With seven races remaining to decide the 2013 NASCAR Chase to the Sprint Cup field, a word of advice to contenders: Don’t lose your head.
Sure, it’s easy to fall into the trap. The pressure is on. Wins aren’t as frequent. And opportunities are running out.
When the car isn’t perfect and the pit crew has suffered a miscue or two, the driver feels compelled to make up the difference – to a fault.
“I think every driver handles that differently, and it defines who you are as a NASCAR racer,” said defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who hasn’t won in 26 races but last weekend posted his second top-five in the last 15 events to move back into the Chase zone. “I guess the thought process behind this sport is that all the cars are equal. I am going to go ahead and tell you that is not the case. On any given day at the racetrack the win is defined differently based on what you have from a car and team to work with.
“Sometimes, the win is simple; you win the race. You take a fast car and find a way to get it up front and lead laps and win it. Sometimes the win might be having a 15th- or 20th-place car and finishing in the top five. That might be the win. I know that is really hard for some people to see, and there are very few people inside this sport that I think even know when that occurs, when someone takes a 20th-place car and finishes fifth.”
On Sunday, Kurt Busch had led 102 of the first 225 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when impatience took over. Two-thirds into the race, the No. 78 Furniture Row team maintained a conservative four-tire pit stop game plan. The problem? The additional time on pit road mired Busch behind the leaders.
When Busch lined up 10th on Lap 223, his Chevy went three-wide with nemesis Ryan Newman and fellow former champion Matt Kenseth as the cars shuffled out over the next two laps. Penske Racing spotter Joey Meier warned Keselowski that Newman was already having issues with Kyle Busch and to stay out of his way.
Kurt Busch could have used similar advice from his team at that moment. Facing a 61-race winless drought and still auditioning for new teams in 2014, Busch still had a New Hampshire trophy within his reach. No doubt a victory would have been Chase insurance for a guy who entered the weekend ninth in points.
However, with 75 laps remaining, a big-picture view for Busch should have been to focus simply on finishing the race. A top 10 would have kept Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and perhaps even Keselowski behind him in the standings.
Last year, Busch struggled with mediocre equipment and a second-hand pit crew. Though his cars are considerably more competitive this season, the temptation is still there to over-drive on race day.
Busch’s former teammate Keselowski has seen him “take a winning car and win with it,” which he feels is equally important and impressive. But he also believes that is the driver’s responsibility to himself and his team to not over-drive.
“You have to have the keen sense of what you have on that day, which is incredibly difficult because we all have a piece inside of us that refuses to lose, that wants to find a way to win with the 20th-place car, Keselowski said. “But quite honestly, that is usually when you wreck.
“It is a fine line to balance as drivers that really gets no notoriety but quite honestly is one of the hardest things you do unless you have a dominant car week in and week out like some guys do.”
Kyle Busch found himself in a similar predicament to his sibling on the Magic Mile. He started fourth and led 53 laps throughout the race, but as the track changed he fell back in traffic. He insisted more than once that he couldn’t drive the car.
Though the younger Busch’s standing in the Chase is more secure with two wins and a solid 55-point advantage over 10th place, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota exercised caution and was rewarded with a second-place finish at Loudon.
“The only thing about slowing down and giving up a little bit is speed,” Kyle Busch said. “It’s just pure speed. You drive it as hard as you can. If you’re driving it for all the car is worth and everything that you’re worth, you’re heating up tires, you’re building air pressure, you’re going to be slowing down.
“There are times when sometimes slower is faster. But it’s very hard to tell a racecar driver that slower is faster, for sure. You’re chasing the guy in front of you. If you’re leading the race and there’s a guy behind you, you’re chasing that lap time, you’re chasing that number to try to go faster. There’s a lot of guys that over-drive their equipment, and I’m guilty of it just as much as the rest of them.”
But with the Chase on the line, it’s up to the drivers to ascertain the risk versus the reward.
Kevin Harvick has ruled the roost at Richard Childress Racing since he was selected as the driver of the No. 29 Chevy in 2001.
It’s not that he was the oldest driver in the stable or the most experienced; it’s just the way things shook out after Dale Earnhardt’s death. But with his departure at the end of the year to Stewart Haas Racing, that’s about to change.
When Jeff Burton arrived at RCR in 2005, it was a transition year for sure. But over the next three years, Burton solidified his status with four wins and a Chase berth each season.
Although Burton, has just one Chase appearance in the past four years, after finishing third Sunday and moving up to 17th in the points standings the 46-year-old is convinced he again can carry the No. 31 team to the playoffs.
But the greater challenge may be the necessity for Burton to take on more of a leadership role at Richard Childress Racing.
“One thing that I’ve been disappointed in what the 31 has been able to contribute the last couple of years is we have not been able to push our teammates, and when they are struggling they have not been able to lean on us to get help,” Burton said Sunday. “And that’s not a good thing. All the teams got to be working together. All the teams got to be giving something in order for it to work.
“As far as Kevin leaving, you don’t lose that caliber of driver without it having an impact on your organization. We are going to have to – I’m going to have to – step up in some areas. Paul (Menard) is going to have to step up in some areas, and then when the third team and all that’s done they are going to have to step up, too.”
14 – Races Matt Kenseth has led laps in this season – including 33 on Sunday.
1,037 – Laps led by Kyle Busch this season – more than any competitor in Cup.
304 – Sprint Cup races run without Morgan Shepherd leading a lap.
Kyle Busch did not mince words regarding his opinion of Newman after the driver of the No. 39 Chevy battled with Busch and his brother Kurt:
“Ryan Newman is the biggest stupid idiot out here,” Kyle said. “And he’s a big ogre, and he can do whatever he wants because he can probably kick anybody’s butt, so no sense in getting into a fight with him. But glad he is out of a job."