Ryan: Remembering the eight races that Kyle Busch could have won before Pocono

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NASCAR, as with any professional sport, is so often predicated on hyperbole, it sometimes distorts the ability to recognize real greatness.

So let’s appreciate the unrealized virtuosity that is Kyle Busch’s 2017 season.

Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated playoff points at an impressively prodigious rate. Kyle Larson has made innumerable charges through the field.

But Busch truly is about a half-dozen breaks from being 21 races into the greatest season of his career – and among the best of the modern era.

“I don’t think there’s a question in my mind that there literally are eight victories that have slipped our grasp,” Busch told NBC Sports after Sunday’s victory at Pocono Raceway.

This is the rare instance of a driver speaking the truth about lost opportunities rather than blithely exaggerating (“we were the fastest on track until that caution”) about how a race unfolded.

Busch has led one of every five laps he has completed in the No. 18 Toyota this season (second only to Truex’s top-ranked No. 78). Here are eight races that Busch could have won prior to Pocono (ranked in order of how close he was):

        Phoenix, March 19 – Busch led 113 laps until the final caution when he pitted and handed first to Ryan Newman. Busch restarted fifth but could gain only two spots in the final two laps. “It seems like every finish that’s destined for us it seems to end in a worse finish that day,” said Busch, who was mostly upbeat after his first top five of the season.

        Talladega, May 7 — Busch led 39 consecutive laps until the last circuit around the 2.66-mile oval, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got a push on the inside to capture the win. “I just never had enough help from behind and just never got together,” Busch said after finishing third. “We did all we could here today, and it’s all circumstantial on how you win these things. Unfortunately our circumstances didn’t quite go our way.”

        Michigan, June 18 – Busch led 35 straight laps until a debris caution with a scheduled 20 laps remaining set up a restart in which winner Kyle Larson took first. Busch faded to seventh over the final two restarts and didn’t talk to reporters after the race.

        Pocono, June 11 – A case of the best car but the wrong strategy, Busch started from the pole and led 100 laps but lost the lead to winner Ryan Blaney (who was on fresher tires) with nine laps remaining.

       Indianapolis, July 23 – Won the pole position and led a race-high 87 of the first 102 laps. Seemed headed toward a duel with Martin Truex Jr. before they crashed while racing for the lead on a Lap 111 restart. “That’s the way it goes, just chalk it up to another one that we figure out how to lose these things by,” Busch said. “It’s very frustrating and I hate it for my guys.”

        Charlotte, May 28 – Seemingly on the right fuel strategy this time, Busch runs down everyone but Austin Dillon to finish second in the Coca-Cola 600. His resulting frustration after passing victory lane on the way to the media center prompts one of the most memorable news conferences of the season.

        Martinsville, April 2 – Led a race-high 274 laps but finished second in a duel with race winner Brad Keselowski (who led the final 43). The most memorable moment for Busch came at the end of the second stage that he lost because of a battle with Stenhouse. Busch blamed a mediocre set of tires for his late-race fade and also said the Stenhouse move was “disrespectful,” hinting at payback while lamenting the loss of a playoff point. “It’s just like the rest of this year, too,” he said. “We’ve just thrown away points week in and week out.  We’ve just got to somehow get our luck better.  I don’t know what it is that just keeps knocking us back that we don’t have things kind of go our way.”

      New Hampshire, July 16 – Speeding penalties on the final two pit stops (on Lap 238 and 263 of 301) relegated a car that led 95 laps to a 12th-place finish. After winning the race, teammate Denny Hamlin said Busch had the better car, and car owner Joe Gibbs said, “Kyle is going to come roaring back from that. I think he feels like each and every weekend he’s got a chance.”

The above list doesn’t even include Richmond, where Busch was running second before a pit commitment violation with 40 laps remaining, and Dover, where he won the pole and led the first 18 laps before a pit stop mishap damaged his car.

So it isn’t far-fetched to suggest Busch could have 11 victories with 15 races remaining in the season.

Nor is it difficult to process that for Busch … if he can make amends over the rest of 2017.

