Kyle Busch (R) and crew chief Dave Rogers. If they win Richmond Saturday night, they could go into the championship playoffs atop the standings (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
For a lot of racers, the end of the regular season here Saturday night, in the Richmond 400, is effectively the end of the season: wait till next year.
One of those likely will be Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart for sure; he's still out injured and facing what looks like a lengthy recovery. And probably defending champ Brad Keselowski. Along with Denny Hamlin.....
So, hey, where's the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup tour schedule?
Daytona execs appear to be a bit late in getting next season's calendar set up.
Now there are questions about why.
Want to buy some tickets for gifts? Or just get a jump on next season?
So far about all that is known about NASCAR 2014 is the Daytona 500 is Feb. 23rd, the Las Vegas 400 is March 9th, and the Darlington 500 is May 10th.
NASCAR's Brian France has said he doesn't plan for any new tracks to be added for next season.
But now word is that a little reshuffling is being considered for some France family tracks.
No specifics on what tracks might be under discussion.
A great crowd for Kyle Busch's March victory at LA's California Auto Club Speedway. Enough to persuade the France family to add a second Sprint Cup weekend? Certainly NBC, NASCAR's new TV partner, would relish the Los Angeles market and its diverse demographics (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But let's look at a few things:
-- With NBC now signing on, the Los Angeles market has to be key. California's Auto Club Speedway certainly deserves a date in the playoffs, as it had a few years back. LA is the second largest market in the U.S., a key to Asian markets, a hotbed of demographics. And for years LA boasted three NASCAR Cup events, one in January, one in June, one at the end of the season.
With the surprisingly large crowd for the March race this spring, and with a surprisingly exciting race, there is optimism that the track has turned the corner in drawing fans and could support two Cup events each season, in the spring and in the fall.
-- Martinsville as a one-day in-and-out event, maybe even as a Nationwide/Sprint Cup double header, could open up that late October weekend for a second Los Angeles Cup race. Martinsville under the lights would make for a superb show. And there's an open week in mid-July; plus an extra week in late November before Thanksgiving to consider if shuffling dates.
-- Kansas in early April this year -- a move triggered by last year's massive repaving -- was simply too cold. A more logical weather weekend would be early June.
(Easter 2014 is April 20th.)
NASCAR officials might not change anything at all for 2014. But they should certainly consider some of these points...and keep an eye on how well Chicago works as the kickoff to the chase. Somehow that track seems better suited for a mid-summer event, rather than an in-your-face NFL weekend in Bears country.
Tony Stewart, who seriously injured his right leg in a sprint car crash August 5th, finally came out to meet the press this week. How long his recovery may take still isn't known. But he expects to be here at the track this weekend, in a wheelchair. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Last Sunday's Atlanta 500 was the coup de grace for several drivers' playoff hopes.
"The motor finished us off," Hamlin says of his latest hit during this season from hell. "I don't know what we've got to do, but we can't seem to finish a race.
"Our night was ruined because of a penalty putting us two laps down, and putting us in a box we couldn't overcome -- three laps down at one point. We got back to one (down)....and we got wrecked, blew the tire, blew the fender off... and blew another engine.
One key storyline this fall, during the playoffs, should be Kyle Busch.
He may be one of the best drivers on the tour, but in his nine years here he has yet to mount a serious title bid.
And crew chief Dave Rogers knows that will hang over the team until he and Busch turn it around.
Rogers said at Atlanta there were so many technical variables to deal that Goodyear's new tire "didn't really make a different to us.
"With everything going on with the new car, and not racing here for a full year, and the track aging, if you would have asked me 'did the tire change or not,' I wouldn't have been able to tell you. So I think Goodyear did a good job there from my perspective."
Busch's Atlanta win was not without adversity, and the way Busch and Rogers handled that was impressive.
"Kyle gave the team a lot of compliments, but he deserves just as many," Rogers said. "He's out there driving his butt off, and car is ill-handling, and you've got to stay focused. Kyle did a good job of that, and gave us opportunities to work on it in the pit stops.
"The pit crew was phenomenal. We were throwing spring rubbers around, and track bar, and wedge, and just cranking on the car trying to get it to react. And I never got anything slower than a 12.3 (seconds pit stop).
"My boys are back; they're ready to play."
Time to win a Sprint Cup championship? Certainly time to get up on the wheel and at least challenge for the title (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However the ghosts of playoffs past still haunt Busch and the team.
"When the pressure is on the line you've got to be able to perform... and we messed up (last year), no doubt about it. But there was also unfortunately some engine failures, some wrecked race cars, some tire failures, some brake failures that hindered us from good finishes.
"It was just every week there was something new.
"I'll tell you what -- this is a humbling sport. Look at last year's champion (Keselowski) and what he's going through right now. It's the same scenario.
"You've got to be able to take the highs and the lows. And certainly I am not very good at taking the lows, I'll be the first to admit.
"But when the highs come your way, you've got to treasure them, because you never know how many more you'll get."
And Busch says except for his runs at Watkins Glen and Atlanta, he's not been too pleased with how the summer has gone.
Still with two wins in his last four starts...
"You've got to ride the wave when it's yours, and take it for as long as you can, and see how far you can carry it," Busch says.
"Our team hasn't had a great four or five weeks lately at some of these ovals. Now we go to Richmond -- one of my favorite places -- and hopefully we can capitalize with another strong run, and keep the momentum going."
Busch didn't make the playoffs last year, but ironically he ran very well in those last 10 races: "Our two worst finishes were at Loudon and Kansas.
"We were running second to Denny Hamlin at Loudon; then we dropped a valve. At Kansas, we were leading the race, I spun myself out, went to the back and then worked back up through the field slowly, to about eighth; then on a restart Ryan Newman just pile drove me and wrecked us.
"Even with those two (bad) races I think we finished third in the points (earned in the playoffs). If you give me back the eighth at Kansas and the second at Loudon, we win the championship."
If Busch had been in the chase.
So Rogers says "Looking back at last year, it's somewhat irrelevant. We've got to perform in the final 10.
"I tell Kyle during a race 'You've got to race out the windshield, not the mirror.'"
On the plus side Joe Gibbs' guys, Matt Kenseth and Busch, have dominated the tour's 1-1/2-mile tracks this season, winning six of the seven so far (Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas, Darlington, Kentucky and Atlanta).
"But they're in the mirror now," Rogers warns. "Everything gets reset to zero (after the Richmond 400). We can't rely on the past.
"And we can't be discouraged because of last year's past. We've just got to perform."
Their rally to victory at Atlanta, Rogers says, shows "We've got to know that we can do it.
"But nothing in the past matters. We've got to stay focused on what lies ahead."
Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch's crew chief: who is more under the gun, Kyle or Dave, as the championship playoffs loom? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)