Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Food for Thought – What’s Broken & What Works in NASCAR

The popular saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies to many things in life — especially in racing. As we’ve seen the last few years, sometimes NASCAR tends to tinker with things that don’t need to be messed with, while ignoring problems that badly need to be solved. So, on the heels of a solid race at Dover, I got to thinking of those things that are still definitely in need of attention — while recognizing that a couple of others are doing all right by themselves after all…

Broken: Kyle Busch’s Car

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way! Busch had been enjoying a career year until the Chase began a fortnight ago. Leading the points by over 200, it wasn’t a question of if the 23-year-old could win the title this season, but by how much. Indeed, a series-leading eight wins by Watkins Glen had many wondering aloud if Busch could match – or break – the modern-era record of 13 set by Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon.

But fast-forward to Chase time, and it’s a completely different story. Last week at Loudon, Busch was felled by a failed sway bar mount, which caused his car to wallow and lean through the corners more than a Chevy Citation with soggy struts. The nightmare wouldn’t end until he finally spun out and was rammed by Jamie McMurray – all while doing his best Stevie Wonder impersonation in the process.

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Then, at Dover this Sunday, the normally bulletproof engines from Joe Gibbs Racing were riddled with shrapnel by way of a derailed valve train in the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota. And just like that, the top seed in the Chase and the pick of many to win it all now is mired in 12th place in the standings, sliding from 30 points ahead to some 210 points in arrears in the matter of eight days. For a team that had defined the excellence of execution for the first two-thirds of the season, they inexplicably resemble what Walter Sobchak would have deemed, “a bunch of (expletive) amateurs.”

Not Broken: Kyle Busch’s Chances

However, the only thing that really needs fixing with the No. 18 team is attention to detail. Well, that and the driver’s attitude. Let’s put it this way: Busch might be well served if one of those anti-depression medications that used to find its way onto the side of the No. 18 were on the car this weekend at Kansas.

You could sense that frustration at Dover, when Busch walked away from reporters and into the team transporter following his exit on lap 172 — a DNF which relegated him to a 43rd-place finish. After finally emerging to face the media, he then deemed his chances all but done after just two weeks into the 10-race title fight, referring to his failed ’06 playoff campaign in which a similar poor start (40th, 38th) left him on course to finish dead last.

But all Busch needs to do is take a look back in time to 1992 – perhaps the greatest title Chase in the history of NASCAR – to realize he still has a chance. Following the fall Dover race of that season, Alan Kulwicki was 278 points back from leader Bill Elliott with just six races left. But just as he appeared to be doomed, Kulwicki staged a miraculous comeback, closing the year with four top fives and six top 15s to close the gap over Elliott, Davey Allison, and others. When the checkered flag flew at Atlanta, he wound up winning the Winston Cup by 10 points over Elliott, the closest finish in the history of NASCAR’s pre-Chase modern points system.

Consider that Kulwicki had two less races than Busch to work with – he also didn’t have the crapshoot that is Talladega – and you understand the moral of this story: a title is still a distinct possibility. But the No. 18 team has to get back on their game, and the driver needs to get his mind right, too. However, there is another similarity here – note that Kulwicki also conceded defeat following his Dover debacle in Sept. 1992. So in that regard, Kyle remains in some pretty good company… for now.

Broken: Dodge

If there has been a group more predestined for futility this year, it’s the Dodge bunch. Their best car sits 13th in points, and not one Charger is in the Chase for the first time in five years.

Their slump is even more surprising when you consider how the ’08 season started off – with Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch posting a 1-2 finish at the Daytona 500. That win, however, was a bit deceiving, as it was largely the result of a late-race restart which caused Newman to get plowed from behind at 185 mph by his teammate.

Since then, Kasey Kahne posted a couple of wins in late spring – at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Pocono – to seemingly become a lock to make it into the Chase. As he has in years past, though, that success turned into sucking, as Kahne and his No. 9 team floundered down the stretch. Going winless for the last three months, they officially took themselves out of the running with consecutive 40th-place finishes in August, capped off by a 19th-place run at Richmond that left him 69 points short.

But he’s not the only disappointment in this camp. Preseason title favorite Kurt Busch has been downright dismal, never contending for the playoffs while simply struggling to finish in the top 10. Somehow, he was able to secure a win at New Hampshire in June, but that was only because Pat Tryson can read a weather map. Yes, a win is a win, and there are no asterisks in the record books (wherever those are kept), but the fact it was such a serious upset points out a glaring issue: Dodge has fallen behind the curve big time.

The Penske cars are on TV usually only because of an accident, the Gillett Evernham cars are average at best, and if Chip Ganassi Racing folded up shop tomorrow, would anyone notice?

