Four years ago, Brad Keselowski was young and unproven, a newbie on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit trying to build a winning reputation at Team Penske. Kurt Busch served as incumbent, wheeling the No. 2 Miller Lite car Keselowski would one day inherit, paired with the cache of a series title and one of the few drivers to openly joust with Jimmie Johnson. The two — Keselowski and Busch — formed a bond as teammates built on mutual respect for their independent styles that lasted even after Busch was canned in late 2011.
“Kurt has been a great teammate and friend to me,” Keselowski said then, after Busch’s release. “I truly do wish him the best, wherever and whatever he does.”
How ironic then that the latest chapter in Busch’s comeback — a win at Martinsville after two-plus years in racing purgatory — went through his former teammate. After a wreck on pit road, Keselowski slammed square into Busch’s Chevy — a classic “if I can’t win, neither can you” short track move. Initially forced behind the wall after contact, the goal of the No. 2 car after returning was simple: superglue to the No. 41 and not let go.
“I just barely got in the back of him and Kurt (Busch) just accelerated and drove through us, absolutely drove through us,” Keselowski said before setting his target. “I tell you what, I’m about tired of his recklessness.”
So Keselowski went out and seemingly tried to wreck him, at times driving one-handed, his middle finger of his other extended out the window. For Busch, still fighting old temperamental demons, it came very close to sending both over the edge.
“Welp, guess we get to get in a fight afterwards,” he said on the radio. “Because I'm going to **** that dude's ****ing face!”
That moment hasn’t happened ... yet. The “new” Kurt Busch found a way to calm down, regain his focus and start a drive to Victory Lane. Keselowski, despite sending multiple verbal jabs Busch’s way, had backed off, tweeting he wasn’t trying to wreck anyone and the rivalry won’t continue into Texas.
Yet his words, uttered while Busch was still celebrating, should be enough to keep the fire going.
“I still [respect him],” said Keselowski. “He does awesome things for charity and he’s probably the most talented race car driver, but he’s also one of the dumbest, so put those three together … tell him come here (if he wants to fight). He knows where I’m at.”
“That was a punk-ass move,” Busch responded, finally breaking down during a second round of media interviews after the FOX TV cameras switched off. “He will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.”
It’s a fight that overshadowed another week of incredible racing. But it’s also important to mention, right at the top, because that’s the type of news that transcends. This sport was built on personalities — names like Earnhardt, Wallace and Gordon — who would slam each other senseless and throw helmets only to put it behind them and go at it the following week. It’s what turned a “can’t miss” at-track product into “can’t miss” television for an extra few million fans.
So far, Nielsen ratings show a new Chase format, record-setting lead changes and Dale Earnhardt Jr. running up front haven’t attracted new eyeballs. Ratings are the lowest they’ve been, across the board in over a decade. But now we’ve got a burning rivalry with two edgy personalities that could erupt at any time. If that can’t finally shake the funk of empty stands and people turning away I’m tempted to ask a very sobering question: What will?
Back to the nuts and bolts of the race with no punches thrown as we go “Through The Gears” on what we learned at Martinsville …
FIRST GEAR: Busch is back and better than ever! Well, sort of.
Anyone that bet on Kurt Busch in Victory Lane just 26 months after becoming NASCAR’s national embarrassment is busy buying their house in St. Martin right now. Gene Haas’ choice to believe in the driver paid off rather quickly as Busch jumped into the winner’s circle just six races into the season. That he did amidst controversy was impressive enough; beating Jimmie Johnson, the six-time champ and master of Martinsville, was icing on the cake.
“That was the hardest 30 laps I ever drove not to slip a tire in my life,” he said. “That’s an epic-type battle at a short track.”
It’s also the culmination of an epic comeback, one that saw Busch battle through underfunded rides at Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing before getting offered an A-level opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s a second (third?) chance Busch doesn’t take lightly, as evidenced by him keeping focused surrounding the Keselowski incident, responding to the cheerleading of crew chief Daniel Knost rather than completely melting into a blubbering mess on the radio for three-plus hours.
“We have obviously found a solution for Kurt Busch,” joked Haas. “When he is in the winner’s circle, he doesn’t bitch about anything so that is where we need to keep him.”
On the surface, the win tells us good things about the Busch-SHR relationship; it’s the first organization to score two Sprint Cup wins this season. But even Busch, whose chemistry with Knost has been key despite several bad-luck moments, knows there’s plenty of work to do with the program. Kevin Harvick and even Tony Stewart himself have been a rollercoaster of highs and lows on-track thus far. Busch also serves as a prime example, as his win merely lifted him to 20th in points. Compare that to quasi-teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose four top-3 finishes are more than all of SHR combined.
So is Busch back? Sort of, as his 83-race winless drought has been erased. But this team, perhaps more than any other, needs the five-months of pre-Chase “testing” to dial itself in.
