Bruce Martin
Monday September 22nd, 2008

Kyle Busch's "Season for the Ages" has suddenly become ancient history.

After his engine blew up in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover, Del., Busch finished 43rd, his second-straight finish of 34th or worst in the first two races of the Chase.

Worse, by finishing dead-last, Busch has virtually lost his hope of winning the 2008 championship, showing yet again how a great season can be rendered meaningless quickly in the Chase format. It's as if the 2007 New England Patriots had been eliminated in the first round of the NFL Playoffs, or an eight-seed sweeping the first round of the NBA playoffs against the team with the best record in the league.

The Chase rewards drivers who are hot at the right time. In Busch's case, he couldn't have picked a worse time for a broken suspension at New Hampshire last week and a blown engine on Sunday. If those mishaps had occurred in July, when he was building his huge lead, Busch probably wouldn't have even lost the top spot in the points. But there is no margin for error in the Chase.

In two weeks, Busch has gone from first to 12th in the race for the title. He's in a hole he probably can't climb out of, needing to overcome a 210-point deficit.

"We're out of the title hunt; that's for sure," Busch said. "So we'll just manage what we can.

"At this point it doesn't matter. Same thing happened two years ago -- exact same thing. Wrecked at Loudon, blew up here. So, where did we end up? Dead last."

Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch has exuded self-confidence bordering on cockiness. The important thing is he backed it up on the track with a series-leading eight victories, many in dramatic fashion.

Two that stand out are when he pulled ahead of Carl Edwards at the end to win at Daytona in July. One week later, again under the lights, at Chicagoland Speedway, he tracked down Jimmie Johnson to win on the final lap, leaving the two-time defending Cup champion exasperated at how to beat Busch.

The easiest answer to that was, "Wait until The Chase."

At least now, Busch and crew chief Steve Addington can turn a negative into a positive because the pressure of contending for the championship is off. Now, the team can get back to doing what it does best, winning races.

"If I were the 18 team, I'd go out there and just worry about winning races again," teammate Tony Stewart said. "It has been a remarkable, record-setting year for that kid, and the best way to finish it off now is to go out there and win three or four races during the Chase. It's hard to tell him to keep his head up. I mean, there's nobody who's going to make him feel better right now, and rightfully so."

With eight races to go, the ultimate champion could still be the driver who wins the most races in the season. Edwards has six victories and Johnson has four, so it's not out of the question that either one can rack up a few more wins on the way to the championship and finish with the most victories in 2008. Johnson proved that last year when he won half of the races in the Chase to give him 10 wins for the season.

But if a driver with two victories or, worse, a driver with no wins takes the championship, will he be the considered the best driver of 2008?

Busch had wanted to make that a moot subject. But right now he probably knows how Tom Brady felt after his previously undefeated Patriots lost their perfect season and the Super Bowl in one fell swoop.

For the second week in a row, NASCAR got it right.

Last week it was the decision to not punish Ron Hornaday, Jr. for using a topical cream that contained testosterone during a mysterious illness that was eventually diagnosed as Grave's Disease.

This week comes the decision that NASCAR will perform random drug testing for all drivers, crew members and officials, stepping up a policy that had previously been based on "reasonable suspicion."

All drivers in NASCAR's three national series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks) will be tested prior to the start of the 2009 season. Team owners must also verify that all licensed crew members have been tested by a certified lab prior to the start of the season. In addition, NASCAR will test its officials prior to the start of the 2009 season. Drivers, over-the-wall crew members and NASCAR officials thereafter will be subject to random tests throughout the year.

NASCAR did not release a list of what substances will be banned, which means any misuse or abuse of any drug can be considered a violation of the policy. That may ultimately include higher than normal dosages of energy drinks or other items that can be purchased at a health supplement store.

"We think we have the broadest policy in all of sports," said NASCAR vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell. "The reason we don't have a list is we believe that a list is restrictive. If you've seen with a lot of other leagues, the policy is constantly changing. We know that there are new drugs out there every day. By having a broad policy that doesn't list anything, we feel like we can test for any substance that may be abused, no different than our policy is today."

Those that are caught in violation will be immediately suspended from competition and it is possible to get a lifetime ban for just one violation. A third violation will automatically result in a lifetime ban.

"We have to respect NASCAR stepping up to the plate and making a little tougher policy. I've been involved in NASCAR since I've been 18 and have only been drug tested once," said driver David Ragan. "I think it'll be great for everybody to get some type of a schedule and we get drug tested more frequently. I think we do have a very clean sport."

This policy change moves NASCAR more in line with the other professional sports and gives its program more credibility, which leads to this question, "What took so long?"

At least in this case, it's better late than never.

Credit Greg Biffle for taking full advantage of the format of the Chase and becoming a legitimate contender for this year's title.

By scoring his second-straight win with Sunday's victory at Dover, he becomes the first driver since the Chase format was adopted to win the first two races of the 10-race series that determines the Cup champion.

And he won the race the way it is supposed to happen, by racing hard against two other drivers in the Chase, who just happen to be his teammates at Roush Fenway Racing. It was one of the best races of the season.

"It was really fun racing," said second-place finisher Matt Kenseth. "That was probably the best racing I've seen in a long time. I imagine it looked like it from the seats with three of us racing there. And, in a way, with Carl leading the points, there were two winners. I feel like the only loser in the crowd. I got beat, and you hate to get beat in those battles, but they're a lot of fun to be a part of. "

So, what has been the key to The Biff's big turnaround?

