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Goodyear makes a new deal, NASCAR teams head to Phoenix for big test, and Kurt Busch still celebrating victory over Jimmie Johnson...

  Six more years: Goodyear and NASCAR renew their exclusivity deals (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   DOVER, Del.
   After most of a season in which its tires have been praised by drivers as almost 'too good,' Goodyear Monday announced a contract extension with NASCAR for the Akron, Ohio, tire maker to continue through 2017 as the sole race tire supplier for stock car racing's top three national touring series.
   It is unclear if the move is a preemptive strike to keep rivals from making a bid. There have been no indications that any of the few possible rivals were very interested in NASCAR, though it is the premier automotive marketing series in the U.S.

   Michelin and Bridgestone pulled out of Formula 1, leaving that series to Pirelli. Bridgestone's Firestone division supplies tires to the Indy-car series.
   For Stu Grant, Goodyear's racing boss, the contract extension is a vote of confidence. Goodyear has been one of NASCAR's tire suppliers for 57 years now, and the exclusivity – for which Goodyear presumably pays NASCAR a sponsorship fee – keeps rival tire makers out of the sport.
   Goodyear has been NASCAR's exclusive tire supplier since 1997. That deal followed two wild tire wars with rival tire maker Hoosier.
   Since the low point at Indianapolis in the summer of 2008, Goodyear has embarked on a major tire testing program.
   In fact NASCAR Cup teams are at newly repaved Phoenix International Raceway this week testing Goodyear's newest tires on that redesigned one-mile oval in advance of the Nov. 13th Sprint Cup event.
    Stock car crews are griping about this week's traveling schedule – Dover, Del., back to North Carolina, then out to Phoenix Monday for testing Tuesday and Wednesday, then over to Kansas City Thursday for the weekend's Kansas 400. Some crewmen say NASCAR could just as easily have opened the Phoenix track a day earlier during November race week and let teams test there, just as it was done at Kentucky Speedway in July.
   However having testing this week will be a marketing plus for the race itself.
   NASCAR is working the entire country in marketing the playoffs. (Kurt Busch was the advance man for Kansas City, working the grill and dishing out barbeque at Jack Stack's.)

    Kurt Busch, after winning Round Three of the NASCAR playoffs, Sunday's Dover 400, is on top of the stock car world....for a few days at least (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Busch's victory here Sunday over Jimmie Johnson – pointedly described by Busch himself as his 'arch-nemesis' for their numerous run-ins this season – was clearly a morale boost for Roger Penske's lead driver, who had suffered through a miserable day at Loudon, N.H., the week before.
    But how to size up this new NASCAR points system, in the chase, isn't easy, or clear-cut.
   -- Busch came into this race 28 points down; he goes to Kansas just nine down.
   -- More to the point, nine of the title contenders are within 19 points of each other, remarkably close. Are these nine – after a full eight months of tour racing – really so closely matched that they are essentially within 19 finishing spots of each other?
   Yes, having nine men in the title hunt with just seven weeks to go should make for good drama. But will this new system really determine the best NASCAR driver and team this season?
   Busch calls it "a slippery chase…because you can slip just one little bit, and next thing you know, you are fighting from behind. 
   "You just don't want those out of the ordinary things to happen."
   Penske, for all his racing success, has never won a NASCAR championship, in his 40-some years in this branch of the sport. Can Busch, or maybe even teammate Brad Keselowski, pull something big off this year?


A chilly crowd Sunday at Dover, but Kurt Busch was hot down the stretch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Trying to get inside Busch's head and understand his game plan isn't always easy. Just ask Johnson.
   When Kurt Busch has his mojo working, as he does right now, he's on top of the world. When not, he can be as prickly as Tony Stewart…not just with the media but with rivals out on the track too.
   Busch drives at times almost with rage, rather than cool; aggravating rivals sometimes seems part of his strategy.
   And he can be quick to ignite, when triggered.
   That can make him a formidable foe in close quarters.
   Perhaps Johnson simply figured that discretion was the better part of valor in Sunday's closing miles – rather than risk making a move that could light Busch's fires, just keep cool and wait for another day.
   These playoffs are certainly testing the patience of many chase drivers. Here it was Tony Stewart, who came in as tour leader, and left not: "When you run 25th and you're two laps down, I don't think you assess it as very good," Stewart said of his day, in which he never cracked the top-20. "We were terrible."
   "We don't have the concrete tracks figured out," Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, said. "At Bristol and Dover we've struggled for three years now with Tony."
    Part of the issue here – and Stewart wasn't the only victim – could be tires, Busch says. And crew chiefs said they had to chase the track throughout the 3-1/2-hour race, making adjustments.
    "Goodyear has to have to have a tire that 'rubbers in' the track so we don't have blowouts with the right-front," Busch says. "But concrete tracks (Bristol, Martinsville and Dover) have this rubber buildup, where it cakes up and makes it really squirrely.
    "It could have been a lot worse if temperatures were in the 80s and the sunshine was out."
    But it was cold, in the 50s, and overcast, curiously unseasonable weather. (At Kansas this next weekend, in contrast, the forecast is for 80-degree days and sunshine.)

