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Tryson Defection Puts Busch, Penske In Awkward Spot

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 25 2009
Kurt Busch and Pat Tryson will be headed in different directions in November, but they are headed toward same goal right now. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Kurt Busch and Pat Tryson will be headed in different directions in November, but they are headed toward same goal right now. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Kurt Busch says the curious lame duck status of crew chief Pat Tryson has created “a tough situation” for his Penske Racing team, one chasing a NASCAR championship and searching for a leader along the lines of…Lou Piniella?

A lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, Busch tossed Sweet Lou’s name onto the short list of candidates being compiled to replace Tryson at the conclusion of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in nine weeks. Tryson, who has been paired with Busch since the summer of 2007, announced earlier this month that he will join Michael Waltrip Racing in Cornelius, N.C., to work with Martin Truex Jr. beginning with the 2010 season.

Asked to describe the ideal qualities of his next crew chief, Busch apparently figured that any Major League manager who has dealt with moody outfielder Milton Bradley and an underachieving Cubs team is fully equipped to handle a Blue Deuce Cup crew suddenly in flux.

“I can joke around it and say that I want a Lou Piniella to come in there and kick some butt, but we have to focus on these next nine weeks,” Busch said during a teleconference on Tuesday. “Penske Racing is interviewing different candidates and I don’t think that we’ll see anything come up in the next few weeks as far as results.”

As noted, results continue to be paramount for Busch heading into Round 2 of the Chase at Dover International Speedway for Sunday’s AAA 400. Busch finished sixth in the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last Sunday and now sits fifth among the 12-driver field. Mark Martin, who began the 10-race playoff seeded No. 1, won Sunday’s event and remained in first with 5,230 points. Busch, who launched his run to the 2004 Cup title with a victory at New Hampshire, trails Martin by 65 points.

Tryson, a native of Malvern, Pa., guided Busch to one win, seven top-five and 15 top-10 finishes en route to a fifth-place standing after the 26-race “regular season.”

Tryson’s plan to exit Penske Racing at season’s end was already looming as a pre-Chase distraction when management announced in Loudon, N.H., that Tryson would only be allowed at the shop in Mooresville, N.C., during the competition de-briefing on Tuesday. Mike Nelson, Penske’s vice president of operations, said the organization was guarding against the leaking of any information pertaining to the 2010 season.

Busch diplomatically sought to soften, and rationalize, the impact of both Tryson’s impending departure and his limited access to the team owned by Roger Penske.

“I don’t see it bringing up any issues,” said Busch, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger. “The fact that Pat is still there on race weekend and being the leader will definitely keep the continuity together Friday, Saturday and Sunday. With him just showing up on Tuesdays…crew guys are off on Monday, so everybody is off on Monday. Tuesday, he was there (this week). We had the driver de-brief and business was usual. It felt great. (Pat) sitting down with other leaders of our team to go over the plan for this next week was business as usual and that’s great.

“So, Wednesday is really going to be the day that he’ll be gone; everybody should have a game plan put together behind the scenes to cover their work, and Thursdays are considered travel days. So really it’s just one day in my mind out of the week that he’ll be able to rest himself and spend time with his daughter and family and come to the racetrack ready to rip.”

Busch later acknowledged Penske management’s concern over items being tested for next season, including a “developmental engine” run by teammate and non-Chaser Sam Hornish Jr. at NHMS.

“There’s obviously the (current) numbers that he’s (Tryson) going to see and the information that he’s going to understand which is fine, because we need that for the next nine weeks,” said Busch, who is competing in the Chase for the fourth time in its six-year existence. “The concern on the management side is the development for 2010. I can understand that, but at the same time, the present is now and we need to continue working as a group together.

“But, he’s not going to know exactly what some of the new developments are behind the scenes by just being around for a short time during the week. A tough situation. We’re making the best of it. This type of format definitely keeps you on your toes, and sometimes that can be the best thing when you’re heading down the stretch run.”

For his part, Busch will attack the high-banked 1-mile, concrete Dover oval with a new “700 Series” chassis – a gamble given all that’s at-stake in the Chase.

“For us, it’s just the timing of when the car was put together,” said Busch, who started 19th and finished fifth in the spring event at Dover. ”It (the chassis) was ready and available for Atlanta (Motor Speedway on Sept. 6), but we didn’t want to change our program heading to Atlanta because of how the car raced there in March, when we won. So we put it on the shelf and waited for the next style racetrack that was similar, and this track at Dover is one of those.

