It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
SECOND GEAR: Will the book be thrown at Penske Racing?
The next sign you know the race was a snoozer: the biggest story everyone’s talking about after the race involves a driver yelling at NASCAR over an inspection issue. That’s what Brad Keselowski did, going off in front of a crowd of reporters after NASCAR confiscated rear-end housings from his No. 2 car and teammate Joey Logano’s No. 22 before the start of the race. The cars barely made it to the green flag – Logano actually started from the rear after being late – and will likely be assessed heavy penalties that will negate the hard-fought top-10 finishes both earned.
"There's so much stuff going on … you have no f------ idea what's going on,'' was Keselowski’s heavily-reported, signature quote to the reporting scrum. "And that's not your fault and that's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful.”
Keselowski’s anger certainly trails back to Martinsville, where a poor official’s call that he pitted outside the box (questionable at best) cost the No. 2 team a better finish. In that race, the team clawed back to sixth and pulled off a ninth at Texas despite being a lap down for much of the race’s second half. But those results represent the way this team has had to fight from virtually the drop of the green at Daytona. Think about it: Keselowski starts his year meeting with NASCAR’s top brass after a controversial interview with USA Today. He then tears his car into pieces, during the 500, only to somehow claw back to fourth. Some reception for the defending champion, right?
Those small obstacles, whether luck or speed-related each week, make Keselowski’s second-place standing in points, along with a Cup Series best six top-10 results, that much more impressive. But feeling like you’re a step behind, as many of the Ford drivers have felt this season, can take its toll and that adds up to some of the anger we saw released Saturday night. What’s next? Expect a lot of comparisons to Hendrick’s Daytona penalties, from 2012 in the coming days which were mostly revoked on appeal; chances are, come Wednesday we’ll see that type of process unfold again with high-level fines and multi-race suspensions for both Penske Racing crew chiefs.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Keselowski get fined for his post-race comments (considering the Brian France reaction to Denny Hamlin’s public criticism of the Gen-6 car in March), but inexplicably, France noted in a Monday interview with FOX Business that no fines would be levied. NASCAR vice president and CCO Brett Jewkes reiterated the sanctioning body’s stance on Twitter.
THIRD GEAR: Keeping confidence high
That’s the running theme at several race shops after Texas left several teams wondering what might have been. Martin Truex Jr. was on top of that list; similar to Kansas a year ago, he had the car to beat only to wind up in second place. It’s now six years since the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has won a Sprint Cup race (Dover, 2007) a drought that’s left him understandably at wit’s end.
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” he said. “It just hurts when you give them away.”
The pill is tougher to swallow this time considering Truex is in a difficult spot with the Chase. Already, he’s got more finishes of 36th or worse (two) than he had all of last season. Considering big-name talent resides outside the top 10, Truex has to be thinking “Wild Card,” and the next few weeks he’ll have a car that’s capable. Can he replicate his run at Kansas last April? Or will frustration lead to failure?
The same can be said for two Hendrick drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, falling victim to a battery problem, had his second straight difficult week. Suddenly, he’s sixth in points, 35 behind the top spot and within striking distance of falling out. With only 47 laps led in one event, it’s not like the No. 88 has been running up front — and HMS has had its problems on intermediates. Gordon knows that all too well; he broke a suspension at Texas running third. Bad luck has him a disappointing 15th in points and battling other stars like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to climb back up.
“I’m pretty upset,” said Gordon, who watched a top-5 finish go up in smoke. “This team has worked so hard to claw ourselves back.”
The answer now is to keep clawing harder for both; there’s no more mulligans left on the schedule to place a “mental breakdown.”
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle’s tough road ahead
Third in the standings, 18 points behind Johnson, sits Kyle Busch, who one could argue has actually been the better driver in 2013. Between more laps led, 435 – 430, and better finishes on intermediates — the tracks that make up half the Chase — you’d have to think the No. 18 has the edge. But what’s frustrating about the latest cycle of dominance is it all means nothing under NASCAR’s playoff system. With a well-documented set of Chase failures dating back to a dominant eight-win season in 2008, it all means nothing if Busch can’t get it done in the last 10 weeks.
Will things be different in 2013? There’s still five months for fans to wait to find out. Not the best supporting argument for NASCAR’s current point system …
Bobby Labonte’s night got cut short early once the driver asked out with a stomach virus. But comedy ensued when the selected sub, Mike Bliss, was still running his No. 19 car on the track. C’Mon, JTG … with all the young drivers out there in Nationwide and Trucks you couldn’t pay for one of them to be on standby? It didn’t matter in the end, as engine issues left them in the garage 42nd. … A rumored sale of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing comes at a bad time for Jamie McMurray. Sixteenth at Texas, he’s in the best shape since winning three major Cup races in 2010 and could be an outside Chase contender. But any type of sale will be a distraction that should dash those hopes.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles