Kyle Busch says he wasn’t approached for postrace interviews (video)

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Kyle Busch was ready to answer questions after finishing third Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said there weren’t many.

Now he wants to ensure there will be in the future, lobbying for an expansion of postrace driver media availability.

In a series of tweets after the Auto Club 400, the 2015 Cup champion explained he was parked at the end of the pits because of unsecured lug nuts on his No. 18 Toyota. He apparently was approached there only by a reporter from the Motor Racing Network.

During its postrace coverage, Fox Sports said none of its reporters had talked with Busch, who has faced criticism before for electing to decline postrace interviews after tough finishes. His mic drop after finishing second in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 also caused controversy with Busch later explaining he is wired to be emotional.

Busch also wasn’t brought to the media center for the postrace news conference. NASCAR’s PR staff typically brings the winning team, runner-up and a third driver of its choosing that often is the best storyline (which is sometimes the third-place finisher).

Though Busch and Kevin Harvick would have seemed to be involved in the best storylines Sunday after race winner Martin Truex Jr. and runner-up Kyle Larson, fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski was chosen as the third attendee.

“I’m not really sure why I’m here,” Keselowski said with a smile. “I finished fourth.”

Busch also seemed surprised he wasn’t chosen to attend the media center news conference.

He later advocated for mandating that the top three always are brought to the media center and also called on more clarity for postrace media obligations.

NASCAR declined comment on Busch’s remarks.

For the record (according to a Toyota release), here is what Busch responded when asked postrace about where Truex was beating him on the 2-mile oval: “Everywhere. Just thought we were closer than that but obviously not. We were right on top of (Truex) yesterday. The first run I thought we were really good and showed some strength but from there on out showed no strength.”

Armed with an apparently strong WiFi signal for his trip home to North Carolina, Busch was in a chatty mood on Twitter.

As Busch’s Twitter interactions grew (both with haters and fans) in the hours after the race, it caught the eyes of others in the NASCAR industry who were both amused and impressed.

‘Poor execution’ by new pit crew costs Kyle Busch a shot at win; raises questions about swap

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JOLIET, Ill. – Kyle Busch lingered for several minutes outside his No. 18 Toyota in pit lane after a disappointing Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, waiting to talk with Adam Stevens.

When Busch’s crew chief arrived, their discussion centered on how the car changed in the race, adjustments that were made and how they could improve next time.

In other words, it was about “what we can control,” Stevens said — which meant there was no mention of the new pit crew that cost the pole-sitter a shot at winning the 2017 Cup Series playoff opener.

“Just piss-poor execution all around,” Stevens said. “Made a lot of mistakes on pit road, and when you make back-to-back mistakes, it’s tough to recover from them.

“Track like this, everyone knows you’re going to get longer green flag runs, you’re not going to have a lot of cautions to get those laps back. We had a fast car. Best car I’ve ever been a part of here and not much to show for it.”

Busch salvaged a 15th after falling two laps down because of an unscheduled pit stop under green for a loose wheel (which happened during a pit stop after leading 85 of the first 87 laps and winning stage). It was compounded when the team was penalized because gas man Kenneth Purcell went over the wall too soon without a fuel can in hand.

“It didn’t aid the pit stop, but that’s a rule,” Stevens said. “Plain as day. We all know the rule.”

“Gotta move on,” Busch said. “Nothing we can do right now.”

Chicagoland marked the first race since Joe Gibbs Racing swapped Busch’s crew with Daniel Suarez’s after the regular season.

It wasn’t necessarily a surprising move – slow pit stops nearly cost him a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway last month and also left him behind teammate Denny Hamlin in the closing stretch at Darlington Raceway — but it probably was a difficult one considering five members of the crew had won the 2015 championship with Busch. Some had been with him since he joined the team in 2008.

Busch publicly supported the move Wednesday at Playoff Media Day, noting “my guys, would have speed, but the speed that they had was occasional and the consistency that they had was less than stellar. When you can have a faster group and their consistency is better, there’s no question you’ve got to take them.”

After Sunday’s race, he reaffirmed his approval of the move.

“We all made this decision together, so I’ve got to talk to (car owner) Joe (Gibbs) and figure out what we’re going to do,” Busch said.

Will the team stay with the new crew?

“Moving on,” Busch said.

Car owner Joe Gibbs, who also waited by Busch’s Camry after the race and whispered some words of encouragement to his driver, said the team would reassess the decision this week but seemed to be leaning toward sticking with the move.

“We felt like this was the best decision for the team,” Gibbs said. “You always look at everything, and we do. But we make decisions like that, you hope things work out for you, sometimes they don’t. We all go up, we all go down together.

“Those guys are really battle tested. That group is. They’ve been around a long time.”

