Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Same Ol’ Same Ol’, Rubber & the Former Franchise

ONE: Why Does Title Contender Status Matter?

Let’s get the whole Kyle Busch/Ron Hornaday deal out of the way. Yes, there is precedent that NASCAR followed to a T in parking Busch for the weekend. Yes, there is no defense for Busch doing what he did – making contact under yellow is one thing, but running a truck at nearly full speed into the fence at a high-speed oval like Texas is taking that even further towards unacceptability.

And yes, this Busch incident was a feud that’s been building for years. It was only a matter of time before the sanctioning body stepped in, right or wrong.

That being said, the point being raised time and time again in the never-ending discussion regarding the incident – one that’s overshadowed even Tony Stewart‘s miraculous Chase run – is not any of those elements above. Instead, it’s the fact that Busch ruined Ron Hornaday‘s chances at another Truck Series championship by taking him out the way he did on Friday night (Nov. 5).

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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Kyle Busch Drew the Line in "Boys, Have At It," but Why Did NASCAR Let It Get This Far?

Sure, it happened. Kyle’s temper tantrum caused damage that the No. 33 team was never going to recover from. But let’s not forget that even before the retaliation, Hornaday smacked the turn 2 wall hard on his own accord. The night was over for KHI’s flagship truck even before Kyle did his best impression of himself. Busch may well have nailed the coffin shut, but there was already a body in it. That’s a moot point in the grand scheme of things.

Which is … what difference does it make that Hornaday lost his shot at a championship because of this whole episode? Why does the points standing of who Busch slammed into the fence have any bearing on this case? Is NASCAR really officially stating what they’ve denied forever? That the front of the field really does get treated differently? Let’s not forget Kyle pulled this same kind of unnecessary roughness crap Truck racing last year with Jennifer Jo Cobb and nary a peep was uttered.

This whole episode screams of nothing more than NASCAR playing both interventionist in the era of “Boys, Have At It” and trying to cash in on populist rage by appearing the anti-Kyle. In the grand scheme of things, what did Kyle lose from this deal? $50 grand, probation (whatever the hell that entails) while gaining some angst in the Mars camp.

It’s not like he was actually in the Cup title race; this incident didn’t affect Stewart-Carl Edwards. So NASCAR drops the bomb and gets to act like they give a damn that their spoiled brat star did something bad, said spoiled brat doesn’t get hit with much of anything in the form of a penalty and the anti-Rowdy legions get to gloat for a weekend.

Nothing’s changed here. The big boys that run up front get treated differently. NASCAR inconsistently claims consistency. And the culprit walks away with a slap on the wrist.

TWO: The Rubber Works of Phoenix

In one of those rare instances where the sanctioning body seems to have learned a lesson, NASCAR has a squadron of drivers scheduled to make hundreds of laps apiece over the course of this week to rubber in the new asphalt of the reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway. Considering just how ugly the initial races on repaved, reconfigured ovals at Las Vegas and Charlotte went, this rubber work should seem a foregone conclusion.

But is it really going to make a difference? In terms of reducing tire failures, one can only hope so. The excessive brake heat generated on flat tracks like Phoenix already wreaks havoc on the beads in these CoTs (just ask Trevor Bayne and David Ragan in the spring’s NNS and Cup races.) And nobody has to be reminded of what happened when Charlotte was “levigated.”

Still, let’s give the rubbering plan the benefit of the doubt and assume that having a worked in racing surface even before competition starts will keep tire failures down to a minimum.

Are there chances of Goodyear bringing a rock-hard tire compound to the new Phoenix, just as they have to every other repaved track in recent memory? All signs point to yes.

Are there chances of a rock-hard tire wearing enough to make the on-track product at Phoenix sizzle? Forget about it.

It doesn’t matter the size of the track, or the design, or if the test drivers make 1,500 test laps around Phoenix prior to the race or 15,000. A rock-hard tire that’s meant to do nothing but protect the exclusive tire provider of NASCAR from experiencing an embarrassing rash of flats on national TV will do nothing to promote good stock car racing, nor end the never-ending stream of track position-dependent events that have plagued the 2011 Chase.

All that testing means nothing if Goodyear doesn’t grow a pair and bring a tire that’s going to wear. And if past history means anything, there’s about as much a chance of that happening as there is Ryan Newman winning the Chase this year.

