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Busch exactly what NASCAR needs; T.O.'s need for speed and more

SPARTA, Kentucky -- If NASCAR wants to increase its television ratings, boost attendance at tracks and regain its stature in the media, then Kyle Busch has to be the driver who steps to the forefront and wins NASCAR's "Chase for the Championship."

He is the one driver who can bring interest back to stock car racing. Not because he is a good guy, but because he is a great driver who loves to be the "Bad Boy."

He's got more Dale Earnhardt in him than Dale Earnhardt Jr. does. He's ruthless on the track and couldn't care less what others think about him. In fact, hearing the crowd boo is music to Busch's ears.

NASCAR is a sport where the fans love the "Bad Boy" and Busch's personality is perfect for that role. And watching Busch on the track is like watching Michelangelo paint with a mop -- he may not be using a precision brush but he still turns out a masterpiece.

Busch can drive practically anything with wheels, whether it's Sprint Cup, Nationwide or the Camping World Truck Series. He proved that Friday at Kentucky Speedway when he was forced to start last in the field and quickly drove his way to the lead before pit stop strategy allowed Todd Bodine to win the race. Busch finished seventh. Afterwards, Bodine ripped Busch in Victory Lane. Busch heard the criticism and rushed over for a face-to-face confrontation with the race-winner.

"I thought that was kind of low, but that's how Bodine is," Busch said. "I was in the hauler changing and saw him spout his mouth off on TV and went straight over there and confronted him right then and there. I had to go, so when was I going to do it? I didn't have to go to the media center, so I didn't have a chance to battle there. I don't need to battle in the media; I'll just beat him on the race track.

"I don't feel like I'm a dirty racer. I feel like I'm a hard racer and an aggressive one. I wouldn't call it dirty. Dirty is when you run into the back of somebody down the back straightaway and put them in the fence."

This is what NASCAR fans want to see -- a driver who can dish it out on the race track and then throw it back in another driver's face if they don't like it. And this is what NASCAR needs to make the 2010 Chase interesting; not another Jimmie Johnson title that has all the excitement of a corporate board meeting.

So let's leave it to a man who is in a much higher tax bracket than me to assess the value of Kyle Busch in "The Chase." That is Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith. The racing visionary may be in his mid-80s, but Smith is as sharp as a whip when it comes to making billions and promoting the sport to the masses with his impressive racing facilities.

"Kyle Busch is one of the greatest race drivers I've ever seen and I think his record proves that," Smith said. "I'm surprised that 'Onion Head' [Bodine] wanted to do a word battle with [him] because I don't think he could ever win that. I'm crazy about it when drivers mix it up like that. I hope he says some more about Busch because I want to see how Kyle reacts."

Busch is a promoter's dream and Smith is the ultimate racing promoter. That is why it is important over the final 10 races of the season for Busch to become NASCAR's next superhero.

"He is the greatest thing going right now," Smith said. "He is the winningest driver [over three series]. He is more race-able than anybody. He is just the greatest thing that I've seen in a long time."

Three of Smith's tracks host Chase races, beginning with the first race one, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The flagship track for SMI is Charlotte Motor Speedway, which serves as the halfway point of the Chase on Oct. 16 and the final SMI track in the Chase is Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 7.

Smith estimates that if Busch is leading the Chase at Charlotte or Texas it could mean an additional 10,000 to 20,000 tickets sold for each of those two races. "It would be fabulous," he predicted. "Any time you put Kyle Busch in a car today, in any series, he is the man to beat."

While Smith wants Busch to do well in "The Chase," he still believes Johnson is the favorite until proven otherwise.

"Maybe these other drivers aren't trying hard enough," Smith said. "Jimmie Johnson works and he is focused and is mentally in condition to do this every day. One of my sons works out with him and he does that every day. If Jimmie Johnson wins on Sunday he might be running five miles the next morning."

Busch agrees that until Johnson loses a title he will be the driver to beat. And if any driver stops Johnson's championship streak, who better than Busch?

He's just what NASCAR needs to make this sport more interesting again.

