As the 2012 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
Kyle Busch: Will fallout from “The Texas Incident” tame the rowdy youngster?
For someone to learn from a mistake, the consequences must always be strong enough to make them think. Is that what really happened in the case of Kyle Busch after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday in the fall Texas Truck event last season?
Sure, there was a one-race parking on the Sprint Cup level, but Busch’s title hopes were slim to none by then and Joe Gibbs Racing was already in the midst of a Chase implosion. And when sponsor M&M’s made a statement by pulling its funding for the final two races of the year, Interstate Batteries stepped right in as the sponsor superhero. “Don’t worry, Kyle! We’ll save you … and take all the publicity that comes with it!”
Now, M&M’s full-time return to the fold in 2012 looks cheap, like it just jumped on a Christmas discount. And in the midst of it all, unlike brother Kurt, there is no sports psychologist or stripping of a top-tier ride for Kyle to think about. Instead, it’s only the prospect of starting the slate clean at Daytona, going after another championship and a “wink, wink” from the powers that be who, while scolding of such aggressive behavior, seemingly reminded Busch he adds an extra zero to their paychecks, so it’s all good.
The educated guess is that under the tutelage of Joe Gibbs, we’re likely to see a slightly milder version of Busch going forward — if not for the near-loss of a major sponsor. But did Tony Stewart, put in similar hot water at JGR in 2002, transform overnight? Absolutely not, and in some ways, because of these similar circumstances, never did.
If Busch avoids any 2012 probation over 50-some odd races in the Cup and Nationwide series this year, it should be considered a surprise.
Has NASCAR’s “wave-around” rule made earning a solid, lead-lap finish too easy?
Think nothing in life is free anymore? You haven’t seen a NASCAR race, where “gift laps” are given out more cheaply than product samples at an at-track display.
It used to be that losing a lap, at anytime, constituted a crisis. Under the old double-file restart rule, some of the best competition surrounded those cars trying to desperately muscle their way back into contention. But now? You can lose a lap in the first three-quarters of the race, choose not to pit with everyone else during a late caution and take a wave-around to get back on the lead lap. A few moments later, another yellow flag comes out and you’re suddenly in contention for a top-5 finish after spending all day running 25th.
That loophole, parlayed into top finishes by everyone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Carl Edwards in 2011, eliminates any advantage a dominant leader has early in the race. Why try to pull out to a 10-second lead, lapping as many cars as possible, when they’ll all be back in contention at the end, anyway? It contributes to a growing NASCAR problem: no sense of urgency for much of the race’s first two hours, which leads to single-file “stroking.”
So how about keeping the sport’s real “free pass,” giving the first car off the lead lap one back every caution but limit it to one per opponent, per race. And if a car doesn’t pit under a caution flag? Let ’em start in front of the leader like the old days. If a fan can’t figure out who the leader is after watching the whole race they should probably give back that elementary school completion certificate.
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A lot of verbiage was spilled into the microphone at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday. Taking turns, Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs spent precious moments making public amends, celebrating their corporate marriage while embracing the changes needed to keep their partnership afloat. Cupid wasn’t visible, but boy, did he work overtime Thursday night spewing arrows of affection in all the right places.
“We know where his heart is,” said owner Joe Gibbs, attempting to wipe away Busch’s Texas torment of Ron Hornaday with every word. “We think he’s one of the gifted people when it comes to just being an athlete.
“When you’re put in a situation like this, you really can make one of two decisions. I think the one would have been devastating and I think really discouraging for everybody associated with Kyle — everybody around him and for the sport. What I’ve chosen to do, I want to support Kyle and I feel like this could have a positive impact on Kyle and I’m committed to him as a person.”
Cue driver, returning heart-shaped Hallmark card of appreciation, stage right.
“Joe has been there and has stuck by my side and has held my arm through this whole deal,” Busch said. “I can’t say enough about the man sitting next to me.
“There’s an opportunity for me to become a better person, to grow and learn from this and I’m looking forward to those days.”
But actions speak louder than those pretty words. NASCAR is a business, after all, political correctness borne out of necessity as those who make mistakes face the wrath of Fortune 500 companies. Already, Busch’s tap of terror has cost far more than NASCAR’s $50,000 slap on the wrist. Primary sponsor M&M’s bailed for Busch’s final two Cup races; in addition, Nationwide backer Z-Line Designs opted out for Homestead. Team owner Gibbs made reference to additional penalties through his press conference, all internal and likely based off the loss of income Busch’s ill-timed, Ron Hornaday wall slam caused his three-car operation.
