By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Clint Bowyer and Gil Martin, his crew chief, may have their act together in this year’s championship chase, but Richard Childress’ other two, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, need to pick up the pace in NASCAR’s playoffs.
However Burton, whose seventh at Dover was only his second top-10 since July, says “I don’t think the chase truly comes in focus until the sixth race.”
And Sunday’s 400-miler here is only race three of the 10-race title chase.
“There may be some people by the fourth race you might say ‘That guy is definitely out,’” but I don’t think you can completely eliminate people. There is still time to make things happen.
“The fifth or sixth race is when you can start focusing on who’s going for the title.
“You can put yourself in position to win it early, and you can put yourself in position to lose early. You won’t win it or lose it in one race or two races. Instead you need to start positioning yourself to make a run at it.”
Burton is 75 points behind tour leader Jeff Gordon; teammate Harvick, who also has only two top-10s since July, is 115 down.
Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin are in more serious trouble, both more than 150 points down.
Ricky Rudd isn’t in the championship race. In fact he’s still sidelined while recovering from a bad shoulder injury at California Speedway Labor Day weekend.
But Rudd’s situation is one for NASCAR officials and title contenders to consider: after slapping the wall hard on the driver’s side, Rudd said NASCAR needed to come up with some quick fixes to better protect drivers in the cars-of-today, which will be run this weekend, after three weeks of the cars-of-tomorrow.
However, apparently nothing has been done to fix the situation that took out Rudd, who has been one of the tour’s ironmen over his career.
If Rudd were in the title chase, there might be a bigger question – why does NASCAR still have two championships, one specifically for the driver and another specifically for the team, instead of just one championship, like other major sports? If there were a team championship, Yates could put a substitute driver in the car and the team would still earn points, just like an NFL team changing quarterbacks.
However NASCAR executives have steadfastly refused to consider such a change, despite the fact that the current rules force a driver, if he is to earn points, to start the race at the wheel, no matter how badly injured.
“The real deal is if you’re challenging in the points, if you made the top-12 cut and you’re a factor in the championship, that’s risk-versus- gain,” Rudd says. “Okay, maybe you do get the thing (like his injured shoulder) loaded up with Novocain so you don’t feel it, and you go out there and race. But you’re taking a chance of further damage down the road.”
So Rudd says, while he was thinking about getting back in Robert Yates’ Ford here, he decided to let Kenny Wallace fill in again. “It’s not so much further damage that’s an issue, unless you crash or have some freakish deal,” Rudd says. “It’s more about pain and mobility.
“I can relax my muscles, and someone can grab my arm, and I’ve got full range of motion. I haven’t lost any range of motion. But when I tell my arm to work, tell the muscles to grab the steering wheel, turn right, turn left, that’s when it hurts.
“I guess all the ligaments got ripped apart, and now they’re all growing back.
“I believe that pain is there for a reason: It’s telling you something.
“And I don’t want to do something that is going to cause me trouble down the road.
“I’ve had cartilage damage and bruised ribs in the past. I tore ligaments at Charlotte in the late ‘80s, back during the tire war, when I blew a tire and hit the fence hard. We didn’t have the seat stuff like we have today, didn’t have the leg restraints that support your legs. And with all that pressure on the brake pedal, my knee blew out. It was like a football player blind-sided.
“I tore the medial collateral ligaments, and it was pretty painful. I did get through the next race with a splint. I started the next race, but it was a superspeedway, and we felt we could change drivers without losing a lap.
“That injury took a year before it got 100 percent right.
“I’m just going to take it one race at a time. What I’m using as a gauge is driving a street car…but trying to drive with my left hand, my injured arm.
“I’m probably 60 percent right now.”
Meanwhile there is the strange case of Tony Stewart. He missed the chase last season and had a ball down the stretch, winning and joking and laughing. This year however he’s in the chase, and he’s been downright cranky and irritable.
Must be the pressure. Not to mention the pending jump from Chevrolet to Toyota, which, according to men close to Stewart, the two-time NASCAR champion isn’t taking very well.
So, Tony, here you are just a few points behind leader Jeff Gordon, so how’s it going? “It’s strictly a week-to-week deal,” Stewart says. “All the questions the media ask are theoretical questions. Well, I’m not a philosopher. None of us can predict this. If we could, we’d be bookies in Las Vegas making millions of dollars betting on these races instead of driving in them.
“And it’s a heck of a lot safer sitting in a chair in that dark room letting cocktail waitresses bring you drinks.
“I don’t have the answers. Nobody has the answers. All we can do is speculate.”
Well, the speculation continues to be that this is Gordon’s championship to win or lose, and only Stewart and teammate Jimmie Johnson have any good shot at derailing that train.
However this week’s stop could offer some surprises. First, these playoffs have been filled with surprises. Second, this track seen its share of surprises too, because the last part of the race typically goes caution-free, making it a gas mileage duel, like last season, when so many drivers ran out of fuel in the closing moments.
Third, because this (ital) isn’t (close ital) a car-of-tomorrow event. It’s the first time these guys have run their regular cars since California four weeks ago.
“It’s different,” chaser Mark Truex Jr., says of the old car. “When you first sit down in it, it feels a lot different. The window net is closer to you, and you can see a lot better out of the windshield.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Ray Evernham’s Dodge teams may still be struggling mightily, and drivers Scott Riggs, Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler may be quite frustrated. But George Gillett, Evernham’s new partner who now runs the business side of the operation, is full-speed ahead.
Gillett just hired Jim Tucker – from NASCAR’s own Manhattan offices, after nearly four years there—to a new New York City office to help market the team and its various programs.
