On the way to the West Coast last week, Kurt Busch stopped off at Furniture Row Racing in Denver to work on the team’s strategy for the final 10 races before the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The team felt Sunday’s contest at Sonoma Raceway was covered. Busch, who nearly won the event last year, would have the best equipment FRR could offer. Barring any unfortunate malfunction on the car or miscue in the pits by his rookie team – which initially planned on just a two-pit stop race – it was up to the former champion to deliver the goods.
So it was curious when Busch slipped last Thursday after he was asked a silly question about who he would prefer to have dinner with when given a list of drivers. His focus turned to Ryan Newman, his former Penske Racing teammate with whom he experienced a not-so-friendly feud on and off the track as the two free agents searched for rides last year.
“Maybe Newman and I need to have a sit-down, because we’re both out there charging hard and trying to get into the Chase, and we’re looking for rides,” said Busch, who almost immediately regretted the last few words.
Busch, 34, signed a one-year deal with Furniture Row Racing last year.
Although team owner Barney Visser attempted to extend the contract with Busch after he posted three consecutive top-10 finishes to close out the 2012 season, the driver believed it was best to hold off.
Certainly, that’s understandable. Busch had run just six races with FRR and didn’t know what to expect from the single-car team based in Colorado – far from NASCAR’s traditional southern roots. What he’s discovered over the last nine months is a committed boutique operation with solid engineering support and strong ties to Richard Childress Racing.
And as Busch learned on Sunday – before he made the error of speeding down pit road twice, dropped to 38th and battled back to a fourth-place finish – FRR can produce cars capable of winning. That’s a prospect not lost on his rival Newman, who has inquired about the possibility of a second team at FRR for 2014.
Yes, Busch is accustomed to competing with high-profile teams but those coveted seats are few and far between. There have been talks with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing but the driver landscape remains in flux.
On Sunday, Childress admitted that Newman, who will likely have the support of sponsor Quicken Loans, is topping his list of candidates for the No. 29 ride being vacated by Kevin Harvick. In the winner’s post-race interview, Michael Waltrip acknowledged that Brian Vickers “is our guy.”
“We’re trying to get all the pieces together so he can drive the 55 and race for the championship next year,” Waltrip said.
When Busch connected Visser and Furniture Row Racing last fall, his road back to contention began taking shape. Sixteen races into 2013, Busch has blistered FRR’s previous record for top-five (four) and top-10 (six) finishes in a single season.
Over the last year, Busch has made tremendous strides rebuilding his brand. Currently Busch is 17th in the point standings, 28 points outside of the Chase. Despite his immense talent, unless something changes at EGR or MWR decides to add a fourth team, his options are thin.
Furniture Row Racing has no issues with Busch testing the market – as long as it doesn’t become a distraction for the team. But with 10 races remaining before the Chase, it would be best for Busch to concentrate on winning races and leading his team into the playoffs. Now that would really improve his market value.
HELL ON WHEELS
Although his quest for an eighth consecutive Chase berth is looking thin, Denny Hamlin isn’t giving up yet.
Hamlin, who fractured his vertebra earlier this season and missed five races, finished 23rd on Sunday. Although he moved up to 25th in the point standings, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota remains winless – and 133 points outside of the Chase.
Hamlin’s struggles continued in Sonoma after his former teammate Tony Stewart slammed into him in Turn 7 on Lap 68. After the incident, Stewart blamed Hamlin for “shifting lanes to the outside.” Hamlin agrees that he shifted lanes, but he said it was in an effort to get ahead of another driver who was on older tires and holding him up.
“I was going to pass them on the next corner and Tony was going to pass that guy also,” Hamlin said. “So, I had just passed Tony, so I don’t understand why he was trying to make a move on me. It was frustrating. Restarts are tight and frustrating here.
“I said before the weekend starts, I get ran over by an a**hole every single year – every year I get run over and spun by somebody. Tony was just the guy today. He didn’t do it on purpose — we were trying to pass somebody, that’s it.”
Despite taking another hit on the track, Hamlin says he feels fine physically. Although he’s mentioned taking a break and undergoing back surgery if his Chase hopes are dashed, Hamlin is refusing to contemplate the possibility yet.
Although his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also had run-ins on Sunday, Hamlin doesn’t believe the No. 11 team is competing at the same level as either Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch’s squads right now.
But with 10 races remaining before the Chase, Hamlin doesn’t intend on changing his weekly strategy.
“I’d have to have a lot of stuff go my way, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said. “Once we get past this race here, we have our wheelhouse, I guess you can say, coming up. We’re not gaining anything to 20th. We need a lot of help and a lot of stuff to go our way, honestly. We’re not running that strong, we’re not running as strong as the Chase guys right now. You have to earn it. You can’t just expect other guys to make mistakes.”
After scoring his first NASCAR win in Saturday’s Nationwide Series contest, AJ Allmendinger tweeted:
Just got home from @roadamerica …. what an amazing perfect day. I can’t thank Roger and everyone @penskeracing enough for this.
2: Drivers Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard are tied with 445 points this season. Kahne, who won at Bristol, sits 11th in the standings due to the tie-breaker on wins.
5: Positions lost in the point standings Sunday by Tony Stewart (15th), who finished 28th after he was involved in wrecks with Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton.
6: Points Carl Edwards gained on points leader Jimmie Johnson, who finished ninth. Edwards started and finished the race third – tying his best effort at the track (2011). Johnson’s advantage is currently 25 points over Edwards.
How did Martin Truex Jr. feel in Victory Lane on Sunday after ending a 218-race winless streak?
“I can’t even put it into words,” Truex said. “I’ve got so many people to thank that have stuck by me. … We’ve been close a lot and it feels damn good to get one finally.”