Did You Notice?… Kurt Busch could be the fourth person in history to do theNASCAR/Indy “double,” running 1,100 miles in the same day? OK, you probably do because Busch was everywhere with a camera, a microphone, and a satellite signal Tuesday. Between the national rounds, from ESPN to NBC along with aKurtBuschDouble.com website rollout it’s clear this Memorial Day Weekend decision has been brewing for months.
My colleague Huston Ladner, if you haven’t read it does an excellent job explaining the IndyCar side of this equation. For open-wheel, Busch’s entry provides an automatic boost to a series running on empty, to the point they’d gasp take even Danica back for a race if they could have her. Now, their keystone event will have NASCAR fans who would otherwise ignore it at least taking a cursory look. The Indy 500, like with past “doubles”, comes with an added sense of intrigue. Considering the race had record-low ratings last year while putting on arguably one of the best events any oval track has seen with open-wheel cars, I’d say IndyCar should gladly take on the help.
More importantly, though Busch’s story brings a compelling news angle to NASCAR, one that doesn’t involve the new Chase, poor TV ratings, handling problems or Earnhardt, Earnhardt, Earnhardt. While far from a dream candidate for this role, Busch has learned to handle the media these past few years after learning the hard way – through pink slips. He’ll be able to cross the line during the month of May and become the type of compelling story NBC News or a 60 Minutes could chronicle rather effectively. It’s worth noting that for a sport still perceived as “redneck” in certain sections of the country (trust me… I grew up in one) Busch is one of the most intellectual, well-spoken drivers on the circuit when he chooses. That, along with a strong military affiliation through girlfriend Patricia’s work, makes him well positioned to draw a different, non-racing audience to his story. It’s a PR grab that works both ways; for fans sick of hearing about NASCAR’s Chase, the challenge of the actualracing involved in this attempt might make those turned off start paying attention, if only for a three-day weekend.
So how will Busch do? I think you’re talking about two sets of goals here. Simply accomplishing the “double” is an achievement in itself, an act of stamina and driver skill so complex, only three men (Robby Gordon, John Andretti, and Tony Stewart) have been able to accomplish it. The key in that sentence, though, is “Stewart,” the once-reluctant co-owner of Busch’s program who will now become a key mentor. Who else to coach you on the challenge to come than someone who’s been through it all before? I expect Busch to come through the physical part of it all with flying colors, flying safely to Charlotte and running both races without a hint of exhaustion.
Of course, finishing both races is one thing… remaining competitive is another issue altogether. Think about how much open-wheel drivers have struggled in their transition to NASCAR. You have Sam Hornish, Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti… the list is long and award-winning. It’d be borderline insulting to IndyCar if Busch were able to swoop in, having never run an IndyCar race (let alone an open-wheel one) and whip everyone’s butt in the Indy 500. Dream away – and people will – but it just ain’t gonna happen, folks. Not this year. Expect Busch to qualify with ease, as the deal with Andretti Autosport features top-level equipment but after that, simply a lead-lap finish in the big race would be a major accomplishment.
Charlotte’s 600-miler, a race Busch has won once before offers him a far better shot at Victory Lane. Even then, considering he’ll start from the rear, track position will pose a problem all night long. The tire compound for NASCAR’s home track hasn’t been ideal for several years and passing on that intermediate comes at a premium. Busch will need some lucky breaks, good pit strategy from a rookie crew chief (let’s not forget that) and a better car than the ones he’s had the first two races this year.
No matter what happens, it’s a fascinating story, the type that shows you should never give up. Who would have ever thought Busch would be racing open-wheel, let alone the Indy 500, let alone both that and NASCAR with top-tier programs right now? Remember, we’re only two years, four months from a YouTube embarrassment and anger management meltdown that tore him apart, making him a laughingstock of the Sprint Cup garage.
Love or hate the guy, that’s your choice. But Busch has shown remarkable resilience and taught us all a lesson that it’s never too late to bounce back.
Did You Notice?… While only two races in, there’s a few drivers starting to dig themselves a hole? For once, I’m not talking the Cup Series standings. Mr. Busch, whose 2014 has started rough needs only to win at Las Vegas to make the Chase. NASCAR’s new format makes a rough start fairly easy to fix on a week-to-week basis, right?
That said, no “roll of the dice” will get you a win if your team is struggling to simply compete. So here’s a quick short list of drivers I’m watching intently, two races in:
Tony Stewart. Smoke was noticeably snippy with the media this weekend. That’s not unusual, except for the fact the season’s just begun and he’s spent the past six months out of the public eye, recovering from that broken leg. It’s clear he’s still not 100 percent, is tired of getting asked about it, but also hasn’t shown the speed to make him feel better. Add to that the stress of SHR expansion, no extracurricular activities to bring relief and an awkward start with new crew chief Chad Johnston. Busch or Kevin Harvick won’t be the only ones capable of cracking in this group.
