By Bruce Martin
November 08, 2009

Just when it looked like next weekend's trip to Phoenix could be billed as NASCAR's Championship Weekend, which would have made the season-finale at Homestead-"NASCAR 2010 Preseason Thunder," it all changed when Jimmie Johnson hit the wall on Lap 3 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That's what made this a "Tale of Three Speedways."

Sunday's Dickies 500 could have virtually sealed the Sprint Cup championship for Johnson, who could still become the first driver to win four Cup titles in a row. But when David Reutimann's Toyota ran into Sam HornishJr.'s Dodge coming out of the second turn, it triggered a chain of events that altered Johnson's drive to the title.

Hornish's Dodge ran into the side of Johnson's Chevrolet, sending the points leader into the inside wall on the backstretch amid a roar of cheers from the crowd that wanted to see a little excitement in a Chase that has become a yawn.

Johnson drove his Chevy into the garage area, a mangled heap of twisted sheet metal looking as if it were the winner of a demolition derby instead of a NASCAR title. But rather than park the car and roll it on the transporter for the long trip back to the Hendrick Motorsports shop in Harrisburg, N.C., crew chief Chad Knaus and the team immediately went to work.

They cut away the damaged parts of the car, started pounding on the frame and replaced the front and rear clip in an attempt to get it back on track. The tricky part was repairing the delicate front-end suspension, because if that couldn't be fixed precisely, there is no way Johnson could maintain NASCAR's minimum speed and, thus, would be forced to park the car.

Over an hour later, Johnson returned to the track on lap 115. His goal was to make up as many positions as possible because in a battle for a title, every point counts. So as Sunday's race ended with Kurt Busch scoring his first victory at the 1 ½-mile oval -- the 20th Cup win of his career -- Johnson finished 38th. His pre-race 184-point edge over Mark Martin is now 73. He's 112 ahead of Jeff Gordon, 171 over Kurt Busch and 178 over Tony Stewart.

"There's still an ouch to it," Johnson said. "This could take place at the start of the race next weekend. You just never know. That's the stuff that worries me. It's a nice points lead but as we saw today, anything can happen. It still is ouch. It's not as bad as it could have been. We could have been 43rd. At one point Chad told me to hop out of the car, it was done; we're going to have to put it on the truck. They were able to get it fixed and Mark didn't win. There were a couple small things that helped us in the end but it's still a big ouch."

Ever since Johnson took over the points lead after the fourth race in the Chase, he has been quick to caution those ready to crown him the champion that plenty could go wrong between then and the end of the season.

Of course, none of us believed him -- and I still don't. Unless he goes completely in the tank, all Sunday's crash did was prevent him from wrapping up the title with one race left in the season.

The IndyCar Series unveiled its first title sponsor in nearly a decade -- IZOD -- last Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is being called one of the "biggest days in IndyCar Series history," as the clothing company introduced its six-year deal with an impressive runway that included models dressed in IndyCar and IZOD clothing before culminating with Mike Kelly, the executive vice president of marketing for Philip Van Heusen (PVH) announcing that from this point forward it will be the "IZOD IndyCar Series."

The six-year sponsorship package includes $100,000 per car, up to 24-25 cars given to the series' team owner. The rest of the $15 million-plus will be spent each season on the activation of the series, as well as marketing and promotion with mainstream media and series partners.

The announcement is the end of unification for the IndyCar Series, which became whole again in February 2008 when Champ Car went out of business and its teams joined IndyCar. After completing its second season as one series, now the sport can begin to move forward and attempt to reclaim its place as a premier motorsports property.

"As of today the premier form of open-wheel racing will be known as the IZOD IndyCar Series," said Jeff Belskus, the CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Corporation which owns the IndyCar Series. "The fresh perspective they bring to our sport will prove powerful for everyone involved in the series. This is the start of a new day for us and teaming up with a strong brand like IZOD shows the bright future that we have.

"This is one of the most significant announcements in the history of the IndyCar Series. IZOD, one of the best-known brands in America, and today, we are proud to introduce them as our title sponsor."

Kelly saw tremendous value in aligning his company with the IndyCar Series when IZOD joined as the official apparel company in July 2008. From that point, he moved forward to increase the company's involvement to an even greater role.

"How cool is this?" Kelly said. "It's an amazing day for us. We couldn't be prouder to be here. The partnership has been amazing. Sixteen months ago we were at Watkins Glen on the Fourth of July and announced that day we were the official apparel sponsor for the IndyCar Series. On that day, we saw nothing but growth and opportunity for the League. We felt there were stories to be told and that declared our commitment and we see nothing but growth and opportunity here.

"This is an amazing sport and we believe with our partners we can take this out into popular culture and put this on display in a bigger way."

On Thursday, IZOD unveiled a huge billboard in Times Square in New York City to announce its deal with IndyCar.

"Mike has become a true believer in our sport," said Brian Barnhart, the president of competition for the IndyCar Series. "It truly is a great match for us. Speed will play a key marketing point in our strategy. The series combination of young, dynamic drivers representing 14 countries along with the great American heritage make the IndyCar Series a perfect fit. It's outside the motorsports realm and they are committed to working with us."

Kurt Busch is a driver who isn't afraid to speak his mind to team owner Roger Penske. Earlier this year at Martinsville, Busch vented his ire at Penske and even called the motorsports icon "Dude" during a heated exchange.

