Long: Kyle Busch’s victory adds to debate of if he belongs in Chase

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In a season where fans have dissected the racing, debated rule changes and defended or denounced the Confederate flag at NASCAR events, Kyle Busch has created another topic to discuss:

Should a driver who misses nearly a third of the season be eligible for the Sprint Cup championship?

Busch’s victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway moved him closer toward that goal. He needs only to be in the top 30 in points after the Sept. 12 Richmond race to be Chase eligible.

Based on projections, Busch must average a 14th-place finish in the next 10 races to qualify for the Chase.

“This is extremely hard to average what we’ve got to average,’’ car owner Joe Gibbs said Sunday.

Maybe not.

Busch has bettered that average three of the past four years in the races that compose the final 10 before the Chase.

Although history does not guarantee a repeat performance this summer, there’s the chance that Busch could make the Chase despite missing more than 40 percent of the races that set the championship field.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350

Should he win the title, some fans will question NASCAR’s system. If a driver can become champion without competing in every event, what is the value of the 26 races used to set the Chase field?

Busch never got the opportunity to run every race this season after his car slammed into an unprotected wall in February at Daytona International Speedway. Busch broke his right leg and left foot in the accident and missed the first 11 Sprint Cup points races.

For a sport that talks so much about safety, Busch’s Daytona crash was a failure. NASCAR and track officials found a way to cover the concrete wall inside Turn 1 with tire barriers the day after Busch’s crash. Why it wasn’t done beforehand is troubling.

“What happened … should not have happened,’’ Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said a few hours after Busch’s crash. “That’s on us.’’

He’s right. That’s why NASCAR waived the requirement for Busch that a driver must compete in every race to be in the Chase. Still, he needed to win a race and be in the top 30 in points.

One can argue that there’s no way to determine if Busch would have emerged unscathed had his car hit a tire barrier or a SAFER barrier at Daytona.

Even if injuries forced Busch to miss a month, it seems likely he would have easily met the top 30 rule – older brother Kurt is 10th in the points after missing the season’s first three races because of suspension.

Critics also can note that Kyle Busch was injured in an Xfinity race and shouldn’t have received a NASCAR waiver lifting the requirement that a Chase driver compete in every event.

If he’s so valuable to his Sprint Cup team, why was he racing in that series? It’s an easy question to ask, but some sponsors in the Xfinity Series are more interested in being affiliated with a Cup driver without paying Cup sponsorship fees.

Without Cup drivers in those Xfinity programs, it would likely limit how many teams participate. So drivers and teams take that gamble, knowing a Cup driver in the Xfinity Series can get hurt.

While there are many layers to the question if Busch should have a chance to contend for the championship, another poor finish in the coming 10 races could make this debate moot.

Even if he makes the Chase, he and his team have to advance through three rounds before racing for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in about five months.

Busch admits the next 10 races will be challenging.

“You’ve certainly got to play it out all the way through,’’ he said. “That’s one of the things that maybe I haven’t been so good at over the years. You’ve got to have that focus for not just one week but for a long time, and 10 weeks is a long time, so we’ve just got to do our job, both (crew chief Adam Stevens) and I. We can’t screw up.’’

Busch says his task is not insurmountable.

“This team is good enough to be (Chase eligible), and I should be good enough to be that way,’’ he said.

If Busch makes the Chase, is that a sign the championship format is in disrepair or an example of a remarkable comeback?

If he wins the championship, will it taint the season or add to Busch’s legacy?

Each champion has their own trials. No driver in the sport’s history has ever faced – or had to face – a challenge quite like Busch’s.

If he wins the title, he’ll be a worthy champ and deserve to have his name alongside the sport’s other champions despite not starting every race this season.

 

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”