Stevens, who was involved in the decision to swap crews, said he didn’t expect a change.

“I’m just one man, I don’t have the ultimate say,” he said. “It was a company decision to make the change that we made. I’m confident we made the right one, it was just a bad day.”

Stevens said it possibly could have been playoff jitters after the pit crew had performed well in practice.

“I hope so, but I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to debrief with them yet. I’m expecting it to go well next week. At the end of the day, we all have a job to do, and we didn’t do it today.”

After entering the playoffs with a 24-point cushion on the cutoff spot because of two wins and 11 stage victories, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver actually increased his lead to 35 points over 13th (the bottom four of 16 drivers will be eliminated after the first three races).

That means Busch remains virtually a lock to advance to the second round, but he was wistful about another stage win and five playoff points left on the table.

“Three top 15s in a row should transfer you through this first round,” he said. “But 15th is going to hurt on the points you’re going to need — stage points and wins for that third round.”

Cole Pearn, crew chief for race winner Martin Truex Jr., said if Busch had managed to get back on the lead lap, he was “going to be a challenge; we didn’t have much for them.”

Stevens, though, was taking the long view.

“That’s what the playoffs are all about, it’s about surviving and advancing,” he said. “Obviously, we had a car that was capable of racing for the win, and we took ourselves out of that. But you still have to salvage the best possible finish that you can and move on to the next round.

I’ve had bad days, but I’ve certainly had worse days.”

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.

Midrace contact but no postrace fallout for Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Kyle Busch pulled himself out of his No. 18 Toyota, wiped off his forehead and ran his fingers through his soaked hair with a final demonstrative flick.

For the second time this season, he was marching with purpose toward a Team Penske driver whom he felt had wronged him during a race. As Busch drew within 20 yards of the No. 2 Ford, Brad Keselowski’s PR rep sprinted past on the left.

But unlike five months ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver took a swing at Joey Logano’s back, Busch then made a hard right to AJ Allemendinger, exchanging a handshake, smile and a few friendly gestures before laughing and moving on again.

“You mean there’s a story?” Busch sarcastically asked a group of reporters converging as he made a beeline from the pit lane to the garage. “What’s the story?”

Seemed as if you were about to make an impressive comeback until that contact with Brad Keselowski?

“Imagine that,” Busch replied while never breaking stride.

A few minutes later, Keselowski smiled when asked if he thought Busch was headed his way (“Wasn’t a lot of thought put into that. I’m still just cooling off.”) and got philosophical while reflecting on their history at Watkins Glen International.

“This is a track where you fight for inches,” Keselowski said, “and we both probably aren’t willing to give one.”

The best rivalry in NASCAR added another chapter in a familiar place at the 2.45-mile road course, where Busch and Keselowski staged a memorable last-lap fight for the lead in 2012 (with Busch spinning out) and dueled again for a victory in ’13.

It happened at the race’s midpoint Sunday.

On Lap 45 of 90, Busch dove for seventh entering the inner loop, catching Keselowski off guard. The pair made contact and spun off course, sending both to the pits and Busch to the mic button on his radio.

“You all better keep me away from that (expletive) after this race,” Busch told his team. “I will kill that (expletive).”

After the race, he withheld judgment when asked what happened.

“Couldn’t tell you,” he said. “Hadn’t seen it.”

Busch was charging through the field after an extra pit stop for a loose wheel after winning the first stage. After winning Saturday’s Xfinity race from the pole despite a spin, he appeared set to repeat the feat Sunday.

Starting from the pole position for the second consecutive Cup race, he led the first 21 laps. He seemed a good bet for his second consecutive win (after breaking a yearlong winless drought at Pocono Raceway).

Right, Kyle?

“Yep,” Busch, who finished seventh, said in his final answer to reporters.

Keselowski simply said he didn’t have enough warning with Allmendinger behind his car as Busch made his daring move.

“I got to the corner, and my spotter said, ‘Somebody there,’” said Keselowski, who later led 20 laps but was 15th after a late stop for fuel and a pit penalty. “But I’d already got to the corner, and by then, I was already committed, and I think he was already committed, too. It looked like he tried to make a big move from a couple of car lengths back, and it was more than what there was room for all of us.

“It probably didn’t help either one of us. It was a bummer. … I wasn’t looking to get into him, and I don’t think he was looking to get into me. He probably had the dominant car, so he didn’t need any trouble, but neither did I.”

Sounds like there might be some common ground for two champions who have feuded more often than any stars (the Xfinity race at Michigan International Speedway was another recent flashpoint).

Any plans to hash things out soon?

“I don’t think he’s really the listening type,” Keselowski said with a smile. “Pretty doubtful.”

 

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).