Kligerman: Kyle Busch lives on the edge … of excellence

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On the morning of my 27th birthday this past Tuesday, I sat on my balcony under overcast skies and came to a realization (as you often do on your birthday).

Turning 27 means I have been watching racing for nearly 20 years and involved either driving or working with race cars for 15 years. And it has become clear to me — no matter if you’re a seasoned racer or a virgin fan – that there is an unanswerable question in racing.

What makes one driver better than others?

There are many who will offer their opinions, such as “They have a feel for it,” or “They are able to do X and no one else can X as well as them.” Or maybe even using the parochial “God-given” feel, expertise, and talent as the great divide between excellence and average.

The fact is, there is no one on the planet who has a definitive answer as to what makes one driver better than another. There are simply too many variables from one situation to another.

But every now and then, we are given a rare glimpse of what separates a great driver from the rest. It may be an incredible pass, a rear tire-smoking save, or a string of laps so fast they defy logic. Moments that become multimillion-viewed YouTube videos and the go-to folklore in bars around the world to justify a legend.

Think of the start to the 1993 Donington Park Grand Prix, when Ayrton Senna drove from sixth to first in one incredible rain-soaked lap. Or stateside, the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway where Dale Earnhardt went from 18th to first in five laps for his last victory.

Even a single lap time can define a career. Such as the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix qualifying session when Ayrton Senna outqualified his teammate by an incomprehensible 1.427 seconds to win the pole. Senna would later remark, “That was the maximum for me; no room for anything more. I never really reached that feeling again.”

Those are examples of entirely different forms of racing, but two drivers for whom “legend” at this point doesn’t suffice. They’ve become the stuff of gods because of the number of times they had great unimaginable moments behind the wheel of a race car.

Which brings me to the modern day. In an era of ever increasing technology, parity and rules designed to allow closer competition, it increasingly is harder to see these great moments. But trust me, they still exist.

With the “Multi-Vantage Point” coverage we did on NBCSN last weekend at Watkins Glen International, I was stationed at the inner loop (also known as the Bus Stop chicane) and the carousel.

Drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will barrel down the longest straight on the track toward my position at more than 180 mph before hitting the brakes the hardest they will during the lap to slow down to approximately 95 mph. Here, they will cut the course by hopping over a very large curb on the right-hand side, and before the car has all four tires on the ground, they already will be set up to turn the car left over another curb.

And then they will reach the center of the inner loop corner, aiming left and starting to accelerate towards the carousel. But before they get to the carousel, they will launch over a massive curb on the left and another one over on the right side (occasionally dropping tires into the dirt). Finally, they have to settle down the bucking bull that the car has become to turn right into the long carousel corner at about 100 mph.

All of this makes it an incredibly complex and tough corner. The car constantly is bouncing, juking, sliding and launching off the ground. It generally is unsettled and, at times, out of control.

To be fast here, you need to have a great car, but you also need to make the car do a million different things in the span of a few short seconds. And to be truly fast, you need to be comfortable with the car being completely out of your control at times. You will need to trust that, eventually, it will fall back into your hands.

This past weekend, I was given my own private viewing session of one driver doing exactly that. I watched a whole weekend’s worth of race cars come through my section. One car continually stood out, and it wasn’t every couple of laps. There was no difference between practice, qualifying or the race.

Every. Single. Time.

Kyle Busch.

Whenever there were cars on the track, his was simply astonishing.

He won the pole for the Cup race by almost half a second, which is astounding when considering the talent pool in the Cup series that I would argue is the deepest in any form of racing in the world. And I firmly believe much of where he made up that half-second was in my section.

Every time he exited the inner loop into the carousel in practice, my hand would hover over the “talkback” button that connects me to our producers, so I could be ready to alert them by yelling, “Trouble!”

Why?

Because each time Busch’s car was so sideways, doing so many wiggles and out of control, I thought, “Surely he is going to wreck.”

Then there was the end of final practice. Busch came through the inner loop and dropped two tires into the grass on the exit. This knocked the car sideways – but not a little sideways. I mean full-on opposite lock at 100 mph.

He somehow controlled the slide, leaving a long strip of black marks on the asphalt while continuing to the pits. In a modern-day Cup car, that shouldn’t be possible.

Ask our producers: I screamed.

Now onto the race.

Busch would set sail from the rest of the field and easily win the first stage by around 7 seconds over eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr.

Where was he gaining a lot of this time? The inner loop to the carousel.

As I told a couple officials from a very iconic race team this weekend, “If you want to know where the 18 car is beating you, come down to my section of the track and watch.”

