Darlington Victory Caps Very Good Week For Kenseth, Gibbs

Matt Kenseth won the Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington to notch his third victory this season. Kenseth has emerged as a force at Joe Gibbs Racing, which he joined this year.

It was a very good week for Matt Kenseth.

Heck, on second thought, it’s been a very good year.

The newest – and to date the most successful – driver at Joe Gibbs Racing overcame dominant teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps remaining and went on to win the Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

It was Kenseth’s third victory of the season. He also won at Las Vegas and Kansas. His three wins are tops among all competitors.

Now, back to that good week … perhaps it should be amended to say it was a good week for the entire Gibbs organization.

Four days before the race it learned that the stern penalties levied against it by NASCAR following the Kansas race for a light connecting rod were significantly reduced.

Among other things, the sanctioning body stripped Kenseth of 50 driver points. But the appeals panel reduced that to 12. That elevated Kenseth from outside the top 10 in points to fourth going into Darlington.

He’s now third and in contention for a second career championship.

Then in the Nationwide Series race the night before the Sprint Cup event, Busch whipped the field to earn his 56th victory in the series.

Kenseth’s followup performance gave Gibbs a sweep of the weekend’s races.

Fact is, Busch could have easily accomplished the sweep by himself. But it was not to be. More on that later.

Since Kenseth came on board at Gibbs this year after a long tenure at Roush Fenway racing, the Gibbs organization seems to have returned to the championship form it once had with drivers Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.

Jeff Gordon (24) made his 700th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup start at Darlington, where he has won seven times. He ran very well and finished third.

Kenseth is a strong driver who has brought experience and leadership to the team. He replaced Joey Logano, a real talent in his own right but who came to Gibbs as, basically, a relatively inexperienced kid.

It can be said that Gibbs beefed up its lineup – which includes Busch and Denny Hamlin – when it signed Kenseth, the 2003 champion who was routinely contending for wins during most of his time with Roush.

Kenseth’s Darlington victory offered ample evidence of that.

And he feels it is only going to get better.“I think the goal of a race team and an organization is to never peak,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s to continue to keep getting better.  That’s one thing I’ve seen at Gibbs pretty much from day one.

“They’re not standing still.  They’re always trying to build a better car.  TRD (Toyota Racing Development) is trying to build a better engine.  We’re always trying to do that – working on the future.

“I think that’s how racing is.  I don’t have any concerns.  I really feel like with this team, driving this car, I feel like the sky’s the limit.”

The race was something on an anomaly for Darlington, an old, tough and narrow track that has been known to chew up race cars.

However, there was only one caution period in the first 125 laps and two by lap 300 of 367.

But from laps 303-337 things seemed to reflect typical Darlington racing. There were three more cautions in 30 laps.

None of that made any difference to Busch. In a performance reminiscent of his rout in the Nationwide event, the Gibbs driver rolled over the field, leading four times for 265 laps.

But as the race wound to its conclusion, it was obvious the handing in Busch’s Toyota had gone away. Not only could he not hold the lead, he also fell back to sixth place at race’s end.

Busch crew chief, Dave Rogers, reported that his driver had suffered a cut right rear tire.

Hamlin, running his first full race since sustaining a back injury, finished second – which gave Gibbs a one-two sweep and put another feather in its cap.

“It was one of those days where we got our car better, pit crew picked us up positions, took us to the most optimum spot we could get to and that was second,” Hamlin said.

“I’ve gotten pretty sore and tired – mentally tired as well. We’ll have a couple weeks really to rest until the next long event and we’ll be good to go then.”

While Kenseth has a good shot at the title, Hamlin, who missed four races and is 27th in points, likely must count on multiple victories to earn a “wildcard” spot in the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished fourth at Darlington, remains first in points with a formidable 44-point margin over Carl Edwards.

Gibbs and Hendrick Motorsports claimed five of the top six positions at Darlington. Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon (who made his 700th start) and Johnson followed the Kenseth-Hamlin sweep, with Busch in sixth.

Kenseth’s victory at historic Darlington is likely to boost his confidence even more. No one should be surprised if he adds more trips to victory lane this season.

“Honestly, I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said. “This, to me, probably feels bigger than any win in my career.

“I really feel bad that Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief who was suspended for one race after the Kansas incident) isn’t here. This is obviously his team and his effort, but Wally (Brown, interim crew chief) did great job filling in.

“We had a fifth or sixth-place car fighting loose – those last two adjustments were just awesome.  To be able to duke it out with Kyle there – he’s a great teammate and Denny is as well.

“We have a good combination right now.”

After Darlington that should be obvious.

Busch Makes Kentucky’s Debut A One-Man Show

It seems Kyle Busch knows how to spoil Opening Night – at least when it comes to a stock car race.

