Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Motor Mouth: Kurt Busch's rants spur change for the better at Penske

Kurt Busch was dominant at Infineon on Sunday on the way to his first
road course win. Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR
After a double dose of road course racing in NASCAR, drivers’ tempers were flaring and emotions were on high after the Sprint Cup Series converged on Infineon and the Nationwide Series visited Road America. In the past few years, the beatin’ and bangin’ at the road courses has produced the drama between drivers that was once a staple of NASCAR’s short tracks.

In this week’s Motor Mouth, we’ll look at how one team who seemingly broke down at one of those short tracks overcame their struggles to find victory at Infineon, as well as my thoughts on the place of road courses in NASCAR’s schedule.

PENSKE'S TURNAROUND PROPELS BUSCH

At Richmond, where we saw more drivers lash out at their own teams than each other, it was one of these driver/team combinations who turned it around to become the cream of the crop at Infineon.

In less than two months since that fateful day at Richmond, Penske Racing implemented some much needed change to its struggling Sprint Cup program after Kurt Busch launched a profanity-filled scanner tirade directed at his team. Busch had been running three laps down, doomed to finish 22nd. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the buildup of frustration after the season had started out so promising for the No. 22.

Busch began the year in victory lane, with non-points wins at the Budweiser Shootout and first Gatorade Duel, and soared to four top-10 finishes in the first four races, even holding the series points lead early on. But that success would give way to five straight finishes outside the top 10, which Busch would later tell his team was far from where they needed to be to compete for the title.

“It honestly was, hey, do we want to make this Chase? We’ve got to make some changes. Let’s look at how we can evaluate what we were doing because heading in the direction we were, we were scraping those top 10s or may be running 15th. That’s not going to get it done when you want to win the championship,” Busch said at Pocono.

In the six races following his infamous rant, Busch went on to win three straight poles, at Kansas, Pocono and Michigan, and finished four of those races in the top 11. Busch led a race-high 152 laps at Kansas before fuel strategy worked against him, opening the door for his teammate Brad Keselowski to score Penske Racing’s first Cup win of the season. Then Busch followed up Kansas with another strong performance at Pocono, finishing second.

Within a relatively short time, Penske had picked up its game, big time. Though Busch was criticized for his rants against his team, it was clear Penske was acting on the former Sprint Cup champion’s concerns, and it was paying dividends. The No. 22 and No. 2 teams were working together more closely, and judging from the pickup in performance, it would be only a matter of time before Busch followed his teammate into victory lane. That it would be at a road course, though, was perhaps the only surprise.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images for NASCAR
Through the years, Busch has shown promise at road course racing. Early in his career, Busch won a NASCAR Southwest Tour race at Infineon, and he finished second at Watkins Glen last season. In between were strong runs at both tracks where the finishes failed to indicate just how well Busch was learning to master the tricky twists and turns. Busch even looked outside of NASCAR to gain road course experience, competing twice in the Grand American Rolex Series 24-Hour race at Daytona and boasting a third-place effort in 2008. But still, a road course win at NASCAR’s highest level eluded him. It would take the combination of driver, fast racecar and a two-stop pit strategy to finally seal the deal at Infineon.

Busch started 11th in Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart350, bringing his streak of poles to an end. But for Busch, it was the beginning of what would be an outright domination. He ascended to the lead within 13 laps – a feat rarely seen at road courses, where passing is limited to a few areas and track position is usually key. Busch put the field to shame, leading 76 of the 110-lap event and making it look easy. But not only was Busch fast – he was smart. He stayed ahead of the chaos behind him, nailed his restarts and shut off his engine when appropriate to save fuel. The latter played into Penske’s strategy for their two teams to make only two stops during the race while the majority of race teams made three.

After the final caution, no one could catch Busch in the last 23 laps. While his teammate Keselowski fended off Juan Pablo Montoya and while Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards battled for second place, the No. 22 ran away from the field. With a margin of victory of 2.685 seconds, Busch crossed the finish line for his first win of 2011, ending a 38-race winless streak stretching back to May 2010. And finally, he had found that elusive road course victory.

“To get a good road course win, it's a big check mark on my list, something I've been working very hard at over the years, just like the restrictor plates, I've struggled to win and close out one of those,” Busch said.


“All the hard work from the guys back at the race shop where it starts. The times that we've tested. The execution here at the racetrack this weekend. You see it all come together. You know when you have a shot at victory you have to block those moments out and get that car to the victory line. To get the checkered flag, do some doughnuts, to drive in reverse around this road course, I got choked up. It was a great feeling to know that I've won on a road course,” Busch said.

Busch elaborated, “My thought was inside the car, ‘Well, I need to continue to push this car hard and run a lap time that won't allow those guys with fresh tires to chop off and be able to catch us.’ It was just one of those feelings where the crew was helping me, I was helping them, and the race played out perfectly for us.”

Penske’s turnaround since Richmond is remarkable in such a short time. If Busch didn’t voice his concerns to Penske officials, even as harshly as he did on the scanner, it’s possible we’d be talking about the organization’s ongoing downward spiral instead of its rapid recovery. Now Busch, a solid 4th in the points standings, is reaping the benefits.

DRAMA REIGNS AT ROAD COURSES

When I first started watching NASCAR six years ago, I figured out right away I liked ovals. But those windy road courses where the laps were so long, it took forever to complete a single one … eh, not so much. I thought the road course races were boring and that they didn’t add much to NASCAR’s schedule.

Fast forward a few years though, and now I look forward to the road courses on the Sprint Cup and Nationwide schedules. Why the change of heart? That’s easy – the racing has improved as the drivers have become more aggressive in order to pass each other on these kinds of tracks. As a result, we’ve seen more conflicts emerge between drivers. And because of all this, we the viewers benefit by witnessing some of the most exciting races of the season.

After a controversial finish, Reed Sorenson
was declared the winner at Road America.
Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
This weekend with Road America and Infineon only proved the point. The Nationwide race at Road America, just the series’ second outing at the track, had everything: the heartbreak of Justin Allgaier, who had his first road course win in his grasp until an empty gas tank left him high and dry; happiness and then the sting of frustration as Ron Fellows, who thought he had the win, had it taken away; and Reed Sorenson, his first time at the track, emerging victorious for his first series win since 2007. Yes, I think NASCAR made the right call to give Sorenson the win. Fellows passed Sorenson after the yellow came out, which is an illegal move. But I still felt for all those who had been in the position to win … and nearly did. And we haven’t even gotten to Ricky Stenhouse’s recovery from an early collision to finish 8th, the shock of Trevor Bayne’s day ending early after spinning out and overheating, and Jacques Villenueve’s bold moves that left several competitors seething.

The drama carried over to Infineon, where a number of feuds popped up between drivers: Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers, Joey Logano and Robby Gordon, Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya and Brad Keselowski. Did I forget anyone? And as with any on-track“boys have at it” moments, you’ll have innocent victims like Dale Earnhardt Jr., crashed out for the second weekend in a row, and Martin Truex and Kyle Busch, both of whom were able to recover after being spun out. This after last year’s race, where an unusually aggressive Jeff Gordon angered how many drivers, one of whom – this year’s winner Kurt Busch – paid him back later that season.

Both Road America and Infineon will have people talking fora while, which in NASCAR’s case is a very good thing. What’s also good is that Sunday’s race at Infineon garnered a 17 percent increase in ratings from last year.

After the excitement we saw this weekend and the promising spike in ratings, I think there’s more reason than ever to see a road course added to the Chase. It’s a concept that some of the sport’s top drivers, including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, are already on board with.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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