NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Another Slap on the Wrist, the Championship Edge, and Red Bull Flip Flops

*1. Who has the championship edge this week, Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards?*

With a scant three points separating Carl Edwards and his Office Depot and Mobil 1-sponsored tormentor going into Phoenix, one has to wonder…who truly has the advantage? On one hand, Carl Edwards did run exceptionally well at Phoenix in the spring race at the track until a run-in with Kyle Busch, so surely he has to have the advantage, right?

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It would appear that Carl Edwards would have the edge in Phoenix this week after a strong run in the spring but the new track configuration levels the playing field.

Well, that’s not necessarily a given going into race weekend at the recently repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway. This race is now possibly just as big of a wild-card as a Talladega or a Martinsville. Translation for NASCAR fans: Expect the unexpected. When a track gets repaved or reconfigured, the racing landscape at the facility changes dramatically. The old way of racing at the track is tossed out the window in favor of the new normal, whatever that may be.

In other words, just because the No. 99 Aflac Ford contended for wins in February does not mean guaranteed success in November. The same could also be said for Tony Stewart’s impressive Chase run. All his hard work to get this close could easily go out the window if he misses the set-up even by a slight bit. That said? The current momentum is on Stewart’s side, if only due to his recent run of success during the Chase. But as far as Phoenix goes, nobody’s guaranteed anything at the moment.

2. Could Joe Gibbs be benching Kyle Busch for the remainder of the 2011 season?

The answer? Not quite. Mars and their M&Ms sponsorship is nowhere to be found for the remainder of the season (the decals were stripped off the Phoenix car in favor of Interstate Batteries), but Kyle Busch will be racing his No. 18 Cup car in the final two races of the season. Aric Almirola’s services will not be needed, Busch’s suspension goes no further than the Nationwide Series (Denny Hamlin will drive his No. 18 car in that series at Homestead), and the field will keep turning left.

Truth be told, is anyone surprised by this? Sure, Busch had no legs to stand on after his actions in Texas this past Friday, but it’s not like Rowdy has had a clean record in his time with JGR. This team has stuck with him through everything from his nasty tiff with Juan Pablo Montoya at Loudon in 2008 to his racing like a pest at Homestead last fall. Why would they park him now?

Besides, Kyle’s latest transgression did not even happen behind the wheel of a JGR entry. Besides some bad public relations, this had nothing to do with JGR. Couple that with the fact that for all the populist rage at Kyle this past week, M&Ms still enjoys among the highest exposure rates of any sponsor at any level of motorsports, this one was a no brainer.

They’ve stuck with the immature kid this long. Why stop now?

*3. That being said, can you say cop out?*

The press release announcing that Kyle Busch would drive the No. 18 car, but not with M&Ms decals, was released after 9 PM eastern time. Rumors swirled all day about the No. 18 car being repainted; ESPN reported that Aric Almirola had been called by the team as a possible relief driver for the weekend; stories were published detailing how the Mars Company was looking for a way out of their deal with NASCAR’s most volatile driver.

Why does this matter? It’s simple…by releasing this story after the NASCAR news cycle was largely done for the day (after all, Thursday isn’t race day), everyone from JGR to Mars get to have everyone sleep on the news before reacting to it. That’s a big deal to them…because all this says is that Mars got an excuse to cancel their sponsor bill for two races knowing full well they weren’t going to be a factor in the 2011 title chase. Kyle Busch still gets to race, his car is fully sponsored, and Mars will be back with the same driver in 2012 come Daytona 500 time. After all, the company now has the expectation that Kyle won’t have another incident (it’s a rather laughably written press release).

Consider that right now in the sporting world, on the other side of the country in State College, PA, sports fans are seeing firsthand how not to handle a public relations disaster at Penn State. Agree with it or not, PSU fired Joe Paterno not because of a legal wrongdoing, but because he’s a recognizable face that’s guilty by at least association in the scandal gripping the Nittany Lion athletic program. Right thing to do or not, that firing does nothing to address the root of the problem there; that children were victimized, that high-ranking officials lied and covered up incidents, and that even rich benefactors of the program may have been involved in the despicable acts.

Penn State fired the most recognizable face trying to stave off the PR avalanche. But fans and sportswriters alike are seeing right through this act, noting that assistant coaches that knew just as much as Paterno did are still going to be on the sidelines this coming Saturday. PSU made a high visibility move trying to cover up the inconvenient truth…that the scope of this scandal is only going to grow.

Why recount all of this? Because Joe Gibbs Racing is doing the same thing (and no, Busch fans out there, I am not comparing Kyle’s actions to that of Sandusky and Co., so save your breath trying to make that argument). But JGR is trying to throw a high visibility red herring out there to hide the fact that for Kyle, there really is no consequence to his latest episode with Ron Hornaday.

M&Ms is off the car for two weeks. They’ll be back at Daytona. Kyle is back to racing this weekend…and when all is said and done, the only penalty that JGR will lay down on him is pulling him out of the NNS car at Homestead. He’ll be back on track tomorrow.

So tell me again…what, exactly, is JGR and Mars doing to emphasize that what Kyle did at Texas was wrong? How is this not a cop out?

*4. Anyone Notice Cole Whitt On the Cup Entry List?*

So Red Bull Racing is all but ready to get out of NASCAR for good, yet all of sudden the Truck Series rookie that the energy drink giant sponsors is popping up in a third car on the Cup entry list?

It’s been tough in following this season-long story to separate Red Bull the race team and Red Bull the sponsor, as the two aren’t necessarily one in the same. Red Bull Racing on the Cup side of things is on the way out, but that’s not hard to understand; Red Bull came into the sport back in 2007 not only sponsoring two cars, but owning two race teams, down to the full-time pit crews that they employed. For a company that, while having a stake in NASCAR, is not a glove fit for the sport’s demographic, the expense and effort of owning two full-time racing operations may well not be a valid business decision.

But as for Cole Whitt, his Red Bull money doesn’t come with all those strings attached. Look at his No. 60 truck…Red Bull is on the vehicle for the majority of races, but the team has actively courted sponsorship, even poaching Fuel Doctor from Rick Ware Racing mid-season to fill an associate’s role. What’s more, while the No. 4 Cup car has an uncertain future and Brian Vickers has had an ugly return to full-time racing after his bout with blood clots last year, the stock of Whitt has been nothing but rising. From finishing in the top 15 in a borrowed ride at Daytona to leading the points early in the season, Whitt has shown every sign that he will be a contender in NASCAR for a long time to come.

Red Bull will not own a Sprint Cup operation in 2012, that much is certain. But with a guy like Whitt in their camp, don’t count them out as a sponsor in some capacity next year.

And don’t count out a top 25 run from Whitt this weekend either.

“Contact Brody Jones”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/32699/
“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

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