in the other corner sits the point leader, Carl Edwards, fighting and clawing just to stay within striking distance before surging through the final 150 miles into second place.
Your title contenders, 1-2, fighting for position the same way Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki dueled in 1992. Right? Wrong. You see, back then, the duo passed for the lead, running several laps side-by-side in a championship decided by only ten points. Their duel also occurred during the final race of the season. Texas, in comparison, was race number 34 of 36. And consider that Stewart, not Edwards, led the majority of the race without so much as a sniff from his back bumper. Edwards was a _distant_ second, keeping his nose clean in a race that had about as much passing as my narrow, one-lane driveway outside my apartment complex. Sure, the 1-2 finish looks sexy on paper; but were people _that enthralled_ by _mathematics_ on the edge of their seat, pins and needles while Stewart and Edwards ran comfortably apart from each other?
I don’t think so. Plain and simple, this race was another below average show on an intermediate track. That’s a pattern NASCAR needs to correct, and quickly so the only “classic” races aren’t confined to short tracks and road courses from here on out.
*FACT: Jeremy Mayfield’s Career Is Now Defined By Drugs And Missed Opportunity*
David Ragan is staring at the unemployment line this winter. For five years, he had the chance of a lifetime at Roush but was never able to cash in and focus. With this economy, it’s likely he’ll be sitting on the sidelines without a second chance at Cup for quite sometime.
Now imagine if Ragan got not just a second chance, but at one of the sport’s other top organizations. Would he be able to finally put things together? It’s a luxury Jeremy Mayfield had during a Cup career that saw him land in two ideal situations (Penske Racing, Evernham Motorsports) who made every effort, at least initially, to help him succeed.
And succeed Mayfield did in both. At Penske Racing, in 1998 he led the points for a time and finished a career-high seventh place. Through 2001, he won a total of three times, collected 57 top-10 finishes and led over 1,500 laps. With the proper focus and temperament that partnership could have paid off long-term as a potent 1-2 punch with Rusty Wallace.
Even at Evernham, Mayfield had an opportunity that he excelled in all over again. The first two years of the Chase, he made the cut each time and won a total of two races driving the No. 19 Dodge. The last year of his tenure, the going got tough – engineering guru Kenny Francis was pulled to be Kasey Kahne’s crew chief – but there was still a four-year window for the Kentuckyian to be successful.
I bring this past performance up because with Mayfield’s indictment on drug charges Tuesday, we’ll never know exactly how good he could have been. Questions on how long this usage occurred will hang over him forever. Was he 110% focused in either opportunity? Could the driver have contended for a top-5 points finish or (gasp) even a title without the distraction of drug use? And how many years was he high either just before, or during races, putting others in serious jeopardy?
I know Ragan, perfectly clean would kill for that kind of second opportunity. It’s a shame someone else had these chances and, well, threw them away.
*FICTION: We Have No Idea What’s Going To Happen In Phoenix*
There’s plenty of drama surrounding the new Phoenix oval, with drivers pulling out their go-to generic quote: “We don’t know what to expect.”
Sure you don’t, guys. It’s not like the track turned itself into a two-mile oval. Yeah, the banking is different and yes, the way the dogleg is structured will eventually set the field up for more passing heading into Turn 3. But what do we see whenever a new track is repaved?
Two words: one-groove racetrack. Add in the dreaded aerodynamic issues, ever-present at even the one-mile speedways and qualifying this weekend becomes more critical than ever. Sit on the pole, take the lead heading into Turn 1 and, well, you might be sitting there the whole race unless you are doomed by pit strategy. For the record, Carl Edwards has the better average start among the two title contenders: 9.6 to Mr. Stewart’s 18.0. So the No. 14 car cannot afford a 24th-place starting position – we know that much.
And oh, did I mention that Phoenix races have been decided on fuel mileage before? I wish we weren’t looking at the same old, same old stories for this one. In the long-term, refurbishing this oval was a fantastic move for both the sport and ISC, but it’s going to take at least one race for the pavement to start setting in… and this event will serve as nothing more than a guinea pig.
Can somebody say… bad timing?
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