Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Beaten down Joe Gibbs Racing should come out swinging
Matt Kenseth suffered perhaps the most crushing penalty NASCAR has ever assessed that isn't a driver suspension. Kyle Busch has a strong memory of team mistakes killing his chance to qualify for last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Denny Hamlin, the best Richmond International Raceway driver by advanced statistical measure in the last five-plus seasons, won't even get to suit up for Saturday night's race.
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't had a good week, and it will be extremely interesting to see how it responds. Because it's Richmond, thinking that JGR will fold under the pressure seems almost impossible.
Since Busch joined the team in 2008, JGR six wins at RIR, just under half of the laps led (1,945 of 4,010) and 15 total top-5 finishes. It’s figured something out in the .75-mile track seemingly beyond other teams. It might have to do with Busch and Hamlin sharing similar demands from a race car at the short track, unlike other Cup venues.
"We do like similar setups there, unlike other mile-and-a-half tracks or two-mile tracks where we don’t run very similar setups," Busch says. "Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
Expect JGR to continue a streak more than a decade old Saturday night: having at least one car lead a lap. The last time that didn't happen? The fall of 2001.
Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
2. Racing the track, not the car, could be antidote to Stewart's slump
Tony Stewart has been in a funk. And Tony Stewart knows he's been in a funk.
“It’s not easy, for sure," Stewart says. "I mean, it was always hard as a driver, but it’s even worse as a driver-owner. When things are tough, the pressure and the burden is more on you knowing that you’re responsible for everything versus just being the guy driving the car."
A 21st-place finish at Kansas Speedway last weekend meant the No. 14 has gone nearly two months without a top-10 finish. Richmond provides relief in the form of not being a speedway track, and probably fits better into Stewart's comfort zone.
At the very least, it's an opportunity to race a track where style and line selection have more of a say than aerodynamic-focused Kansas.
"You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect," Stewart says of Richmond. "Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
The 42-year-old led 333 laps in 1999 at RIR to win his first career Cup race. He's won twice at Richmond since (2001 and 2002) and also has four consecutive top 10s since a lap-down finish in 2010.
3. Teams bringing ideas from the desert to tackle Richmond
In a season with limited track time behind a still new car, teams are searching for methods to speed up the process and use information they've already gleaned to make setup decisions for coming race weekends. Richmond, and its similarities to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, is the latest example.
Every single Roush-Fenway Racing entry plus its satellite teams at Richard Petty Motorsports will use the cars they raced at Phoenix as primary cars this weekend. Carl Edwards won the race in the desert.
"Our package in Phoenix was very good," Edwards says. "I’m thinking some of that will help us with our race setup for Richmond."
The Ford teams also will use information that RPM’s Aric Almirola learned at Richmond during a test last month.
“The track was really fast which really surprised me," Almirola says, noting his first lap on the track in race trim came close to the track qualifying record. “We learned a lot from the test and felt that it helped us figure out what we need for our short-track package.”
Other teams using Phoenix cars this weekend include Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth at Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson (second) and Mark Martin (21st).
4. McMurray slowly leading Earnhardt-Ganassi out of struggles
Three was a nice number for Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he scored a trio of big wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. Last season, three stood for head-shaking disappointment as his No. 1 team mustered just three top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
But early in this 2013 season, three is starting to look better for McMurray as he looks to shed two straight frustrating seasons at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The No. 1 now has three top 10s in just eight races after a seventh-place finish last weekend at Kansas.
He was another driver — along with snakebitten teammate Juan Pablo Montoya — who tested at Richmond.
"We have had two strong runs on short-tracks already this year," McMurray says, referring to a 10th at Bristol and a seventh at Martinsville. "I hope we can carry some of that momentum into this weekend."
5. Short schedule magnifies importance of unloading a fast race car.
Richmond isn't a place where teams can show up, miss the car setup during the first practice, and then still run well in the race. The two-day format for the Sprint Cup Series with practice and qualifying on Friday before the Saturday race just doesn't allow the track time to make wholesale changes and improvements.
Should a team find a decent setup in Friday afternoon practice, it also has to hope the setup will match Richmond's night-race conditions. Even a four-time champion struggles with that.
"When you practice during the day and race at night, you have to guess and I feel like every time we race here something is changing," says Jeff Gordon.
