The clock ticks ever closer to the end of NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. And just like any other battle for the championship, only one of the 43 teams each week will end the checkered flag at Homestead holding the trophy everyone’s aiming for. Sure, several drivers will still be smiling, satisfied with their seasons as a whole but when it comes to the goal on the top of their list, the cold reality is they’ve fallen short.
So yes, while the focus is on the positive this weekend – Carl Edwards vs. Tony Stewart for the title – many other drivers will be looking to hit the checkered flag, hop on the plane and head out of town. For a select few, their careers may even be destined to change forever, a ride for 2012 in doubt … just like the first driver on the list of “it could have been better” Fact or Fiction this week.
FACT: NASCAR Should Have Done Something to Brian Vickers
Count me among those whose eyebrows rose that after Matt Kenseth was bulldozed into the wall in turn 3, courtesy of Brian Vickers’s No. 83 Toyota. NASCAR chose to turn a blind eye, watching Kenseth limp to the garage with no intention whatsoever of pulling out the dreaded black flag. Clearly, the victim was the most surprised of all; at first, he spouted off in the garage over what he claimed was clear Martinsville retaliation at Phoenix.
“I was out of brakes and I was up on everybody and I saw [Vickers] coming and I lifted at least 10 car lengths before where I would normally lift,” Kenseth claimed. “And [Vickers] drove in there at 165 mph and cleaned us out. I don’t know. If NASCAR is going to start parking people for being mad 25 seconds after you wreck, wrecking somebody then you [should] park somebody for that.
“You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track, he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out and [NASCAR does] nothing about it. It was so premeditated it just surprises me that [NASCAR] didn’t do anything.”
For the record, it was Kenseth who started this whole mess in the first place at Martinsville. Despite Vickers being a giant wrecking ball, if Kenseth hadn’t lost his cool, turning the No. 83 out of spite, retaliation wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. But the bottom line is Vickers already had his chance, weeks ago. The driver tried and failed to wreck the No. 17 in Martinsville’s closing laps, turning his Red Bull Racing Toyota into the equivalent of a crumpled soda can instead.
For some reason, the bad blood with Kenseth lasts all the way back to February at Phoenix, when Vickers felt like the No. 17 car caused the 13-car wreck which totaled his car and rolled the boulder straight down a disastrous season. But where the anger comes from really doesn’t matter; when you have a driver ride the back bumper like that, pushing the No. 17 car to the point it would automatically lose control you can’t let contact so blatant go unpunished.
No, this issue does not approach the severity of Kyle Busch; it was under green, not a caution flag and the two drivers have a history. But Kenseth’s brake problems, which both NASCAR and Vickers have harped on form the basis of a convenient excuse. If I want to get back at somebody, with a number of eyes already on me what am I going to say, “Yep! I did it! I’m totally guilty!”
At the very least, you have to nail Vickers with the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” theory: talking the talk has to count for something. So in this case, why not compromise and give Vickers a two-lap penalty for rough driving? That’s less than the three-lapper you usually get, but just enough to show wrecking that aggressively will cost you a chance at a solid finish.
With his recent track record, there’s absolutely no way Vickers should have run one lap down, in 23rd spot with a shot at a top 20 or even a top 15.
Quick side note here, one this incident is distracting us from before moving on. How could Vickers’s car be so bad when Kasey Kahne is sitting there in victory lane? For all those hoping for investors to save Red Bull, well, the product you’re selling isn’t the one who won you a trophy; it’s the cars that ran 23rd and 25th on Sunday. What a shame for that program.
FICTION: Kurt Busch’s Ride is Secure at Penske Long Term
Little brother Kyle may have stolen the news headlines as of late; but as we head towards 2012, assuming he shapes up just watch the focus shift towards older brother Kurt. The R-Rated radio transmissions, enough to drive crew chief Steve Addington into therapy continued Sunday, even with team owner Roger Penske on the radio urging focus.
But what’s disturbing Busch as of late runs deeper than just handling issues; on Sunday, he mentioned repeatedly how the No. 2 car could run up to two-tenths faster with the same setup supposedly underneath both Dodges.
Clearly, for the first time Busch has a teammate in Brad Keselowski that’s capable of upstaging him on a regular basis. It’s the first time in six years that’s happened to him at Penske; remember, during his first three seasons Ryan Newman was virtually one foot out the door. With that competition comes a twinge of jealousy, matched with the sour mood that’s left his team ready to beat him with their wrenches instead of using them to adjust the car.
And as Penske sees the problems firsthand, it’s important to know that for the first time with Busch, he’s no longer backed in a corner: Keselowski is younger, smarter and while cocky the type of driver he can pair with long term without some sort of team mutiny. Keselowski’s rise has left Busch expendable; and if Addington leaves, paired with the engineering changes from this spring, Busch also finds himself out of excuses.
Any chance Busch gets released earlier than Nov. 2012? No. But next season, there will be a number of solid free agents on the table and Penske will doubtless find someone competent to fill the seat if he wants to make a change. This relationship is one that bears watching over the next six months.
FACT: Jimmie Johnson Isn’t Done at Five Sprint Cup Titles
Clearly, Phoenix signified the end of an era for Jimmie Johnson. Five straight titles, as has been discussed by nearly every NASCAR expert on the planet is a tremendous feat, one that may never be duplicated. It was a precipitous fall from grace this season, as the end of dynasties usually are; a slip-up at Homestead will result in the worst points finish of Johnson’s 10-year, full-time history racing Sprint Cup.
But unlike most dynasties, which crumble due to age or declining skills the No. 48 team should be primed and ready to rage in 2012. It’s not like Johnson and Chad Knaus are divorcing; in fact, it’s the opposite, with each ready to dig deep and discover what went wrong in the offseason. Likely to finish no worse than sixth, the team was still a top-half Chase contender and would have run second under this points system without a playoff.
In other words, they’re not that far off; plus, both men are motivated to eclipse Dale Earnahrdt and Richard Petty’s record of seven titles. Keep in mind each is relatively young – Johnson is 36, Knaus is 40 – and want to race for at least four more full seasons. Add in multimillion-dollar backing, with Lowe’s signed for that same timeframe and it’s hard to believe they won’t end up with six, seven, even that magic number eight by the end of 2015.
FICTION: Hendrick Motorsports is Having an Awful Chase
At first glance, this Chase hasn’t worked out as expected for the Hendrick Motorsports fleet. Johnson sits fifth, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is seventh and Jeff Gordon – considered by many this year’s title favorite – sits a disappointing 11th. Mark Martin in 20th hasn’t even sniffed the front for the better part of the last two seasons.
What a far cry from HMS’s 1-2-3 points finish in 2009, right? Even their fearless leader, Rick Hendrick, is busy recovering from injuries suffered from a plane crash out in Key West this month.
But while this organization should supposedly hang their heads, the truth is they’re privately rejoicing at the “B” team, Stewart-Haas Racing, charging into Homestead with a chance to steal the title trophy. All Stewart has done is win four times in nine races, armed with those Hendrick chassis and engines. In fact, add in Johnson’s Kansas victory and HMS has a hand in 56% of Chase victories this season; last I checked, that wasn’t a bad percentage.
Surely, this organization would have loved for one of their flagship operations to take control. But keep in mind, during this era of sponsorship questions Hendrick’s “A” team comprised of the Nos. 5, 24, 48 and 88 are fully backed. SHR? They needed some help; while Stewart is set, teammate Newman took until deep in this Chase to earn sponsorship for a majority of 2012 races with the No. 39.
Considering Danica Patrick’s coming on board there, building a third team is there a better time to earn the positive publicity of an SHR championship? I don’t think so.
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.
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