Sunday, July 17, 2011

What do Kyle Busch's 100 wins really mean?

One hundred.

If you have one hundred pennies, you have a dollar. In this day and age, a dollar isn't what it used to be. A hundred dollars? That's enough to take a family of four to the movies and get snacks. Or maybe -- maybe -- enough to buy a ticket to a NASCAR race near you and have enough left over for a T-shirt of your favorite driver.

One hundred years is a century. One hundred yards is a football field. Whenever a list of "the best of all time" is compiled, chances are it will be composed of 100 items, be they songs, movies, or racecar drivers.

When the definitive list of the all-time best NASCAR drivers is written, there is little doubt that Kyle Busch will be on it. He's proven he can win, any time, anywhere, in any type of racecar.

And he just reached his own "100" milestone: 100 career NASCAR national touring series wins. His 22 Cup wins, 49 Nationwide Series wins, and 29 Camping World Truck Series wins at just 26 years of age is indeed an impressive accomplishment.

But how impressive?

Does it put him in the same league as Richard Petty and David Pearson? Or even Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbourogh, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon? Afterall, he's publicly stated he'd like to reach 200 career NASCAR wins, a number heretofore reached only by one man: The King, Richard Petty.

The answer there, unfortunately for Busch's legacy, is not quite yet.

There's a real possibility that Busch will reach the 80 win plateau that so few before him have crested. But as of now, for the stat that matters, he's 178 wins behind Petty's total.

Sure, the bulk of Petty's wins came in the 1960s and into the 1970s, many on dusty dirt tracks and out of the way paved short tracks. Many were short races against short fields thin on any serious competition. But the fact of the matter is, even then, Petty's wins were in the top stock car series in the country. That still stands for something.

Busch has 22 wins, which is no small feat considering how hard it is to win just one race at the sport's highest level. But it's not quite time to put him in that elite group based on his prodigal win rate in the lower divisions.

If you're going to discredit many of Petty's wins due to the competition, or lack thereof, let's dissect Busch's 49 Nationwide wins. Who is the competition in that series? Sure, he has had to beat the likes of Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and lately Brad Keselowski, but beyond that who is there? During the past five seasons, the Nationwide Series has had the competitive depth of many of those fields that Petty whipped up on prior to the start of the sport's modern era in 1972.

In his 29 Camping World Truck Series wins, the only Cup competition he's faced is from Harvick and Bowyer.

The bottom line is Busch is driving superior equipment in those series, his Nationwide cars are provided by a Cup team with virtually unlimited access to technology and a budget double, triple, or even more than that of most of the Nationwide Series regulars. While he owns his own Truck team, he still has unlimited access to Cup technology and it's no secret he's spending way more than most would consider prudent in that series.

Since Martin Truex won the Nationwide Series championship in 2005, the final time a non-Cup driver won the title, Harvick, Edwards, Bowyer, Busch, and Keselowski have all taken the glory in the NNS. Meanwhile over in the Cup Series, it's been all Jimmie Johnson. Five consecutive times Johnson has celebrated on stage and taken home the big trophy, and really the only trophy in NASCAR that anyone truly cares about.

Can Busch knock Johnson off his throne and lay claim to a Cup championship? History says no, at least until he quits chasing after wins in lower divisions.

A quick examination of the Nationwide Series all time win list offers further proof. Mark Martin (49), Busch (49), Harvick (37), Edwards (33), and Jeff Burton (27) make up five of the top six on that list and scored the majority of their wins in that division while also being a full-time Cup Series driver. Their collective Nationwide Series win total: 195. Their collective Cup championship total: zero.

Busch has the makings of a Cup champion. But can he pull it off while double- and sometimes triple-dipping? Odds are no. Why? Simple: in order to beat Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, you have to be better than Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Johnson concentrates on one thing, winning the Sprint Cup Series championship. Knaus can reach Johnson any time of day, in the car or out. Can Dave Rogers reach Busch? Sure, when he's not in the Nationwide Series car or in the Truck. Some weekends there are ten to twelve hours, right square in the middle of the time when he's needed the most, that Busch is unavailable to his crew chief because he's busy racing in series that for a major league championship caliber driver just don't mean anything at all.

Mark Martin was a guaranteed Cup champion-to-be in the 1990s and into the 2000s. It was unfathomable that he'd go his career without a Cup title. But he spent the best part of his career, the years when he could have won multiple championships, bouncing back and forth between garages and taking time and effort away from where his main focus could be. He might not say it if asked, but chances are deep down he knows he would trade those meaningless 49 Nationwide Series wins for just one Cup Series championship.

