ONE: Is Kyle Busch NASCAR’s Championship Favorite?
Kyle Busch’s victory at what was, let’s be fair, an absolute snoozer of a race at Kansas Speedway was his third of the season (a series best). It was also his 37th Cup victory in his 401st race and, incredibly, his 162nd win across all three levels of top echelon NASCAR racing; Busch has won 80 times at the XFINITY level and another 45 times at the Truck level. The run of checkered flags leaves just two tracks in Cup at which Busch has not won: Charlotte Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. And, given the way he is currently driving, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the younger Busch brother knock off wins at those circuits before the season is done. Busch looks excellent this year, continuing his success from a championship run in 2015.
Some would argue that Busch would be the current favorite to win it all. On one level, given his form, you can’t argue with that. But on the other hand, with the (still) new Chase format the matter of who’s the favorite so early in the year is almost irrelevant. Busch could win 10-plus races in the regular season and then flame out with a few bad finishes in one of the Chase segments. It is what makes this new playoff system both so compelling and also so frustrating. All you can do, really, is put yourself in position to win; Busch is doing that in style.
TWO: All-Star Changes
It is fair to say that the NASCAR All-Star Race has been anything but stellar these past few years. In fact, the stats show that in the last five races there has been precisely one lead change in the final segment. Last year, for example, Denny Hamlin led into the first turn, was unchallenged from there on out and held off faster cars on the way to a maiden All-Star victory. So the changes announced over the past week were at least encouraging with the possibility of a great final section.
The idea is that the after the second of two 50-lap segments the top nine, 10 or 11 cars (the exact amount is to be decided) will be forced to pit for a four-tire change. The remaining cars will stay on the track. Of course the question becomes, is 13 laps — the length of the final segment – enough time for cars with fresh rubber to make their way to the front? What kind of strategies will we see play out as the second 50-lap segment winds down?
Brad Keselowski, who is being credited as the brains behind this new format, tweeted last Friday that he hopes that the race will be “…the ‘must watch race of the year’ if I was a fan in the stands.” Now, I’m not sure exactly if this proclamation will be the case but at least there’s a chance with the new format.
THREE: The Monster
Next up, we head to Dover International Speedway for the first of two trips in the 2016 season. The next time we return to Dover will be for the third race of the Chase, the conclusion of the first section of the playoffs and race 29 on the year. But that’s a long time off just yet. This Sunday afternoon’s race will be the 93rd time Cup cars have tackled the high-banked, 1-mile concrete track – a streak that extends all the way back to 1969. The inaugural race was won by Hall-of-Fame legend Richard Petty, who led half of that day’s 300 total laps.
Dover has traditionally been Jimmie Johnson’s house, with the six-time champion winning an incredible 10 races at Dover to go along with 15 top 5s and 2,999 laps led. Don’t be surprised, then, to see Johnson make that at least a nice, round 3,000 laps, finish strong and record an 11th win. Keep an eye out for Kevin Harvick though, who had a dominant day the last time we visited, leading 355 of 400 laps on the way to victory.
One other issue to track is the fans themselves. Dover has suffered greatly with attendance these past few years and over the last couple seasons the track has been assiduously removing seats with capacity likely to be something in the region of 85,000 for this Sunday’s race. It’s unlikely that the stands will be full, but let’s hope there is a better crowd than we might expect heading into this weekend’s event.
FOUR: Burying the Hatchet
News emerged last weekend that Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano had broken bread after their latest incident at Talladega Superspeedway and, for now at least, buried the hatchet in what had become something of an enduring feud. Much as it is fun to watch two drivers tangle time after time – and NASCAR has certainly been built on rivalries — there comes a point where it’s better if things cool down for a while. And you’d have to say that is definitively the case with Kenseth and Logano, both of whom certainly did not need to ramp up the venom to the levels we saw at the back end of the 2015 season.
I can’t imagine this truce is the start of any kind of meaningful friendship between the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran and the Team Penske racer, but for now at least hostilities should cease — “for now” being the operative words here. When asked at a press conference whether he wanted to expand on what it was they talked about Kenseth, in typical laconic style, fired back with a, “Nah, if we wanted that we would have made it a conference call.”
Nicely done, Matty K. Nicely done.
FIVE: 5,000-1 Shot
And finally this week, I have to mention my other favorite sport: football (as I call it) or soccer (as anyone reading here is likely to call it). I realize that this column is racing-based and that my editors will probably be tearing their collective hair out for me going here but I can’t finish this week without a mention of the new English Premier League Champions: Leicester City.
It is a story you may well have heard a little about already with the previously unheralded team winning the top English league after nine months of tough, intense competition. Their odds to win it all at the start of the season were a whopping 5,000-1. These, folks, are the same odds you can get on Elvis being found alive, on a confirmed sighting of Big Foot or a team like Josh Wise’s unsponsored No. 30 ride winning the Daytona 500. In short, no one gave Leicester City a prayer and yet, remarkably, they persevered and won it all. You can talk about other sporting stories like the USA 1980 Men’s Olympic Hockey team but the reality is Leicester’s achievement surpasses that. It is, I think, the greatest sports story of all time and that is one worth mentioning.
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