Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: A Penske Rebellion? Chase Panic Over Nothing, & the Change We Should Have Seen

Editor’s Note: Hey everyone! You’re not used to seeing me in this space, but our “tell it like it is” writer, Bryan Davis Keith is living a hard knock life these days: he got free tickets to a Foster the People concert last-minute. What does that one-day vacation mean for your life? A bit of a switch; I’ll fill in today while Bryan takes over our weekly staple, Did You Notice?, for this Wednesday’s edition on the website.

Loudon, N.H. left a sour taste in most fans’ mouths after fuel mileage dominated the NASCAR landscape Sunday (Sept. 25). So as we dust off, ignore the Sunoco signs and try to move on, I’ll promise you this much regarding the column ahead: that’s the last you’ll hear about gas or Tony Stewart’s “deadweight” National Enquirer story.

Fat, of course isn’t what Kurt Busch was mouthing off about this week; instead, it’s a more R-rated version likely to cause a monetary fine from NASCAR. But is the real “F-U” not coming from Busch, per se, but the No. 22 team he works for? That very topic leads off this action-packed edition of Five Points to Ponder.

ONE: Is Kurt Busch’s Team Bailing On Him?

One day after Busch’s Shell/Pennzoil Dodge got held until the final minutes of pre-race inspection, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby reiterated there would be no further fines or penalties for the team. Instead, he’s letting their actions speak for themselves, an ugly history of being late and lazy revealed by owner Roger Penske during a talk with SIRIUS Speedway’s Dave Moody.

“The last two or three weeks, we had been late getting through tech,” he said Monday morning. “Then, if we had a little bit of a problem, we had to go back through again. [NASCAR] said, ‘We’ve had enough of you going back through for little things.’

“I’m going to sit down with [crew chief Steve] Addington and the guys this week and say, ‘We’ve got to have our car in inspection prior to qualifying and also prior to the race on time and not have this happen again.’”

Penske was embarrassed by the incident, one that caused a verbal meltdown from Busch both before and during the 300-lap disaster that was their Loudon. Never in contention, Busch lost it early and often on the radio, part of a trend of lovely gems he’s released for the scanner-listening public:

“Absolutely nothing. Plows getting in, plows through the center, snaps loose off. Got nothing.”

“I don’t need assistance explaining who took what tires. We do need assistance working on a flat track where cars don’t turn or stick. I knew this going in.”

Those, of course, were the G-rated versions. However, complaints turned so ugly and vicious midway through the race Busch’s spotter and crew chief got on the radio to say, in no uncertain terms, “Keep your head in the game!”

The driver’s response? Throw it back in the face of the crew he abuses every week, angry over the pre-race inspection evident even after he exited the car (“Pre-race inspection set the tone for our day” was the first line in his post-race quotes). Yet as Penske mulls over making changes, you wonder … why isn’t his anger focused on the guy who’s verbally smacking around the rest of the team every week? Couldn’t he be the one causing these inspection issues by the way he’s beating down the team’s motivation?

Being late to inspection is clearly an issue of motivation, not trickery; it’s a routine part of the job. But if you’re on the No. 22 team, tell me – what reason do you have to be excited for the “work” you’re supposed to put into the postseason? The driver you work for threatened to fight a media member in the last month, ripped a transcript out of the hand of another before storming off, and spends his time inside the racecar telling you how awful your setup is and that everyone is a piece of s—.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Ripping Reporters - Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart Highlight NASCAR Driver/Media Tension

So when there’s the pressure of putting the car through pre-race inspection, how is Steve Addington able to whip these guys into shape? That’s the perfect opportunity for the team to make a statement, before the demands of the race begins and the glimmer of sitting on the head table post-Homestead takes over. No one would dare let their guard down then; but during those down times, in pre-race when people have a chance to think about how much they’ve been verbally scarred? It’s certainly feasible playing fire with inspection is a way to showcase their unhappiness with a situation that’s getting worse.

