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Watkins Glen: Busch vs Johnson, Round 2....Joey Logano? And which wild cards make the playoffs, and which ones won't?

   Gets rather crowded at the end of the frontstretch, as drivers try to outbrake each other down into turn one, that sharp right-hander (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern


   Ah-hah! Now we've got something to spice up Saturday's Nationwide race here -- another round of that Jimmie Johnson-Kurt Busch feud.

   Johnson is running Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car, to get more practice for Sunday's 220-mile Cup sprint; Busch is filling in for injured Brad Keselowski, his teammate.
   And Johnson and Busch had yet another run-in at Pocono…..
   But, no, this isn't set up as a grudge match. Busch won in 2006 at the Glen; and Jacques Villeneuve ran at Wisconsin's Road America earlier this summer in a Roger Penske Nationwide car.
   Keselowski, well, he did win at Pocono, in an amazing effort, but that doesn't erase the safety issues surrounding his foot injuries. NASCAR requires drivers to run their team cars in order to get championship points, no matter how badly injured they may be, because NASCAR has two championships, a driver's championship and a team owner's championship.
   A broken left ankle, now the official diagnosis for Keselowski.

   The latest Busch-Johnson run-in was curious, in Johnson's anger level. He was quite hot after the race and went to Busch's car to confront him, and then had to be restrained by his crew.
   That is so un-Johnson-like; he is famous for his cool, no matter what the provocation. But obviously Busch has found a way to push the button. And that could be an indication of Johnson's frustrations lately; he's got just one win so far.
    Busch said the deal was pretty clear to him – Johnson crashed him last summer at Pocono, in an incident that Busch didn't take lightly.
   "I tried to help him down the back straightaway…and I misjudged it and caused a big wreck, and almost hurt Elliott Sadler," Johnson says. "I get it; that was my bad. 
    "But that's not today --- he's just looking for some smart-ass remark to throw at me because the cameras are there…and luckily his guys were there.
    "He's a big crybaby. He's good for running his mouth. He can keep running it; I'll shut it for him."
    Jimmie Johnson? Certainly doesn't sound the Jimmie Johnson who has won five straight NASCAR championships, does it?
   Looks like Kurt Busch has figured out how to rattle his cage….  

   Tony Stewart, who does have open-wheel expertise, squeezes into Lewis Hamilton's F1 car for the June exhibition at the Glen...while a bemused Hamilton looks on. Hey, Lewis, come on down and try this NASCAR stuff. Juan Pablo Montoya says it's all fun (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  So not only did injured Keselowski make a statement Sunday at Pocono, but so did Joey Logano, though Logano's day ended on a not-so-good note, with a flat tire that dropped him out of the game and doomed him to a 26th place finish.
   This weekend Logano is lined up to run a GT car in the sports car race here, with mentor Boris Said, one of the sport's top road racers.
   That could be interesting to watch, because Logano has never raced one of these things before. "I wish I'd gotten to test, but it all came together fast," Logano says. Just fitting into Said's car could be a trick, as tall as Said is. But Logano insists "I fit in the car good."
    At Pocono, Logano looked great for much of the day, starting from the pole, running strong, holding off challengers, even June winner Jeff Gordon, with ease.
   And if the mid-race rainstorm had forced NASCAR to call it a day, as seemed quite possible during the nearly two hour rain  delay, Logano would have taken his second Sprint Cup tour win, his first of the year, and made a bid to erase all those rumors of the past six weeks that Carl Edwards might be moving in to take over his ride next year.
   But, alas, in the final minutes Logano was hit with a flat tire and wound up a disappointed 26th. Very disappointed.

