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The man they love to hate

Kyle Busch racks up 100 wins

100 not out - Kyle rules, OK? (pic bristolmotorspeedway)

Over here in Europe far too many sneer at oval racing. If only more petrolheads from the Old World would go to see a Stock Car or Indycar race – stand next to the fence as 30 or 40 cars hurtle past at 200mph and all your preconceptions are shattered. They may only turn left, but give it a fair chance and you’ll witness bravery, precision and determination in abundance. There is so much talent in US racing and the points systems are often so confusing and contrived that it can be hard to spot the cream of the oval crop, but occasionally a driver emerges who shines through even to the untrained eye. Kyle Busch is just such a driver.

The driver of the number 18 machine has just clocked his 49th Nascar Nationwide win, tying Mark Martin’s all-time win record, after a thrilling finish at last night’s New Hampshire race. This is also his 100th race win in Nascar competition, which is half of King Richard Petty’s total. He is already a team owner too, it was Busch whom Kimi Raikonnen turned to when trying to find a fast ride for his Nascar debut this year. The man known as Shrub, Rowdy and Wild Thing has even had a little interest from a few people with vision in F1, although his chances with Toyota and USF1 both came to naught. All of that is great, but here’s the really impressive fact: Kyle is merely 26 years young.

You don’t need to know the astonishing stats to realise just how special Kyle is. There are few drivers in the world who can glue you to a TV screen like the younger Busch brother can. Kyle is forever saving slides, kissing walls, defining his own racing lines and overtaking where others fear to. On the super speedways he seems to be the only driver who can keep his head above water at restarts without a car pushing him in an era of two-car-tandems and non-stop bump-drafting. His road course game is solid and on the short tracks he hustles like few others can. If he was born in Rio or Kent he would surely be a superstar Grand Prix driver with the world at his feet. As it stands he is little known outside the US and A where he is just as famous for his tantrums as his triumphs. Out in cyberspace he is fast gaining the name of ‘Kryle’ due to his propensity for radioing in to his crew chief to tell him the car is un-drivable – shortly before he takes it to victory lane anyway.

Racing from 13 years old in Legends where he picked up 65 wins in only three seasons or so, Kyle made his debut in Nascar competition at sweet 16, leading in only his second start. Since then he has raced in all three of Nascar’s top-tier series often all on the same weekend. Last August at the fearsome bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway he became the first driver to win all three races at a Nascar meeting; he was also the first to win two in a weekend only the year before. Busch’s start-to-win ratio in Trucks is a staggering one win in every three starts where he is usually pitted against 40 or so other drivers in near-equal machinery.

So how does Rowdy Busch compare to the greats? Racing evolves so fast that it is always hard to compare eras. All of Richard Petty’s wins came at the top level yet Nascar had less strength-in-depth back then. The King took until he was 32 to clock his first 100 wins though he started his career three years later than Busch’s prodigious rise. In the fullness of time it may be that Dale Earnhardt is a closer match for Busch, at least in terms of sheer determination on a racetrack if not in personality. Wild Thing is already 24 wins ahead of The Intimidator although he’ll never overtake the great man in the popularity stakes. Having said that I remember a time when Dale divided the fans just as Kyle does today. Whether Busch will win wider affection is in his hands – if he drops his Rowdy image he may endear himself to more people even if it means we won’t be treated to him smashing up hand-made guitars or flipping the bird at race officials.

Now a married man he has proclaimed himself as “the new Kyle Busch” but he has still found himself on probation this season. Lewis Hamilton would sympathise I’m sure. This new Kyle Busch has already received a black eye at the fists of team owner Richard Childress earlier this season and even hit the European news for his citation for reckless driving after clocking 128mph in a 45mph zone when driving his company Lexus. Back at the track he still gets more than his fair share of boos from the crowd and sometimes has a few empties thrown in his direction.

Despite all this success and infamy Kyle is yet to claim a Sprint Cup title – which could be viewed as a bad reflection on the consistency of Joe Gibbs Racing and the lack of emphasis that the Nascar scoring system places on victory. However it does show starkly just how much talent is at work in modern stock car racing, in any other era he would surely have clocked up a title or two already as his older brother Kurt did back in 2004. It has taken until 2011 for the younger Busch to look like matching this feat. He currently leads the Sprint Cup standings deep into the 36 race season although The Chase has never been kind to him come season’s end. The Daytona 500 has also eluded him so far as he finds himself competing in an era where the super speedways are carnage-strewn lotteries. Few can tame restrictor plate tracks as The Intimidator once did, although Kyle has led the most laps at the 500 twice in his career so far.

So here’s to Kyle Busch. When it pays so well to win in the States then Europe may never know just where this kid rates amongst our heroes, but in Stock Cars he is already a genius of the finest kind – a flawed one. If 100 wins is half what The King managed then Kyle has just been crowned the Prince of Nascar. The throne awaits.

