ATW: Unexpected parity, the need for heels and surprises at home

David Yeazell/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

I confess that I wasn’t in Charlotte, North Carolina this week.

While most NASCAR scribes were indulging in the lead up to the sport’s longest race – the Coca-Cola 600 – I was fighting off chills eight hours away as Jim Cornelison belted out “Back Home Again in Indiana” and a certain spectacle in the midwest began anew for the 101st time.

Still, by day’s end, I admit that I felt as though I had a lot in common with the stars of America’s top motorsport, right down to the end of day exhaustion.

You see, during the rainy, 600-mile endurance race in the Carolinas, I was busy completing a physical test of my own – surviving a three-hour drive to my girlfriend’s house after a weekend that saw a combined 8 hours of sleep.

With the race airing in the background courtesy of the Performance Racing Network, I found myself easing into a level of comfort less than 15 miles from my intended destination. With my “home” for the night within reach, I slowly began to let the many thoughts and exhaustion from a hectic weekend creep into the back of my head.

Then, suddenly, a puddle appeared.

Fostered by heavy rains over the past few weeks, a collection of water that looked every bit of six inches deep lay in the roadway I was taking during the final leg of my journey. Worse, a semi-truck pounded the pavement in the opposite direction, forcing me to maintain my lane.

Thankfully, I saw the puddle quickly and was able to pound my brakes and roll through it at a reasonable pace. Still, the thought of what could have happened jolted me back to full alertness for the rest of my drive.

This isn’t uncommon. A quick Google search of the scene of most car accidents will show as many as seven out of 10 come within 10-15 miles of home.

It makes sense, too. Modern humans travel as far as any in our planet’s history. But it’s often close to home – when we’re at our most comfortable – where the craziest things happen.

Just ask Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing.

Onto this week’s observations.

Parity Meets Southern Comfort

Say what you will about Charlotte Motor Speedway – most of you did after the All-Star Race, hence last weekend’s sudden application of VHT to spice things up – but few race tracks have been able to consistently deliver different winners.

Charlotte Motor Speedway has played host to a group of surprising winners over the last decade. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Since 2007, only three drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne) have been able to string together multiple victories in points-paying races at Charlotte.

During that same span, 16 different competitors from four separate manufacturers have pulled out a victory at the track considered home by most NASCAR teams.

There’ve been some surprises along the way, too.

First there was Casey Mears’ successful fuel-mileage gambit in 2007, his lone win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to date. Two years later came David Reautimann’s rain-shortened surprise in 2009. Jamie McMurray pulled off another big win just 17 months later in the fall 2010 race.

After a few years of “standard” winners – Johnson, Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski among them – the track again returned to the unexpected in 2015 when Carl Edwards survived on fumes to earn a surprising Coca-Cola 600 win. That victory finally kickstarted what had previously been a lackluster beginning to his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing, culminating in an oh-so-close title bid in 2016.

Last year’s 600-mile race brought a historic and trend-reversing beatdown from Martin Truex, Jr., when he led 392 of 400 laps in a dominant affair.

And 2017? Well, a certain No. 3 Chevrolet returned to victory lane for the first time since some guy named “Earnhardt” drove it.

Their on-track product hasn’t always been the flashiest on the NASCAR tour, but Charlotte has consistently delivered parity and the occasional surprising storyline over the past decade. That remains a bright spot for the facility, even as it’s often showered in darkness.

Breaking Kayfabe

Kyle Busch is the sort of villain that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO Vince McMahon dreams of.

He was never the most popular driver with the fans, but ever since ‘Rowdy’ made a sudden heel turn by spinning fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at Richmond International Raceway in 2008, he’s consistently supplied a steady stream of storylines from victory bows to “balls and strikes.”

Busch’s latest escapade came on Sunday, when the 2015 Cup series champ followed a seemingly standard TV interview with a comparatively petulant presence in the CMS media center.

Many fans and drivers voiced disagreement and outrage at Busch’s post-race display, including Keselowski – a fellow competitor (and noted rival).