Here’s another problem for Busch going forward, one that Penske has yet to wake up and realize. For years, Busch has been light years ahead of his teammates, to the point the organization had no choice but to sit there and take it. But now? With Brad Keselowski third and inching towards championship sleeper status, Busch is suddenly a bit more vulnerable, second in line and will not command as powerful a response to those verbal outbursts that have created major changes in the past.

The more Busch struggles, the more angry tirades will do nothing more than fall on deaf ears. That’s why – especially if the No. 22 drops out of Chase contention after Dover – this situation bears watching. As always with the elder Mr. Busch, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

TWO: Jimmie Johnson’s title dreams are toast? Hardly

I’m getting a good laugh this week from people worrying about Johnson tenth in the Chase. Writers, insiders and fans have penned everything from “he’s a man making moves of desperation” to “Knaus and Johnson are at each other’s throats” after the two had a small, verbal tiff on the radio. (For those who missed it: Johnson got annoyed at Knaus’s cheerleading off the pit box, briefly losing his rhythm for the rarity of ripping his head wrench a new one).

Historically, 10th is the lowest position Johnson’s been in the standings after two Chase events, enough for some pundits at the ready to write off the dynasty before this postseason ever began.

Well, sadly, I have news for you people: the demise of the No. 48 has been greatly exaggerated. This weekend marks a trip to Dover, a place where the team has led an astounding 1,192 of the last 2,000 laps run (59.6%). The last two years, this Lowe’s Chevrolet has blistered the field en route to victory lane in the fall and would have won this spring’s Monster Mile marathon if not for a late-race caution that jumbled up the field through pit strategy.

Without question, they’re an overwhelming favorite to win at the same place Stewart finished a ho-hum 29th this spring.

See also
The Yellow Stripe: Who Would Be the Best NASCAR Champ for 2011?

Quick, guys, just for the heck of it let’s do the math. If Stewart runs 29th again, he’ll earn 15 points while Johnson, if he wins the race and leads the most laps will come up with 48. That’s a 33-point swing, enough to put Johnson in front of Stewart by four with seven races – yes, a full seven – left to go on the calendar.

Chances are a victory won’t put Johnson in the championship lead, because Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards are a good deal of points ahead, too. But Johnson, within six points of fifth in the standings would almost automatically vault into the top five with a victory or even a second-place finish, leaving him well-positioned heading towards the next two 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule.

And if I remember correctly, it was Johnson who had the second, maybe the third-best car at 1.5-mile oval Chicagoland until fuel mileage turned that race into a strategy run down the stretch.

Now, if Johnson falters this weekend at Dover, running sixth or worse at their best track on the schedule, I’ll start to believe this dynasty’s over. But don’t get a little marital spat – normal in even the best driver/crew chief pairings – combined with your wish for Johnson’s downfall override good, ol’ fashioned common sense.

THREE: Should Joe Gibbs Racing Have Made a Crew Chief Change This Summer?

Breaking News: The Chase Hasn’t Gone So Well for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Duh! So much has been written about the failures of Kyle Busch (sixth in points after entering as the top seed) and Denny Hamlin (dead last) we don’t need to waste space here. How steep is Hamlin’s Chase hill to climb? Even if the No. 11 Toyota won each of the last eight races, leading the most laps in the process, Stewart could still win the title by finishing just fourth or better each week.

But in this world where the postseason rules, you forget there’s a third member of the JGR stable who’s quietly disappeared. Joey Logano, now two years removed from his only Cup victory waved the white flag on his 2011 season back in August. In the last 10 races run on ovals, “Sliced Bread” has just one top-10 finish – a fourth at Loudon this July – while seeing his relationship with crew chief Greg Zipadelli turn stale.

Twenty-first in points, with just 58 laps led this season Logano has gained little, if any momentum since Carl Edwards’s flirtation with JGR ended in August, assuring the youngster still had a job in 2012.