Kasey Kahne: Two races, two ho-hum finishes, although Daytona, in the form of an unfair speeding penalty call, clearly wasn’t his fault. Still, when your three teammates post six top-6 finishes in six attempts so far in 2014, Kahne clearly seems a step below his in-house competition. Las Vegas is a big weekend for him. The No. 5 car was second last year and Kahne prides himself on his strength at intermediates.
Danica Patrick: Two races, three wrecks, 39th in season points. Could it be any worse? The sad part is Patrick has run so much better than her finishes show. At Phoenix, she was headed for a top 20 and who knows what would have happened in that wild 500? Those incidents may not have been Patrick’s fault, but it’s how she responds to this “sophomore slump” that matters now. A full season of these results and even the best GoDaddy commercial will not save her.
Did You Notice?… That while the Camping World Trucks may struggle with short fields this season, as soon as their next race at Martinsville this month they’re actually in pretty good shape. Ratings ticked up 11 percent for the season opener, an anomaly within NASCAR’s early season numbers and limited promotion from FOX Sports 1. The results have pleased Camping World so much they’re about to sign for a long-term extension that guarantees the viability of the series for years to come.
That will give the Trucks some room to grow. More importantly, they’re not saddled with the type of Sprint Cup invasion and rich/poor dynamic that’s taken over the Nationwide Series garage. Over there, you’ve got a series struggling to fill its field even with so many Cup drivers entered. Only 39 cars showed up last week, a handful start-and-parking and they’ll just barely make the minimum 40 this Saturday at Vegas.
With sponsor Nationwide jumping ship in 2015, there is a large opening for title funding that leaves NASCAR’s second-tier series at a crossroad. Eight of the 40 entries this weekend, 20 percent, are Cup drivers looking to fine-tune their skills. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not so much that they’re better than everyone but they’re competing in equipment with their “big league” teams, chassis that in some cases are $5-$6 million better funded than the next guy. Could you imagine a team like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, a AAA affiliate competing against the New York Yankees, day in and day out?
The answer, of course is that it’s simply impossible. That’s created an ugly landscape, one where the big-team affiliations are simply killing off all competition. There’s a group of 5-7 guys, mostly with those big programs capable of running for the championship (Elliott Sadler with Joe Gibbs Racing is one such example). But on the flip side, the “poor” section of the garage is so outgunned, so far behind owners new and old are on the verge of giving up. It’s like 15-20 cars are capable of running on the lead lap at unrestricted races while the rest barely show up to the racetrack and, if they do, run five laps down or more.
Of course, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the gap in Nationwide has never been wider. To attract a new title sponsor, NASCAR needs a plan and incentives so that the series keeps independents in the pipeline. It also needs to limit those Cup drivers through more rules, all while convincing a new title sponsor spending millions they’ll still get the same exposure without them. Sound tricky? That’s ‘cause it is. And with TV coverage split beginning next season between FOX and NBC, there’s no dedicated crew to care about the product like the Trucks and FOX Sports 1.
The verdict? If I’m a new owner, I’m choosing Trucks because it’s got a niche, is cheaper to run and has greater opportunity for growth. That leaves Nationwide with minor-league money and dreamers hard to come by in a whole heap of trouble going forward.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
– Think Las Vegas isn’t worth watching? Take a look at the top-6 finishers from last season: Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. Those drivers combined for 22 of 36 wins, on the Cup level, five of six Chase spots and included your top-2 title combatants (Johnson and Kenseth). Colleague Danny Peterspointed out yesterday how much Vegas figures into the overall championship Chase. And with intermediates more important than ever, with the “elimination” Chase format, it’s the one race all the big guns will give 110 percent during the regular season to see where they stand.
– That 4.8 rating, a NASCAR low for Phoenix since 2001. concerns me a little bit. The horrible racing concerns me a lot. But here’s the question no one wants to ask: has pop culture, at age 39, passed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. by? I’m not saying the guy isn’t popular. I’m not saying the guy doesn’t have some degree of charisma. But at press time, Juan Pablo Montoya still had more twitter followers than Dale, Jr.’s 573,000. Earnhardt’s nearly half-a-million behind Danica Patrick’s total. And LeBron James? That guy’s got 11.8 million.
Don’t sit there and tell me Dale, Jr. just needs to “catch on.” That guy has rocked Twitter, the past two weeks better than any driver I’ve ever seen! It’s an added bonus to what should have happened anyway: fans flocking to the Most Popular Driver on social media if he was the Most Popular. Instead? LeBron picked up more followers in six hours than Junior has right this very second years ago, before Twitter was as prevalent as it is right now. I hate being the ugly elephant in the room, but those numbers actually concern me more when NASCAR is ready to rocket a new marketing campaign around a familiar face.