For a manufacturer that returned to NASCAR with such fanfare in 2001 and had so much success in the first half of this decade, Dodge has fallen from grace faster than a scandal involving a Senator and an intern. So fast, in fact, even Robby Gordon looks as if he is dissociating himself with the manufacturer after the season; and if that happens, you know you’re in trouble.

Not Broken: Ford

Ford may very well be home today to some of the most uninspired cars on the planet (save for the F-150 and 15 versions of Mustangs currently offered), as well as owners of the worst franchise in the history of competitive sports. However, their racing program in the Sprint Cup Series is clearly alive and well. Witness the Roush Fenway parade at Dover this past weekend: when the race wasn’t being won by Greg Biffle, it was being dominated by Matt Kenseth, or led by Carl Edwards and McMurray.

Even David Gilliland, in his Yates Racing No. 38, managed to keep it together for 400 laps and bring home a top 20 finish — despite running into Kurt Busch just after the first lap of the race.

More than anything else, Biffle’s recent resurgence is proof positive that the Blue Oval is not the fading nameplate that it appeared to be not that long ago. Biffle has been one of Ford’s most reliable and productive drivers, bringing home the hardware in the form of championships in both the Truck and the Nationwide Series. If the Biff is able to continue this momentum and bring home a Sprint Cup title, he will become the only driver to have won titles in all three major NASCAR divisions – doing so while driving a Ford each time.

Broken: The Nationwide Series

NASCAR’s minor-league series should be sponsored by Amtrak these days, as it is an absolute trainwreck and an unmitigated disaster of Old Testament proportions. If a pylon falls at a Nationwide race, does anyone hear it? The stands are emptier than ever these days, as the same series that once featured some of the best racing in NASCAR has devolved into a perpetual rerun of uncompetitive races, few fresh faces and a wasteland of dedicated smalltime teams that have succumbed to Cup Series giants and their technology run amok.

Sponsorship is now even harder to come by in the Nationwide Series compared to Cup, due to decreased exposure and dwindling interest brought about by the lack of actual racing. And when there’s no money to be found, that leads to a dangerous pattern in which teams show up simply to collect a check from the purse. This past weekend at Dover, nine cars barely made less than 30 laps before having to be retired for various reasons – if you’re counting at home, that’s nearly one quarter of the 43-car field.

The “start and park” brigade that was a fixture in the Cup Series a few years ago has made its way to the lower divisions now in even larger numbers — and it doesn’t show signs of disappearing anytime soon. Couple this with the advent of a new CoT being introduced in 2010, and the day of the little guy being able to compete with the likes of Richard Childress or Jack Roush may be going not only to the wayside, but to its grave.

On the bright side, it does appear as if NASCAR will be running different models of cars in the Nationwide Series soon: the Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro will be the stars of the second-tier division in 2010. Perhaps that will help give the Nationwide Series the identity it so desperately needs; but will there be enough teams left to fill the field?

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Not Broken: The Craftsman Truck Series

Can someone tell me again why this is considered the third rung on the NASCAR ladder? With vehicles that are identifiable, personalities aplenty and rubbin,’ wreckin’, and racin’ the way it was in the mid-1980s, the Truck Series is where it’s at. And as always, there’s another back-and-forth championship battle brewing that doesn’t need the Chase to fuel the fire. Defending champion Ron Hornaday and perennial contender and Most Popular Driver, Johnny Benson, have gone back and forth for the year-ending trophy, one that won’t be decided until the last laps of the final race at Homestead.

Unfortunately, for the group that NASCAR would like to reach – people who know very little about racing – the trucks are often standalone events run on Friday night or Saturday afternoon on a small cable outlet that you usually need a special sports package to view. It really is a shame, as this is what racing on the Cup side used to be like not too long ago – packed with drivers who were actually in the Cup Series not too long ago.

Couple these racers with a broadcast team that actually seems enthused about what they are covering and don’t deadpan, “Oh, there’s a car in the wall here on the frontstretch…” when a crash ensues, and it makes for an unbeatable experience for the viewer. The networks would be well suited to recruit a few of the Truck Series commentators and pit reporters to their Nationwide and Sprint Cup broadcasts, as it is the next best thing to listening to MRN or PRN call the races on Sundays.

I have to admit, when it first came to be some 15 years ago, I thought the Truck Series would be kind of hokey, a gimmick to cash in on the burgeoning light-truck sales market in this country. But now, it is by far the most compelling series in NASCAR, a refreshing reminder of what made the sport so much fun to watch in the first place.

These are just one man’s opinions of what is good and what is not so good in the sport today. I’m sure you can think of a few things I might have missed – scheduling, the championship format, and NASCAR’s new drug-testing policy are among them. But that’s the challenge with the sport today, as the list of things that are broken take up more space than just one column can provide these days.

So, as we work through the playoffs and head towards 2009, let’s hope that’s something the sport will choose to fix.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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