So much bad press has come out this year surrounding the consolidation of power within Sprint Cup. The Big Four of Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs, and Rick Hendrick own three cars apiece in this year’s Chase, the only ones capable of making noise at the top during a year in which the focus was supposed to be on leveling the playing field. Instead, the chances of two cars within the same organization battling tooth and nail for the title – a la Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon from ’07 – are higher than they’ve ever been.
Just think about how many names most fans would have gone through if they didn’t see this race and had to guess the winner. Not only was Biffle far from the top of most peoples’ championship lists, to say he’s struggled at New Hampshire Motor Speedway would be an understatement. Coming into Sunday, he’d had only four top-10 finishes in 12 career starts, with as many DNFs as races led (two). Frankly, the Biff’s last four finishes up north read like the beginning of a random powerball ticket: runs of 14th, 31st, 13th, and 21st had you looking far beyond the No. 16 when it came to finding a Loudon race winner. We should have known The Biff would come out of nowhere… right?
There were differing opinions on the quality of racing Saturday night; but if we learned anything from the new Bristol that everyone can agree on, it’s that the Kyle Busch – Carl Edwards battle is officially the sport’s newest rivalry. With one angry swipe on the cooldown lap – and one angry slam hit in retaliation – NASCAR’s two most successful drivers of 2008 also decided that they didn’t like each other all that much. But what the sport has yet to understand – and what they’ll be watching – is whether this is the battle fans in the stands are looking to see.
Carl Edwards was happy as could be in Victory Lane at Michigan; and why not? A weekend sweep at the track left him the toast of the Nationwide and Cup Series garages – at least until NASCAR hits Bristol’s high banks later this week. But once a reporter in the press room asked about his confidence, Edwards’ emotions took a surprising turn — quickly jumping from his cool, collected self to a statement that was borderline out of character. With a few short sentences, happy-go-lucky Cousin Carl suddenly jumped straight out of the frying pan and into the ego that had just been padded with his 12th win in 144 career Cup starts.
Sunday opened under a threatening forecast at Watkins Glen; but as the day unfolded, fans in the stands were pleasantly surprised that the rain held off.
Little did they know the sport they loved had already spent the day under a black cloud and a raging downpour.
In the matter of 20 short minutes, an ESPN Outside The Lines report shattered the tranquility of a Sunday morning at the speedway, and immediately made the majority of any on-track activity second string news.
By all accounts, JJ Yeley is one heck of a nice guy. I haven’t dealt with him directly during my three-year tenure on the NASCAR beat, but he’s known to be funny, relaxed, excitable, and just an all-around good person. Too bad that reputation couldn’t translate into on-track success in a stock car. Yeley was released by Hall of Fame Racing Wednesday, putting him out of his misery after a 21-race stint that defied everyone’s lowest expectations. You know you’re in rough shape when your team releases you just half-a-season into a three-year deal; not only was Yeley signed through 2010, primary sponsor DLP has re-upped for next season and shows no sign of going anywhere anytime soon.
Indeed, the phrase “better to be lucky than good” was never more appropriate than on Sunday for several on the Chase bubble, with Richard Childress Racing lining up front and center to get a magical dose of much-needed good fortune. When the red flag came for rain around lap 131, the battle for 12th in the season standings was mired in mediocrity – teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, who stood just two points apart when the day began, were mired in 31st and 32nd. It had been the worst of days for both men: Harvick spent the first lap spinning through the tunnel turn following contact with Joe Nemechek, while an early pit stop for a flat tire left Bowyer languishing at the back of the pack. Perhaps their sole consolation at the time was their primary competition – Roush Fenway driver David Ragan – placed just ahead of them in 29th, himself suffering from a severe set of handling problems that threatened to permanently derail his own playoff chances.
In case you tuned out before the checkered flag – as many fans did – Jimmie Johnson won the seven-lap shootout, in a race that could have easily been shortened to exactly that length based on tires that no one seemed to trust. Ashes to ashes, rubber to dust, Goodyear made a mockery of the second-biggest race of the year, scurrying for cover from a problem that quickly revealed no solution.
At the beginning of the year, Frontstretch asked our staff of nearly two dozen writers a handful of questions that we thought would develop into the major storylines within NASCAR in 2008. It was a potpourri of pressing stories, predicting anything from the future of the sport’s Most Popular Driver to the mindset of its most disillusioned fan. Six months in – during the final off week of what’s shaping up to be a 17-race stretch to the final checkered flag at Homestead – I thought it’d be as good time as any to revisit those questions and where we stand at this point during the season. So, without further ado… let’s check in on the pulse of the sport.
As the confetti rained down in Victory Lane Saturday night, 23-year-old Kyle Busch basked in the glory of a seventh win, enjoying another watershed moment in what’s become a career-defining season in the Sprint Cup Series. With the surprise victory giving him four more than anyone else in the sport this season – and five more than his old four-car team combined — Busch stands alone as the man to the beat for the big trophy come November. It’s the very same trophy his brother has already won.
So much has been written about Kyle Busch these last five months as he’s ascended to the top of the Sprint Cup circuit. But in the midst of all the criticism, the occasional contentiousness, and the challenges that have defined his season, there’s one thing for Busch that hasn’t changed: his success rate. Late on Saturday night, Busch was sipping the bubbly from Victory Lane for a season-high sixth time, capturing his first career win at NASCAR mecca Daytona International Speedway. Closing out the first half of 2008 in style, it was the latest accomplishment in a season that’s seen him dart out to a 182-point lead over the man who replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr., while coming into his own during his first season driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s famed No. 18 Toyota.
One third of the way through Sunday’s race, it looked like a little luck was shining Casey Mears’s way. Just days removed from a crushing blow to his career, he looked to follow up his pending release from Hendrick Motorsports with an upset trip to Victory Lane. He almost had it, too… with the keyword being almost.