Hopefully for Busch, he doesn't come to that realization too late.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Kentucky's traffic woes

Inaugural NASCAR events are fun. Whenever you add a track, everything is so new and the unknown adds a level of excitement to the routine that fans, teams, media and even officials have come to know week in and week out.

I had the pleasure of working with Mansfield Motorsports Park during 2003 and 2004 as the track prepared for its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event. My job was to handle the media and public relations, so I wasn't involved in all of the logistical planning meetings with NASCAR and state and local governments, but I can say the track spent countless hours working on ingress and egress plans for the 25,000 people we expected.

Despite all of those hours, traffic backed up. Part of it was outside our control: construction on the nearest highway. Part was just the sheer volume of cars coming in on roads that had never seen that amount of traffic before. Another part was we had hundreds of acres of parking that were rendered useless due to several inches of rain in the preceeding three days. All of it added up to stopped cars and rising tempers.

Just like our neighbors to the south in Kentucky would learn seven years later, we had angry fans due to something we spent a lot of time working on.

To the best of my knowledge, everyone who had a ticket made it in to the track before the green flag that day in May 2004. While fans were upset, most of the anger was the "blowing off steam" variety. Who hasn't needed to vent after spending two hours in traffic?

After getting to the track at 5:30 that morning, I went to the back gate and helped get teams and drivers in, then spent some time helping get cars parked in one of the usable grassy lots. I did hear lots of frustration from a lot of people, but it was actually very easy to deflect it. All I had to do was offer an immediate and sincere apology and tell them I we were glad they were here and we all hope they enjoy the race.

It's beyond my imagination that SMI, a company that has prides itself on the facilities it builds and its relationship with its customers, missed out on that final piece of the puzzle.

Traffic backups are part of life in NASCAR. Sure, the problems in Kentucky are now legendary, but having customer service reps there (or your parking attendants and security agents) apologize immediately would have defrayed a large part of the frustration. For those stuck in traffic on the highway, surely they were listening to the radio, so why not have track officials (if not Bruton Smith or Marcus Smith) on every radio station from Cincinnati to Louisville apologizing to them as they sat still on I-71?

I've been to Kentucky Speedway a dozen times since that first Truck race there in 2000. Their traffic issues then were well known and they addressed them and made significant changes. But the changes they made weren't ready for another 40,000 people thrown in the mix.

Now, since no one apologized to them until it was way too late, those who were seriously inconvenienced don't want to hear empty promises of how things will be different next year. They want someone to blame and take all of the anger and frustration they can dish out. Bruton Smith would have you believe it's the Commonwealth of Kentucky to blame since "I-71 is a horrible, terrible highway." But did Kentucky officials tell him to add the 40,000 seats before infrastructure was in place to handle 40,000 more people? Not likely.

So the fans will continue to vent their anger at SMI. The ticket exchange program announced on Monday may help deflect some of that anger, but the likelihood that it makes it all go away is very slim.

Will fans once again risk sitting in traffic for six hours or more to go to Kentucky Speedway? I hope they do because it's a great place to watch a race. But realistically, there's a significant portion of that audience that won't be back. Are there enough people who didn't go this year but are willing to take the chance in the future to do so?

It seems the answer will be no, based on what we've seen and heard in the past four days.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On the two-car draft and what's "real" racing

The question is continually raised after each of NASCAR's new-era restrictor plate races: is the two-car tandem draft "real racing"?

Racing is all about doing whatever it takes to get to the finish line first. In some cases, it's about having the fastest car. In others, it's about the fastest pit crew. Some races play out so that the winner is the one with the best fuel mileage. And in four races a year, it's about who gets the best push from their partner on the final lap.

The two-car draft isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Go back and watch Kevin Harvick move to the front down the backstretch on the final lap of the 2007 Daytona 500. It's just that now it's each driver, each green flag lap all race long.

There are questions by long-time, award-winning writers asking if the lead changes (which have come in record numbers with this style of racing) actually mean anything. The answer to that one is simple: does any lead change other than the last one ever mean anything? When Dale Earnhardt won at Talladega in 1984, did any of the first 73 lead changes that day mean anything? No, only the final one in which Earnhardt took the lead did. But here's the rub: any lead change could be the last one, even one on lap 2 at Daytona.