“If we win the championship and have eight wins, that would kind of suffice for the eight wins that we missed out on earlier in the year,” he said. “But man, if you could only think what if and having 16 wins in this era, I mean, that would be just unprecedented. But obviously we just have to continue to work hard. We can’t count on what’s already been lost.”

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The news of Kurt Busch’s contract option being declined by Stewart-Haas Racing came as a surprise to many, but it’s a case of simple economics and the current landscape of team sponsorship in NASCAR’s premier series. Simply put, it’s a tough time being a winning Cup driver over 30 without a major sponsor attached. This has been evidenced in 2017 with Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.

Busch’s best option still might be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 on a restructured deal, but everything seems to hinge on what sponsor Monster Energy decides on its future in NASCAR. If Monster, which has a longstanding relationship with Busch, decides to align with the driver, it’s conceivable he could go elsewhere.

It’s worth noting, though (as NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton said Tuesday on NASCAR America), that this news became public. While it doesn’t necessarily mean there is major friction between driver and team, it does change the dynamics of the negotiations.

From his June 29 comments at Daytona International Speedway, Busch clearly felt he was deserving of at least another season from the team regardless of whether the sponsor situation was settled. Now he will be permitted to test that belief on an open market that has become well aware of his availability.

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The Saturday-Sunday weekend schedule the past two weeks at Indianapolis and Pocono drew mostly rave reviews from teams and drivers pleased by an extra day off the road.

“That’s really what it’s about, it’s about quality of life for the team guys, giving them an extra day,” Kevin Harvick said. “If we can add that up (over) 10, 15, 20 weekends, that’s two or three weeks that you can keep those guys at home and let them spend some time with their families and kids and wives. Everybody is just gone so much, it is becoming harder and harder to hire people because it is such a grind.”

A mostly overlooked new facet of qualifying and racing on the same day (as occurred at Pocono and will again Sunday at Watkins Glen International) is that NASCAR prevented teams from having an engine in their backup cars (a spare engine still was allowed to be brought and kept in the hauler in a typical procedure).

NASCAR is considering this as a cost-savings measure at all tracks next year, helping engine builders reduce their long-term inventories (as their contracts typically call for supplying teams with three engines per weekend). The potential drawback would be the amount of time required to put an engine in a backup car if it becomes needed during the three-hour window between the start of qualifying and the green flag.

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Crew chief Cole Pearn’s decision to pit Martin Truex Jr. from the lead with three laps left in the second stage at Pocono – essentially giving up a playoff point and any second stage points – was the most calculated of gambles.

With 29 playoff points already secured (and another 15 likely coming at the end of the regular season as the points leader), Truex virtually is assured of advancing through at least the first round of the playoffs and probably the second. With that kind of cushion, why play it safe for a stage win if your car is fast enough for an overall victory?

“Five (playoff) points is a lot better than one bonus point,’’ Pearn told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after the race.

Said Truex: “If we didn’t pit there, we probably weren’t going to have a shot at winning the race. That was the gamble. That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage.”

This is the equivalent of aiming for the pin instead of laying up with a lead of several strokes in a golf tournament. Or going for it on fourth and 3 instead of settling for a 58-yard field goal or a punt.

It was an aggressive call, but if Truex somehow fails to advance in the playoffs by a margin of less than five points, it will be perfectly sensible in retrospect.

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Could a recent management shake-up at Pocono Raceway hint at larger changes ahead for the track and possibly NASCAR’s premier series schedule?

In a revealing interview with the Associated Press’ Dan Gelston last weekend, new CEO Nick Igdalsky seemed to volunteer that playing host to two annual Cup races wasn’t a long-term certainty (while making the case for potentially moving a date to the road course).

“We’d love to continue having two” Cup races, he said. “But if one day, if that’s not the way the cards fall, so be it. We’d still be honored to be part of the show.”

Such an admission would have been anathema for Igaldsky’s grandfather, Joe Mattioli, who built the 2.5-mile track in 1971. Pocono held its first Cup race three years later and has had two annual races on the premier circuit since 1982, in part because of its founder’s oft bellicose defense of twin 500-mile races.