Team Penske may have three drivers under contract but that doesn't mean all three will have rides in the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season. If proper sponsorship isn't lined up to support all three, the team could go back to a two-car operation. That could lead to Ryan Briscoe reuniting with another team owner named Penske -- Roger's youngest son, Jay.

Helio Castroneves will be back at Team Penske along with Will Power. If the team has to field two cars rather than three, Briscoe could move over to the De Ferran/Dragon Racing Team which is owned by Jay.

Asked about that possibility before Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway, Jay responded with a wink and smile, "That's a great question."

When pressed again on the issue, he said, "No comment."

Team Penske president Tim Cindric was also asked about that scenario.

"I really haven't heard that one," Cindric said. "It's no secret that we are trying to line up sponsorship to have three cars for next season. We're doing our best to make sure all three cars have sponsorship. I'll tell you one thing -- we're not going to have two cars that are sponsored by Team Penske in 2011."

Power is the only driver out of the three able to display a primary sponsor on his car as Verizon not only sponsors the No. 12 IndyCar, but also features Power along with NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Justin Allgaier in several commercials and advertising. The No. 3 car driven by Castroneves and the No. 6 for Briscoe were repainted to a primary black and white scheme this year when longtime sponsor Philip Morris had to cease all sporting sponsorship in accordance with legislation from state's attorney general phasing out tobacco sponsorships in sports.

Since then, Team Penske has secured Shell/Pennzoil sponsorship as part of an overall agreement that will feature NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch beginning in 2011. The IndyCar program will also benefit from the Shell/Pennzoil sponsorship but not in a primary role.

So if Team Penske fields two IndyCars in 2012, where does that leave Briscoe? As one Team Penske source pointed out, team owner Roger "doesn't forget" in reference to how Briscoe lost the 2009 IndyCar title when he spun out of pit lane and took out a safety cone at Twin Ring Motegi last September in his haste to leave the pits while leading.

The incident dramatically tightened the points race and Dario Franchitti was able to defeat Briscoe and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon when he took the lead with six laps left in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I don't know if I ever will let that go," Briscoe admitted. "It was the timing of the mistake at Motegi. You could blame the championship on something else that happened earlier in the season, but to have that happen in the next to last race is tough to let it go."

Since joining Team Penske in 2008, Briscoe has won six races and was a serious contender for the title last year when he won three times and had 13 top-five finishes and four poles. He was eliminated from the 2010 championship when he was involved in a three-car crash in Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway.

"The fact we don't have sponsorship for all three weighs on me a little bit," Briscoe said. "I'm definitely committed to Penske and they are committed to me. Going to [De Ferran/Dragon] is not what we are trying to do. I'm 100 percent committed to Penske, so that is more of a question for Roger or time than for me."

When Will Power closes his eyes he must see Dario Franchitti's No. 10 car charging after him. Power even probably hears the haunting theme from the movie Jaws whenever Franchitti's name comes to mind.

Franchitti is just 17 points behind Power, and with the last two races of the season on oval tracks, that definitely favors Franchitti, who has 16 IndyCar Series wins on ovals to Power's zero.

"I'm just going to try to win races because that is going to be a key to winning a championship," Franchitti said. "I'm chasing Will as hard as I can. We made good inroads last week. It was a great job by the team. As long as I keep doing that and keep getting wins, that will help in the championship."

Franchitti called Power "a man on a mission" at Chicagoland Speedway on Aug. 28, but that was before Power ran out of fuel with just four laps left. That dropped him to a 16th-place finish and saw his 59-point lead cut to 23 points. At Kentucky last Saturday night, that gap tightened even more when Franchitti finished fifth and Power eighth.

"Really, my night was quite good, although after my last stop I think I hit some oil from an earlier incident between Turns 3 and 4," Power said. "I pushed up straight towards the wall -- I was very close to hitting it. We have our work cut out for us for the championship, but we still have the lead and onward we go."

Franchitti continued to finish ahead of Power for the second time in the last three races. That has put him in position to become a serious threat to win the IndyCar title for the third time in his career and the second year in a row.