“We believe we are the first team to expand into the Manhattan area and open a New York City office,” Gillett says.
“We want to win races and eventually the Cup. So we have to add resources on the competition side as well as the sales and marketing side.”
Typically a big track like Kansas Speedway should be a good one for Matt Kenseth, who dominated Dover but blew an engine with 25 miles to go. First, though, he has to get over Sunday’s big downer.
“Dover was a big disappointment, for sure, considering we had a car capable of winning and ended up with nothing to show for it,” Kenseth, 35th last Sunday, said. “But I can’t help but look at the positives – That’s the first time all year we’ve been able to compete for a win in the car- of-tomorrow.
“So instead of getting down, I feel we’ve finally got some promise in these cars-of-tomorrow. Carl (Edwards, his teammate) won, Greg (Biffle, another teammate) finished second, and Jamie (McMurray, another teammate) finished top-10.”
The next time out with those, though, will be at Martinsville in three weeks.
Mark Martin had a good shot at winning Sunday at Dover, and he will be back at the wheel this week for his 20th start of the season. And despite skipping nine events, he’s still 24th in the standings. In fact, he has a better finishing average than most of the drivers in the chase.
Martin was leading the tour when he skipped his first one, back in March. He’ll run six of these final 10.
“We were finally able to have a break-through run in the car-of-tomorrow,” Martin said. “And Kansas is a really good track for me. I won two years ago by taking two tires early, and we finished third last year on a fuel gamble late. It should be interesting this year to see what strategy plays out.”
And Joe Nemechek won Kansas when he was with Martin’s current team.
The unexpected mid-season departure of team owner Bobby Ginn, who disbanded two of his three teams and then merged the Martin-Ryan Pemberton team with Dale Earnhardt Inc., was certainly a big shake-up. Martin says he’s impressed with how well Pemberton has handled the change. “They have been through so much with the merger and all that has happened this season, and yet they keep battling back,” Martin says.
“We could have won Dover if things had fallen into place a little better at the end.”
Martin is doing much better than former teammates Nemechek and Sterling Marlin, who are still struggling to line up new deals…not to mention the several hundred crewmen Ginn let go in August.
Kyle Busch may be a lame duck with car owner Rick Hendrick, but he’s handled his awkward situation with remarkable style and grace, and he comes here this weekend, after a fifth at Dover, sitting only 10 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.
Alan Gustafson, his crew chief: “Two of the past three champions have had an average finish in the chase of eighth. So far we’ve had an average finish of 4.5. Being 10 points out of first at this point is a great start.
“It seemed everyone had issues at Dover. Thankfully we persevered.”
Busch concedes the chase “is stressful, no doubt about it.
“I try to keep my mind off of things by playing with my dogs and starting the Monday Night Football parties back up at my house with guys on my team. We play cards and watch the game every Monday night, and it’s a good break from the pressure.”
Californian Scott Speed, an up-and-coming Formula One driver until losing his Team Red Bull ride a few months ago, got his first taste of NASCAR racing this week, at Talladega, during a major test by some 40 ARCA drivers preparing for next week’s ARCA race at the tour’s biggest track.
And it was more than just a learning experience at the wheel; it was a cultural experience.
“The banking is pretty incredible and intimidating,” Speed says. “Having never sat in a stock car, and to just go out there and run the first lap flat against the wall, I’d be lying if I said that was easy. That took a bit of bravery.
“The car is so much heavier than a Formula One car, and you feel so much more movement. This car is about three times the weight of a Formula One car, so it moves a lot on the springs and tires. It’s just a big moving mass, and you feel really tiny inside of it.
“A Formula One car is so small and stiff, and if you even think about wanting to go right, you’re going right.”
NASCAR stockers, on the other hand, are big, awkward sleds.
However Speed says even more interesting was how rivals were willing to help: “The other teams were so willing to come over and share information, and that just doesn’t happen in Formula One.”
Of course Speed’s new rivals have a vested interest in helping him avoid mistakes, since their lives are on the line too.
For Speed there were other things to learn too: “In open-wheel racing, you always have someone who buckles you into your seat. I got into my seat waiting for someone to buckle me in, and then after a while realized I was supposed to buckle myself in.
“I’m not used to bringing my own helmet to the car either.”
And Speed got chewed out for his choice of garage area attire – shorts and a hat. “I just don’t dress like these people yet.
“My hat….it’s what Europe would call high-fashion, but I guess it’s not considered that here.”
Welcome to NASCAR, and welcome to Talladega, Alabama.
NASCAR is the hot place to be if you’re a driver, but it’s not an easy sport in which to shine, as three-time Indy champ Sam Hornish Jr., last year’s Indy 500 winner, is finding out.
Hornish, 28, is still debating the possibility of running a third Roger Penske car in NASCAR next season, and he spent this week testing at Kentucky Speedway, with plans to run at Charlotte and Miami this fall.
He failed to make the Cup field at New Hampshire and Dover the past two weeks, in his first Cup attempts. “We knew it was going to be tough to qualify at two tracks I’d never been to before. You (only) get an 1-1/2 hour practice, and you go out to qualify. But that’s part of the challenge.”
As for next season, Hornish says “We haven’t decided what we’re going to do yet.
“The big thing for me is to get to the point where I feel I have a good head on my shoulders as far as making the decision.
“It’s all about getting more seat time and getting more comfortable in the car. Stock cars have a lot more travel and a softer suspension.”
Hornish’s best runs so far in a stock car, a 15th in the Atlanta Busch race in March.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and new car owner Rick Hendrick have gotten the okay from NASCAR for Earnhardt to test a Hendrick car-of-tomorrow during NASCAR’s big test in four weeks.