Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, June 29, 2015, 10:29 a.m.
A few observations from Kyle Busch’s victory in Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, the road course in California’s Wine Country:
The chief question raised by the weekend is whether or not Kyle Busch can make the Chase. His Sonoma win was, of course, preordained by the vast number of observers who said he had no shot when he placed dead last in Michigan. That’s, in small part, because God has a sense of humor.
Now the chorus has moved from hopelessness to hope, from doom to destiny, and from “no way” to “he’s going to make it.” The numbers still don’t favor him. Precision is impossible because 30th place in the points is a moving target. The driver occupying 30th changes, but the best estimate suggests that an average of about 13th or 14th will get him in. It sounds reasonable, but his current average finish, even after Sunday’s win, is 20.0, and his average for the entire 2014 season was 17.6.
As Joe Gibbs, Busch’s owner, said, “I think it’s a great sports story because, if you think about Daytona, and for Kyle to come back from, really, a broken right leg and a broken left foot, the race we were really worried about when he came back was this race because it was going to be, obviously, road racing. It takes a lot of pressure on your foot, so I think this is a great story for us.”
It could, of course, be the beginning of an even greater story.
Another major obstacle comes up right away. Anyone can crash at Daytona, and many likely will. If Busch finds trouble there, he’s right back in “no way” mode. The chorus will change for the third race in a row. Moderation is rare in the media center, TV booth, and grandstands, not to mention the social media and blogosphere.
Is the blogosphere social media? Or is it just yet another stakeholder?
Now, where does Busch go, now that he has a win under his belt? He could become cautious which will seem, in his case, like a lion cowering at a kitty cat, or he could press the advantage. Let’s say he crashes at Daytona, has another bad finish or two, in the 10 remaining races, but wins two or three of them?
If Kyle Busch is a multiple-race winner but not in the top 30, it will be very difficult for NASCAR to let that lie. Brian France has already granted him one waiver. The old “EIRI” for which NASCAR is famous — “except in rare instances” — has never been truer than in recent years, when a previous Chase field was expanded from twelve to thirteen because the final regular-season race (2013) was determined not to have been on the up-and-up.
One of the intents of the current, bloated Chase field, and the maniacal rules governing it, is to get the winners in and let them prosper.
I think the NASCAR excitement manufacturers will sit back and watch, hoping Busch makes it on his own, but, if he doesn’t, they’re going to be powerfully tempted to blur the rules again.
All right. Moving on, twenty years ago, coverage of races wasn’t quite so prone to overkill. Now it’s Kyle won, so let’s beat it to death. Let’s do what it takes to maximize the web hits. Kyle wins, and here’s what Junior and Danica have to say about it!
I remember when fellow could get his name in the paper by finishing eighth, as Kasey Kahne did at Sonoma. Now what papers are left don’t have much space, and Kahne gets on the web by having a girlfriend with a baby on the way.
Inquiring minds want to know!
Not only is it noteworthy that Kyle and Kurt Busch finished 1-2 for the first time in their careers, but that one race earlier they “bookended” the standings by placing first (Kurt) and 43rd (Kyle) in Michigan. The two have often been either close together or far apart, and it’s not chassis setups I’m noting.
Before the final restart, a social media acquaintance asked if I thought Jeff Gordon had a shot, as he was third at the time. I replied in the affirmative. Gordon finished 16th. Tony Stewart, who finished 12th, drives No. 14 and has led the same number of laps this year. I take no comfort in pointing out such details.
Clint Bowyer finished in the top five (third) for the first time all year.
Last year Carl Edwards somehow managed to win two races, and that’s how he made the Chase. This year, with a different team, he has already won but is 17th in the point standings, which, under the current format, is no more pertinent to the Chase than his 11 lead-lap finishes and his average qualifying performance of 9.6. In spite of switching from declining Roush Fenway to elite JGR, Edwards is having the same year.
No one is happier to be leaving California than David Ragan, in spite of the fact that Michael Waltrip had his back in the TV booth. The two know each other, I think.
“You have to hold your own,” Ragan said after being involved in two significant crashes. “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Ragan wasn’t being facetious or coy. He was being honest. He has a reputation of being uncertain on road courses, and other drivers expect him to get out of their way. He’s got the best ride he’s had in a while. He’s trying to keep it. He did his best. It’s what we should expect.
Had the cards fallen a little differently, either Jimmie Johnson or Kurt Busch might have won. No change there from oval to road.
When I started writing about racing on a regular basis, road courses were often dreaded by fans who now adore them. When I started going to Sonoma and Watkins Glen, few were the drivers who could plausibly win. The biggest change is in the transmissions. The Jerico transmission showed up in the 1990s and made the footwork, the heel and toe switches from brake to clutch, two feet doing three jobs, unimportant. Changing gears is now greatly simplified. Now the road courses are such than most drivers, given track position, are capable of winning.
An obviously skilled road racer, Marcos Ambrose over the past few years and A.J. Allmendinger now, can surmount disadvantages in equipment that are apparent at other tracks, which, incredibly, is what last week’s Sonoma and next week’s Daytona have in common, not in terms of Allmendger or Ambrose, but in the case of other drivers who have exceptional skill at plate tracks.
David Ragan, for instance. And Aric Almirola, who just happens to be the winner of last year’s summertime race at vast, sprawling Daytona.
One final observation about both Sonoma and Daytona: These two tracks are bringing the fun back at a time when NASCAR desperately needs it.
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