"I wasn't trying before," Biffle joked. "The reality of it is we haven't been good enough in the past, our car hasn't been good enough to win. And I hadn't gotten it good enough on Saturday to win races. And I felt like ... in the last 10 races leading up to the Chase to be more involved about the adjustments on the car and understand what everybody is doing and trying to understand a little bit better."

In 2005, Biffle won six races but watched Tony Stewart win the championship.

Three years later, Biffle believes he has the tools necessary to win the title.

"Actually, I feel stronger now," Biffle said. "I feel like we're in better position now. We've worked hard this season to get our cars and team to where they need to be, and I guess if you want to use the term 'peak at the right time,' I feel like we have worked very hard all season and now our hard work is starting to show up. But I feel better right now, a lot better now, about this championship than I did in 2005."

The Biff is hitting his stride at the right time.

Engine manufacturers from around the world attended a second meeting with IndyCar Series officials last weekend in Indianapolis as the series moves forward with discussions for a new engine formula for the 2011 season.

That is an important year for the sport as it will be the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

Those engines will likely be turbocharged, which is more in line with what interested automotive manufacturers would like to see in the next IndyCar engine.

The meeting was attended by five engine manufacturers who were given homework to outline their desires in the new engine architecture for the future IndyCar engine.

The homework assignments are due back to the IndyCar offices in six weeks and IndyCar officials hope to have commitments from interested manufacturers before the end of the year so there will be ample time to develop, produce and test the engines in 2009 and 2010 before entering competition in 2011.

This could be a great opportunity to bring back diversity to the engine lineup in a form of racing that has prided itself on being cutting edge with an emphasis on technology.

It would also be a great opportunity for a car company to get involved with a series that is back on the upswing at a much lower cost than competing in Formula One or NASCAR.

Just keep those homework assignments away from the dog.

After a poor excuse for a racing tire led to a sad situation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 2008 AllState 400, Goodyear's first step on making sure it doesn't happen in 2009 takes place Monday and Tuesday during tire tests.

This initial test on the 2.5-mile oval will feature one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car equipped with technology to gather data that will be used to construct tires for a major NASCAR/Goodyear tire test Oct. 6-8, one that will feature up to 14 cars.

"We're pleased to see Goodyear's commitment to building a tire that will help to create the competitive racing that our fans at IMS expect for the 2009 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard," said Joie Chitwood, IMS president and chief operating officer. "This test is just the first step in a joint effort between NASCAR, Goodyear and IMS to create a first-class race next July."

Tire-wear issues in the first Car of Tomorrow race at IMS prompted NASCAR to call competition cautions after every 10 or so laps at this year's event.

"We've set a very aggressive schedule to come up with the right tire recommendation for the 2009 race at IMS," said Stu Grant, Goodyear's general manager of global race tires. "This is the first test of two we have scheduled for this fall, and our intention is to return again in the spring."

I remember being told by my elders as a youngster growing up in Indiana, that certain situations are "like closing the barn door after the horse gets out."

That's appropriate in this case.

Maybe if NASCAR had done a proper tire test followed by a full open-test earlier, the ridiculous excuse for a race at the 2008 Brickyard wouldn't have happened, one that denied over 200,000 fans a true racing competition.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was lucky to finish 24th in Dover after his Chevrolet suffered a blown tire that nearly sent it into the wall midway through the race.

That dropped him to ninth in points, 129 out of the lead heading to Kansas Speedway.

"Yeah, I really hate how it hurt our points race, but that was the best we could do today," Earnhardt said. "We didn't put the right set-up underneath it. Me and Tony [Eury] Junior [his crew chief] worked on that direction today, but it was the wrong direction. So, we'll try to rebound next week.

"That thing scared me. It sounded like a shotgun going off. By the time I got un-scared, I was a little bit behind on trying to correct it. But it was loud. But, to be honest with you, this track, you can only run on the bottom. If you move to the top, it's just like what we had at Indianapolis. It wears the tire out. They need to fix it."

Earnhardt is NASCAR's most popular driver because of his name and personality, but when it comes to on-track accomplishments, he never seems to be around at title time.

Expect that to stay the same in 2008.

"I think one of the interesting things is before the Chase started, there for a little while, everybody was writing and talking about it's going to be Kyle and myself, and we were going to be the guys racing for the championship. Lo and behold, here's Greg, who has won all the races in the Chase so far. I think that this thing could be so different in a month from now.

"Kyle could be leading the points a month from now. He could win all the races, and a few guys could have some bad luck. I still think it's too early to speculate. It just doesn't matter right now."

-- Carl Edwards on Kyle Busch dropping to 12th in points while Edwards is the leader.

"I would love to be calmer under those types of situations, I would. And I was, when I first started, I was. And then I got called lackadaisical. I got compared to my father and his determination. I got questioned about if I quit partying so much and focused and this, that and the other. So now I am on the chip and want it more than anybody else and I am getting hell for getting too excited. Regardless of how I act, somebody is going to criticize me one way or another and find an angle. I don't really want to change because I don't want to lose my enthusiasm and I don't want it to matter less, I want it to matter as much as it matters to me. If that means it is going to get me excited when things don't go right, I just need to be better at controlling that."

-- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on his demeanor and personality.

"No I haven't, but I could probably teach him a thing or two."

-- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on if he has ever used a sports psychologist.

After two weekends watching college football, the NFL, the Chicago White Sox and the final game at Yankee Stadium, I'm hitting the road to Kansas City for the first stop of the final eight races of the Chase. Here's hoping it's a good race.

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