Commentary

Fast start huge boost for other Busch

Updated: March 4, 2009, 3:36 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

More often than not, it's not worth getting worked up about, but you don't realize it until you're past it. You just can't please everybody.

Marty,

Pull your head out of [er, the sand. This is a family show]! Kurt Busch is BACK! I read ESPN The Magazine and saw where you said he'd have another bad year. He was awesome at California Speedway, so you look like an idiot and I love it. What do you have to say now, fool?

-- Jason Carrollford, Carson City, Nev.

I'd say you stumbled to the cooler a couple too many times, Jason. Though I'm sure Busch -- and his sponsor -- appreciate the support.

Look, it's two races. It's too early to anoint anyone -- even Matt Kenseth. That's not to say Busch's fifth-place run Sunday isn't impressive. It absolutely is. But if I said it was anything other than unexpected, I'd be lying.

NASCAR is fickle. Great drivers like Kenseth and Busch, and even Jeff Gordon, don't forget how to drive. They're elite, among the best in the world. But at times the chemistry (Kenseth) or the feel of the car (Gordon) or any number of other variables fails to click, and performance plummets.

Suddenly we all think they've lost it. It's ridiculous, but it's human nature, the Janet Jackson effect: What have you done for me lately?

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Busch endured the worst year of his Cup career in 2008, and there was nothing tangible that indicated his performance would dramatically improve this year. Granted, he did improve late in the year, piecing together three finishes of sixth or better in the season's final six races. But there was no consistency. The thought that he'd suddenly run as well as his brother or Jimmie Johnson or Carl Edwards was laughable.

Until now. He outran two of the three in Fontana -- consistently -- and stands third in the championship standings. It's early and could change in a week. But it's a huge morale booster.

During the offseason, the No. 2 team changed people, built better cars and worked hard in the wind tunnel.

"We don't want to get too excited," said crew chief Pat Tryson. "We improved everything, but we need to do this for four or five weeks in a row to really know anything. We have Texas, Atlanta and Vegas coming up. If we can stay in the top 10 consistently at those tracks, then we know we're on to something."

The improved performance can also be traced, at least in part, to an offseason Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway, during which Tryson shunned last year's philosophy in favor of a completely different thought process.

"We were pulling our hair out most of last year," Tryson said. "We tried all kinds of different stuff, which helped us narrow our focus down heading into this year. Bump stops are really important right now, and we made lots of progress there and we've come up with a completely different package.

"We found something at the tire test that really worked for Kurt. We just took a different approach and went to a completely different setup version than we ran for most of last year. We'll go down that road for the next several races to see if it sticks."

Following such a frustrating season, Busch, certainly, is pleased with the progress.

"He's as good as there is in the sport," Tryson said. "That's why it's so frustrating for him when it's not going well. He's, for sure, a top-five driver. He's a champion. We have to get him back to that level. It's what he's experienced and what he expects."

Observation: Limited testing seems to benefit drivers like Busch, Gordon and Kenseth. They know cars. They know what they want in cars. For the first time in a long time, driver feedback has as much bearing, if not more, as engineering data in determining setup adjustments. Just a thought …

Hey Marty,

There is a column on ESPN stating that Junior is running out of time to win the championship. Do you agree? I don't think so, and I think he can still win with Hendrick in year three or four of the contract.

-- Michele P., hometown unknown

My man Terry Blount wrote that piece, and it wasn't opinion-based. It was based solely on numbers and historical data from the previous 60 seasons. We media types fall in love with numbers. Average-finish this and laps-led that. They give us something to spout off about and sound smart.

In this particular instance I disagree with the trend. I don't think the window is closing on Earnhardt, yet. But this is a pivotal year for him. It's Year 10. He's putting substantial pressure on himself to compete and to win. He knows he has superior equipment and zero excuses.

The biggest obstacle he faces is the competition. Right now his team isn't consistently as good as some others. He's in a hole. He made a mistake in Daytona, then blew an engine at Fontana. Las Vegas is among his worst tracks. He's 35th in the owners' points standings, but there's time. It's early.

Here's the thing about Junior that no one else faces: The only way he can appease fans and critics alike is to win the whole darn thing.

Some folks try to tell me he can't drive. That's ridiculous. He's a top-10 talent. Ask his peers. I have.

Other people want to pin it on Tony Eury Jr. In fact, I was asked Tuesday on "NASCAR Now" whether Eury's on the hot seat. Really?

Is it Eury's fault that Junior wrecked at Daytona? Is it his fault Junior missed his pit stall? (Ray Evernham says it is, and he's forgotten more about racing than I'll ever know. But we'll just have to disagree on that one, I reckon.) Is it Eury's fault the motor blew up at Fontana? No.

