Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, NASCAR rolls west to Phoenix International Raceway where the final four drivers will be set for a one-race, winner-take-all showdown in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
1. Kurt Busch investigated after domestic assault claim
Potential trouble is looming once again for NASCAR’s 2004 champion.
Police in Dover, Del., announced Friday that an active investigation has started into NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch after a report filed Wednesday in the city accused him of domestic assault. The Associated Pressreported that the assault report was filed by Busch’s ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll.
“At this time, the department is still investigating the victim’s claims and will not have any further comment on this matter in order to preserve the integrity of the case,” read a release from the Dover Police Department.
Driscoll, once very active on Twitter about her relationship with Busch, hasn’t posted a tweet mentioning the driver since Sept. 29 — one day after the Dover race. Busch, likewise, hasn’t mentioned Driscoll on the popular social media network since Sept. 18. The two had grown very close in recent years and Busch had even folded his personal charity in favor of promoting the Armed Forces Foundation — the organization Driscoll operates.
Friday afternoon, the AFF announced it was suspending Busch’s role from the organization. Both NASCAR and Busch’s race team, Stewart-Haas Racing, issued statements Friday announcing awareness of the issue but said that no action would be taken at the current juncture as they await further news from DPD.
Busch also released a statement through lawyer Rusty Hardin denying the claim and saying it was the product of Driscoll not wanting a relationship to end. Out of NASCAR’s championship contention, Busch practiced and qualified his No. 41 Chevrolet on Friday in preparation of Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway. He’ll start 10th on Sunday.
Kevin Harvick regrets role in Texas fight
Kevin Harvick started somewhat of an internet meme last week when he casually shoved Brad Keselowski from behind and stepped back as the brawl between Keselowski and Jeff Gordon ignited. Friday, he admitted that he regretted his role in the fracas — despite the virality of the #Harvicking hashtag.
“The competitor in me loves the controversy and loves the situations that it puts the competitors in,” Harvick said. “The Dad in me doesn’t really enjoy the hashtag, and doesn’t really enjoy the circumstances of the situation. But, live and learn, and you move on.”
Harvick has never been shy of a confrontation on track or in the garage, but he says he realizes since the birth of son Keelan in 2012 that his actions carry a bit more weight.
“I think in the end the difficult part for me is to go home and realize that one day you are going to have to answer those questions to your son,” Harvick said. “It’s definitely two different sides and how you have to look at it and how you have to approach it.”
All of that said, Harvick said he still thinks someone needed to approach Keselowski after the Texas race, if only to get a word in.
“I think that the problem that I have with it I have been in that situation with (Keselowski) before and have him turn his back on me and just walk off,” Harvick said. “I don’t think that is the appropriate way to handle those types of situations. It just kind of rubbed me the wrong way and I reacted and obviously didn’t really realize that it was going to ignite that.”
Will payback play out on Sunday at Phoenix?
On-track payback with championship considerations on the line is a real possibility this weekend after the fireworks between Gordon and Keselowski at Texas. But it won’t be the first time Phoenix has played host to such antics.
It was just two seasons ago that Clint Bowyer was on the receiving end of an abrupt right turn from Gordon that ultimately eliminated his No. 15 team from championship contention. The intentional crash was the product of Gordon feeling Bowyer had cut his tire earlier in the race, and the frustration manifested in a multi-car crash in Turn 4.
Gordon was penalized for the incident that prompted a pit-crew brawl and sent Bowyer sprinting through the PIR garage in an attempt to confront the four-time champion.
But will it happen this weekend? Well, more times than not these things tend to not be settled on-track as cooler heads — and larger aspirations — prevail. However, this version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup has seen a lot of unexpected outbreaks of anger issues. Combine that with Keselowski’s hard driving and the recipe this weekend may include ruffled fenders and dashed title hopes.
Gordon’s crew chief miffed at team penalties
NASCAR avoided penalizing any of the drivers involved in the fight on pit road after last week’s race at Texas, but dropped the hammer on several Hendrick Motorsports crewmen. No crewmen from Team Penske were penalized, likely because NASCAR couldn’t identify who exactly did what in the chaotic fight scene that included lots and lots of thrown punches.
The penalties, totally $185,000 for the Hendrick group and several weeks of suspension, left Gordon’s crew chief Alan Gustafson feeling like the sanctioning body unnecessarily delivered most of the discipline on crew members.
“I personally feel a little bit like a second-class citizen, and I think a lot of our team members do, too,” Gustafson told FOXSports.com’s Jared Turner. “I hate (that) those guys took the brunt of it, which I don't really feel like they were responsible for, in my opinion. I don't think they went and initiated any of this, nor had that intention."
Hendrick Motorsports didn’t appeal the penalties and announced they would cover the cost of its employees’ fines.
Gustafson lamented that it seemed NASCAR wanted drivers to fight but not shoulder the price.
"I think NASCAR's making a concerted effort to illustrate they want the drivers to be able to do what they want to do on the racetrack and have no repercussion for it, and have no accountability for it.,” he said. “I think that generates the most drama on the track, and that's what they're looking for.”
Elimination again at stake in Phoenix
Following Sunday’s race at Phoenix, four drivers will be left to fight for the championship next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Thanks to the latest version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Ford 400 will be the first time in NASCAR’s history that four drivers will enter the final race with exactly the same amount of points.
But as it stands, eight drivers — Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick — are still eligible for the final four. None are locked-in, either, because drivers now outside of the Chase (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson) won the first two races of the Chase’s third round.
The results leave the third round of this Chase as the closest yet, with first-place Hamlin leading eighth-place Harvick by just 18 points. Harvick, who crashed after contact with Kenseth at Martinsville two weeks ago, thinks a win is his best chance at continuing on.
“That would be the easiest way to do it,” said Harvick.
A win Sunday for Harvick would be his fourth in five tries at Phoenix. Only Hamlin, Logano and Newman can guarantee an advance to the Homestead finale by not winning Sunday.
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Photo by Action Sports, Inc.