More unnerving for teams is how important nabbing a qualifying spot near the front tends to be. Eight of every 10 Richmond winners in the 113-race history of the track have come from inside the top 10, and an almost equally staggering 30 percent of Richmond winners have been from the front row.
The front qualifiers having an advantage isn't a trend that's going away, either. Going back to 2003 — a span of 20 races — just four winners have come from outside the top 10.
Kenseth, Logano and Chase wild cards take center stage
2012 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth. (ASP, Inc.)
As a Green Bay Packers fan, Matt Kenseth knows the shock many had seeing quarterback Brett Favre wear another team’s uniform. Kenseth says he doesn’t think his fans will be as shocked with his new look at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after being with car owner Jack Roush’s team since 1999.
“I’ve had about 25 different uniforms in the last two years,” Kenseth said, exaggerating the numerous sponsors cobbled together to fund his Cup team. “I think most of my fans eventually are going to appreciate only having two different uniforms and paint jobs next year instead of 10. I’m really looking forward to the stability of the sponsorship and the team.”
What had been known for some time became official Tuesday when Joe Gibbs Racing introduced Kenseth as its driver for next season. Kenseth replaces Joey Logano, who is headed to drive the No. 22 car at Penske Racing in 2013. Home Depot and Dollar General will sponsor Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Jason Ratcliff will serve as his crew chief.
Team officials said having the 40-year-old Kenseth replace the 22-year-old Logano was good for the company’s future.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, it doesn’t matter your experience, the question is are you good and can you communicate and can you be a part of a team?” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “I think Matt will fit that well for Denny (Hamlin) and for Kyle (Busch).”
Gibbs said that with Kenseth coming over, the team wanted Logano to do a full Nationwide schedule next season and some Cup races, but once the Penske ride opened, knew that they couldn’t compete with that. Gibbs could only offer such a program to Logano because of what sponsorship the team had available.
“We love Joey, he’s been here a long time, so we have a real fondness for him, but at the same time we understand that when he has an opportunity there, it’s hard to pass that up,” Gibbs said.
Kenseth said his focus the rest of this season is winning the championship at Roush Fenway Racing. Once his Roush contract ends, he’ll plan to spend as much time as possible with Ratfcliff and discuss the car and their program
“I know without a doubt it is the right place for me,” Kenseth said of moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
DOWN TO TWO Officially eight drivers have a chance to gain a wild card spot at Richmond and make the Chase, but Kyle Busch admits he thinks it will be between he and Jeff Gordon for the final playoff spot. Kasey Kahne, who has two wins, is expected to make the Chase, most likely via the other wild card spot.
Busch leads Gordon by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the final one before the Chase field is set. Only once in 15 races they’ve raced each other at Richmond has Gordon finished more than 12 spots ahead of Busch. Also, Busch’s career average finish at Richmond is 4.7 (four wins). Gordon’s average finish in those 15 races is 17.0 (zero wins).
Busch said he doesn’t anticipate needing reports during the race to keep up with what Gordon is doing.
“If (Gordon) is front of me and I can’t see him, obviously we’re not having a good enough night, but if (Gordon) is in front of us and I can see him, I think everything will be fine,” Busch said.
Carl Edwards and team owner Jack Roush. (ASP, Inc.)
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s title by a tiebreaker, needs to win Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond, have Kyle Busch finish 24th or worse and Jeff Gordon place 12th or worse to make the Chase.
Unless Edwards makes the Chase, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that the runner-up in the points finished no better than seventh the next season.
So, how did he get into this situation while teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are in the Chase?
“There are a couple reasons we’re in this position in points,” Edwards said. “One of them is not the fact that we finished second last year in the championship, truly. We’re adults. We’re good competitors and we’ve finished second before. I’ve had disappointment.
“As we went through the season there are two things that happened that I think really set us behind. Number one, terrible luck. Think of qualifying at Michigan the first time we went there, the bolt came off the secondary for fuel injection for the butterflies. I mean, it seems like things like that have happened to us. We got in that wreck at Bristol.
“We had the spark plug wire come off at Indy running fourth, I think. We’ve had all these things that happened during the year combined with, I believe, (former crew chief) Bob (Osborne) and his (health) situation – him not being able to really perform at the highest level that he has over the last few years – I think all of that kind of added up to just mediocre performance combined with terrible luck.”