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Nascar pauses for tea

If it's good enough for Jesus... (pic by Royal Broil)


Nascar sponsors are about the most wildly diverse bunch – where else does Viagra rub up against ‘Jesus’? – but now the right wing folk of the Tea Party are getting involved in stock cars. They’ll be sponsoring Chris Lafferty’s Nascar Camping World Truck Series campaign, but unlike Jesus or the US Army, the Tea Party themselves are seeking to take 50% of all the other sponsorship revenues gathered by the team! So the driver risks his life and a political group reaps the rewards, what a great advert for them…

Obviously they will be hoping to get some young recruits, I’m sure that the ‘Nascar vote’ is an important one, but giving a race team a raw deal hardly seems like the way to get on the side of the ever-vocal fans in the stands. Here’s the story for you to check out.

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Desert, island, reading

Nascar rides into the sunset

Nascar in the desert, Superbikes beside the seaside (pic stevelyon)

The World Superbike season got underway in underwhelming style and Nascar got back to a short-ish track after the drama of Daytona, but it was the boys of World Supersport who put on the best show and claimed my race of the week. Watch them put the ‘super’ in Supersport here.

Carlos Checa made World Superbikes look easy with two wins at Phillip Island, while Max Biaggi had a solid start to his title defence and Marco Melandri made his mark with a podium on his debut. The Superbikes were unusually mute as Ducati’s works absence barely registered, a red bike controlled nearly the whole weekend regardless, so it was left to Supersport to provide the entertainment. After a thrilling contest they nearly had to split the winner’s trophy in three as Scassa, Lowes and home-hero Brock Parkes crossed the line as one, Luca Scassa emerging the winner by a nose. Classic Phillip Island and the best action of the weekend even before the photo-finish.

Meanwhile in the desert Kyle Busch wanted to take home three trophies from Phoenix after a win in Trucks and a rare lights-to-flag victory in Nationwide before saddling up for the Sprint Cup encounter. He nearly scored his hat-trick, as he did at Bristol last year, but then Jeff Gordon popped up to spoil the party to take his first win since 2009. Meanwhile last week’s Daytona fairytale turned into a nightmare for Trevor Bayne as he kept bouncing off the wall all weekend.

Jeff Gordon may have stole the headlines but Kyle Busch rode out of town with the title of twoworlds’ racer of the week by leading hundreds of laps at PIR and coming within nine miles of completing another three-from-three until the number 24 gently shuffled him aside.

We’ve now got nearly a month to wait for the Grand Prix circus to start doing anything of interest. There was no gossip from the F1 world this week as the paddock has read Bernie’s and Briatore’s biographies rendering them speechless…

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What’s the point?

 

BSB riders give chase - new points systems are all the rage (pic MSV)

In the past you needed to be Watson the supercomputer to work out who scored what in a Nascar race, now the Sprint Cup has adopted a new points formula that should be easier to comprehend for those like myself whose brains freeze when faced with any more than a couple of digits. So it’s 43 points for the win, a solitary point for last and you can guess the rest. Throw in a point for leading a lap (always a great incentive for action) and another point for leading the most laps (always a well earned point) and there you have the new system. Simples.

So things are easier to follow, but the Sprint Cup is only claimed after the season’s ending series of 10 races known as The Chase. Played out on dull ‘cookie cutter’ tracks, the top 12 drivers have their points almost equalised and only these chosen few can race for the title. Not so simples.

Jimmie Johnson has claimed the last five straight Sprint Cups, timing his push to the top 12 perfectly every time while other stock car superstars are left fighting over the scraps. So can Jimmie still win under this new system? Of course he can, he’s the complete driver with a shrewd crew chief and the best team in the business, but at least we may see some more representative results for strong drivers who have missed the Chase in the past such as win-a-holic Kyle Busch or King of Concrete Carl Edwards.

Last year British Superbikes adopted their own Chase-style system, branded as The Showdown, that saw Riuchi Kionari taking the crown at a thrilling final round at Oulton Park. Nobody doubts the quality of the Japanese rider, so it’s certainly worked for the BSB and looks set to stay. It’s also a hell of a lot better than Bernie’s silly medals idea he keeps going on about ever since he took his little trip to Beijing with the Blairs back in 2008.

For what it’s worth I’m not a fan of a Chase format that freezes out riders and drivers. It’s nice to see a championship develop over the course of a season. But what do I know, I’m still stuck with the opinion that the only proper points in F1 are the top six.

The Chase seems fairly popular on the Nascar scene, so the current talking point is the weird scenario that the top three series are all being led by drivers who didn’t win during Speedweeks as it was part-time interlopers Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne who struck gold. Only giving points to regulars was a response to Sprint Cup drivers scooping the honours in feeder series, such as Brad Keselowski’s title success in Nationwide last year.

