Kyle Busch: wearing a bull's eye in the All-Star race? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The smart money here is on the smartest guy on the tour this spring -- Matt Kenseth.
He's also the fastest.
When you're outrunning the Rick Hendrick guys and the Jack Roush guys, well, you're getting the job done.
In fact if one of Joe Gibbs' trio -- Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- doesn't win Saturday night's All-Star race, it might be considered an upset.
The scorecard this spring: Gibbs' Toyotas have five wins, Hendrick's Chevy guys have three wins, Richard Childress' Chevy guys have one win, Roush's Ford guys have one win, and underdog David Ragan has the other Ford win.
That's Toyota five, Chevrolet four, Ford two.
For what that says.
That's one story line here this weekend. Another: Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, who have tangled three times already this season, with Kahne getting the worst of it each time.
Carl Edwards won the pole Friday evening for the first 20-lap leg of the 90-lap All-Star. The quirky qualifying was in three-lap runs, punctuated by a four-tire pit stop on a pit road with no speed limit.
Watching drivers hit pit road wide open was breathless...but some big names screwed up, like Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. "Coming on to pit road at 157 mph was fun," Kurt Busch, second fastest, said.
"It was a blast," Edwards said. "We should qualify like this every week."
Of course for decades NASCAR drivers had no pit road speed limits, and they did this wide-open thing every pit stop at every track, against every other driver in the field. "I was thinking 'Mark Martin did this every week how many years?'" Edwards said, shaking his head. "Every week, every pit stop, every track, every driver....that's insane. And imagine how dangerous it was for the pit crewmen. It's dangerous enough for the pit crew men right now."
Edwards, in a tribute to legendary Dick Trickle, who died Thursday, posted Trickle's name over his door. Ironically Jimmy Fennig, Edwards' crew chief, was also Trickle's crew chief at one time. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray, in more traditional better-of-two-laps qualifying, will be on the front row for the 7:30 p.m. ET start of the preliminary Showdown. The top two finishers will advance to the feature. Also making the big race will be a driver by fan voting, widely expected to be Danica Patrick, who starts seventh.
One reason for Kahne and Busch colliding so frequently is that they're both hot this spring. "Kasey won Bristol, and we finished second," Busch points out. "He ran well at Vegas, and he ran well at Kansas. We were up front at Vegas with him.
"When you're running up front, you try for wins the last 30 laps, and you have to give it everything you've got. You're not there to rollover and let a guy go.
"The Darlington piece -- if I'd let him go, I don't know I could have gotten back by him. It was a little difficult to pass, and he did have a good car on long runs. So I knew protecting my spot was what I needed to do at that particular point.
"I'm sure there could be a moment where it could come back on me, and I expect it. It's fine. I just told Kasey 'Just don't make it hurt too bad.'
"I don't think Kasey is that kind of guy... but if it happens, I'll understand.
"You race him just has hard as you race him any other week. The first two instances were a mistake, just misjudgment.
"Kasey admitted he had to get on the brakes in Daytona and checked up a little bit and I ran over him. You couldn't really see through the cars in front of you to see what was happening.
"Talladega I just misjudged -- I wanted to pull out (and pass Kahne) and thought at the last second I was going to stay in line and push Kasey. I turned him sideways.
"Last week was just hard racing: You're in the last laps, and it's all about track position. He pulled a huge slide job on me in turn three, and I got back to his inside; I had been running down on the flat all night, passing lapped cars. And some of my restarts were even that low on the track.
"I didn't think there was going to be a problem... and when I got down there I just got tight and pushed up a little.
"Whether or not we touched, that's insignificant -- I'm not racing to wreck Kasey Kahne, but Kasey Kahne did crash because of me.
"I hate it keeps being the same guy...."
Kasey Kahne: 0-for-3 in these deals with Kyle Busch. Time to start evening things up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Just how this All-Star thing plays out is typically unpredictable. Last year Jimmie Johnson used the rules to his advantage -- winning the first leg, and then coasting through the next ones, till the finale.
"I said the rules were stupid, and they need to change it to this year's rules," Busch said. "
"The rules are right this year. You have to run each segment as hard as you can; you have to stay up front to keep your average finish as good as you can.
"Then there are going to be a lot of things playing out in between the segments, with pit stops -- tire strategy: do you take two tires, do you stay out? Do you come in and get four if there's a yellow in the middle of a segment, and get yourself ready for the next segment?
"There's a whole bunch of different things that could certainly play out in the race. It's going to make it a lot more fun not only for the fans but for the crew chiefs as well."
Kenseth, who certainly looks like a strong championship contender this season, for what would be his second Cup title, is not only in high form on the track but also off the track, where he laughs and jokes and pokes good-humored fun. Wonder if he could do Saturday Night Live....
Another Gibbs' night looming here?
"I hope you're right," Kenseth says.
"I really feel, as an organization, we've been pretty strong everywhere... at all the tracks.
"There are a couple where we've been off a little; but one of them was California, and Denny was leading the last lap and Kyle won."
And just why?
Well, maybe it's the engines?
When was the last time NASCAR did an engine dyno check on Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet?
It's probably not the bodies, given NASCAR's incredibly strict -- maybe even overly strict -- body template inspections...and that weird laser scanning machine.
Actually it's most likely hidden somewhere in the chassis.
Or maybe -- speeds this season are up markedly, remember, with these new 2013s -- Gibbs' guys are just plain faster drivers than their rivals?
"It's hard for me to put my finger on exactly what it is, because this is my first year," Kenseth, a first-year Toyota driver, says. "It's a whole new race car. It's hard to compare to last year's car."
Hehehehe....particularly since NASCAR executives are so willing to dish out $25,000 fines to anyone critiquing these new cars.
Then again, if Kenseth did know the secret, "I wouldn't tell anybody."
Part of the deal, for Kenseth, may come on pit road. His pit stops over the years have been some of the best in the business....and maybe it's not just the over-the-wall guys.
Another part of the deal for Kenseth may be Jason Ratcliff's strategy and tactics from atop the race day pit box.
Tires appear to be a bit more of a factor this season. Which makes pit calls more intriguing. Consider the wacky pit calls in the final minutes at Richmond three weeks ago.
The decision to cancel pit road speeding rules for All-Star qualifying Friday night prompted some interesting talk.
NASCAR has had strict pit road speed limits since the horrific 1990 death of crewman Mike Rich at Atlanta.
Only one driver here, Mark Martin, raced the tour before speed limits on pit stops.
"I'm glad I didn't have to do it with no pit road speed limit," Kenseth says. "I think it could be pretty crazy and dangerous, with a lot of people standing out on pit road.
"I can't imagine what it would be like today if there wasn't a pit road speed. I'd think you'd have a lot wrecks on pit road."
Bet against Matt Kenseth? He might not win, but betting against him probably isn't that smart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)