After 11 years Kentucky Speedway finally got to play host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup race it had coveted and, while everyone certainly looked forward to a spirited, highly competitive event befitting of the debut, that simply didn’t happen.

Give Busch the blame or credit, whichever you prefer.

The 26-year-old driver for Joe Gibbs Racing put on a virtual one-man show in the inaugural Quaker State 400. Starting from the pole position after qualifying was rained out, Busch took early command, leading 105 of the first 114 laps.

He dominated the race thereafter, even to the point where he maintained his lead after a round of green-flag pit stops.

He then held off his challengers, notably David Reutimann and Jimmie Johnson, after a couple of late-race caution periods to win for the third time this season.

It was a terrific weekend for Busch. In addition to the Sprint Cup pole, he won the Craftsman Truck Series event. Additionally, he vaulted into first place in the Sprint Cup point standings.

It certainly is special,” said Busch, who earlier had made it very clear he badly wanted to win Kentucky’s first Sprint Cup race. “It feels awesome to be able to come here and run the way we did, to unload the way we did off the hauler. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and all the guys, all the engineers back in the shop did a phenomenal job with our race car.

“We didn’t have many adjustments to make, just finetuned on it through the weekend. It was definitely a special event here this weekend. We felt the energy. We saw the people.”

For most of the race Busch benefitted from the clean air afforded the leader of the race. At one point, he lead 104 of 106 green-flag laps and opened up a whopping five-second lead over Kasey Kahne.

The guess here is that if many fans still trying to negotiate traffic to get to race had known what was going on, they probably would have turned around and gone home.

Then again, they would have missed a spirited finish. Clint Bowyer spun into the turn 2 wall to bring out the race’s last caution on lap 261 of 267. When the race restarted, Busch again moved into the lead, overcoming a charge from Johnson, who was passed by Reutimann for second place.

“I knew Jimmie had fresher rubber than I did for a restart,” Busch said. “I tried to do the best I could at being able to get a good restart. But I overshot my acceleration just by a little bit and spun my tires a fuzz. That allowed him to get a little bit of momentum on me.”

But it wasn’t nearly enough, of course.

Busch has been recognized as a lively competitor who sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him. He’s certainly not afraid to speak his mind and has seldom backed away from a confrontation.

All which likely contributes to the fact he’s not NASCAR’s most popular driver.

But at his young age he’s already one of its best.

He came away from his weekend at Kentucky with the 22nd Cup victory of his career. He has now earned 99 wins in NASCAR’s top three series.

This one ranks right up there with the best of them,” Busch said of his Cup win. “I haven’t won any of the big races, unfortunately, yet. But, you know, it ranks right up there with Las Vegas being another of my prestigious wins that I feel like I’ve accomplished so far.”

 

** Fortunes improved greatly for one driver while continuing to fade for another.

Reutimann, driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, scored his first top-five finish of the season after he was able to pass Johnson on the last lap and follow Busch to the checkered flag.

Reutimann qualified 17th and plowed his way forward through most of the race. He put himself in a position to pass Johnson while the checkered flag waved.

The finish was a tonic for Reutimann, whose team has not had much to be happy about in 2011. It has been especially distressing since it came into the season highly optimistic after 2010, during which it won at Chicagoland and Reutimann finished 18th in points.

“It’s been an awful season for us,” said Reutimann, who stands 24th in points. “But we had a brand new car for this race. They guys are trying to figure out why we’re not running well so we came up with a better car this weekend.

“I’m not saying that’s the answer or the magic bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took yet another step in the wrong direction with his 30th-place finish. It came after he blew a left-front tire on lap 254 as he left pit road following a stop for fuel.

It was Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth consecutive finish of 19th or worse and he dropped a spot to eighth in points. At one point the Hendrick Motorsports driver racked up a series of top-10 finishes and seemed headed for a very promising season.

“We just didn’t have a very good car,” said Earnhardt Jr., who fought handling problems throughout the race. “We just didn’t have a good setup in there for some reason.”

 

** As announced earlier in the week, the Quaker State 400 was a sellout. But a sizable number of fans were turned away from the track as traffic problems caused by the influx of 100,000 folks backed up Interstate 71 for several hours.

Halfway through the race fans still trying to get into the speedway were turned away by officers who had to change patterns to allow outbound traffic to move.

The speedway, which had expanded its 66,000-seat grandstand to a capacity of 107,000 yet could not provide additional roads, acknowledged there was a problem and that plans for improvements were already under way.

Traffic snarls are hardly anything new in NASCAR – and remain common today – and are particularly prevalent when a Cup race is staged at a new venue for the first time.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Kentucky, has experienced such traffic woes before – and rest assured it’s not the only entity to have done so.

When SMI’s Texas Motor Speedway’s first race was held in 1997, traffic problems were so severe fans parked along the Interstate and walked to the track.

