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Track Smack: Busch reborn, Chase picks and the other race

September 27, 2012, , NASCAR.com



Track Smack: Busch reborn, Chase picks and the other race

1. Kurt Busch has signed to drive for Furniture Row Racing next season. What might the former Sprint Cup champion be capable of in the No. 78 car?

Joe Menzer: Let me start off here by acknowledging that, yes, Kurt Busch is a very talented race-car driver. But I'm disappointed by Furniture Row's handling of this entire situation. Regan Smith helped them progress to a higher level and, while this year has been tough, I thought he deserved to stick with them for at least another year. I mean, the guy even moved out to Denver to display his commitment to the organization -- and obviously no one discouraged him from making that move a year or so ago. Where's the loyalty in this sport these days?

David Caraviello: First of all, this seems the next logical step in the comeback process for Busch, who on occasion has done almost superhuman things in a Phoenix Motorsports car that had no business being up near the front. The No. 78 has more funding, it has technical support from RCR and I could absolutely see Busch stealing a race win or two next season in this vehicle. Anything more than that might be stretching it, but given his climb back to respectability, this is certainly the next step.

Mark Aumann: At first glance, you're thinking, "Hey, that's a pretty good move." That team was talking about expanding to a two-car operation in the near future. But the more I think about it, it seems to be a lateral move for Busch. There's talk James Finch may close his doors, so Busch had to find something. But it's a one-car team with exactly one Cup victory -- which pretty much describes Phoenix Racing, doesn't it? Now you're putting the mercurial Busch in a situation where he doesn't seem to fit in with the laid-back Colorado ownership. I'm not saying it's a recipe for disaster, but I wouldn't want to be the taste-tester.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, so let's see. Busch "might win a race or two" for them next year. Didn't Regan Smith win at Darlington in their car just last year? And, yes, Furniture Row has been talking about possibly going to two cars all along. But I'm now suspecting that's only going to happen if the No. 2 driver also brings along sponsorship money with him. Otherwise, why not just keep Regan Smith and put him in a second car?

David Caraviello: Joe, I think everyone would agree with your thoughts on Regan, who is an earnest guy and a class act. No question, he kind of got dumped here. But I'm guessing the thinking behind this was, FRR has tried to upgrade in so many areas, and evidently the driver was the next step. I'm not saying it's right that it happened, I'm just trying to interpret the thinking behind this. No argument about Kurt's ability behind the wheel -- the guy can be absolutely one of the best. But also no argument that Regan is a good guy who moved to Denver to be closer to that shop, did so much right and probably deserved better.

Mark Aumann: Joe, you got it. Reading between the lines, there's no additional money available, so the team decided to go ahead and put the big-name guy in the seat. But can Furniture Row afford Kurt Busch? And I'm not talking about his salary. He's torn up more than a dozen cars this season -- and that's about as much rolling stock as that team has in-house. And let me put the brakes on David's rampant optimism. Furniture Row is affiliated with Richard Childress, correct? Tell me how many wins RCR has this season?

David Caraviello: Sounds like you answered your own question there, Joe. And, yes, it's completely realistic to think that Kurt can win a race or two if things don't get messy in other areas. That car is always good on restrictor-plate tracks. Look at how good Busch is on road courses. They're not going to win a bunch. They may not finish inside the top 20. But this team could be right there with, say, Marcos Ambrose's program as one that's capable of swiping a couple of wins and at least putting themselves in line for something else.

All-Time Stats

Kurt Busch's career
Starts9722251
Wins14820
Top-5s433781
Top-10s7974162
LLFs106117266
DNFs251632
Laps Led3,4772,90177013
Poles3930
Avg. St.19.013.812.022.2
Avg. Fin.18.416.914.624.6
Best Rank1*4^1123

Joe Menzer: Kurt has 24 career Cup victories and a championship. Regan Smith has one career victory and zero championships. I get that this is a talent upgrade. I still think, based on both of their records away from the track, that it stinks. I also think Regan Smith has not won his last Cup race. The guy has some talent, too, and maybe a chance of scenery will actually help him realize his full potential.

David Caraviello: I grant that the combination here might little odd, but in reality it probably works: Kurt driving for someone who is the sponsor as well as the owner, and no corporate third party he has to watch himself around. Now, Barney Visser isn't doing this just for kicks, I'm sure. He has a brand on the hood I'm certain he wants Kurt to represent well. But I also think Kurt might have a little more leeway in this situation than some others. You have to look at the reality of it. They just haven't been very good this year. They've tried to upgrade in a lot of other areas. They now have a proven crew chief in Todd Berrier. In their minds, I'm sure there was only one more move to make. Kind of explains itself, actually.