As for me? I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

Look, I don’t necessarily condone Busch’s actions in the context of this incident – answering questions from the media. Perhaps it’s the unavoidable bias of being an occasional member of the media center myself, but it seems disrespectful to completely shrug off someone who’s attempting to do their job and brave enough to ask the necessary questions to do it.

However, Busch’s overall persona is something I can get behind.

I’m not a fan of Busch – I gave up fandom of drivers more than a decade ago.

But Busch’s presence is a necessary piece of the NASCAR garage.

Every good storyline needs a villain. From Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” to overbearing basketball father LaVar Ball and WWE’s Triple H, those that are willing to go against the grain are often the ones that keep us all talking for weeks to come.

Every good sport needs both faces and heels. NASCAR’s got the faces in abundance with drivers like Earnhardt and Kyle Larson. However, only one driver truly fills the role of heel- Busch.

Sure, Rowdy received light fanfare during his unprecedented recovery from brutal leg injuries to win the 2015 Cup series title. However, outside of that limited run he’s become one of the garage area’s most polarizing figures. With his memorable quotes, phenomenal burnouts and defiant bows, Busch has lumped fans into two distinctive categories during his quest for 200 wins in NASCAR-sanctioned events.

Some love the younger Busch brother, praising him for his relentless approach and refusal to be happy with anything but victory.

Most hate him, noting his disrespectful tone and win-stacking in the minor leagues of the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series.

For what it’s worth, Toyota loves their first Cup series champion, defending him with each scandal.

Regardless of your perspective, know that Earnhardt is correct when he says Busch’s presence is needed in the garage.

Now if only he’d quit breaking kayfabe…

The Coach’s Boys Are On the Rise

Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win a race this season, save for Busch’s All-Star Race triumph – but runs like Sunday’s show they’re getting closer.

We’ve all heard the stat by now, and rightfully so – it’s surprising.

Richard Childress Racing (RCR): two wins.

Roush Fenway Racing (RFR): one win.

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR)? None.

It should be noted that there have been a lot of factors in those stats. RCR, while completely deserving of both wins, earned each on a gamble of tires or fuel. On a similar note, RFR’s lone win came in a restrictor plate race at Talladega Superspeedway, and therefore isn’t necessarily indicative of their season as a whole.

Still, coming off of a year in which they’d already amassed seven wins and clinched all four drivers into the playoffs by Charlotte, JGR’s lack of a race win does come as a surprise, especially while pseudo-teammate Furniture Row Racing continues to show serious pace and Truex leads the standings.

The first 11 races of the 2017 season were subpar for Coach Joe Gibbs and his team, but the 12th race showed a return to form.

Kyle Busch came one spot short of delivering Joe Gibbs Racing their first points-paying win of 2017 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

They didn’t get the win due to Dillon’s impressive fuel strategy, but JGR combined to take three of the top five finishing positions on Sunday with Busch (second), Matt Kenseth (fourth) and Denny Hamlin (fifth). Even Daniel Suarez, a rookie in his first 600-mile race, managed a solid 11th-place run at the end of the day.

Truex was again the talk of the paddock, leading 233 laps in another dominant performance, but it should be noted that Busch beat the Mayetta, New Jersey native outright at race’s end.

The JGR quartet isn’t sitting too terribly in the points standings, though RCR’s two victories from outside of the top 16 do take away potential winless playoff berths. Busch leads the group in fifth, with Hamlin also inside of the playoff grid in 11th.

Kenseth is the first out of a playoff position as things stand in 15th, 20 points behind Ryan Blaney for the final spot on points, but the 2003 Cup champ is methodically rising through the field. One third of the way through his rookie season, Suarez sits 19th, but is just 33 points behind his closest teammate. A good summer stretch could elevate the defending XFINITY series champion into contention.

All four JGR teams have a chance to make the postseason on points, but the end goal for each team is ultimately to win. Unfortunately for the rest of the Cup series garage, the organization appears closer to doing just that with each passing week.

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