THREE: MWR’s Not Even Trying to Keep “The Franchise” on the Payroll

David Reutimann‘s out, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip are in the No. 00 car for 2012; so the story goes for Michael Waltrip Racing heading into the offseason. Cold or not, there’s an argument to be made for that to happen. Reutimann has been an also-ran for the entire 2011 campaign, an unacceptable state of affairs for the Aaron’s Dream Machine given how long and deep the partnership between the lease chain and the MWR organization is.

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Full Throttle: What Have You Done for Me Lately?

What’s more, with Martin Truex Jr. and the team’s flagship NAPA ride struggling, the No. 56 needs a teammate fast that can help right the ship.

But look at the numbers. The replacement for the driver 28th in points is one that’s 21st in points driving for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, combined with another who is semi-retired that last cracked the top 25 in points back in 2005. One of those two may well be a future Hall of Famer, but they may as well rename this ride the Aaron’s “I Had a Dream” Machine.

Bad 2011 season or not, Reutimann is the guy that put MWR on the map. He’s got the only two race wins in team history under his belt and has been the face of the organization through thick and thin. Remember what he once had to work with; MWR’s namesake failed to qualify for 11 consecutive races in 2007 and Michael McDowell made the highlight reels solely for wrecking spectacularly at Texas. However, those wins apparently had no value at all to MWR, who obviously made no effort to keep Reutimann in a seat.

The evidence? There’re still races to be filled in the No. 00 for 2012 and Reutimann didn’t get offered a partial schedule. Bobby Labonte is keeping the No. 47 seat despite JTG Daugherty Racing’s technical alliance with MWR, even though Labonte sits even lower in the points standings than Reutimann. As it stands, the former Franchise isn’t even going to get a shot at bringing some sponsor dollars to the team’s currently parked Nationwide Series entry – the same car he drove to a runner-up points finish back in 2007.

Performance doesn’t make too much of a case for Reutimann against his release from MWR. Still, this change is a surprisingly callous move by an organization that owes a lot of the progress it’s made to Reutimann. His maturity brought respectability to a team that bears the name of a glorified TV salesman; and now, his reward is a pink slip.

FOUR: For God’s Sake ESPN, Take it Easy on Ricky

I received a number of fan comments in a recent Nationwide Series Breakdown column noting that ESPN seemed to be rooting for Elliott Sadler to steal the NNS crown from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., continually covering the improvements that KHI’s No. 2 team was banking on while citing Stenhouse’s “rookie” credentials left and right.

That slant came to light in a very ugly way this Saturday at Texas. Time and time again, with Stenhouse running in the top 10 and enduring only marginal losses to his points lead despite Sadler’s top-five day, reference was made to Stenhouse getting unsettled in the car and not having the experience in racing for a title (anyone forget that he was a title contender heading into the ARCA finale at Toledo back in 2008?)

Never mind that, as mentioned in this week’s Nationwide Breakdown, new cars and new setups that have had Sadler and Co. convinced that they’d get the upper hand in this weekend’s races played out at Texas just like it did at Dover in OneMain Financial’s title race … it didn’t work. Never mind that the No. 2 team still hasn’t won a race in 2011.

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Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 O'Reilly Challenge at Texas

For crying out loud, it’s a great title fight. Veteran vs. development driver. Ford vs. Chevrolet. The outspoken Virginian versus the intense Mississippian. Why does ESPN feel the need to constantly slant this story?

FIVE: Axing of Road America Truck Race a Big Deal

Despite rampant rumors to the contrary, the expected Truck Series race date at Road America will not come to be in 2012. Unfortunately, the commitment of television partners to other racing obligations took precedence (that Saturday sees the Nationwide Series and Grand-Am Series already racing with committed schedule dates). That left the Trucks with only the option of racing Friday afternoon, which made no sense seeing as how the majority of the fanbase would be at work during that time.

Sure, that means that SPEED and ESPN are not available. Completely understandable. But that explanation is ignoring an inconvenient truth … that FOX isn’t going to pick up a Truck race to make it happen. It wasn’t all that long ago that the FOX network was televising two Truck races a year, attempting to cash in on an ever-growing segment of motorsports.

Fortunately, the Truck Series has continued to garner solid ratings on SPEED. But there’s something to be said about FOX not continuing their Truck telecasts and not being available to make a return to road-course racing happen for this series. Just another example of how the stock of what was once America’s fastest-growing sport continues to cool.

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