Joe Menzer: I really like Barney Visser. Think a whole lot of him and still appreciate the time he took a while back on Veteran's Day to talk about his great service to our country. But I think this move stinks. Dr. Caraviello believes in the Steve Howe/Darryl Strawberry School of Second Through Seventh Chances.

Mark Aumann: Sorry, I'm with Joe here. Kurt may be the most talented driver on the planet, but he's damaged goods. He wore out his welcome with Jack Roush. He wore out his welcome with Roger Penske. He even had James Finch on the ledge earlier this year. What's going to change significantly over the next five months to where Furniture Row isn't going to wind up regretting this? They're about to mix lighter fluid and a match. And it ain't going to be pretty.

David Caraviello: Guys, I'm just trying to figure out this move, not defend it. Those dudes at Phoenix Racing love Kurt Busch. He made them competitive. They put up with the other stuff because they wanted to be better on the race track. I'm sure Furniture Row sees this the same way. Regardless of what the media thinks of Kurt, the guy is an ace driver who is probably always going to have a ride somewhere. You have to put the personal feelings aside and look at it clinically. And who knows, maybe Kurt gets out to Denver, experiences that Rocky Mountain high, and becomes a new man!

Mark Aumann: I'll guarantee Kurt Busch does not move to Colorado.

Joe Menzer: Actually, Richard Childress did talk the other day about how he thinks Kurt could help Furniture Row be more competitive and how the alliance may also help RCR -- because Kurt won't be so far away in Colorado. But RC also stressed that he thinks an awful lot of Regan Smith and that Smith "was a great partner" as well.

David Caraviello: Come on. Can't you see it? Kurt buys himself a nice spread out near Golden. Raises some big-horn sheep. Gets in touch with the earth. Everything changes. What a brilliant move!

2. Chase leader Jimmie Johnson thrives at Dover International Speedway, where he has a driver rating and average finish that far exceed those of any other driver in the playoff. Does anyone else have a chance Sunday?

Mark Aumann: Looking at the stats, it looks like the only other Chase driver who is even close to being in Johnson's class is Matt Kenseth. He has eight top-five finishes in the past nine Dover starts. It's really been the Jimmie and Matt show, with a few Busch brothers sprinkled in.

Chase Standings

As of Loudon
Pos.DriverPointsBehind
2.B. Keselowski2095-1
3.D. Hamlin2089-7
4.T. Stewart2086-10
5.K. Kahne2081-15

David Caraviello: Must admit, on paper, this looks like every bit the sure thing that Denny Hamlin was at New Hampshire last week. Johnson dominates this track in every statistical category. His average finish of 8.9 is the only one among the Chasers better than 11th. His driver rating is just nuts. He's won four of the last seven races there. He won there in the spring and put on that silly rainbow wig that evidently became all the rage. So, yeah, I wouldn't be surprised at all if he puts on a clinic just like Hamlin did at Loudon this past Sunday.

Mark Aumann: If past performance is any indication, this could be the race where Johnson gets a cushion between himself and the rest of the Chase field. And, from there on out, it's just a matter of maintenance. As was pointed out earlier in the week, this is not Denny Hamlin's favorite place -- and yet, he's going to have to put it together to keep Johnson in sight. And perhaps even more than that, Brad Keselowski has never finished better than 12th at Dover. If he's a real contender, he'll need to step it up Sunday.

Joe Menzer: Of course some others "have a chance." But Jimmie Johnson not only is the overwhelming favorite to win at Dover, but I also say he's now the early favorite to win his sixth championship in the last seven years. I know DC is going with DH as the early favorite, but I think the odds are with JJ. What say you, MA?

Mark Aumann: I'm not ready and willing to etch his name on the trophy just yet. There's a misstep or three still coming. Whether anyone can take advantage of that, I'm not certain. But I'm not ready to buy what Jimmie's selling, for now.

David Caraviello: Mark, I think you're right on -- this is a place where many of the Chase drivers either seem to be good or not so good, without a whole lot of in between. Johnson is probably a given, barring some kind of unforeseen problem. The key is whether those other guys, like Hamlin and Keselowski, can improve enough to keep pace. We know Johnson is going to be really good here, clearly the favorite to win. For the guys chasing him, it's about minimizing his gains. That's the whole key on Sunday.