   Busch won the 2004 title, when driving for Ford's Jack Roush.
   However Busch's career lately has been quite the rollercoaster, and he's offered emotions to match. He's not only ripped his team on occasion, and had those run-ins with Johnson, but Busch has also had several altercations with the media in recent weeks. What all that's about isn't clear. But part of it may be from the pressure of the success new teammate Brad Keselowski is having….plus Keselowski being much more easy-going and popular.
   While Keselowski had a less than memorable Sunday, Busch was all high-fives: "To just miss out on the pole was kind of a bummer…but to take the lead early on and to lead laps and set the tone….
    "We have been in that position before -- where we can lead early, and the car feels great with a fresh racetrack…and as the race progresses, we start losing a little of the handle."
    But for Busch and crew chief Steve Addington things went the other way this time, and down the stretch Busch had enough car to hold off Johnson and Carl Edwards. 
    Twice on restarts in the final 50 miles Busch beat Johnson, first from the outside lane on lap 359 (of 400), second from the inside lane on lap 366, after the key round of final pit stops. Johnson was kicking himself afterwards, for spinning his tires on that first restart, then mis-timing the second restart.
   "The final pit stop, Steve was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four…but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call," Busch said.
   Actually that two-tire call appeared to be a change-up after Johnson first opted for just two tires. 


Goodyear has good compounds now for 'rubbering' in race tracks.  But sometimes that makes things slippery (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The win was Busch's first here in his 11 years on the tour, perhaps ominous in the playoffs.

   Busch's victory in Sunday's Dover 400 wasn't the day's only surprise.
   While the men in the playoffs continue to dominate both talk and action this fall, some non-chasers were also in this game, Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger two of them.
   Allmendinger, who it should be noted has the 12th best overall finishing average this season among tour drivers, though he didn't make the playoffs, recovered from an early spin and ran top-10 most of the chilly afternoon, finishing seventh.
   "It was something we needed after the last two weeks," Allmendinger said. "We were there all day."
    The fifth-lap spin, when bumped by Denny Hamlin? "Denny had a nose right there, but it was lap four….Those guys would expect you to give them some room, but he just stuffed it down in there and jacked me sideways."
   Then Allmendinger made a very impressive save. "As I started spinning toward the wall, I just hammered the throttle. I didn't think it was going to hit the wall, but I was afraid everybody behind me would come piling in."



   The sun played hide-and-seek with NASCAR teams all weekend at Dover (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   On the downside of the day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had unexpected problems, a broken sway bar, then a loose wheel. Will that all but end his title bid this season?
   Earnhardt is not throwing in the towel.
   He's 34 points – essentially 34 finishing positions – down to leader Kevin Harvick. And if Jimmie Johnson is really the benchmark for all this, Earnhardt is only 21 points behind the five-time champion.
   Earnhardt's game plan now: "Just try to win a race. Win a race and see what happens.
   "See if you can knock it in half.
   "You can't quit. You have that opportunity…and we are still alive, and we will keep racing as hard as we can, till the last lap at Homestead.
    "One thing I learned a long time ago was that if you wreck out or something, you go back out and finish the race and run as hard as you can.
    "It's really hard to look yourself in the mirror when you don't give it your all, even when it doesn't look great, and your opportunity to win a championship doesn't look great.
    "More than anything, I would like to run as well as I think we should. I wish we would have finished top-10 like we could have…to show what we are capable of doing.
    "We are a good team, and we have showcased that several times this year.
   "And if you really study this race, we had a really good car; we weren't as fast as the guys up front, but we were better than we have been here in a long time. I have had some rough runs here lately and haven't got this place figured out yet, or what we need, but we are getting better."


   When the hood goes up, that's not a good sign, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Roger Penske won his first

Roger Penske won his first Nascar Championship last season with Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series.

yep, but i'm referring to

yep, but i'm referring to Cup....

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