PIT STOPS Travis Pastrana will drive the No. 60 Nationwide car for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend at Richmond. Pastrana didn’t have any more Nationwide races scheduled for the season before this one-race deal. ... Denny Hamlin goes for his third consecutive Cup victory on Saturday at his home track of Richmond, in a race that he won in 2009 and 0’10. The last time a driver won three Cup races in a row was Jimmie Johnson, who won four consecutive races during the Chase in 2007. He won at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. … The NASCAR baby boom continues, as Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola and wife Janice welcomed a baby boy, Alex, into their family on Tuesday.
Kenseth's departure from Roush Fenway Racing just business, not personal
Matt Kenseth and Jack Roush in Victory Lane in 2009. (ASP, Inc.)
The divorce of one of NASCAR’s longtime partnerships has raised plenty of eyebrows this week. Matt Kenseth, the current point leader in the Sprint Cup Series, has been driving car owner Jack Roush’s No. 17 Ford full-time for over a dozen years. Only four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports since ’93, has been with a team longer; and only Mark Martin, a future Hall of Famer, gave the Roush organization more victories (35, to Kenseth’s 22). A former Cup Series champion — the only such driver on Ford’s current roster — 2003’s top dog, who captured NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 in February, has plenty of good years left (at only 40). Talent-wise, there are only a handful of better, more proven, drivers on the circuit.
Too bad that’s not where the real talent needs to be these days. Every charismatic move on-track has fallen flat for Kenseth in the boardroom, losing primary sponsor Crown Royal last year and struggling mightily to replace it in 2012. Patchwork deals for three, six, eight races have failed to provide long-term stability, forcing Roush himself to dip into savings and pay for several races out-of-pocket. So this divorce, like many in sports, isn’t about what happens on the track but off it, a classic case of human nature taking control. Once those bank statements dwindle, insecurity about the future trumps success in the present; at some point, the business side of entertainment has to take charge. We all have that survival instinct inside us, concerns about a paycheck causing desperation in order to salvage, retain or advance a career.
For Roush, putting long-term stability in front of loyalty has always been an easy choice. In 2004, top driver Jeff Burton entered the season without a primary sponsor, a scenario playing out remarkably similar to what we’re seeing now with Kenseth. At the beginning of the year, both sides said they would make it through the season, and then some — but by July, the sobering reality of a lack of sponsorship stepping up full-time had caused both sides to start “cheating” behind the scenes. Before you knew it, Burton left his ride midseason, jumping ship to Richard Childress Racing while being forced out by some young, upstart rookie. You see, Roush hoped that with a fast start (combined with charisma and potential) that replacement could have a better chance of attracting a Fortune 500 company to adorn the No. 99’s hood.
It was a gamble that paid off in spades. Within weeks, Carl Edwards had a multitude of top-10 finishes and a multi-million dollar backer. One year later, he finished the season third in points. His tenure with Roush has included AFLAC once sponsoring his car for the princely sum of $26 million a year. With the move, Roush’s No. 99 went from his biggest expense to his source of greatest excitement; just last season, Edwards and Co. came within one on-track position of a championship.
So here we are, in 2012, and Roush has a young, upstart river with charisma tearing up the Nationwide Series in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Why wouldn’t he think about rolling the dice a second time?
On the other side of the coin, Kenseth sees how Burton’s career wound up at Richard Childress Racing. There, driving the No. 31, the veteran has four Chase appearances and a handful of wins. But more importantly, Burtin has a seemingly lifetime contract for helping restore RCR to prominence. Burton’s sponsor, Caterpillar, doesn’t care about “young” or “old” and appreciates the type of spokesman Burton can be for the company. When you’re 40, having someone back you until retirement becomes a little more important — and that changes the last career decision you make as an athlete.
Joe Gibbs Racing, if that’s where Kenseth is to wind up, has had a sponsorship relationship with the Home Depot since 1999. With its main rival, Lowe’s, attached to Jimmie Johnson the school of thought is it won’t be headed anywhere anytime soon with the right championship driver behind the wheel. For a driver in Kenseth, a man who pleaded in Victory Lane last year for his former full-time backer to stay on board, the stress relief of knowing the bills are paid takes priority.
