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Danica vs. Dale Jr. Feud Overshadows Joe Gibbs Racing’s Dominance at Kentucky

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Kyle Busch No. 18 Quaker State 400 Kentucky Speedway

Kyle Busch No. 18 Quaker State 400 Kentucky Speedway

It’s amazing what people focus on in a 2015 world marked by 140-character Tweets, five-second Snapchats and zero attention span. Despite a weekend of great Kentucky racing, producing a rules package that holds promise, the largest headline can be shortened to three words.

“Go f**k yourself.”

That’s Danica Patrick’s message to Dale Earnhardt Jr., spoken on the radio and then on pit road after she got wrecked midway through the Quaker State 400 in Kentucky. NASCAR’s two most well-known drivers outside the sport had a rare conflict inside it, Earnhardt losing his brakes and slamming into the left rear of the No. 10 Chevrolet with 60 laps to go. The GoDaddy car then went straight into the wall, ruining Patrick’s night and leaving her exasperated, slamming into the No. 88 on pit road in retaliation.

“If you didn’t have any brakes, why would you drive in underneath me?” she said to no one in particular on the radio. “Weren’t you thinking about that, maybe the corner before that?”

Earnhardt, who had a difficult race of his own, snapped back a bit after finishing the night in 21st.

“We didn’t have any brakes going into the corner,” he explained. “I know better than to run into her because it gets so much attention.  There wasn’t nothing I could do.  I mean, as hard as I hit her, what the hell did she think I was doing, trying to wreck her? We ain’t got no problem.”

I agree with that assessment; the story should fade away quickly, especially with Earnhardt and Patrick on the same “team.” (Patrick’s car, run by Stewart-Haas Racing shares information and gets both chassis and engines from Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports team). This type of rivalry won’t be allowed to continue under that type of roof; the media blitz can’t force hate where there is none.

The big loser, though when all is said and done is Patrick, her promising season rolling downhill faster than ever. Eight races in, she was 13th in points and coming off a top-10 finish at Bristol. Now, she’s sitting 22nd, 94 points out of a Chase bid that appears near impossible. While teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch assert themselves as top title contenders, Patrick is suddenly lost in space. She’s struggling with similar equipment, early chemistry with crew chief Daniel Knost fading during a time SHR Marketing is desperately searching for sponsors. GoDaddy leaves the team in 2016, no replacement has been named and the clock is ticking as NASCAR’s Silly Season heats up.

So what if you’re a Fortune 500 company hoping Patrick will one day make a breakthrough? You open up the news this week, see the words “go f**k yourself” and how she didn’t act with decorum Saturday night. That’s on top of her poor race results after nearly three seasons in the Cup Series and an advancing age (33) that suggests her window of opportunity is closing. Marketing execs might have slipped some scotch inside their coffee Monday morning….

Sure, Patrick was a victim Saturday night. Wrecks at Pocono last month and Daytona last week wiped away potential top-10 finishes. But the sporting world is full of would haves, could haves, and should haves. Earnhardt claims Patrick needs to “chill out.”

At this point, if performance doesn’t improve she’s on the verge of a permanent “timeout.” It’s a potential loss for the sport, like her or not, because whenever Patrick does so much as sneeze, important people pay attention. But it’s hard to make headlines these days if you’re sitting home collecting an unemployment check.

So begins a critical summer of Patrick’s career. Words won’t get the job done; top-tier finishes will. Time to step up or step out.

Through the Gears we go….  

FIRST GEAR: Kyle Slices Up Kentucky Competition

New rules, old hat for Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver put together a marvelous performance Saturday night, leading 163 of 267 laps to score his second victory in three weeks. Busch, whose career average finish at Kentucky is 3.8, has never finished lower than 10th at the track.

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“In the long run our car was really good,” he said. “I just was able to kind of move around and find some grooves that helped me.”

Busch now sits just 87 points behind that magical 30th place in the standings, the threshold from which he’ll earn a Chase bid. None of his competitors for that spot, running 29th through 32nd in points, finished inside the top 20 Saturday night. That’s great news for Busch; even better was that his JGR team has the early edge on NASCAR’s new rules package. All four of their cars finished inside the top 5, a powerful statement for a group that has struggled on these types of 1.5-mile ovals.

For Busch to make the Chase, he’ll need to maximize gains on bigger tracks like Michigan in August and Indianapolis the end of the month. Even with a better rules package the raw speed needed at those places leaves Busch’s main rivals for 30th — Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt and David Gilliland — without the speed to be competitive.