Bruton Smith, SMI’s dynamic CEO, intends to make Kentucky Speedway the foremost sports arena in the state.

For that to happen, of course, traffic problems must be kept to a minimum.

Hopefully, in time they will be.

Busch Fulfills A Role NASCAR Needs: The Villain

Quite frankly, I’m glad Kyle Busch is who he is, at least in competition, and that he’s a part of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

No, really.

Yes, I know there are many fans who don’t care for Busch for reasons with which I suspect you are all too familiar.

But while I don’t want to come right out and say Busch is good for NASCAR – I’m not sure a guy who goes 80 mph over the speed limit on a public highway ever is – he at least provides a fan and media lightning rod, something the sport can always use.

This might be considered old school thinking, but I happen to believe that NASCAR needs a villain. It has to have someone whose words, actions or both, cause people to align against him.

It’s like one of those grade-B movie westerns of the 1940s. There was always the bad guy who was usually dressed in black who was booed and performed dastardly deeds until the hero, in white, brought him to justice amid cheers.

NASCAR needs someone whom fans can boo and vilify. It needs someone who performs perceived dastardly deeds on the track. It needs someone who radiates arrogance and a cocky attitude that make us want to slap his face off.

Busch fits all the requirements. And as NASCAR’s reigning bad boy he’s certainly created more interest in the sport – if for no other reason than fans are always eager to see him get his comeuppance, if possible.

That’s one reason a heckuva lot of folks were pleased when Richard Childress – who had a bellyful of Busch – tattooed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver after the truck race at Kansas.

Throughout its history, NASCAR has always been more fun when it has at least one smug competitor who wears the black hat.

There have been many such characters over the years but perhaps the two most prominent are Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt.

In the 1970s, Waltrip, long hair, sideburns and all, broke into racing when it was dominated by a small handful of guys who won, it seemed, nearly all of the races.

Waltrip, sure of himself, declared he could beat those guys. He said so to the media every chance he got.

Fans thought this was sacrilege. How dare this kid fail to show the proper respect for Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and the other admired stars of the day?

They wanted to see their heroes teach this upstart a thing or two – and cheered mightly every time they did.

But Waltrip never missed a step. He parlayed his villainy into a successful career. He was self-promoting, at ease and glib with the media and seemed to revel in the fans’ disdain.

He’d hear the boos at driver introductions and then, as the years passed, go out and beat the old-line heroes more times than not.

Which, by the way, didn’t sit well with them. Given his challenge to their dominance, actions and personality, Waltrip wasn’t exactly No. 1 on the competitors’ hit parade.

Yarborough is credited with giving Waltrip the nickname “Jaws” because of his “mouthiness.”

As reviled as Waltrip was at the start of his career, in time he became accepted and even well-respected. That’s because he could back up his words with achievement on the track. He said he would win and he did.

When he came on the scene, Earnhardt never declared he would win. It wasn’t his mouth that put him at odds with fans and fellow competitors.

It was his style of driving.

Earnhardt quickly established himself as perhaps the most aggressive driver on the track. He had no problem grinding into or bumping other competitors to move them out of his way.

Many times that created problems – yes, Earnhardt caused plenty of wrecks – that did nothing to endear the Kannapolis, N.C., native to fans, competitors and NASCAR.

As much as the rough-and-tumble Earnhardt was liked by fans who thought he was the embodiment of what a stock car driver should be, he was reviled by others who felt he was nothing but a menace on the track.

Earnhardt never offered any excuses. He said his driving style was cultivated during his youth, when he saw his father Ralph go head-to-head, with no quarter asked, against others in the bull rings.

As it was for Watlrip, Earnhardt earned fan support and respect with deeds. He won races and championships without sacrificing who he was or his style of driving.

He became “The Intimidator” and an icon.

It’s far too early to tell if Busch will eventually earn fan respect and, for the moment, hey, who cares anyway?

But Busch already shares a trait with fellow villains Waltrip and Earnhardt: He can drive a race car.

Like the bad boys before him Busch has immense talent, something he’s already proven and cannot be denied. He’s won in nearly everything he’s raced and will soon be a part of the NASCAR record book.

No doubt this fuels his cockiness. It also increases the disdain fans have for him because it means this villain clearly has the ability to get the best of their heroes. That doesn’t sit too well, does it?

Don’t misunderstand what is meant here. None of this is intended to promote Busch or get anyone to change their opinion of him. Hardly.

He is who he is, which is, right now, NASCAR’s bad boy – and he knows it.

For the sport to have a bad boy, a villain who polarizes fans and media alike, is a good thing.

It makes things all that more interesting – and even fun.

 

Busch’s Drag Racing Foray Harkens To Petty’s Decades Ago

Kurt Busch’s foray into drag racing might not seem very impressive since it ended with his departure in the first round of the Pro Stock eliminations at the NHRA’s Tire Kingdom Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

He did qualify among the top 12 but then got bounced by Erica Enders in the opening session.