As people, we like to see the same loyalty given to friendship, marriage and even your local ice cream shop paid off by the people we admire as athletes. But sports remains the most fragile of careers, where anything from an injury to an insult can fracture relationships to the point of disrepair. For me, the surprise isn’t that Roush and Kenseth are breaking up. It’s that they were able to stay together this long.
On Tuesday, Toyota became the latest manufacturer to unveil its 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar. It is the second generation of the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in the 2007 season to jeers and sneers — that is until Michael McDowell walked away from a head-on impact at 200 mph, tumbling down the three stories of banking and emerging unscathed. Since then, most have been on board with the new car, more so following the early 2010 refresh that saw the spoiler and the splitter going the way of the Convertible Division.
Toyota also confirmed that it has inked extensions to be the engine provider and car make for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing for the foreseeable future. You can cross out these teams as potential candidates for Dodge, which is scrambling to find a team — and an engine provider — for 2013 and beyond. Toyota, in fact, is poised to add more teams to the fold, though not necessarily more organizations.
“We’re happy with the guys we’ve got,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White says. “I would hope the economy turns around a little bit and we very easily could get back to eight or nine cars.”
One of the teams that Dodge was rumored to have been interested in was that of Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs had fielded Chevrolets and Pontiacs since its arrival in the sport 20 years ago, its first win coming one year after its debut in the 1993 Daytona 500. JGR’s move to Toyota in 2007, in part, set the stage for a departure by then two-time champion Tony Stewart. Stewart’s replacement was a driver who many had predicted would be the next Jeff Gordon: Joey Logano. To date, Logano has one race win in the iconic No. 20 Home Depot machine — compared to five championships by the other big-box home improvement chain retailer, Lowe’s.
It has long been a point of contention with the HD brass that Sliced Bread isn’t exactly cutting the mustard in the results department; cutting the cheese is more like it.
With the manufacturer side of things sealed up for JGR, which no longer has to worry about manning an engine shop with TRD now the sole supplier for all Toyota Cup teams, might Coach and J.D. be looking to test the free agent market for a replacement for their No. 20 machine? After all, it was about a year ago that many had penciled in Carl Edwards to be the heir apparent to the No. 20, but after Ford Motor Company scratched a big check and a ton of stock for Edwards, Logano received a reprieve. Logano currently sits 15th in points, however the No. 20 has finished no better than 16th in points since Stewart jumped ship following the ’08 season.
Following the departure of long-time JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing — while monitoring the progress of Danica Patrick in her limited Cup appearances — the performance of the No. 20 seems to be slowly picking up. But will it improve enough to retain Logano, or will the sponsor wield the whip hand and demand a change be made with one of the available free agent drivers for 2013?
Ryan Newman has been mentioned as a viable candidate for the No. 20 car, which is an ironic choice following his run-in with Logano at Michigan in the August 2010 event. The timing makes a bit of sense as the Senate Armed Services Committee this week added an amendment to next year’s spending bill that would ban all military sponsorship of motorsports — which includes Newman’s US Army affiliation — leaving a sizeable hole to fill at SHR. Would Stewart forsake his friend and fellow Hoosier, Newman, if a supplement to the Army sponsorship does not materialize?
With Patrick waiting in the wings, expecting to announce a full-time 2013 campaign in the Cup Series shortly, it may come down to dollars and common sense. If SHR does not have the funding to prepare a third team for Patrick, the GoDaddy.com colors might only end up on the No. 10 next year, keeping the organization at a two-car level.
That leaves one other option on the table — one that could be deemed “The Nuclear Option.” Kurt Busch.
The stars have aligned seemlessly with this one. Busch is a free agent, serving his penance in post-Penske purgatory, driving on a handshake deal for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, an 18-employee independent team that receives cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Think of it as a poor-man’s Stewart Haas Racing. A damn-near-broke man’s Stewart Haas Racing. For the most part, Busch has kept his legendary temper at bay, until a self-inflicted flat tire in the closing laps of the Southern 500 at Darlington dashed any hopes of a top-10 finish.
Might Busch be JGR and Home Depot Toyota material?