For too long, we've heard how the number of lead changes (and also the number of cars on the lead lap) are benchmarks of competitiveness. The more lead changes the more competitive the race, and by extension, the more exciting the show for the fans. While that's generally true, it's not always the case. One of the best races I've ever seen was a 400-lap ASA race at the quarter-mile Anderson Speedway that was led green to checkered by Steve Holzhausen. Conversely, some of the most tedious races I've watched were some plate races with the big packs and plenty of artificial lead changes.

Does today's plate racing offer edge-of-your-seat excitement from green to checkered? I think so. It's not because the drivers are in one big pack and one mistake could take out two-thirds of the field at any time. But instead it's because of the skill and timing it takes to successfully make a two-car draft work. You can go from first to sixteenth in one lap or sixteenth to first just as easily now as you could then, but the danger of wiping out half the field or more is dramatically lessened. And the bonus, at least to me, is the speed which often approaches or even exceeds 200 mph.

Sure, pack racing was exciting. The big wrecks were highlight reel material. But too often we saw The Big One break out early leaving 20+ cars to just ride around and log laps hoping to improve a position or two instead of being in contention to win.

As the pavement at Talladega and Daytona slowly loses grip it could be we'll see yet another evolution in plate racing. Maybe NASCAR will make some rules changes to mix things up once again. Until then, I'm going to continue to enjoy the new-era plate races and enjoy the unpredictability they offer.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On USAC and short track racing

There's always something special when open wheel cars race on a paved short track. The speeds are high, the racing is close, and the fans flock to watch the show.

My home track, Toledo Speedway, has hosted two high profile short track open wheel shows in recent weeks. The Fastest Short Track Show in the World annually takes place during the NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway and packs the fans in the stands for a winged supermodified and winged sprint car doubleheader. There's always a pilgramage of NASCAR drivers, crew members and media too since MIS is just an hour or so away. And the first Friday in July always brings the USAC Sprint cars and Midgets to Toledo for Hemelgarn Racing Night, sponsored by 1996 Indy 500 winning car owner Ron Hemelgarn.

Anticipation always runs high for both shows. The winged cars can run around the high-banked half-mile wide open with lap times coming close to the 11-second bracket. The flat-out speed is matched with a lot of close wheel-to-wheel racing, and that was no exception this year. The USAC cars run without wings, and although they are around two seconds per lap slower the speed is still impressive and the drivers come into the equation as they're running 130 miles per hour with virtually no downforce.

The only thing missing from these shows this season was a full field of cars. For many years, both weekends would jam the pits as much as the grandstand. The MSA Supermodifieds had 16 cars, enough for a good feature but not enough for any meaningful preliminaries. USAC's car counts were way off from the past, with only 12 sprint cars and 17 midgets on hand. In years past, USAC had sprint car heat races with 12 cars trying to race into the feature.

Friday's USAC racing was close and exciting and hotly contested at the front, but the lack of a full field meant there wasn't any lapped traffic to race through, eliminating a major opportunity for the drivers behind the leader to make a move or force a mistake.

Maybe USAC needs to look at recombining the Pavement Championship back into the overall series championship points to draw a full contingent of drivers and teams to the asphalt tracks. The costs of pavement racing have grown, so it's understandable that they've spun that part of the schedule off on its own, but in the grand scheme of things it really doesn't help because now the dirt specialists don't have to run the paved tracks at all to stay in the hunt for the title. Why not find a way to run a balanced schedule, split evenly between paved and dirt tracks and crown the champion as the driver that masters both?

Television played a major role in bringing USAC sprint car and midget racing from obscurity in the early 1980s to their peak well into the 1990s and 2000s. TV has gone away, and much of the sponsorship money has left too. But the racing is just as good if not better than it once was. Maybe someone out there can put together the right package and get USAC back on live TV. With Versus looking to make the move from a niche network to the NBC Sports challenger to ABC's ESPN maybe a newly revived "Thursday Night Thunder" could bring USAC back to the masses. It's going to take sponsors and people with a strong vision to make it happen, and unfortunately those are sorely lacking in the short track world right now.

In the meantime, if you have a chance to visit your local short track please, by any means possible, do it. Even if it means recording a Saturday night NASCAR race on the DVR, get out and enjoy your local track. The drivers aren't multi-millionaire superstars that you read about on Jayski or even on TMZ. They're regular people, just like you and your neighbors. They spend money they often don't have to be there and chase their dreams and the checkered flag. They run hard, and most times, are happy to sign a checkered flag, a photo, or a T-shirt and then actually thank you for asking for an autograph. It truly is racing as it should be.