SECOND GEAR: All it took was one mistake
Martinsville is typically a one-groove racetrack. But Sunday, that theme rang true more than most visits despite plenty of side-by-side, old-school racing action. The outside line was no place to be on restarts, as teams lost four-to-six spots almost instantly with a dirty track making it difficult for drivers to hold their own.
“The track conditions today were extremely challenging with the marbles,” said Matt Kenseth, who ran sixth. “They just wouldn’t clean them up — I don’t know why. If you had warm tires and you got pushed up in there, then you were going to lose 15 spots sometimes — it was that bad.”
Old tires also left drivers scrambling to keep track position. Kenseth stayed out on one caution and wound up losing 20-plus spots to newer rubber. It took a Lucky Dog to wind his way into the top 10. AJ Allmendinger wasn’t so lucky. A top-5 run was dashed by staying out on old tires and getting stuck in traffic as a result (he ran 11th).
Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon had the opposite problem: getting fresh rubber when everyone else stayed out. Dropping to 25th early on in the race, his potential winning Chevy got slammed around like a bumper car in heavy traffic. Bent and bruised, the No. 24 was never the same; it took all he could to climb back to 12th.
Finally, there was Clint Bowyer, who was in position to win until the last caution brought everyone to the pits. Losing nine spots due to a poor stop, the No. 15 Toyota got trapped back in 10th and lined up in that tricky outside line. By the time Bowyer settled after the green flag he was 13th and nearly three seconds back. Sensing a theme? One boo-boo is all it took on the series’ shortest track where the consequences took drivers right out of contention.
THIRD GEAR: So close, yet so far for Johnson
Jimmie Johnson, who led a race-high 296 laps, was forced to settle for second. That brings his laps-led total this season to 493, the series’ best, yet he has no wins to show for it.
“I’ve got to figure something out,” he joked when asked if the supposed drought was bothering him. “Hopefully, I’ll win a race soon … or a championship.”
“To be truthful, I felt like today, I couldn’t have done anymore. I just got beat.”
Still, it’s another notch of “so close, yet so far” as Johnson watches everyone else lock up Chase bids. That gives them an extra week of testing, relaxation, getting aggressive — all the things the No. 48 typically enjoys throughout the regular season. Think teams aren’t already planning for September? Kyle Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, fully admitted post-race they whiffed at Martinsville (14th, after winning the pole) based on a hyper-aggressive setup. He said there was no way they’d swing for the fences, that hard without the “safety” of what they think is a guaranteed Chase bid.
Right now, although it’s a near-certainty the No. 48 will get that win, Johnson and Co. can’t fully relax until they have it. Every week they give up in that department makes their bid for a seventh championship that much harder.
FOURTH GEAR: A trio of tough disappearing acts
Three drivers stand out leaving Martinsville, the sixth race of 2014, with work to do. Greg Biffle, still without a career top 5 at this track, actually led the race for a while Sunday only to lose the handle on his car. Eighteenth on Sunday, he’s now a lowly 18th in points, sitting winless and without the speed seemingly enjoyed by teammate Carl Edwards at Roush Fenway Racing. A few big names have to miss the Chase this year, even with a 16-driver field. Will Biffle be one of those on the outside looking in?
Next, there’s Denny Hamlin, returning from the odd sinus infection/ metal-in-eye development from the prior week. After a feisty news conference Friday in which Hamlin denounced rumors of drug use, he set his sights on winning at a track where he’s typically excelled. In fact, he guaranteed it. Instead? A faulty ignition, combined with a setup he called “a football field away” from being right left him 19th. Still winless, dropping to 12th in points, could the controversy surrounding that missed race send this emotional driver into a mental tailspin?
Last but not least, there’s Danica Patrick, who started 10th at what was one of her best tracks last season. Except this time, the car was a roadblock, slow and unsturdy the second the green flag flew. Her 32nd was a major disappointment, considering the unusually high expectations and she sits 29th in points. It’s a critical time for crew chief Tony Gibson, whose team was making progress with back-to-back top 20s. Can Patrick step it up under the current leadership or is she destined to slip back into the sophomore slump?
Quietly, Landon Cassill continues to do a yeoman’s job. With a team simply struggling to survive on patchwork sponsorship he’s notched back-to-back top-25 finishes with Hillman Racing. Could he emerge as a longshot candidate to earn a well-funded ride for 2015? … Parker Kligerman’s team started fighting internally on the radio after a first-lap wreck sent their rookie right to the garage. "How can we be the last guy and still hit somebody,” “I told you guys to lay back. Every ****ing week we wreck a race car." So far this season, the No. 30 car has three DNFs, crashing four times while Kligerman remains without a top 25. ... Jamie McMurray was frustrated at Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the two made contact, sending the McDonald’s car hard into the outside wall and ruining a potential top 10. “He (Earnhardt) barely got into me,” said McMurray. “You hope that wouldn’t happen and he would get off of you, but he didn’t.” For his part, Earnhardt apologized but crew chief Steve Letarte maintained the No. 88 was pinched to the bottom of the track.