I think it’s a truly wonderful thing that Nascar has drivers guesting across its various formulas – it gave us a truly feel-good story with Trevor Bayne’s big win last Sunday. It provides feats to marvel at such as Kyle Busch winning more races in one year than you could count on your fingers and toes. Some of the greatest races on two wheels have been ridden by wildcards, I only wish that F1 would lighten up and allow a Rossi or a Loeb to join the grid once in a while.

Today Indycar announced a massive prize-fund for their Las Vegas season finale to encourage some series-swapping, a move in the right direction for the new management of the series. A cheque for $5 million will be given to any guest driver who claims the win; what price Mario dusting off his overalls? “Oh boy,” tweeted Marco Andretti, “if my grandfather finds this out we will be a 5 car team!”

The Nascar debate about guys who finished second and third leading the way is a moot point – it’s great that they have guest drivers competing in the first place. And the fact we can even have this discussion without picking up a calculator is a success for the simplified points system.

After Nascar hits the desert in Phoenix and Vegas over the next couple of weeks the charts will doubtless look a little cleaner and those sensitive souls who are troubled by the scoring anomalies thrown up by the thrilling events of Speedweeks will have forgotten the current odd look of the tables. However the memorable feats of Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne will be imprinted on the minds of the fans forever.

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“I came here to celebrate his life, I didn’t come to celebrate a win.”

February the 18th 2011. It’s 10 years to the day since Dale Earnhardt lost his life chasing the Daytona 500. The winner that fateful day was Michael Waltrip, his first 500 victory overshadowed by the death of his car owner. Waltrip has taken a win in the 500 since, but he truly exercised the ghosts of 2001 by claiming victory in the Camping World Truck series at Daytona on the tenth anniversary of what must rank as the most bitter-sweet day of his career and indeed his life. Earnhardt Jnr always has the eyes of the fans on him, but Mikey Waltrip has shouldered some of the burden of Dale Snr’s loss too, “Someone said, ‘I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.’ I said, ‘Well, I can. I live it every day.'”

 

During the pre-race show Michael was reliving the events that changed Nascar forever, musing with his brother Darrell Waltrip about their roller coaster relationship with Earnhardt that went from feuding to friendship. Darrell spoke of Dale, by this point a seven time champion, putting his arms round him and offering his former nemesis help with a career in terminal decline. The younger Waltrip poignantly added with reference to the win his boss never saw, “I kept waiting for that hug.”

 

Dale Earnhardt may not have lived to see his driver win his first race after 463 attempts, but the fans have lived with the memory of February 18th 2001. Ten years on and Michael Waltrip gave them a beautiful moment at the end of a brutal race. Having never taken victory in a Truck race before, Waltrip’s steed for this race was black in tribute to The Intimidator and it proudly carried the number 15 on its flanks, the digits he took to Victory Lane for Earnhardt Inc. at the Great American Race.

 

The stars were aligned, but Waltrip had to survive not one, but two ‘Big Ones’ that left only five cars without damage. Elliot Sadler led the race on the final restart but Waltrip held his nerve, calmly slotted in behind him and then hustled his way past on the final dash to the flag to claim as emotional a win as we’ve seen at the Speedway. And they’re all emotional wins there.

 

Waltrip may have been aided in this dramatic last-second charge by his rear wing partially collapsing on the final lap to allow him slightly more top speed, but he was always at the sharp end and it would be churlish to suggest he couldn’t have done it otherwise.  Maybe it’s one of those new-fangled movable wings from F1! Expect a fine and a slapped wrist, but don’t expect Nascar to write him out of the results.

 

Meanwhile Dale’s grandson Jeffrey claimed seventh, the best of his short career, the cherry on the cake. As the familiar Waltrip and Earnhardt names rode high and turned back the clock, there was a reminder of just how much Nascar has changed this past decade as Jennifer Jo Cobb finished 6th, a landmark result for a lady racer. Danica Patrick lines up fourth for today’s Nationwide race at the Speedway, so we could see that new record for female stock car drivers broken within 24 hours.

 

The commentators in the booth included big brother Darrell who spoke on the radio to his little brother within seconds of the flag. “I’m just thankful,” Michael said tearfully before modestly adding in Victory Lane, “I came here to celebrate his life, I didn’t come to celebrate a win.”

 

It was less a fairytale, more a Shakespearian tragedy, although the universe did what it could to tidy up the mess left behind when Nascar’s shining star lost his light on the biggest stage of the sport. Daytona is a story in itself written over 60 years, a page turner that never fails to enthrall. The next two chapters will be written tonight and on Sunday, make sure you catch it. If you didn’t see it live make sure you watch the magic that unfolded on February 18th 2011 in the video above.

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