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No Longer Green ‘Shrub’ Is Growing More Patient

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 3 2010

The new, more patient Kyle Busch overcame the new, poorer restarting Jeff Gordon in Richmond Saturday. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Motor racing, as the saying goes, is a fast-moving sport. In recent days, the “new Kyle Busch” has emerged a winner at Richmond, the contentious anti-trust law suit at the Kentucky Motor Speedway has been settled, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon stopped fuming (if not feuding) and the Indy Racing League created two new intra-season championships, a move that has implications for both NASCAR, the IRL and a certain racing diva.

The IRL announcement was a reminder that NASCAR used to have a “season within a season” long before the Chase for the Championship was introduced. When the schedule was first shortened, the ten races on short track bullrings were like a separate segment of the schedule. The tracks at Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro and Nashville had their own unique character matched by long histories. After NASCAR stopped using mileage to calculate points, the short tracks carried as much weight as the races on the super speedways, too, making them far more important at the outset of the modern era schedule.

In the 11 years that the schedule listed 10 short tracks, the winner of what is now called the Sprint Cup championship won the most short track races seven times. During his streak of three straight titles, Cale Yarborough won 18 of 30 short track events and collected the five-point bonus for leading the most laps in a majority of them.

With only six of the bullrings now on a schedule of 36 races, the short tracks no longer carry the statistical significance of how the championship is going to turn out. More likely, the driver who fares best on intermediate speedways of 1.0 or 1.5 miles will come out ahead, because that’s how the schedule stacks up during the 10-race Chase. (During his four-year championship streak, Jimmie Johnson won eight of the 32 events held on intermediate speedways during the Chase.)

The “new Kyle Busch,” now third in points, cannot be prognosticated as a future champ in the Sprint Cup with one big night at Richmond, including a comeback versus Jeff Gordon, who continues to have trouble with re-starts and ought to be feuding with himself over this issue. The upcoming races at Darlington, Dover and Charlotte are likely to be better indicators of the more patient Busch’s ability to challenge at the end of the season in the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs. In any event, the younger of the Busch brothers has gone through nicknames faster than he moves in and out of victory lanes in NASCAR’s three traveling series. He started as “Shrub” Busch, from there moved to “Rowdy” and now, according to team owner Gibbs, is the “new Kyle,”

For those who love the beating, the banging and the close-up views afforded by short tracks, the sad news: it seems certain Martinsville will lose one of its dates to the Kansas Speedway next year in the realignment where track owners trade dates among their own properties. As for Speedway Motorsports, it remains to be seen if majority owner Bruton Smith will move a date from Atlanta to Kentucky now that the law suit against NASCAR has been settled.

On a related front when it comes to schedules, I’d say the IRL announcement about creating its own unique schedule within a schedule was pretty big news, if only because it came out of the blue. More significantly, it signals the IZOD IndyCar Series is attempting to mend the split in open-wheel racing by acknowledging the fan base for the sport is often divided between oval racing and road racing. By creating a title for the oval “season” and the road racing “season” as well as an over-all title, it gives fans from both points of view a new reason to focus on IndyCar racing beyond the month of May at Indy.

The proposal made by new CEO Randy Bernard follows the rationalization of the schedule for this season. This year, four street/road circuits are followed by four ovals to start the schedule. Next, five street/road circuits begin in sequence at Toronto and are followed by the season’s final four events on ovals. The new scheme, where the season finale in Homestead will crown the over-all champion, doesn’t build tension quite like the Chase, but it does add some new layers of interest.

The announcement underscores the new CEO’s willingness to create change, but also an ability to make a major decision with a significant internal logic that is almost self-explanatory. The IRL needs to sustain attention over the course of a full season; it needs to deliver TV numbers no matter what the shape of the circuit; and it needs to win back fans lost in the CART vs. IRL split by emphasizing the versatility of the series. The new cars and engines on the horizon will not generate significant interest until they are on the track in 2012 and the IRL must find ways to bridge that gap.

The oval race in Kansas won by Scott Dixon on Saturday signals a return to the month of May at Indy, but will the IRL return to the oval owned by the International Speedway Corporation next year as part of a season-opening oval segment? Both Bernard and the promoter at Kansas are making the usual noises, which means the devil is in the details when it comes to the schedule at the track next year and its newly added Sprint Cup race. Issues such as sanctioning fees, etc. look like small potatoes.

When it comes to conspiracy theories, I doubt the ISC would shunt the IndyCar event to keep the rival series “down on the farm” and in no position to challenge NASCAR, where the ownership is shared with the ISC ownership. Also, the “preview to Indy” slot is timely and has an established date equity for the Kansas track. But if the new Sprint Cup date comes from the spring race at Martinsville, then there may be enough conflict in the spring weekends to push Kansas to a post-Indy slot in the IRL schedule.

I would not be inclined to think the IRL’s desire to create an oval championship is focused on trying to draw more attention to Danica Patrick, who clearly does better on the high-speed tracks than on the road or street circuits. By giving her an oval championship to shoot for, however, the IRL may be wooing the racing diva to continue running a full season of IndyCars and only selective races in NASCAR once her contract concludes with Andretti Autosport.

That certainly has some internal logic to it.

Quote of the Week: Kyle Busch on his new, more patient style after Saturday night’s victory at Richmond.

“For the old Kyle Busch, he would have folded. The new one, he stuck in there, he dug hard. He kept going.

“You know, I mean, it was difficult. I just kept driving every lap with what I had. That’s all I ever do. It seems like every race so far this year we’ve had at least one run where we’ve fallen back. Texas was a big one. We came in the pits. Came out of the pits sixth with a third-place car on the previous run and dropped all the way back to 22nd or 25th or something like that before we could come back to pit road and make an adjustment to get back going forward again. We faded a little bit. Just kept doing what we could do.

“We were good on the front half of the run, we could make up a little bit of time there. After 80 laps, something like that, we would start fading backwards. You had to hang on at that point. It was about 35 or 30 laps before we were going to come in and pit. It was just, ‘Hold on.’ Everybody is so tight here and their lap times are so tight, it’s hard to gain ground on anybody. I was behind my brother there late in the going, I think lap 300 to 350, and he was driving away from me. I was like, ‘Man, I can’t even run down a car that’s a lap down.’

“We just kept plugging along. There wasn’t anybody behind me. I think Juan Montoya caught me, I let him go. A couple other lap cars came in and got tires, let them go. Ran my own race and it paid dividends tonight.”

Quote of the Week II: Randy Bernard on the new street/road and oval championships for the IZOD IndyCar Series: “We have to create more stars and an image for them. What separates us from NASCAR and Formula One is our demographics, as well as the versatility of being the fastest car in the world. NASCAR runs ovals with two non-ovals, and we have a 50-50 split. F-1 is strictly non-ovals. That’s what we need to hang our hat on and clarify a consistent marketing image that defines what we’re about. And that’s the fastest, most versatile car in the world and driver in the world.”

Quote of the Week III: Danica Patrick, who finished 11th at Kansas, on being glad to get back on ovals: “With the way I’ve done so far, if you ask if I’m excited to be on an oval and the answer is yes. I’ve had a little bit of a rough start to the year. On the road courses, I didn’t focus enough on a car that suits me. It’s been a little distracting having teammates in the top three and there I am in whatever place I am.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 3 2010
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