   Road course ace Boris Said, best teacher in the business, and one of the best road racers in the world. No wonder everyone in NASCAR asks for advice. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Greg Zipadelli, his crew chief, seemed crestfallen: "We must have run over something." 
   Tires were a factor during the race, but not for any problems; rather because they gave up speed over a run, something that crew chiefs and drivers like, because it puts some strategy in the game.
   And late in the five-hour race, Zipadelli and several other front runners made the decision not to pit, while many rivals did, that shook things up.
   "We made the right call by staying out," Zipadelli said.  "Only one person lost one position who was up where we were.  I don't think the guys that took tires passed anybody."
    When the tire began losing air, Logano stayed out hoping for a yellow. But he faded quickly so had to pit. 
    Zipadelli insisted he wouldn't let the bad finish hurt the momentum he says the team has been building with good runs lately.
   "The last thing I want to do is walk out of here with a bad attitude and kill the momentum we've had the last six to eight weeks," Zipadelli said.
    "We did all we could --  We sat on the pole, we led a bunch of laps, we had a very respectful top-five car.  I think it's one of our better performances in the last 2-1/2 years.
   "So I'm not going to hang my head and be miserable over something on the track.  I can't control that. 
    "If it was something we did -- a bad call -- it would be different."


   Denny Hamlin uphill in the esses. And just what's been going wrong on this side of the Joe Gibbs camp this season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The chase, the chase….
    The battle is on now to make the cut for the playoffs, with the top-10 in points after September's Richmond race making the chase and two 'wild cards,' based on wins and being in the top-20 in points.
    At the moment the two wild cards would be Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski. But that could change.
    That Hamlin might need a wild card spot to the make the playoffs is stunning, since he nearly won last year's title and was considered a front runner again this year. But his season has been very erratic.
     The 'wild card' spots may not be drivers who have any real chance at the championship itself, but making the playoffs is a very good promotion for a team's sponsors. Hence the pressure.
    And while the chances of any 'wild card' actually winning the Sprint Cup title are slim, the newest marketing gimmick certainly seems to be putting a premium on winning and winning gambles. Consider Paul Menard's gas mileage gambit to win the Indianapolis Brickyard, and Brad Keselowski's gas mileage gambit to win Kansas in June and his ironman run and late-race pit strategy gamble to win Pocono….
    Throw in that $1 million bonus for anyone of the five winners – Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol – who also wins the Atlanta 500 Labor Day, and there could be more gambles these next three races.

   One man on the hot seat is Dale Earnhardt Jr. This should be his best season since 2004, he realizes, with crew chief Steve Letarte and with Johnson as teammate. But lately things haven't been that good, though he did pull off a top-10 at Pocono….to end a two month slide with average finishes of just 24th.
   This weekend, though, well, Earnhardt isn't all that enthusiastic: "We're just going to try and steal a good finish, like everyone else.
   "You've got different strategy at the road course races -- and pit once you get inside the (fuel) window…and it's all kind of craziness.
   "It's not really much fun, but that's the way it is."

   Another man on the playoff hot seat is Tony Stewart. But he should be a legitimate threat to win here…if he can stay away from Brian Vickers.


   Richard Petty: he's been around the block, for sure. And these last four or five years, it's almost 'who's on first?' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   On the television battlefront,ESPN's coverage of the rain-delayed Pocono race earned a 3.9
household coverage rating, averaging 5,485,000 viewers. That was considerably down from the 2010 race, which earned a 4.4 rating and was the
highest-rated Cup race to air on ESPN last year.
live telecast of the Iowa Nationwide race Saturday night earned a 1.2 household coverage rating,
averaging 1,682,000 viewers; that too was down from the 2010 race, which earned a 1.4 rating.

   NASCAR's Nationwide tour has had an identity problem the past 10 or so years, and it's been long-debated how to fix it. Maybe one solution is to require all multi-team Sprint Cup team owners to field at least one Nationwide car for every two Cup cars. Since not every Cup driver would necessarily be interested in running Nationwide, that could open up some good rides for promising new drivers.

    Filling seats:
    Pocono did a good job last weekend, with an announced crowd of 85,000.    
    But Dover, which has a disappointing crowd for May's 400, is adding some twists for its October Cup weekend:  expanded seating for $8 'junior tickets' for the Sept. 30th K&N Pro  East race and Oct. 1st Nationwide 200, and for $10 'junior tickets' for the Oct. 2d Cup race.
   Denis McGlynn, track boss, says the junior tickets sold out in May "so we want to be ready to accommodate the young NASCAR fans of tomorrow this fall."
     With the purchase of one adult ticket in the designated 'junior seating' sections, there is no limit to the junior tickets that can be purchased.
     Next spring's Dover race will likely be moved from May into June, to attract a larger crowd in the key Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington market.
     If so, the early Kansas race could be moved to early May.

