(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Is a Summer Storm Coming to NASCAR?

Long, hot days give way to sultry nights, tracks are hot and slick and expectations and frustrations mount.  It’s summer in NASCAR, and with 12 races to go in the sport’s regular season, there’s a rivalry brewing right along with the summer storms.

Or is there?

2018 to date has largely been the Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch show. It seems like most weeks, if one isn’t drubbing the field, the other is. The pair has combined for nine wins in the first 14 races, with Harvick having the edge with five victories.  The only other driver to break into Victory Lane more than once this year has been Martin Truex Jr., and the season so far is a stark contrast with last year’s 15 different winners.

So far, for the most part, Harvick and Busch have avoided a head-to-head battle for a race win. It looked like it might happen at Charlotte Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago, with Harvick charging through the field, ever closer to a dominant Busch, but a cut tire ended the fight before it started. Still, it’s hard to imagine it’s not coming, like a summer storm that builds silently until the thunder breaks.

But will this exchange of warning shots turn into a full-out battle? Despite those storm clouds brewing, it doesn’t look promising so far.

It’s not just that Harvick and Busch have yet to both put it all together in the same race — that’s bound to happen at some point. But whether it will blossom into an extended gnashing of teeth is another story.

The sport could use a good rivalry. It hasn’t seen one in a while; the last great one might have been Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon in the late 1990s, nearly 20 years ago.

Why is that? Well, perhaps a few things. One, a rivalry really requires the best in the sport. After Earnhardt’s death, Gordon was more or less alone at the top. Tony Stewart might have made a case, and Jimmie Johnson roared through the 2000s like a freight train, but it never happened.

A good rivalry involves a few basic ingredients: two of the best drivers in the sport with both of them at the top of their game at the same time, mutual respect as well as a huge desire to beat each other and deep competitiveness from drivers, teams and fans on both sides. (By that definition, Gordon and Stewart should have been big. Gordon-Johnson was derailed by the fact that they were teammates and Gordon was the owner on record of Johnson’s car.) It helps if the drivers involved have vastly different personalities and reputations. That alone was one reason Earnhardt and Gordon wound up on a collision course.

Are all the ingredients in place between Harvick and Busch to create an explosion? The pair hasn’t exactly been each other’s biggest supporters over the years, and while there’s a grudging respect for the other’s skill and team, it’s different than in the best rivalries in the past. There’s no doubt the passion is there; it’s hard to find drivers who will go harder for a win than those two. One would turn the other for the win without question or remorse.

And maybe that’s part of it: they’ll do whatever it takes to beat the other, but neither seems to want that any more than they want to beat anyone else. They just want to win, and who they beat to do it is incidental.

Beyond that, it’s not an easy situation for fans to back, because the two are so much alike. Take Earnhardt and Gordon again; Earnhardt was the ultra-aggressive, somewhat-unpolished blue-collar racer, and Gordon was the clean-cut,corporate dream, just a kid for whom success came early and easily. Harvick and Busch, meanwhile, are cut from a much more similar molds. They came up young and are both brash, outspoken and aggressive. They both hate losing to the point of sulking when they do, and either one will do what it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What that does is make it hard for fans to back one or the other in a fight. Their own fans will, of course, but beyond that, it’s hard to get anyone to take sides (in the old rivalries, it seemed as though just about everyone backed one side or the other, even if their favorite driver wasn’t involved) because if you don’t like one, well, chances are you won’t like the other very much either, and if you like one’s style, the other one’s is pretty much just like it.

There’s another reason that the building thunderheads might not bring the expected storm this summer as well: the other teams. Can Harvick and Busch sustain their dominance? It won’t be any cake walk. Truex is heating up, and he’s the defending champion, not someone to take lightly. Kyle Larson could easily have a win or two already, and he’s stalking the frontrunners relentlessly, week after week. Johnson is showing signs of life, and he’s not to be trifled with; he’s as adept at going on a dominating streak as either Harvick or Busch. Both drivers have teammates in top equipment gunning for wins.  If someone else heats up it could easily strip the wind from these sails.

As the summer heat rolls over the sport like a blanket, watch those storm clouds in the distance. They could drift on by, harmless. But they could herald a coming thunderbolt to ignite a grudge match between the season’s two top dogs. Stay tuned — it could be quite the summer.

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    Amy you brought up a great point. Petty/Pearson. Gordon/Earnhardt. Wallace/Earnhardt. Those were great rivalries that was much watch each week. Then corporate America got involved and drivers like Johnson and Edwards won races with smiling pretty faces. After Matt Kenseth won the title without winning a race NASCAR decided to change the points system and rivalries died with it.

    Now instead of racing an opponent you had people like Carl Edwards master the art of points racing. How many times was he interviewed after a race and “happy” with an 8th place finish? Way to many. And now with the Chase format the key is to win one race. One.

    And the worst part is Harvick/Busch/Truex jr could each win the rest of the season but come Homestead not be able to win the championship cause some guy with one win gets hot the last couple of races. Does NASCAR really think that is what the fans want to see?

    Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and has done nothing since. Yet he has just as much of a chance as Harvick/Busch/Truex jr to win the Championship? Please.

    • Avatar
      Michael Sanders

      Steve, Kenseth won at Las Vegas early in the 2003 season; that was his one win of the year. And it came exactly 30 years after Benny Parsons won his singular championship by winning only a single race all year. Just setting the record straight. And yes, NASCAR overreacted to Matt’s single win being enough to win a championship.

  2. Avatar

    Rivalries have nothing to do with the point system and everything to do with the ability of a faster car to pass a slower car on the race track. As long as the aero-push continues to rule, the only real rivalry happens in pit strategy and pit crew competence. And the ridiculous plate packages won’t make rivalries happen either, as all the plates due is bring slower cars to the front. In short, the answer to the question is NO, there will be no summer storm. Just more of the same: drivers in the front checking out and leaving everybody else in their dust storm.