Hamlin’s effort has been a little different – suffering more from bad breaks than bad chemistry – but it’s undeniable the relationship with crew chief Mike Ford has remained tenuous at best since losing that title bid in 2010. So what should JGR do? It’s unlikely any changes will happen now, with Busch still on the fringes of title contention and no ripples of distraction needed in a shop that’s already on edge.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, considering a 10-week trial combining Zipadelli and Hamlin (with Logano and Ford paired together) could have given this organization a head start on whether they need to look elsewhere for 2012. Now, if the switch happens in the offseason and the new personnel doesn’t mesh, they’ve cost Hamlin another year in his prime, all in the name of fighting for a championship the No. 11 program had no chance of winning in the first place.

Any casual observer knew heading into the postseason the title was a longshot at best for Hamlin; so if you’re switching engines, already giving the experimental TRD stuff to the No. 11 why wouldn’t you go full bore and make a head wrench change on top of it?

Of course, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback in hindsight. But considering how badly this postseason has gone – and make no bones about it, things have been awful for all three teams – it’s a legitimate criticism in the face of almost certain changes that now have to wait until November, ruining a two-month test session that could have served as an excellent advantage for 2012.

FOUR: Did the Wave-around Cost Jeff Gordon a Chance at a Loudon Victory?

I’ve made no secret of the fact I hate the wave-around rule. In this age of NASCAR parity, I think it gives people their laps back way too easily, causing too many free gifts instead of letting the race naturally play out.

We saw a great example of how it can work against people on Sunday, when Jeff Gordon had the field covered by staying out longer during a green-flag stop around halfway. Once the caution came out, that left Gordon one of just four cars on the lead lap along with David Ragan, Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin.

Under the old system, without the wave-around and double-file restarts that would have left Gordon with plenty of cars ahead of him and the chance to pit in peace; the aggression of trying to stay in front of the No. 24 would have almost certainly led to better racing. Something entertaining to watch for at least a few laps…

Instead? All those cars trapped a lap down during green-flag stops got theirs back immediately by staying out on the track. They got their full lap back instantaneously, starting right behind the No. 24 and were not penalized for the unpredictability of the race playing out. One of those guys who got the wave-around, by the way? Stewart. We all know where he finished.

Look, I understand the confusion of trying to find the leader during these types of caution-flag situations under the old system. But what’s wrong with asking people to learn the rules? Every sport has the occasional complex scenario, one where new fans need to sit down and look for an explanation from the experts. Does it stop them from watching a sport they’re falling in love with? Probably not. So in this case, we’ve oversimplified the rules for no good reason, reducing the ability for unpredictable finishes and greater aggression in the process.

FIVE: Think This Title Race is a Runaway? Well…

Certainly, this season is one where people think the Chase made things worse, not better with the points standings. Under the current format, if the regular season continued we’d have four drivers within 13 markers of the lead after Loudon. With the reset? We have four drivers within 14 … not exactly the way to create more excitement.

But for those worried this playoff’s about to make you hit the snooze button, I did a little experiment. Assuming everyone finishes the same way they did at Dover this Spring (and yes, that’s with Johnson landing ninth, not first) here’s the way the standings would look three races into the Chase:

Kevin Harvick: 2,121
Carl Edwards: 2,118 -3
Matt Kenseth: 2,115 -6
Brad Keselowski: 2,114 -7
Tony Stewart: 2,109 -12
Kyle Busch: 2,108 -13
Jimmie Johnson: 2,102 -19
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 2,101 -20
Jeff Gordon: 2,098 -23
Kurt Busch: 2,096 -25
Ryan Newman: 2,083 -38
Denny Hamlin: 2,056 -65

If history repeats itself, Stewart falls back to earth while Harvick is pretty much kept in check. Phew! Still, when will NASCAR get the message, especially in a year we’ve had 16 different winners: Cup doesn’t need the postseason format to make this type of close competition a reality!

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via