NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Finch’s Fickle Behavior, Speed Terrors And “Chasing” Your Dream

*Did You Notice?…* The timing of Kurt Busch’s Jerry Springer Show “leak” as it pertains to the “decision” to keep his marriage with James Finch together? The second I saw that mockup sponsorship plastered all over the internet, my Intrader Odds for Kurt Busch keeping a ride – at least for now – went from 10 percent to 99.99999. Only the words “lightning strike at Busch’s home,” “Maricopa County arrest” or “President Obama issues Busch ban on motorsports” would have changed my way of thinking.

Why? The key components to that story are that Springer’s “request” for a mockup came at Darlington Raceway in May. It was a full three weeks before the Busch-Pockrass incident, with plenty of time for the rumor to spread; yet the story wasn’t reported, by Phoenix Racing _providing the information to a reporter_ until days after Busch’s suspension. Why would you show a reporter the plans for a future sponsor, catering to Busch when the driver’s employment with Phoenix Racing would be in doubt? The whole weekend sideshow at Pocono had me wondering about Finch’s motives last week; after all, the small-time owner has been trying to hang on for dear life with his unsponsored outfit. Why not make a few attention-grabbing quotes, make people think all hell is going to break loose – attracting the publicity you need for potential sponsorship – and then issue the following, “politically correct” statement after Tuesday’s “Come To Jesus” meeting:

“At the end of the day, we are racers so we’re going racing together with Kurt and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. We know adjustments have to be made, but how we fix that is between Kurt and myself. We’re going to go to the track, work hard, race hard and work on trying to attract a sponsor – and we’re going to do that together.”

I’ll say one thing in Finch’s defense: the free agent pool isn’t as strong as you might think. Brian Vickers is tied to Toyota and got busy running Le Mans; David Reutimann struggled in his one-race stint behind the wheel; someone like Bill Elliott is semi-retired and unwilling to pull that week-to-week commitment. The bottom line is, like it or not Busch has mountains more talent than anyone else immediately available. But I thought, after Finch’s initial response the owner had the convictions and the confidence to let Busch go. Maybe one day, he finally will.

But now? He seduced us all for the power of national publicity, giving Kurt Busch another chance in the process.

*Did You Notice?…* The series point leader is rolling into his manufacturer’s home track unsponsored? Matt Kenseth, whose No. 17 Ford has been working under patchwork deals all season has yet to announce a backer for Sunday’s race. Could there be any better example your business model’s in trouble when this season’s Daytona 500 winner, tied for the series lead in top-5 finishes (a stat that shows how often he runs up front) can’t make things work financially every week?

I don’t know what else it’s going to take for NASCAR’s top brass to wake up and smell the coffee over this business model. But it’s also a reality check for Roush Fenway, whose Carl Edwards No. 99 has also been plastered with nothing but Ford’s “backing” on the sides for several races. If the budget came down, with Edwards’ Super Wal-Mart stash of sponsors that money could easily cover everyone in the company. For years, the rumor has been that RFR’s Marketing Department refuses to compromise on any sponsor proposal, accepting top dollar and nothing less as if the sport was still running on 2005 horsepower – not “down a cylinder” by comparison in 2012. You’d think dropping to three teams might have taught them something, and maybe it has. Maybe the market is just that bad. But how can you have all these patchwork deals, cut down from four to three cars and still not have enough support to put someone on the hood this weekend? In Ford’s backyard? Something just isn’t right; and for Kenseth, a perspective free agent in 2013 the lack of funding keeps his future murkier than it should be.

*Did You Notice?…* Michigan’s flirtation with higher speeds is a little more worrisome than Pocono? Since the start of 1986, there’s just three tracks on the NASCAR circuit that have claimed two lives or more in its top three divisions: Daytona International Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway… and Michigan. It was here that Davey Allison’s brother, Clifford, died in a tragic testing incident just as his career was beginning to blossom in 1992. He joined Rick Baldwin, a journeyman racer who crashed in Cup qualifying six years earlier as drivers who had their lives cut short far too soon. And of course, who can forget Ernie Irvan’s scary midsummer wreck, in 1994 costing him a possible Cup championship and ultimately cutting short his career.

NASCAR has remained adamant that, despite speeds approaching 215 miles an hour entering the turns restrictor plates won’t be used. Why? I know it’s not an optimal solution, but every time cars get above a 200 mile an hour average at Daytona or Talladega the sport acts like an overprotective mother, tearing up the rulebook and jumping through hurdles to guarantee driver safety for all. Even with SAFER barriers, can you really be certain about what happens when a driver blows a tire hitting Turn 1 at speeds 10 miles an hour greater than any other racetrack? I’m reminded of what Rusty Wallace said a few years ago, at Talladega after driving a Cup car with the restrictor plates off (and reaching speeds approaching 230 miles an hour at times).

