Friday, June 6, 2008
Double-duty drivers (and Kyle Busch) brace for one busy weekend
By Mark Ashenfelter ESPN.com
It's time for NASCAR's version of planes, helicopters and golf carts, and that's just what seven drivers -- six of them Sprint Cup Series regulars -- will need simply to have the opportunity to jump behind the wheel of their Nationwide Series cars at Nashville Superspeedway on Saturday.
Kyle Busch, not so surprisingly, is pushing things to extremes this weekend by mixing in Friday's Craftsman Truck Series race in Texas, as well, but Cup regulars Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, David Ragan and Greg Biffle are content sticking to a double-duty weekend. Then there's Nationwide regular Jason Leffler, who will try to qualify Haas CNC Racing's No. 70 Cup car at Pocono before turning his focus to Nashville, a race he enters eighth in points.
The hope of a number of Nationwide Series-only drivers -- such as Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss, Mike Wallace, David Stremme, Steve Wallace, Jason Keller, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Kelly Bires and Brad Coleman -- is that the divided attention span for others will enhance their chances of winning.
Assuming, that is, Joey Logano, in just his second start in the series, doesn't steal the show after finishing sixth in his debut a week ago at Dover.
The way the schedules at Pocono and Nashville are laid out, the double-duty drivers will have others practice their cars in Friday's first session, or simply keep the cars off the track if they are sure they'll arrive from Pocono qualifying in time for Friday's evening practice session. And all of the drivers expect to be at Nashville in time for qualifying on Saturday afternoon. If that's the case, they won't have to start at the back of the field, which would be the case if their backup driver qualified the car.
Edwards, the defending series champion who hasn't won a Nationwide race since last June's visit to the 1.33-mile facility, isn't sure how his schedule will play out. But at some point, he'll ride a golf cart to a helicopter, switch to an airplane, then another helicopter and probably another golf cart to get from the helipad to the garage.
"I think this weekend I might be by myself back and forth. I'm not sure if we're gonna go Friday or not to practice the Nationwide car," Edwards said. "We haven't decided yet, but this is fun.
"To show up at a racetrack and jump out of a jet and fly in a helicopter and then jump in a screaming fast race car, I mean, that's every racer's dream. To have a reason to go do all that stuff is really neat. It's just a really fun time. Logistically, it's tougher, but physically it's not any tougher than running a regular weekend. It's mostly just added fun."
Bowyer, who is leading the points, will have Kevin Harvick's jet at his disposal, so he's looking forward to the weekend. He said there's an easy way to win the title.
"You can't have catastrophic days," he said, emphasizing the need to race smart. "Some of those guys have had faster cars, but we've been able to beat them by racing smarter. Right now, we need to protect what we have and push forward in the Nationwide Series so we're where we need to be when we get to Homestead."
While Busch has been by far the dominant driver, he's been in a number of mishaps that have left him 121 points back in second. Bowyer knows his team has work to do, but he's enjoying his position atop the standings just the same, even with 21 races remaining.
"There's a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum associated with being the points leader no matter what time of the year it is. We've still got to pick up our program and get better," Bowyer said. "We're working hard to try and fix some areas that need improvement.
"We're just trying to keep up with all the horsepower some of the other manufacturers have, but we've had that advantage the last couple of years so the shoe is on the other foot right now. We've just got to figure out some things, pick our program up in a couple of areas and we'll be in good shape."
Bowyer and Edwards are almost always in the thick of things at Nashville, and crew chief Pierre Kuettel believes its time for Edwards to unleash his patented backflip after a Nationwide race once again.
"The drought has to end, and Nashville is the place to do it," Kuettel said. "Carl has dominated at the track, and we expect nothing less this time around."
While Bliss, Leffler, Mike Wallace and Keller all have wins in the series, Keselowski, Stremme and Steve Wallace are all looking to reach that level along with Ambrose, Bires and Coleman. Keselowski would love to be able to conquer a track he said presents some unique challenges.
"The surface at Nashville is particularly hard on tires. It's almost like running across a washboard," said Keselowski, who was fourth at Nashville in March. "The concrete surface just kills the tires, so tire management really comes into play.
"Track position is also really important to finishing well at Nashville. Between the two it creates somewhat of a balancing act -- trying to stay with the front of the pack and yet not kill your tires early in the run. The teams that manage that balance well tend to run toward the front."
Logano has only one race in the series to his credit, but he has plenty of experience at Nashville. Waiting for his 18th birthday, he tested a Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup car at the track on several occasions.
"It's a cool racetrack. It's pretty flat compared to the Dover concrete mile we were on last week," Logano said. "I certainly have plenty of laps around there, but it's all in a Sprint Cup car. I'm really looking forward to getting there in the GameStop Nationwide Series car that will have a little more downforce, which should make it a lot of fun."
Logano is also hoping for a laid-back weekend after he was the center of attention at Dover. Now he hopes to just be another driver, even if that's hard to fathom.
"I'm hoping this weekend I can start working on the chemistry between myself, Dave [Rogers, crew chief] and the rest of the team guys," Logano said. "This weekend will be much quieter, and I'm looking forward to being able to just go out and race."
And unlike seven other drivers, he'll be worrying only about racing in one venue this weekend.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.