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).

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

MORE: NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

MORE: NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

The video of Chastain’s wall-hugging maneuver had 12.5 million views on the NBC Sports TikTok account within a week of it happening. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that had had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account to that point in 2022 was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win. 

Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo all praised Chastain’s move at the time, joining a chorus of competitors throughout social media. 

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

MORE: Surveying key race dates for 2023

4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.