   Quick primer on the Glen, from Kyle Busch:
   "Sonoma is like Martinsville, and Watkins Glen is like Talladega, that's how different they are.  Watkins Glen seems like an easier road course.
   "Getting into turn one you can out-brake somebody really good. 
    "Getting into the 'bus stop' (chicane, on the backstretch), you can out-brake somebody pretty good too. But if you out-brake somebody there -- and you both are already on so much edge -- one of you is going to have to give.  If you're that guy on the inside, you're going to run into the guy on your left and you're going to put him off into the island there in the grass."

   That's something several drivers will be trying to learn….like Ricky Stenhouse, who is now part of the future for Jack Roush. Just where in that future may be unclear; he might have had a good shot at taking Carl Edwards' Cup ride if Edwards had left. Now Stenhouse is awaiting word on what Roush has planned for him next….possibly a part-time Cup deal with the Richard Petty part of the empire.
   This weekend could be a big one for Stenhouse, now the Nationwide tour points leader, and bracing for his first-ever run at Watkins Glen.  "I haven't made one lap on it, other than a video game," Stenhouse concedes. So he's running in the Grand-Am sports car race too.
   Another part of the future for Roush would appear to be Daytona winner Trevor Bayne. Yes, Bayne still doesn't have a full-time Cup schedule – curious – or a full-time sponsor – also curious. It is unclear if Roush marketers are pricing Bayne too high in the sponsorship marketplace or if there simply isn't that much interest in the young driver.
   Yes, times are tough, certainly, but with Diageo's Crown Royal leaving the Roush camp, with Edwards close to leaving, with UPS sponsorship still on the line, despite David Ragan's Daytona 400 win, with Aflac still up in the air, as well as a number of other sponsorship, and with Bayne getting no new sponsorship despite winning the sport's biggest race….maybe it's time to start asking some pointed questions. Edwards, after all, apparently only decided to stay with Roush after Ford executives said they made him an 'unprecedented' offer.

    Also on the radar these next few weeks: The Richard Petty operation, with Marcos Ambrose and veteran crew chief Todd Parrott, and with AJ Allmendinger and new crew chief Greg Erwin.
    The marks: Ambrose is 23rd in the standings, Allmendinger 17th. Ambrose finished 20th at Pocono; Allmendinger, 19th.
    While the other half of the Ford operation, the Jack Roush men, particularly tour leader Carl Edwards, has been hot (though not so much at Pocono), the Petty half has been stuck in relatively mediocrity.
    The Petty story itself, remember, is remarkably intriguing over the past four years or so: First, Ray Evernham/Dodge kingpin, selling out to international sportsman George Gillett in 2007…..while Petty himself sold Petty Enterprises to that Boston Ventures investment company in 2008…then Gillett buying the Petty operation in 2009…but then Gillett – who had bought into NASCAR just before the global economic crash – ran dry and began selling his sports empire, leaving Petty & Company high-and-dry and barely surviving day-to-day by the end of 2010, finishing that season in a very messy financial situation.
    Then two odd investors, New York City taxi cab operation Medallion and investment firm DGB, came in to bail out Petty, now part of the Ford-Roush empire.

     Meanwhile, the latest on those recent top crew chief changes:
     Car owner Chip Ganassi seems resigned to losing Brian Pattie, who he dropped as Juan Pablo Montoya's crew chief three weeks ago, for unclear reasons.
    "I have a meeting coming up with Brian in a couple of weeks, and whether he wants to be a part of this team going forward or not, we'll find out," Ganassi says.  "I hate to lose a guy like that; he has a lot of talent. But if that's what happens, I guess it has to be."
    And still no word from crew chief Todd Berrier.

     It just wouldn't be a NASCAR road racer without Boris Said's enthusiastic supporters, the Said Heads (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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