The biggest NASCAR news brief following record-low ratings at the Kansas race was Kyle Busch announcing his return to the sport. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran, out with leg injuries suffered a day before February’s Daytona 500 will get back behind the wheel of his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota beginning with the All-Star Race Saturday night. Busch, who has missed a total of 11 Cup events, hopes to be granted a Chase “waiver” that will still allow him to make the playoff should he win and get inside the top 30 in series points.
Chances are, despite NASCAR’s rule a driver should attempt every race to be playoff eligible they’ll be willing to grant Busch an exemption. Even though the driver has missed 42 percent of the regular season – equivalent to 69 games in Major League Baseball – officials already set a precedent to work around their own roadblock. Take Kyle’s brother Kurt, for example, who missed three races earlier this season over domestic violence charges. He got a waiver! Brian Vickers, who missed two races for blood clots? Sure, take one too. Add in the publicity gained by Busch's quest to charge to 30th in points and it's easy to see officials who make decisions based on public opinion will grant a exception here. Playing by the rules, knocking Kyle Busch out of the Chase means the entire rest of the season for one of NASCAR’s biggest drivers is anti-climactic.
But perhaps the biggest plus in Kyle returning to the cockpit is the emotion he stirs up in everybody else. Busch’s leg injuries, caused during an XFINITY Series race led to fan sympathy, especially considering there wasn’t a SAFER Barrier at the spot where his car slammed into the inside wall. Even self-proclaimed “haters” turned supportive as the driver fought hard through rehabilitation to come back in record time.
That being said, Busch also is one of the sport’s “villains,” one of the most polarizing drivers Sprint Cup has had on its roster since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. He speaks his mind, uses the bumper and always makes a race more interesting – even if he ticks off half the field in the process. Stirring up emotion is a hallmark of his career, a much-needed addition to a sport where 2015 has been the season of indifference. Fans will have an opinion surrounding Kyle’s return: whether he should be playoff eligible and if he’s going to knock their favorite driver out of the way. People will care about who’s driving the No. 18 much more passionately than when David Ragan or even young Erik Jones took over the seat.
Every sport needs a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” No matter what side you’re on with Busch, the fact you care enough to pick one means Busch’s return couldn’t have happened a moment quicker.
Through The Gears we go, revisiting “hot button” stories from Kansas heading into the All-Star Race.
FIRST GEAR: Kevin, Jimmie. Jimmie, Kevin. Rinse, Repeat
Jimmie Johnson won his third race of the season Saturday night by gambling over the last caution at Kansas. Staying out on old tires earned him track position, enabling him to lead the last 10 laps while rival Kevin Harvick fought through traffic. The No. 4 car was left to settle for second while Johnson hit Victory Lane, raising his season average finish to 10.1. That’s on pace to be the second best of his career, trailing only his 2006 season – the year he won the first of six Sprint Cup championships.
“On the big tracks, aero, balance, the engine performance, the small details that separate our team from others, that's where you find that tenth of a second that puts you in the winner's circle,” Johnson said when asked to explain his recent success. “I'd just say it's the equipment I'm sitting in.”
It’s also the type of track. All of the No. 48 team’s victories have occurred on 1.5-mile ovals this season. Harvick won the other, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway while finishing no lower than second on these intermediates. Considering there are five such tracks in the Chase, including the Homestead season finale it’s an important place to be successful week in, week out.
With both drivers running Hendrick equipment, along with a surging Kurt Busch it’s easy to call them the class of the field right now. Johnson is third in series points; Harvick is first. They’ve combined to win five of eleven races. Others, like Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have time to work on their programs but it’s clear what the standard is they have to catch.
SECOND GEAR: For Truex, It’s Just a Matter of Time
Martin Truex, Jr. led a race-high 95 laps at Kansas, his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet arguably the fastest car. Unfortunately, a simple mistake by crew chief Cole Pearn cost him too much track position late in the race. The team, leading heading into the pits had a slow stop because Pearn forgot to tell his driver “Go!” once the jack dropped. Losing several spots, Truex used up his car trying to catch Harvick before both were snookered by Johnson’s pit strategy down the stretch.