Joe Menzer: Did you guys know that JJ has led the points after the second Chase race only one other time -- in 2005? He didn't win that year, but said he learned from his mistakes and wouldn't blow it again if he was ever in a similar situation again. And he hasn't.

Who will win?


The Chase for the Sprint Cup? This week's race? Check out the up-to-date predictions.

Mark Aumann: There's also a guy named Tony Stewart who is pretty darn good at knowing what it takes to win the title. And I'm not even certain that Kasey Kahne couldn't put together a run to keep things close. Eight races left and too many variables to believe this is over. But we'll let Menzer run on the leash for a bit. Remember, Kahne finished fourth at this race a year ago. If he hangs around, he could be a factor. And Dover was Stewart's lone misstep in 2011.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Joe, I think you're putting a little too much stock in a one-point lead. If it were anyone but Johnson, people would be saying this is wide open. But because it's Jimmie, everybody wants to act like it's over. Please. Nobody's running better right now than Hamlin, who over the last five weeks has won three times and led over 500 laps. That's a Jimmie Johnson-type run. Brad is still right in there, Stewart is lurking. This is far from over.

Joe Menzer: Here's another number to chew on for this weekend -- and, no, I'm not about to give out a blackjack tip for those visiting the fine Dover casino. The number I'm thinking of is 13.4, which is the highest average finish at Dover of the five guys immediately behind JJ in the current standings. That 13.4 average finish at the Monster Mile belongs to Stewart. JJ's average finish at the track is 8.9.

David Caraviello: I think Joe has spent too much time in the Man Cave staring at the "Parking for Jimmie Johnson Fans Only" sign he has above the TV. Listen, Menzer, we'll give you JJ this week at Dover. Surely, if he wins, the predictions of a sixth championship will increase in volume. But it's all about the other guys minimizing how much ground they lose, and setting themselves up for the final seven weeks. Once we get to Talladega, everything changes.

Joe Menzer: Whoa, whoa, whoa, guys. I never said this deal was over. That's a big stretch from saying I think Johnson's "the early favorite" to saying "it's over." I think this thing can and will be very interesting all the way to the end. But I believe we were asked about JJ's chances at Dover, and then we spun into who we like for the title. Right now I like Jimmie, but I think Denny will give him his money's worth and probably BK, too.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, if I'm betting on three, Joe's got the favorites. But I'm not ready to limit it to that with eight races to go.

Joe Menzer: I think we're all in total agreement that Talladega could be the great equalizer. Jimmie Johnson hasn't finished a single restrictor-plate race this season. He needs to survive 'Dega and then see where he's at. But, again, I like his chances of doing so and being there at the end.

Mark Aumann: Talladega? Are we already looking ahead to Talladega?

David Caraviello: And let's be fair ... the Roush Fenway guys absolutely need to make some gains this week. Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are both pretty good at Dover, both have won there and both need to build some forward momentum after a tough couple of opening weeks. Also, Mark's right, never underestimate Tony Stewart. And, hey, remember this is the track where Martin Truex Jr. got his one and only win. So, as much a sure-thing as Johnson may seem, there are some other guys with some chances. There could be some desperate guys who see this as a big chance to get back into it -- never know what will come of that.

Joe Menzer: I think Hamlin also will be a tougher out than ever this Chase around. He's got the defending championship crew chief in his corner, or at least on top of his pit box, in Darian Grubb; and he has a calm determination about him that speaks of improved maturity. All of which should serve him well as he chases Five Time in this Chase. Meanwhile, why don't you mention a few other guys in the field of 43 as possible winners this weekend, DC? I think you left a couple out.

Mark Aumann: Plus, Dover is one of those places where a big wreck can wipe out a few Chasers. Sort of like ... Talladega!

David Caraviello: Exactly, Mark. The Little Big One, I like to call it. We've seen wrecks there that have taken out 12 or 15 cars. That track, with the tight, fast straightaways and all that banking is just a magnet for multi-car accidents. Lot of lapped traffic there, too. Anything can happen.

Joe Menzer: I've also seen DC bet bad blackjack hands that have wiped out his wallet and half his bank account. I like to call that the Big Little One.

David Caraviello: Joe, I don't think I've been to Dover since table games were legalized. But that's OK, you just continue to live in your parallel universe where Johnson is already the champion, we're already at Talladega and you're better at blackjack than I am.

Joe Menzer: Sorry, you're busted. Thank you for playing.