Think back to 2011 and the biggest story of the summer stretch: Busch and Jimmie Johnson feuding following some last-lap dicing at Pocono. Busch had been taken out by Johnson at Pocono a year earlier in a vicious backstretch crash, as well as at Sonoma and Chicago in ’09. That sort of anti-48 sentiment might play well with Home Depot, which has been less-than-pleased watching Lowe’s garner the lion’s share of the championships over the last six years. In fact, Smoke’s last two titles bookend those by Johnson, the latter with a different Depot on the hood.
Kurt’s brother Kyle is currently in the No. 18 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and having migrated his Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Nationwide this season, helped his brother out by essentially splitting the schedule with him in his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota — an appropriate sponsor given their struggles with respective inner green-rage monsters.
The matte black Toyotas have been fast, with Kyle narrowly clearing the last-turn pile-up at Daytona before getting hooked into the outside wall, and Kurt capturing the team’s first win at Richmond just a few weeks ago over the other JGR pilot, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had his own run-in with the No. 48 team two years ago, and chucked his own bottle of water at his No. 11 in frustration following a fuel mileage foul-up at the penultimate race at Phoenix that prevented him from winning his first Cup title. Think back to Busch throwing a bottle of water of his own at the Miller Lite Dodge at Bristol in 2009, when he declared there were 41 other driver’s he’d rather finish second to, rather than that No. 48 car.
Might JGR be the perfect home for Busch — and, more important, Home Depot the ideal sponsor?
HD was more than patient with Stewart during his most volatile and petulant years. The sport had much more attention back then, and though Stewart nearly lost his ride at JGR during a tumultuous 2002 campaign, winning his first Winston Cup title went a long way to cure those ills. This was during a period when Stewart had to be physically restrained from going after NASCAR officials, kicking reporter’s tape recorders under trailers and allegedly pushing a fan. Kyle Busch faced a similar fate last season after turning Ron Hornaday Jr. head-on into the wall during a Truck Series race (albeit in a KBM rig, not Gibbs equipment); NASCAR sat him out for the Sunday Cup race.
It left the younger Busch reeling, wondering if he would even have a job in 2013. Message: delivered. And received.
Kurt went through a similar situation with both Roush and Penske Racing. An incident involving a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving on race weekend in Phoenix in 2005 saw Roush suspend Busch for the final two races of the year, even while being a Chase driver, while the team issued the release that Roush Racing was “done being Kurt Busch’s apologists.” Busch was noticeably moved by the incident, barely holding back legitimate tears when interviewed about it. What followed at Penske Racing were six seasons of salty salutations over the team radio, indicating everyone from the crew chief, engineers and the owner himself, addressing revered team owner Roger Penske not be his well-known nickname, but rather as “Dude.”
The Captain did not abide.
Things came to a head during the 2011 Chase with Busch melting down during driver intros and issuing a terse response to ESPN reporter Jamie Little en route to his car — a car that did not pass tech inspection initially — at Loudon. He followed that up with the now famous YouTube video of Busch being less than cordial with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch following an early exit at the season finale at Homestead. Actually, everything got off to a poor start as soon as the 2011 Chase began. Following the final race of the regular season at Richmond, Busch went after NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer in the garage, slapped away a member of his PR camp, and then got into it with AP writer Jenna Fryer, tearing up a Dodge press release in the media center following a disagreement over a quote about getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head.
The real question is, could Joe Gibbs get into Kurt’s head the way he has his brother, and the way both Roush and Penske were unable to? There are already signs of cracking on the surface after the incident on pit road at Darlington, as well as a colorful meeting with the press outside of his hauler at Charlotte last week.
This is not meant to pick apart Busch with the well-documented history of a short temper and manic outbursts. He remains a championship-winning (and contending) driver, who clearly gets more out of the equipment than virtually anyone else in the series — short of his brother. His one step forward/two-steps back anger management program seems to stall out every few months, and the new dynamic of a smaller team this season was to be an audition to prove to the racing world that he is a changed man, not the acid-tongued driver on the verge of meltdown.
His Nationwide ride with KBM has provided him with some brotherly love and proved that he’s still a race winner — not that it was ever really in doubt. Could a partnership with Gibbs, an owner well known for being both a man of faith and having the patience of a saint, provide Kurt with just the place to be born again?
It very well might be the type of environment that he needs to get back to the form that saw him win the first Chase in 2004.