Franchitti has been involved in some serious points races including 1999 in CART when he actually finished the season tied with Juan Pablo Montoya but lost the title based on the tiebreaker which was most victories in the season. Franchitti would later win two of the closest title races in IndyCar Series history, including his 2007 championship when he passed Scott Dixon in the last turn of the final lap of the final race of the season. Franchitti also pulled one out last year when he took the lead with just six laps to go when Ryan Briscoe had to pit for fuel at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Now, the Scotsman is already in Power's head.

"That's part of the racing, isn't it," Dixon said of Franchitti. "It was an unfortunate finish for Will because he was quick in the race and Dario came from nowhere with strategy. I think this is perfect. It makes it more exciting for everybody. It's a long-shot for me in the championship. Now, I just want to win races. If I go out and do that and the others have bad luck, we can still do it but it's going to be tough.

"He's the luckiest guy I know. If I'm a betting man, of course I'm going with Dario. He's my teammate and I'll try to help him as much as I can."

When it comes to grabbing the spotlight, few players in all of sports understand that better than Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens. The NFL star has a propensity for grabbing headlines for a variety of reasons, including his unique personality and his electrifying style as a player.

Owens got the ride of his life during Saturday night's Kentucky Indy 300 as he was in the IZOD "Fastest Seat in Sports." Owens was in the backseat of a specially-prepared Honda IndyCar with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk as the driver. The tandem got to start Saturday night's race ahead of the pace car, and then on the parade lap, Luyendyk cranked up the power to zip around the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway at near race speed before catching up to the rear of the field for the pace lap.

"The ride wasn't violent at all but I really felt the G-forces," Owens said. "I asked Arie how fast we were going and he said about 180 mph. You feel like you are sitting still and all of a sudden you take off like you are on a spaceship. What took the nerves away from it was I didn't know what to expect or what I was getting into it.

"I wish we could have taken another lap around the track with the rest of the drivers in the race. But I really felt the power of the car."

Owens joked that his other high-profile teammate, Chad Ochocino, wasn't riding this weekend.

"Batman is taking the job today while Robin is out doing something else," Owens said of his teammate. "I wouldn't call my partner in crime a wimp, but I'm the one taking this ride."

A 17-race IndyCar Series schedule for 2011 will be announced Friday in Indianapolis with no tracks from International Speedway Corporation (ISC) expected to be on the slate. IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard said last week that despite a meeting with ISC representatives at Chicagoland Speedway before the IndyCar race on Aug. 28, it was "too little, too late" to keep any of the ISC tracks on next year's schedule. ISC officials have squawked about the $1.5 million sanctioning fee that IndyCar is requesting next season.

Among the major changes that will be unveiled: the race at Kentucky Speedway will be moved from Labor Day Weekend to Oct. 2, moving from a Saturday night race to a Sunday day race. It will be the next-to-last race of the season. If Bruton Smith, the chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., has his way, the IndyCar Series championship will be decided at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Bernard is attempting to get the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Bureau to sponsor the event with a large purse for the championship finale. Another idea that has been floated is to have two races that weekend, with a street race crowning the Mario Andretti Trophy winner on Day 1 with the championship finale taking place on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway the following day, according to sources.

That grandiose scheme may not become a reality in 2011, however, and if that cannot be completed in time for 2011, the final race of the season may go to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which is ironically an ISC track.

"I don't see anybody running away with this Chase. I think it's going to be tight all the way down to the end and you're probably going to see three or four guys with a legitimate shot to win the championship in the last race. That's something that you really couldn't say in years past. Someone could prove me wrong and really go on a tear, but I feel like there's really been inconsistency with all race teams other than the 29 (Kevin Harvick) all year long. No one's really stepped up and been consistent over a 10-week period. It's tough for me to say who's going to do that." -- NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin forecasting the 2010 Chase.

NASCAR's 26-race regular season comes to an end as the last race takes place at Richmond Saturday night. And while there probably won't be very many surprises as to who makes the 12-driver field that will compete in the 10-race Chase, the Sprint Cup standings will hit the reset button after the Richmond race. Unfortunately, The Chase overshadows the race itself and when it comes to racing, the .750-mile Richmond short track provides some of the best racing all season.

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