Last year I probably said and/or wrote this 100 times: Until Dale Jr. is ready for a new crew chief, or the two decide to amicably part ways, Tony Jr. is going to crew chief the 88. Some wonder when Rick Hendrick will step in and make a change. What people fail to realize is there's a helluva lot more involved with being Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief than car decisions and race management.

It takes a very special personality and demeanor to handle the Junior Factor.

Find Pete Rondeau. Ask him.

Hi Marty,

While waiting on the Daytona 500 to start, a group of us was talking, and out of the blue a great NASCAR history question presented itself: Who was the first driver to put his name over the door of his race car, when, and why?

-- Charlie Ruskin, Florida

NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim tells me it was Tiny Lund back in the mid-1960s, Charlie.

Marty,

Huge Jeff Gordon fans here. My friends and I were talking about last year at Las Vegas when Jeff had that terrible wreck. Has the track done anything to make sure that doesn't happen again?

-- Josh Sanderson, Tempe, Ariz.

Absolutely, Josh. I spoke with Las Vegas Motor Speedway president Chris Powell this week and he told me they installed 1,696 ft. of SAFER barrier on the inside retaining wall, and in fact did so even before the Truck Series rolled into town last September.

"That decision was almost made about the time [Gordon's] car came to rest -- as soon as Jeff Gordon got a microphone in front him and said we needed a SAFER barrier there," Powell said. "We did what NASCAR suggested we do. That decision was made within hours, and it was made by Bruton [Smith, track owner]. He said we've got to have it, and we did it."

The wreck was brutal. Gordon came off Turn 2 underneath Kenseth, battling for the lead, when his No. 24 Chevy washed up the track into Kenseth. He spun down the track and into a gap midway down the interior backstretch wall.

Gordon called it, "the hardest I've ever hit," and said "several years ago, those types of hits, you wouldn't be standing here right now."

The gap Gordon hit, which enables safety vehicles to enter the track quickly following a wreck, is still there. It has to be.

"If there was anything I came away with that was concerning to me, it was the appearance that he hit a 45 degree angle at 90 degrees," Powell said. "He didn't. I'm looking at an aerial view as we speak. That's not a pronounced angle in the wall. It's a gentle angle created to let the safety trucks get out on short notice.

"It's the only opening on the backstretch. The camera angle on TV made it appear as though it was a poorly angled opening. It is not. NASCAR came and looked at it and agreed it not be altered in any way, other than putting the SAFER barrier on it."

Kudos to Powell, Smith and LVMS for being proactive on this one.

Hey Marty,

Looks like karma caught up with Greg Biffle, huh? He complained a lot last year about how his pit crew cost him wins, and Sunday he cost himself one in the pits.

-- A Cup crew member, Huntersville, N.C.

Interesting e-mail. Slightly shady, even. Here's the thing about Biffle that I love -- his honesty. He screwed up and he owned up to it. How many guys would go on national television after a mishap like that and say, "They should fire me"? Very few.

Biffle's candor is a rarity these days. I spent a morning with him in December at a Manhattan Starbucks discussing his path to Cup. It's an amazing story that I need to get around to writing. Jack Roush hired the guy, basically sight unseen, based on a few Victory Lane photographs and a recommendation from the late Benny Parsons.

In other words, in today's NASCAR, Greg Biffle doesn't happen. Great story.

Marty,

Your stand on the Daytona 500 being called, for one reason, Fontana being next, doesn't hold any water at all. That, too, should be considered in the event of rain. Wasn't a problem when Richmond was next. NASCAR needs to look at what's next after such an important event. Even Texas would be closer and easier done.

-- Bob Thurman, Danville, Va.

Umm, Bob? I'm no Magellan, but I figure Richmond is what, 2,500 miles closer to Charlotte than Fontana is?

I understand what you mean, and I don't disagree. NASCAR placed Fontana second on the schedule in hopes of carrying momentum from the Daytona 500 to the season's second race. It's a novel concept, but one marginal success at best that should be re-evaluated.

California track president Gillian Zucker has a futile battle on her hands. Her dates are horrible -- though the new one, in October during the Chase as opposed to Labor Day, helps dramatically with weather. The L.A. market is huge from a sponsor and prestige perspective but doesn't much care about NASCAR.

Many folks have complained that Sunday's race was boring. I was a spectator and enjoyed it, even if the field was strung out. I'm an easy draw, though. I fall in the hard-core fan category. Give me a beer or two and I'm cool. But I don't care who you are, the Kenseth/Gordon sprint at the end was wonderful -- and legit. It wasn't a green-white-checkered close finish. It was a close finish.

That's my time. Sin City beckons.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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