Since then, Penske Racing hired aggressive young driver Brad Keselowski to take over the No. 12 Dodge that was piloted by David Stremme this season. During last Sunday's race at Talladega, Keselowski was driving the No. 09 car for team owner David Finch and triggered the massive 13-car wreck that determined the race.

Busch was livid on the radio and said to Penske, "Way to go, Roger. It looks like you hired yourself a real winner with that kid. I don't think me and him are going to be able to work together at all."

That comment was overheard on scanners throughout Talladega and the exchange was played on VERSUS during its Tuesday night show Quest for the Cup.

On Friday, Busch did not back down from his comments but believes "radio chatter" should be kept in context as a "heat-of-the-moment" statement that is proprietary between driver and team.

"I think what we do on the radio should be kept internally and shouldn't be exposed like it is," Busch said. "We don't get to hear all the things that go on NFL headsets. They are making TV shows about us and that really hurts us.

"You have the heat of the moment. We were out there running around after being two laps down all day. We were back on the lead lap and I'm back in sixth place with 1 ½ laps left and I have a shot at going for the win, I jumped out in front of a future teammate and it went bad. The emotions of the day culminated into that one event and that is not the most important thing that should come out of Talladega."

Busch and Keselowski actually flew to Daytona together on Monday and had a chance to discuss the situation and put the hard feelings aside.

"I was at Daytona on Monday, put my arm around Brad," Busch said. "He flew with me on my own plane down to Daytona and we talked about things. I joked with him and said, 'Hey, we five people in this plane and we have four parachutes. Where's yours?'

"We're all in this together and a new guy coming in, I've seen it plenty of times. He's driving hard, he's aggressive. He'll find his niche and find his spot in this sport.

"Brad is on the gas like you would want any young driver to be and anybody that is trying to prove themselves and race hard forgets where their front bumper is sometimes. Some guys come in with all this hype around them like they are the next `Sliced Bread.' It's a matter of Brad finding his groove and he will be fine."

Keselowski believes he will be able to coexist with Busch next season at Penske Racing. Keselowski made his debut for the team at Texas Motor Speedway, starting 35th and finishing 35th.

"Kurt really saw it for what it was," Keselowski said of the Talladega incident. "It was a teammate trying to help him and I got hit from behind. The 83 (Brian Vickers) got in the back of me. It's not really his fault. Talladega circumstances, I did the move to get us all a good finish and it just didn't work. It's not any one individuals fault and I think that he saw it for what it's worth. He was disappointed for his result, but as far as him really being mad at me or thinking that I ruined his day intentionally, no, he was really cool.

"I think Kurt doesn't get enough credit for how understanding he is and how much he's progressed as a race car driver."

Keselowski admits he is an aggressive driver and when asked if it's easier to make an aggressive driver timid or a timid driver aggressive, he used a quote first used by team owner Richard Childress.

"Richard once said, 'You can't push on a leash,'" Keselowski said. "I would say that is a good way of describing it, and we'll see how that works out."

Kurt Busch's victory in Sunday's Dickies 500 was worth $1 million to Michael McGee, who was the winner of the 17th annual Dickies American Worker of the Year contest.

McGee, an agricultural teacher and horse training business owner from Broken Bow, Okla., was named Dickies American Worker of the Year on Friday, Oct. 30 at the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) World Finals in Las Vegas. He picked a model who had Busch's No. 2 on the back of her shirt in a Saturday drawing -- and that driver would win him $1 million if he went on to win the race.

"It's been an amazing experience," McGee said. "Last weekend at the Bull Ride in Vegas, I was named Dickies Worker of the Year and got $50,000. I picked the right model and had in my mind I would pick the seventh girl that walked in and it turned out well for us."

Busch liked McGee's style on how he made his choice.

"I'm digging the strategy," Busch said. "To hear how he picked the girl with his girlfriend sitting there, he did well."

McGee admitted he didn't even follow NASCAR before he was chosen as its worker of the year but promises to be a Kurt Busch fan for the rest of his career. He plans on paying off his house and starting a scholarship for students who want a career in agriculture.

"It's so easy to make somebody mad. Everybody these days is way too sensitive. Relax, it's just racing. All we do is drive cars in circles. We're not curing cancer here." -- Brad Keselowski, describing how difficult it is for a young, aggressive driver to come into NASCAR without offending somebody.

"Well, I guess I'm going to win the race home." -- Carl Edwards after finishing 39th when he crashed on lap 176 at Texas.

"Any hat that he wears is more important." -- Kurt Busch on the fact his team owner, Roger Penske, was the only one not wearing a Cowboy hat in the winner's interview at Texas Motor Speedway, while Busch and crew chief Pat Tryson looked like they were ready to rope a few cattle.

"I'm a working man's man, one that goes out there and gets his hands dirty, wears Dickies clothes when I'm out hunting, working on cars." -- Kurt Busch making sure he pimped the race sponsor, especially after giving a race fan $1 million for the victory.

Two of NASCAR's three national divisions will crown champions this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway as Ron Hornaday, Jr. will clinch the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship if he has a 195-point lead following the race. He will clinch if he wins the race, no matter what Matt Crafton does. He currently has a 197-point lead over Crafton. Kyle Busch will clinch the Nationwide Series championship if he leaves with a 195-point point lead. He has a 272-point lead.

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