But it got better from here. As Busch’s team had the unfortunate penalty that forced him to pit a second time and start from the back of the field. He would drive all the way into the top 10 in 20 laps to end the second stage.

Which set him up for the final run. As he barreled down into my section on the restart after the second stage ended, he would make a massive outbraking move on Brad Keselowski. It was so extraordinary, Brad had no idea he was there. This would result in both spinning to the outside of the track.

Here Busch would start a march forward of epic proportions.

Over the entirety of the final stage, he drove like a man possessed. And nowhere was there a better example than the way he was kicking up dirt and grass every time he came through the inner loop. Even when I wasn’t looking directly toward the section, I knew he was coming because of the massive plume of dust.

His car constantly was wiggling as the rear end danced and bounced around. And he continually would be closing the gap on cars or passing them. That normally shouldn’t be possible.

The results won’t show how much better he was than the field in my section. But upon reflection, I will remember last weekend for knowing I witnessed one of those heroic great driver moments.

Most of all, it proved what I feel makes Kyle so good when he is at his best. He is comfortable with the car being uncomfortable and at times completely out of control.

Good drivers do this every now and then. Great drivers are comfortable with this feeling more than not. But legends know no other way.

That’s what makes Kyle Busch so damn good. Every time he drives a race car, he knows only one way: completely out of control and uncomfortable.

To him, this is normal.

Atlanta Motor Speedway accepting lucky charms to help Chase Elliott earn first Cup win

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The president of Atlanta Motor Speedway is hoping history will repeat.

Ed Clark is doing whatever he can to get Georgia-native Chase Elliott to Victory Lane for the first time in the Cup Series.

To do that, he’s using the same marketing scheme he executed in 1983 in the weeks before Bill Elliott’s first Cup victory.

AMS is asking for fans to send lucky charms to the track, which will be presented to Chase Elliott during a special event there Feb. 13.

There’s no restrictions on what can be sent.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is winless after 77 starts in NASCAR’s premier series.

Bill Elliott in 1983. (Atlanta Motor Speedway).

His father went winless in his first 155 starts from 1976-83.

Clark put together the original lucky charm drive ahead of the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he served as public relations director.

“The promotion we came up with for Bill in ’83 created an amazing amount of interest and support from fans all over the country,” said Clark in a press release. “We received package after package full of good-luck charms, and it seemed like everybody was pulling for him to get that first win.”

Three races later, in the season finale at Riverside International Raceway, the 28-year-old Bill Elliott claimed his first of 44 Cup victories.

Fans can send their lucky charms to Elliott by shipping them to AMS at 1500 Highway 19/41, Hampton, GA 30228, with attention to “Good Luck, Chase.” Fans can also participate by using the hashtag #GoodLuckChase across the various social media platforms with pictures and messages to Elliott.

The Cup season begins Feb. 18 with the 60th Daytona 500. The following weekend, the series visits Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Go Fas Racing secures charter by partnering with Circle Sport Racing

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Go Fas Racing has secured a charter for Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 32 Ford by partnering with Circle Sport Racing.

The move comes after Go Fas Racing’s owner Archie St. Hilaire entered into a partnership with the Wood Brothers that allowed the Wood Brothers to retain the charter they leased last year from Go Fas Racing.

That move left Go Fas Racing without a charter. That matter was resolved with the partnership with Circle Sport Racing car owner Joe Falk, who recently split with TMG.

“This deal pretty much fills our plate for the 2018 season,” St. Hilaire said in a statement from the team. “We decided that the best long-term strategy for GFR’s original charter was to strike a deal with our good friends at Wood Brothers Racing, which left us seeking a charter for our own No. 32 car. I think this partnership with Joe Falk is mutually beneficial for both Joe and ourselves going into the future. Joe has been in the business for a long time and will add a wealth of knowledge to our programs in 2018 and beyond.”

Said Falk in a statement: “We have been talking about doing this for over a year and it was a big decision to switch to Ford, but we believe it will pay off. This is a performance business and we have not had the team to get good finishes. We are also working on running the No. 33 car in select events with young drivers such as Joey Gase to help get them prepared for a full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season going forward.”

CHARTERS THAT HAVE CHANGED TEAMS FOR 2018

— Furniture Row Racing #77 charter sold to JTG Daugherty for No. 37 car

— Roush Fenway Racing #16 charter sold to Team Penske for No. 12 car

— Richard Petty Motorsports #43 charter leased to Rick Ware Racing for No. 51 car

— Wood Brothers Racing forms long-term partnership with Go Fas Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire that grants Wood Brothers full operating control of the No. 32 team’s charter it leased last year.

— Go Fas Racing forms partnership with Circle Sport Racing owner Joe Falk for his charter for the No. 32 team.