“The aerodynamic numbers of Chassis 700 showed up to be the same for what we ran in June, and June was a great finish for us at the Monster Mile (Dover), where we finished fifth. We ran competitively all day and so the body being a given – that’s standard – we can really understand what this new chassis is going to bring to us. If you rely on your engineering department, everybody behind the scenes at Penske Racing, they’ll tell you that it’s better, it’s lighter, it’s faster, so we can’t be wrong in bringing it (to Dover).”

Busch said his team had no plans to run the Dodge developmental engine unless he drops out of title contention. “We hope that we’re in it all the way to Homestead,” said Busch, referring to the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22. “We finished sixth Sunday. If we can carry sixth every Sunday, I would say that we’re going to be pretty tough to beat.

“We definitely want to finish strong. I think that’s key in winning this Chase. What I mean by that is each race I have to run well, but finish strong. That’s been the case-in-point three out of the last five races. We could be a little better here and there, but we just need to stay away from the big accidents like we had at Atlanta (fall race) and Michigan (fall race). Those two types of finishes will definitely take your chances of winning this Chase away.”

Busch said he was wheeling a top-five hot rod around the 1.058-mile New Hampshire layout, where Martin outhustled Chase first-timer Juan Pablo Montoya during the final laps to score his 40th Cup victory.

“What hurt us the most was the accident on pit road – and that put us on the right sequence,” said Busch, referring to contact with the No. 6 UPS Ford Fusion driven by David Ragan. “A fuel-only stop. It happens every time. Fuel-only stops put everybody in jeopardy. I just didn’t see him. It happened at the last minute. We’re trying to run for a Chase and I just pulled out and the (No.) 6 was pulling in. It put us on the right cycle. I don’t know how the damage affected it, but the car was definitely off after that.”

Tryson also lamented that fuel-only stop and the resulting right-front damage. “We made one adjustment on that long run there that probably made the car too free for the yellow flag runs,” said Tryson, 45, who won two races with Busch in 2007 and one each in 2008 and 2009 thus far. “Overall, it was a good run for us. It was a good way to start the Chase off. We’re still in this thing in the big picture. We just need to keep getting better and head to Dover and try to have another run.

“The biggest thing is that we’ve been able to put a really competitive Dodge under Kurt in the first Dover race and again at Bristol. If we can do that again this weekend, we know that he can get the job done there on Sunday.”

Busch said Dover – where he has recorded three top-five and five top-10 finishes in 18 starts – definitely presents a different and difficult challenge for NASCAR’s Car of Today platform.

“A lot of guys think that it’s a big racetrack,” said Busch, who has two top-five finishes in the five fall Chase events at Dover. “Sometimes it acts like a temperamental short racetrack, but then the concrete surface plays the biggest issue that you’re fighting all day long. The high banks get slick with the rubber buildup; then you’re dealing with the seams like a sidewalk that you’re jumping over all the time and you’re battling those with your shock settings. Definitely a very challenging track.”

Dover also is the track where Busch, now 31, made his Cup debut for car-owner Jack Roush on Sept. 24, 2000.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” said Busch, winner of 19 Cup races. “It’s one of those heart-warming stories where I’m just this kid out of Vegas racing Late Models and never expected to make it to the bigs. To run in the Truck Series just six months after Late Models, I got the call to go to Cup; I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought Jack was crazy. I said, “I’m ready if you’re ready!” and Dover was the track that he chose.

“It’s probably one of the toughest tracks to drive on. I went to Dover, my first start and I got in, qualified 10th. After qualifying, Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. shook my hand and said, ‘Son, where you ever going to lift going into that corner?’ I didn’t know any better. I just really thought that you had to attack the track and qualify. So it was really neat and meeting him and starting next to champions like Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon. Just the start of the race, everyone was so darn fast, I didn’t know what I was into. I just faded into last place and started over. I just picked them off one at a time and finished 18th. That’s the nutshell of my first day on the job.”

Busch posted his best Dover finish, fourth, in September 2006 _ his first season with Penske Racing. “Since then, there’s been great wins,” said Busch, who has led 225 laps at Dover.” There’s been the changeover to Penske Racing, which has been wonderful, and the chance to be at the top of the sport for a year in winning the 2004 championship.

“I can’t trade any of it in. I wouldn’t. Would I do any of it different? Maybe I would have spent some years in Nationwide and an extra year in the Truck Series. But sometimes, what better way to learn how to swim than to just throw you in the deep end?”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 25 2009
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