SECOND GEAR: Passing? Yes, Thank You Very Much

NASCAR’s new package, designed to increase passing, received rave reviews Saturday night – and it should have. Cars could run side-by-side for extended periods of time, drivers moved up and down through the running order, and gone was the single-file parade that has plagued intermediates like Kentucky in 2015.

“I came from two laps down,” said Denny Hamlin, another JGR driver who had a solid performance (third). “I passed a ton of cars throughout the day. There was a pass for the lead with 15 laps to go. And we don’t even have a tire honed in on this racetrack yet.

“I can’t really complain a whole lot.”

Most of the competition agreed, drivers happy the overall outcome is placed more in their hands instead of engineers. In-race adjustments made a bigger difference and cars weren’t “stuck in place” the entire race; a 17th-place car early on in the night could be turned into a fifth-place car and vice versa. It’s a great baseline to draw from.

What still needs work: extra tire falloff, the kind Hamlin was talking about and what Goodyear needs to research. In their defense, these new rules came too quick to put a softer tire on the track for Kentucky. There also needs to less “aero push” up front. Thirteen lead changes, an increase of just one from last year’s race, isn’t exactly an eye-popping number. Yes, Busch and Joey Logano ran hard in the closing laps, but you didn’t get the sense we’d see a heart-stopping finish to the checkered flag.

Looking back at “old school” NASCAR, what would be good to see is the ability for guys to rub fenders a bit, bending up sheet metal while still able to run up front. It feels like everyone is afraid to touch each other for the fear one small wrinkle cuts your speed by five miles an hour. You’ll only get rid of bad aero if you wind up slowing the cars down, another reduction in downforce I feel will be coming within the next year or two.

THIRD GEAR: Bowtie’s Bad Day

Kentucky marked just the second time all season no Chevrolet driver finished inside the top 5. The best anyone could muster was Jeff Gordon in seventh, falling short in his bid to score a victory at the only active NASCAR Cup track where he doesn’t have one. Kevin Harvick, coasting to the regular season points title had a quiet night, failed to lead a lap for the first time on an intermediate track this season, and came home eighth. Teammate Kurt Busch spun out on his own, and was forced to claw back to wind up 10th. Six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson ran ninth, just one spot better and complained about his car so much you’d think the No. 48 ran 39th.

Should people be concerned? Not really. This package, while getting tested over the summer will be used in exactly zero races come NASCAR’s September Chase. That means the best cars will be the ones who ran well under the old rules – a package Johnson, Harvick, Busch and co. have already mastered. Why work on 2016, like JGR has when you know you have the best chance to win now? These guys will take a week or two behind the curve if it still leaves them on top of the podium come Homestead’s season finale in November.

FOURTH GEAR: Big Misses for Big Names

People were looking for Tony Stewart to run better under a rules package that put control back in the driver’s hands. Instead? He was 33rd, running two laps down at the finish, and got caught up in an accident mid-race. Never so much as sniffing the top 10, feuding with crew chief Chad Johnston intensified on the radio and makes you wonder whether SHR will make a change. Indianapolis, held at the end of the month, is a place Stewart can get his mojo back along with Watkins Glen in early August.  But I don’t think he’ll get there without a major adjustment to the status quo.

Kyle Larson, the pole-sitter, also dropped like a rock, albeit more slowly, from his top starting spot. Wrecking late, the 35th-place finish leaves him 86 points outside the final Chase spot. Can he win somewhere? Again, the focus will center around crew chief Chris Heroy. Will Chip Ganassi Racing shake things up for their promising sophomore?

OVERDRIVE

It was a rough weekend for small-time Premium Motorsports. Driver Brendan Gaughan left the team this week, frustrated over poor equipment and was replaced by Reed Sorenson, who did no better (36th). The team’s second car, run by Josh Wise, wrecked at Kentucky, wound up dead last and led to Wise leaving the team Monday. “We have different goals,” the driver said in a cryptic Twitter statement announcing his departure… NASCAR needs to do something about rain-delay qualifying if they want to get new owners involved in the sport. Both Leavine Family Racing and the Wood Brothers missed out when their first practice speeds would have easily qualified them for Saturday night’s race. Why not set the entire field based on the top 36 speeds from first practice, filling out the rest with the provisional system that helps protect full-time teams? The risk is so great for part-timers these days, especially with the financial commitment involved it’s turning potential new owners off from competing.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.