“It’s quite a thrill out there by yourself,” said Wallace, who still complained about driver comfort and car stability during his runs. “But it would be a recipe for disaster to think that we could race like that.”

Some might say plates also equal an automatic disaster. But besides the obvious concerns for driver health, remember – there’s no greater momentum-killer than tragedy.

*Did You Notice?…* How you could thank the Chase for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Pocono pit stop that cost him a shot at the victory? Without the postseason to worry about, Steve Letarte would have easily taken the chance and gambled the No. 88 driver could save an extra four-and-a-half laps of gas. After all, it’s only the NASCAR four-year victory drought talked about so much, fans are ready to erect a billboard “just win, already” describing their feelings behind Junior’s house in North Carolina. Could you imagine the drama Sunday if Logano, Martin, and Earnhardt waged a three-way battle for the win (Earnhardt was third at the time of his pit stop). The No. 88 was the fastest of the trio, but also had the best shot to run out of gas.

Steve Letarte’s decision didn’t come out of nowhere, though; he knows the tracks that lie ahead. Earnhardt running out of fuel, costing him what could have been a Chase-clinching victory would be a long-term gamble with his confidence level. There’s still no guarantee, with weaknesses like Infineon and the Daytona crapshoot up ahead a few bad finishes couldn’t put the winless driver back on the playoff bubble. This team is also the only one left to complete every single lap this season; there’s a little bit of luck involved, meaning a 35th-place mechanical problem has got to be in the cards at some point. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has some of the most volatile on-track self-esteem; a tailspin, at the wrong time in this age of parity takes away a chance at the championship.

That’s the positive out of the whole “Junior whiff,” that this driver and crew chief truly believe a championship is possible. The driver has now scored back-to-back top-10 finishes at tracks Earnhardt hates with a passion. Building a base of notes there that have him thinking this team could be competitive at any track they show up at lays the groundwork for the type of consistency you need during the Chase. But don’t you miss when the wins, not making a gameplan for the future defined racing in a full-time “regular season?”

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off…

– Yes, there were 22 speeding penalties Sunday. But did you notice 18 came in the race’s first half? Things had calmed down significantly by the final 200 miles, drivers dialing it down to the point where you wonder if a “faulty wire” could have exhibited that type of control. That’s why this Mark Martin quote from Sunday (who didn’t get busted for speeding) became my favorite… and also likely has a grain of truth attached to it.

“I don’t feel I can overcome a penalty, so I’m willing to stay slightly below the comfort zone,” he said. “For me, half a second is easier to make up than 30 seconds. There may have been some discrepancy in that last timing line, than if there were even I would have gotten busted. But I try to stay on the side where… I’ve got to look those guys in the eye and tell them I blew it if I got caught speeding on pit road.”

– Turns out there’s a reason Circle Sport’s Stephen Leicht is running just a smidge more than the rest of the start-and-parkers, driving the No. 33 Chevrolet. It’s for an opportunity to one day lock Austin Dillon inside the top 35 in owner points, just in case one of the teams above him close up shop (the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 car returns with Dillon at Michigan). Remember, Leicht used to work with Childress so this Circle Sport deal throws him a bone. But it’s also a sad, sad deal when teams are jostling for position as to who will be the “last one out” before 50 of 200 laps are complete.

– Carl Edwards’ Pocono restart penalty, along with AJ Allmendinger also brought up the concern of start-and-parking. The two drivers, according to several sources couldn’t drop back into the proper order because the S&P cars kept waving them ahead, refusing to run side-by-side since they didn’t want to risk any damage. It’s the most we’ve seen them potentially affect the outcome in quite sometime, and it raises the question… why are they coming to the track in the first place?

– No, the Pocono crowd wasn’t 100,000. But it was larger than last year. the facility did a good job making aesthetic improvements, listening to fans (by shortening the race 100 miles), and keeping Mother Nature at bay for the weekend. Those who want to take a race date away from this track? They’re going to have to fight for it tooth and nail.

– Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya led 17 laps for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing at Pocono. For McMurray, especially the weekend was big, a top-10 finish paired with the most positivity I’ve seen from him since Indianapolis last year. With the new pavement came a newfound confidence, reacting to the Pocono redo like a little kid on Christmas at what’s typically been one of his worst facilities. One-week wonder or permanent contender? We’re about to find out.

*Connect with Tom!*
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