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Kasey Kahne looks to run 20-30 races outside NASCAR this year

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Kasey Kahne, who competed in last week’s Chili Bowl Nationals, says he plans to run two dozen or more races outside of NASCAR this season.

Kahne, who is in his first season with Leavine Family Racing, made the comments Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.’’

“I’ve always tried to stay close to the type of racing that I learned how to race in and the type of cars that I learned how to race in and those fans and race tracks that I’ve spent a ton of time at and have really enjoyed over the years,’’ Kahne said of racing sprint and midget cars on dirt. “I’m still a huge fan of that type of racing because that’s where I came from and want to be for a long, long time.

“We have two (World of) Outlaw teams again this year, Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, and I feel like I can run 20 to 30 races depending on the schedules and how everything works out. I’m really looking forward to that because that’s something that I wanted to do for a long time and I could do it and then I couldn’t do it.’’

Kahne, who was with Hendrick Motorsports the previous six seasons, was asked if he was prohibited from racing such cars.

“When I signed up, I wasn’t at all and they said I could do whatever I wanted and enjoy it,” Kahne said. “A year later, I was restricted from everything and wasn’t able to do that anymore and then the last year they were pretty cool about it, but it was always kind of feeling like you were making somebody mad. I won’t have that because Leavine … they know that that’s what I love to do and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want it to affect the No. 95 in anyway. That’s the first priority to me. When we’re not doing that, it’s OK, nobody is going to be mad if I go and try to do a little racing. It makes me feel pretty good to be in that situation again.’’

Kahne is just one of a few NASCAR drivers expected to run in other series this year. Kyle Larson, who raced a midget car in New Zealand before competing in Chili Bowl Nationals, has said he’s allowed to run 25 such events a year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says he plans to run some midget races this summer.

Kahne also has been busy getting prepared for his new ride. He has a one-year deal with Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with Richard Childress Racing. Travis Mack, who had been at Hendrick Motorsports, will be Kahne’s crew chief.

Kahne cited performance — he had one win and nine top-five finishes in the past three seasons with Hendrick — and business as a reason for the change.

“I’m perfectly fine with it because I’m glad I’ve moved on and am doing something different at this point and really looking forward to Leavine and my future and the new things that I have going on,’’ said Kahne, who finished 15th in the points last year after making the playoffs with his Indianapolis victory. “I don’t look back on any of it as a bad thing.’’

Asked if he feels reinvigorated with the changes, Kahne told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “I feel just to kind of start over is never a bad thing, especially with our performance. I was never happy the last three years, I haven’t been that happy as far as racing went because we could never really figure it out. Just to have a new group, start over, try to do things together and see how good we can do. To me, that’s exciting and new and fresh and I look forward to that.’’

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Todd Gilliland to drive No. 4 for Kyle Busch Motorsports; father to fill-in at Daytona

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Todd Gilliland will get a helping hand driving Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota this season before he turns 18 on May 15.

The two-time K&N Pro Series West champion will miss four of the first six races to start the year because of NASCAR’s rule that drivers under 18 years old are restricted to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length or road courses.

Gilliland will miss the season-opener at Daytona (Feb. 16), Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2) and Kansas (May 11).

After starts at Martinsville (March 24) and Dover (May 4) to begin his Rookie of the Year campaign, his first race on a 1.5-mile track will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.

Team owner Kyle Busch will drive the No. 4 at Atlanta and Kansas.

In a video released by the team on Twitter, it announced that Gilliland’s dad, David Gilliland, will open the season at Daytona.

The former Cup driver will make his first NASCAR start since 2016 in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.

A veteran of 398 national NASCAR races, David Gilliland’s last Truck Series start was in 2015. He has 10 Truck starts. One of those was at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona, 2015).

That’s not the only race the elder Gilliland will try to be part of that weekend.

He will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Ricky Benton Racing, which has fielded the No. 92 in the Truck Series since 2010.

Gilliland will attempt to qualify the No. 92 Black’s Tire and Auto Service/Carquest Auto Parts Ford into the “Great American Race.” If he’s successful, it will mark the Cup debut for the team.

Gilliland made seven starts for the team in 2015.

“After talking with our partners, we felt the time was right to make a move into the Cup Series,” team owner Ricky Benton said in a press release. “Getting David back on board was also key. Having a veteran driver with his experience and success on restrictor-plate tracks – with whom (crew chief Mike) Hester has familiarity – gives us a leg up as we try to make the race.”
Gilliland has made 16 starts at Daytona in the Cup Series, including seven in the Daytona 500. His best finish was third in the 2011 Daytona 500.

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