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.

NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth unable to realize potential due to team’s mistakes

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Sunday’s pit road mistake — having seven crew members over the wall when only six are allowed — not only knocked Matt Kenseth out of the race, it also knocked him out of advancing in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

As a result, Kenseth lost out on his bid to earn a second Cup championship in what could potentially be his last season in the Cup series.

And it wasn’t the first time Kenseth has suffered through issues not of his making this season and in prior seasons.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan all gave their thoughts on what happened to Kenseth — and they didn’t hold back, either.

Click on the above video to hear what they had to say about Kenseth’s misfortune and how it could potentially impact his legacy going forward.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s picks for Championship 4

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On Monday’s editions of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his predictions for which of the eight remaining championship-eligible drivers — including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — will make it to the Championship 4 round.

In addition to Johnson and Elliott, Junior also makes it known in the above video that he’s also pulling for Ryan Blaney. He may even throw in a surprise to his picks.

Our NASCAR America team of analysts go over Junior’s picks and give their take, as well.

We don’t want to spill the beans of who Junior is picking here, so click on the video above to find out, as well as what our analysts think about his picks.

 

 

 

Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

MORE: Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.