But let’s be real. Busch likely expected he wouldn’t get the best of any seasoned competitor. The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and winner of 22 races didn’t go drag racing with any notion he’d whip the competition. He went to gain a new experience and have some fun.

Judging from his effusive appreciation of the reception he got from NHRA competitors, fans, media and officials, he accomplished both.

As the NHRA made known in a press release on March 9, Busch is hardly the first competitor from NASCAR – or Indy-style racing – to take a crack at drag racing. Such legendary stock car drivers as Richard Petty and David Pearson raced fast cars in a straight line for a time.

So did John Andretti, who has competed in NASCAR and IndyCar, open-wheel star Danny Ongais and several others. Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs, well-known stock car team owners, were also successful in the same roles in NHRA.

Pearson and Petty entered drag racing at the same time – 1965 – and for the same reason. They didn’t want to leave NASCAR but felt the sanctioning body made it impossible for them to compete. The organization’s ruling at the time cost them their factory backing.

I suspect that, to this day, Petty wishes he had decided to just stay at home.

In the early 1960s for NASCAR the superspeedway era had begun with the creation of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Atlanta International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway followed a year later.

The auto manufacturers quickly surmised that stock car racing had risen from a basic dirt-track sport, conducted on small tracks in small towns, to one that produced mind-boggling speeds on huge tracks in much larger venues.

Any car that won at these tracks – be it a Ford, Chrysler or General Motors product – would attract huge public interest. It was certain to sell. Sales meant profit, which is what business is all about.

Therefore, manufacturers always came up with ways to make their NASCAR entries more powerful.

But each time they did so they had to gain NASCAR approval. The sanctioning body’s constant dilemma was how to keep competition equal among all the manufacturers.

In 1964, Chrysler introduced the 426 cubic-inch hemispherical combustion chamber engine – the “hemi.”

It blew away the competition and helped Petty, who drove Plymouths for the family Petty Enterprises team, win nine races and his first NASCAR championship.

The Chrysler dominance was so great the General Motors camp, with Chevrolet, gave up stock car racing altogether. Ford didn’t quit, but petitioned NASCAR for everything from approval of its overhead cam engine to acceptance of the Fairlane in place of the larger Galaxy, all of which the sanctioning body refused.

But, in 1965, NASCAR turned the tables and outlawed the hemi engine.

Chrysler promptly pulled out of stock car racing. And for the first time in his career, Petty, whose team had greatly benefited from the support of its now-departed manufacturer, was out of a ride.

However, despite the NASCAR walkout, Chrysler wanted to help its most proficient and popular driver. It suggested Petty build a drag racing car.

Petty had never even been to a drag race. But with the help of Chrysler’s experts, Petty Enterprises constructed a Plymouth Barracuda, which was numbered “43jr.” and named “Outlawed.”

Petty competed in exhibition events and in a couple of NHRA national events. He won – a lot. In so doing he attracted a lot of attention because, at that time, no one had gone from stock car racing to drags and been successful.

Meanwhile, Pearson, on the NASCAR sidelines because of the Chrysler ruling, also turned to drag racing. He drove a Dodge Dart station wagon built by Cotton Owens with an alcohol mixture engine in the rear – called “The Cotton Picker” – in several exhibition events.

A Sunday afternoon in Dallas, Ga., in 1965 became one of the darkest days of Petty’s life and, ultimately, led to his departure from drag racing.

In that race Petty blasted off the line, went from first gear to second and then something broke. He had no control over the steering. He hit the brakes but nothing happened. His Barracuda cleared a wire fence and ended up on its nose – among the spectators.

People were screaming and some were splayed along the ground. Petty was asked by those rushing to his battered car if he was all right. He said not to care about him but to tend to the folks he hit.

Six of them were hurt. An eight-year-old boy was killed.

Petty has admitted several times over the years that he couldn’t bear the thought of that youngster’s death.

He tried drag racing a few more times but his heart wasn’t in it. He quit.

Petty will tell you that danger and tragedy lurk in all forms of motorsports, including drag racing.

He would know tragedy again much later in life with the passing of his grandson Adam in a crash at New Hampshire in 2000.

Midway through the 1965 season, NASCAR allowed Chrysler to run its hemi engine, but only on short tracks. Petty ran 14 races and won four of them.

Thereafter, as you know, he made racing history over the course of two decades.

He never returned to drag racing. I don’t think he would have under any circumstances.

I suspect, though, he would quickly tell you that the sport never needed him anyway. It’s had its own stars for many, many years – just as it does today.

Johnson, Schumacher: A Tale of Two Champions

Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson and Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher have a lot in common. Multiple championships and a mastery over placing themselves at the center. Michele Rahal of The Motorsports Channel and http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com suggests that both have a method.

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