“That is the first call he has gotten wrong all year long,” the driver said after fading to ninth. “I told him to just keep his confidence up because he has done a good job with that all year long. We are going to get one. We just have to keep digging.”
Truex is right on point. The FRR team, which has just one total victory in its decade-long existence, is running better than it ever has – even when it employed former champion Kurt Busch. Truex is second in the standings, virtually assured of making the postseason already and has racked up 10 top-10 finishes. That’s double what he had during a full season last year with the team. The consistency shown has put Truex in position to win, excelling at every type of NASCAR facility. With Dover, his hometown track, coming up I expect a breakthrough in a couple of weeks.
THIRD GEAR: Young Drivers Flex Some Muscle
The much-anticipated debut of Erik Jones, subbing for Kyle Busch lived up to the hype. Leading Happy Hour practice, the rookie qualified 12th and was on track for a top-5 finish until simply losing it off turn 4. While the 18-year-old wound up 40th, a clear statement was made that he’ll be Cup-ready in the near future – if not now. While the Truck Series will benefit from Jones running for a championship there you got the sense he’s already graduated after Saturday night.
Kansas was also huge for Kyle Larson, whose sophomore season got untracked by a fainting incident at Martinsville. Invisible ever since, the promising young talent finally showed flashes of his potential. Leading three laps, he was second for large portions of the night and outgunned his competition on several restarts. The end result (15th) was still a bit disappointing but you have to walk before you can run. Larson, who will likely need a victory to make the Chase, now has some much-needed confidence heading to tracks like Michigan where he has the potential to surprise.
FOURTH GEAR: TV Woes Continue
Kansas was, in my view, the best intermediate race of the year. Multiple grooves left cars all over the track; the lead changed multiple times under green amongst several drivers. At one point, it looked like fuel mileage would come into play before a late caution led to a different type of pit strategy. There was an underdog (Truex) in play for the victory battling amongst the favorites. Aside from a photo finish, what more do you want?
Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, the answer is a lot. The race, covered on FOX Sports 1, achieved just a 1.5 overnight rating, the lowest for the Cup Series since their TV contract went national in 2001. A two-hour rain delay certainly hurt, ending the race well past midnight ET, but fans clearly found other things to do with their Saturday night.
One short-term solution to boost NASCAR viewership is simple: shy away from Saturday night races! They constantly bring the fewest fans to the table; the biggest social night of the week leads to too many distractions for that crucial 18-34 demographic. There’s also something to the sense of urgency teams feel whenever rain is in the area. Suddenly, it’s like each driver is giving an extra 10 percent with fear the race could end at any second. I don’t know how you capture that feeling – timed races with random endings sound completely contrived – but NASCAR has to bottle that sense of urgency and get drivers up on the wheel every week.
AJ Allmendinger signed a five-year contract extension with JTG Daugherty Racing that takes him through the 2020 season. Really? It’s a nice gesture, clearly a vote of confidence for Allmendinger but not even the biggest name driver is signed with their team for that long. It’s just strange for a middle-tier team to publicly offer up the equivalent of a lifetime contract… Poor Matt DiBenedetto. He didn’t officially declare for Rookie of the Year until Talladega earlier this month. Since then, he’s been Rookie of the Race two straight weeks with his BK Racing No. 83 Toyota. The problem? With so many “races missed,” it makes it difficult for him to be a true challenger to win ROTY over the long run… Roush Fenway Racing has yet to score a top-5 finish at any track over a mile in length. Ditto for Richard Petty Motorsports, who added “Bono” Manion to struggling Sam Hornish, Jr.’s team this week. Those two teams are in need of a big hometown boost at Charlotte.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.