So on Friday, while sitting at the microphone in Phoenix, Busch had no choice but to act remorseful, his pledge to change contingent upon keeping his cash — the wallet has already gotten light enough. It’s notable that among those in the garage paddock, majority consensus appears to be he has been forgiven. Title contender Brad Keselowski tweeted Thursday that Busch had been punished enough, a one-race parking last weekend consistent with several other penalties for outrageously bad behavior doled out over the past decade. Even Hornaday himself, who Busch claimed “still invited (him) over to the house to stay on the couch if I need it,” seems to have cooled off from a banzai move that ultimately cost him an opportunity to win a fifth Truck title.
So like it or not, with probation for just two more races, the punishment of Kyle Busch ends now. The question is, on the heels of the majority of fans calling for Busch’s firing — 55 percent during Sunday’s ESPN telecast — whether the consequences were effective enough for this 26-year-old aggressor to learn a lesson. From the start, I’ve felt the only way that happens is if Busch feels true fear, acknowledging his job could be in jeopardy. What better motivation to become a better person then the thought of facing unemployment?
Once again, his words lead you to believe Busch spent the week running scared. But was he?
“Was there a point in which I thought, ‘Do I have a ride?’” he said. “Of course there was. Yeah, I thought that. Was there a point in which Joe (Gibbs) ever told me that, ‘Hey, we’re looking at terminating this?’ No.”
Uh oh. That, to me, is where words of Busch’s conviction start turning into, well, confusion. Just take a look at how the sponsors reacted. On the surface, M&M’s put up a valiant front in the wake of a possible Busch firing. A company in the business of catering to children, Busch’s R-rated on-track behavior had to be proven unacceptable in the public eye.
“As a proud member of the racing community, Kyle’s recent actions are unacceptable and do not reflect the values of Mars,” said Debra A. Sandler, Chief Consumer Office of the company, when announcing they wouldn’t back the driver again until February 2012. “We believe our decision will have a positive impact on Kyle and will help him return next season ready to win.”
Hmm. So by that statement, it’s clear M&M’s “felt” Kyle needed two more races to sit and think about what he’d done. Yet that’s not what’s happening. Interstate Batteries has backed the No. 18 this weekend, part one of a two-race act that covers Mars’ financial decision to back out. Instead of Kyle getting benched, he was actually rewarded by another company who felt the need to support him.
“We feel NASCAR took the appropriate action with Kyle, and we think he will become a better person for it,” said Norm Miller, Interstate Batteries president. “As founding sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, we felt it was the right thing to do to support JGR, Kyle and the No. 18 team during this difficult time.”
OK, so let me get this straight: one company says Kyle will be a better person by sitting. Another company says Kyle will be a better person by driving on Sunday. Meanwhile, Gibbs talks some threatening talk through the week, even contacting Aric Almirola to drive the car. But, when push comes to shove it’s all for show: his primary driver was back in the car as soon as humanly possible.
Confused? If that’s not doublespeak, I don’t know what is. I can tell you one thing, though: we’ve seen a whole lot of great business decisions. Interstate gets a little more exposure at a bargain price. M&M’s saves two races’ worth of money while looking like they’re taking a stand against this horrible driver who they’ll continue to make millions off of in three months. And Gibbs keeps his troubled three-car team financially viable, saving face while hanging on to the best wheelman he’s got.
So yes, Friday was a day filled with plenty of people saying all the right things for their wallet. But will that cause Kyle to actually change? A mixed message of “you've been a bad boy, but here’s more money for you to go and play” isn’t exactly a hard-line stance.
“We’re going to set out to do whatever we think is best going forward,” Gibbs, in closing said on Friday.
What that appears to be, according to their actions, is returning to the status quo as quickly as possible. So we’ll see. If last week’s slap was enough to scare Kyle then take all that cash to the bank. But if it doesn’t, no need to feel sorry for everyone except the driver himself. He needs a personal adjustment, not just for him but the safety of others he’ll race with. Unfortunately, this week’s lesson had absolutely nothing to do with that. It’s because even in the face of disaster, there’s one quiet voice that speaks louder than any other:
The almighty dollar's.
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