3. Elliott Sadler regained the Nationwide Series points lead at Kentucky Speedway, and now leads Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by four points. Is this thing going down to the last race?

Joe Menzer: Yes. Next question. This has the feel of a tight title battle right down to the wire, and it's obviously great. Stenhouse Jr. isn't the only one still in it, either. Sadler's RCR teammate, Austin Dillon, is only 19 points back.

Nationwide Series

Standings
Pos.+/-DriverPts.Behind
2.-1Stenhouse1010-4
3.--Dillon995-19
4.--Hornish 968-46
5.--Allgaier911-103

Mark Aumann: Unless something phoenix-like happens to one or the other between now and then, yeah, probably we won't have a clear-cut favorite until Homestead. And great point, Joe. Dillon seems to have all the momentum right now.

David Caraviello: Man, you talk about a heavyweight battle. Every week, these two guys are trading haymakers, and it's been a lot of fun to watch. I still think Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is better, barring incidents like his pit-road collision with Eric McClure on Saturday. But neither driver seems able to get any separation on the other. And, yes, Austin Dillon is indeed creeping back into the picture. I think this championship race is a nice complement to what's going on in the Chase, and I fully expect it to go down to the final day at Homestead.

Joe Menzer: The thing that's cool about this three-way battle is that all three cars have been running great, near the front, lately. That's not likely to change over the last six races of the Nationwide season. It's going to make for some great drama heading into the season finale at Homestead, I do believe.

Mark Aumann: When you're talking about perhaps a dozen cars capable of winning, there shouldn't be huge swings in points. And that's true in Nationwide. Only 10 drivers have 10 or more top-10 finishes -- and three of those are ineligible for the title. Sadler, Stenhouse and Dillon are the only ones with 20 or more.

Joe Menzer: Sadler joked the other day that having the lead seems like "a hot potato" these days. No one seems to want to hang onto it for very long -- although he'd obviously like to change that. He thinks he'll be very fast right off the truck at Dover, by the way.

David Caraviello: Yeah, these guys have seen their share of adversity. Like Sadler said Saturday: "Whoever gets the points lead messes up." That's the kind of thing that's going to prevent them from pulling away from one another, not to mention let Dillon back in the mix. If Stenhouse or Sadler has a clean few weeks, maybe we get some space in this thing. But I don't know if that's going to happen.

Mark Aumann: The same cars run up front every week. It's just a matter of not having a calamity. And I can't see one of the top three getting in that position. They don't have Talladega to worry about. After Dover, you're looking at three intermediate tracks, Phoenix and then Homestead. Nowhere that you'd worry about getting caught up in somebody else's issues. Of course, DC's point about the Little Big One plays even more of a role this weekend. Thank you, Gen. David Armstrong Caraviello.

Joe Menzer: Good point, Mark. No 'Dega race left for these guys. And, finally, we've rambled on long enough where we can say, "Good point, David." So ... good point, General.

David Caraviello: Thanks, Menzer. Now go clean the latrines. Mark kind of referenced this earlier, but without so many Cup guys racing regularly in this series, it really magnifies the head-to-head matchups in this kind of situation. The picture would be far different if Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and the like were competing every weekend on the Nationwide tour. As it is now, it's almost a mini-Chase, in some ways, with Sadler and Stenhouse knowing they have to run at the front to take this thing.

Mark Aumann: It's almost head-to-head. Or head-to-head-to-head, if we factor Dillon in there.

Joe Menzer: Of course he insisted earlier that he hasn't been to the gaming tables at the Dover casino, but I could've sworn I saw Gen. David Armstrong Caraviello there getting a stack of chips wiped out like Custer at Little Big Horn. Or maybe he was playing the penny slots and just lost all his change. I called it the Big Little One, Part II.

Mark Aumann: Does he use Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels?

David Caraviello: All this coming from a man who can lose $100 in a casino faster than anyone else on the planet. Too bad neither of us will be in Dover, Menzer. I'm sure the pit bosses will miss us.

Joe Menzer: Bottom line: I'm betting on Sadler to hang on and win a close Nationwide battle, I'm betting on Jimmie Johnson winning this weekend at Dover and using it as a springboard to a sixth championship and I'll get back to you with my pick in the Camping World Truck Series.

David Caraviello: Joe, the Camping World Truck Series is in Las Vegas on Saturday night. It's NASCAR's Casino Weekend! I foresee a road trip. Gentlemen, start your bankrolls!

Mark Aumann: And let the chips fall where they may.