Mattioli died in January 2012, a few months after turning over day-to-day operations to his grandchildren. Brandon Igdalsky, Nick’s older brother, had been the track’s president and CEO for several years, overseeing multimillion-dollar renovations and the reduction of Pocono’s races to 400 miles apiece.

Brandon Igdalsky took a new job last month in NASCAR’s event marketing and promotion department (working primarily with tracks), handing the reins to his sibling and new track president Ben May.

Nick Igdalsky clarified his comments Monday to Gelston, saying he’d be willing to have a second race on a road course (a la Charlotte Motor Speedway) if that’s what it took to run two races.

But that this topic even was broached naturally raises some eyebrows about what’s next, particularly given the family owned track’s new relationship to NASCAR management.

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Add “driver participation guidelines” (as described in a NASCAR release Tuesday) to “encumbered” as the latest in the scourge of NASCAR euphemisms that undermine honest discussion and explanation.

These aren’t “guidelines”, which (by definition) aren’t mandatory.

They are rules.

If they were actual guidelines, Kyle Busch might enter every truck and Xfinity race next season just for spite.

“New rules for entering national series” works better.

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One of the goals of NASCAR’s new rules for entering national series is to help increase exposure and opportunity for younger drivers, which also is a goal of the NASCAR Next program.

Though more drivers fail than succeed in reaching the top level (15 of 46 NASCAR Next drivers have made a Cup start), there have been many recent successes for the initiative, which is designed to put marketing and promotion behind future stars.

Recently named No. 88 driver Alex Bowman is a NASCAR Next alum, as are the top two finishers (Ryan Preece and Kyle Benjamin) in last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway, and Gary Klutt will make his Monster Energy Cup Series debut this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Other graduates of NASCAR Next: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., William Byron, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, Ben Rhodes and Matt DiBenedetto.

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Target’s decision to leave Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2017 season exemplifies the retrenchment of retail sponsorship in auto racing that stems from a confluence of reasons (many of which were well documented in this analysis by Yahoo! Sports’ Nick Bromberg).

The Great Recession triggered a new era of companies becoming much more discriminating about how marketing dollars are spent, and the rise of social media in the intervening years has altered philosophies on what are the most cost-effective strategies for reaching consumers.

“The traditional model (of just) being a consumer brand sponsor that just wants to see a car out there with their name out it will go extinct in the next couple years,” Brad Keselowski said last weekend at Pocono. “That’s not always a bad thing. There’s other models that work and have proven to be successful.

“And the teams, although the owners may not agree with it, are still relatively healthy. So, time will tell what the true model is 10 years from now. I don’t think anybody really knows. I don’t we have it as bad as we say we do.”

The most effective sponsorship model guarantees a return for the millions being invested via business-to-business relationships, e.g. ShellPennzoil agrees to sponsor Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford in return for Roger Penske’s automotive dealerships using its motor oil.

The problem is that most teams can’t offer the ancillary businesses (and global breadth) of Penske.

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Busch’s win at Pocono marked the 10th consecutive race with a different winner in the Cup Series. This comes on the heels of eight races in a row being won by different teams (the longest stretch since a 10-race run in 2001-02).

While Truex’s massive lead in playoff points makes him the championship favorite, this season still feels as wide open as any in recent memory.

It’s driven by the fact that every manufacturer has at least one bona fide title contender on more than one team — Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick) and Team Penske (Brad Keselowski); Toyota, Furniture Row Racing (Truex) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch); Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson) and Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson).

Truck results, points following Atlanta race

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Brett Moffitt earned his second career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win when he took the lead on a restart in overtime Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third and leads the points heading into next week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sauter has a 31-point lead on Matt Crafton. Grant Enfinger is next, 33 points behind Sauter.

Click here for points report

Brett Moffitt takes advantage of Kyle Busch’s woes to win Atlanta Truck race

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Brett Moffitt went from third to first on the restart in overtime and powered his way to his second career Camping World Truck Series win Saturday.

Moffitt’s victory marked the first for Hattori Racing Enterprises, which made its debut in 2013. Noah Gragson placed second and Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was third at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

MORE: Race results, points report

A late caution for an incident involving Josh Reaume and Dalton Sargeant set in stage a series of events that cost Kyle Busch a chance to become the second driver in series history with 50 wins.

Busch led a parade down pit road for fresh tires. Busch’s team planned to take four tires but problems on the right front led to the team telling Busch to pull out of his pit stall after the right front was secured. Only problem was that the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. Busch didn’t get too far beyond pit exit before his left rear tire rolled off. Busch finished 21st.

Stage 1 winner: Noah Gragson

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

How Brett Moffitt won: He restarted third in overtime behind Myatt Snider, who had taken only two tires. Moffitt had four. Snider had no chance. Moffitt got around Snider cleanly and surged to the lead.

Who else had a good day: Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third to give him back-to-back top-five finishes to open the season. Sauter has finished no worse than third in each of the last six Truck races, dating back to last year. … Noah Gragson bounced back from a 23rd-place finish at Daytona to place second at Atlanta.

Who had a bad day: Justin Haley had a flat right rear tire nine laps before the end of the first stage. He lost two laps on the green-flag stop. Haley never made it back on the lead lap and finished 22nd. … The audible by Kyle Busch’s team on a slow pit stop before overtime proved disastrous. Busch took off as told after both ride-side tires were changed but the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. The left rear came off shortly after Busch exited pit road.

Notable: Jesse Little finished a career-high eighth. His previous best in 13 previous series starts was ninth.

Quote of the day: “This is unbelievable to be in a race car at this point, let alone in Victory Lane,’’ said winner Brett Moffitt, whose deal with the team came shortly before the season started.

Next: Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Xfinity race results, point standings following Atlanta

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Kevin Harvick won the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway to snap a 22-race winless streak in the Xfinity Series.

Harvick led 141 laps and swept both stages.

He beat Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for race results.

Elliott Sadler leads the points standings after two races. He’s the only driver to start the year with two top-five finishes.

Sadler has a four-point lead over JR Motorsports teammate Tyler Reddick.

Completing the top five are Ryan Reed (-14), Ryan Truex (-21) and Spencer Gallagher (-22).

Click here for the point standings

Kevin Harvick wins Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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Kevin Harvick dominated to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, earning his fifth series win at the track.

Driving the No. 98 Ford for Biagi DenBeste Racing, Harvick led 141 laps and won both stages of the 163-lap race after starting fifth.

Harvick led Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

The win is Harvick’s 47th in the Xfinity Series and his 98th overall in NASCAR’s three national series. It snaps a 22-race winless streak for Harvick in the Xfinity Series.

“It’s just been a really good place for me, obviously getting my first Cup win here (in 2001) and being able to run good cars throughout the years,” Harvick told FS1. “The race track has stayed very similar to what’s it been for a number of years. I think if you look at the techniques and things that I do in the car and they give me what I want in the car as far as the field, it applies here.”

Nemechek’s top five comes in his first career Xfinity Series start driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Chase Briscoe, also making his first Xfinity start, finished 15th in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kevin Harvick won after zooming from 10th to first in a one-lap shootout after pitting for four tires.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAG A GOOD DAY: Joey Logano earned his third straight runner-up finish at Atlanta in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford … Elliott Sadler is the only driver to have top-five finishes in the first two races of the year … Ryan Truex (ninth) and Ryan Reed (10th) earned their second straight top-10 finishes to begin the year.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Cole Custer wrecked out on Lap 11 when contact with a swerving John Hunter Nemechek sent his No. 00 Ford into the outside wall before the start-finish line. He finished 39th. … Kaz Grala finished 23rd after he lost power because of a battery problem during the Stage 2 break … Ty Dillon finished 13th, one lap down after receiving a pit penalty for his crew going over the wall too soon with 35 laps to go … Daytona winner Tyler Reddick finished 19th, two laps down after losing his right-rear tire with 25 laps to go.

NOTABLE: Harvick, 42, is the second-oldest driver to win at Atlanta in the Xfinity Series (Harry Gant, 54). … Harvick is the 14th different winner in the last 15 Xfinity races.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Kevin’s just really good at it. Doesn’t matter what car he’s driving or what. He’s really good at Atlanta, and apparently we’re second best to that.”- Joey Logano to FS1 after finishing second.

WHAT’S NEXT: Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 4 p.m. ET on March 3 on FS1.