NASCAR: Live from Darlington

Kurt Busch rolls to the pole

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Ten years ago, Kurt Busch lost the closest finish in NASCAR history by 0.002 seconds to Ricky Craven at Darlington Raceway.

His track record for Saturday's Southern 500 pole at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway doesn't quite make up for that.

But it's a good place to start for the Furniture Row Racing driver.

"This gives me a great shot to stay ahead of the field and win by 0.002 seconds this time," Busch said after Friday's qualifying run.

Busch laid down a lap of 181.918 mph, besting defending race winner Jimmie Johnson, who will start second after a lap of 180.974. Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, will start third.

"Wow, what an incredible lap," Busch said. "Just the way the team gave me the confidence right when we first unloaded."

It was Busch's second career pole at Darlington. In 2001, he became the youngest pole winner here at 23 years and 29 days old.

It is a continuation of a week in which he became the first to pass this year's IndyCar rookie test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, topping 218 mph in Ryan Hunter-Reay's primary car.

The laps at Indy and Darlington, however, were very different.

"When I first went out on the track the car moved all around," Busch said of his Indy run. "Yes, it was different, but I had to zone right back in to what I did my whole career, and that's driving a stock car.

"And secondly, show respect for the track, because it definitely can jump up and grab you."

-- David Newton



Kenseth feeling relieved

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Matt Kenseth feels much better about making the Chase after penalties against his Sprint Cup team were greatly reduced Wednesday.

He also feels better about NASCAR's justice system.

The 2003 champion called the penalties "grossly unfair" and "borderline shameful" two weeks ago after NASCAR took everything that came with his win at Kansas except the trophy and suspended team owner Joe Gibbs for six races.

On Wednesday, the National Stock Car Racing Commission panel overturned Gibbs' suspension, gave Kenseth credit for the win as it applies to the Chase, shrank his point penalty from 50 to 12 and reduced crew chief Jason Ratcliff's suspension from six weeks to one.

Kenseth, who was in Canada when Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs texted him the good news, wasn't surprised.

"If they would have upheld all the penalties, I would have been way more shocked than I was when I got the news with all the things I knew," he said Friday at Darlington Raceway. "I feel they [the panel] did a good job of looking at all the facts.

"I feel like they got it pretty right."

The penalties were the result of a connecting rod supplied to engine builder Toyota Racing Development by an outside vendor being 2.7 grams too light. NASCAR, as it does with most engine-related penalties, threw the book at the No. 20 team.

Kenseth was visibly upset by the severity of the infraction, particularly as it pertained to Gibbs' suspension.

"The penalties were pretty crushing before they got reduced," he said. "I really applaud NASCAR for having the appeals process."

Kenseth moved from 11th in the standings to fourth with the reduction. He now has credit for two wins toward the Chase, which means he's virtually a lock for no worse than a wild card as long as he stays inside the top 20.

But he was equally or more happy to have Ratcliff's suspension reduced.

"That will be a huge difference," Kenseth said. "I've got a really strong team. I feel good about everybody and the jobs they do, but certainly Jason is the guy that makes it happen. I told him when it all happened I don't think I can get along without him."

-- David Newton



Who is where at Penske and JGR?

There are some familiar faces in new roles this weekend at Darlington Raceway after all the dust has settled on penalties and appeals.

Kevin Buskirk is the crew chief for reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski through the May 26 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as Paul Wolfe serves a two-race suspension for unapproved rear-end housing parts discovered at the April 13 Texas race.

Steve Reis is the crew chief for his Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano, as Todd Gordon sits out for the same violation.
Both drivers also have new car chiefs, Nick Hensley for Keselowski and Jeffery Thousand for Logano.

Greg Erwin, Sam Hornish Jr.'s crew chief in the Nationwide Series, will be on Logano's pit box as a team strategist. Mike Nelson, Penske's vice president of operations, replaces Travis Geisler as team manager.

It could have been much worse. NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook reduced the suspensions by four races on Tuesday.

In the Joe Gibbs Racing camp, Wally Brown replaces Jason Ratcliff for one race after NASCAR discovered a connecting rod was 2.7 grams too light after Matt Kenseth's win at Kansas. That suspension was reduced by five races on Wednesday by the National Stock Car Racing Commission.

-- David Newton



Hamlin: No backup plan needed

Denny Hamlin has no plans to keep a backup driver on standby as he prepares for his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in his lower back on March 24.

"I don't think there's any doubt we'll go the whole way,'' Hamlin said after finishing 13th fastest in the second Cup practice. "I stayed in the car for about an hour and a half straight with no issues. Nothing was uncomfortable. Nothing hurt.''

Hamlin said the latest scan on his back shows so much improvement that there are no concerns competing at a Darlington track where the cars run closer to the wall than anywhere in the series.

Had there not been that improvement, Hamlin acknowledged he may have skipped the May 18 Sprint All-Star Race to recover.

"I think we're safe enough now to where I can take a few jabs here and there,'' he said.

-- David Newton

Ragan happy to get Keselowski apology

David Ragan wasn't surprised by Brad Keselowski's venomous tweets following Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway.

"Brad is known to speak his mind, whether he's right or wrong or he knows the whole story or half the story,'' Ragan said a week after his feel-good win. "That's ultimately what it was.''

Keselowski, in case you missed it, accused Ragan of lining up wrong on the final restart to get in the preferred outside line. What the reigning champion didn't know because he and his spotter missed the radio communication was Ragan was told by NASCAR to switch lanes.

Once Keselowski got all the facts, he called Ragan on Tuesday to apologize. He also wrote an open letter apology and posted it on his website.

"Once Brad saw what was going on, it was pretty cool that he took the time out of his schedule to give me a call and make an apology,'' Ragan said. "He certainly didn't have to do that. ... He knows the difference between right and wrong and it's good that he admitted it. A lot of guys wouldn't have admitted their mistake.''

-- David Newton

Mr. 700

It seems like just yesterday that Jeff Gordon made his Sprint Cup debut in 1992.

Four championships and 87 wins later, the future Hall of Famer will make his 700th career start on Saturday night at Darlington.

"It's amazing that the number is that big," said Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "He got such an early start. He is not all that much older than I am, but clearly a lot more starts. I remember watching him all the way back to the Thursday night thunder days when he was running a midget and being a fan. Buying his diecast car from Toys 'R' Us because I was a Gordon fan. It went on my dresser at home."

But Gordon isn't thinking about No. 700 as much as he is No. 8, the number of wins he would have at Darlington if he gets to Victory Lane. He ranks third on the track's all-time win list behind David Pearson with 10 and Dale Earnhardt with nine.

Gordon says he never dreamed of making 700 consecutive starts, so he hasn't envisioned breaking Ricky Rudd's record of 788 straight.

"That to me is like David Pearson's 105 wins,'' said Gordon, whose 87 victories ranks third behind Richard Petty (200) and Pearson. "It's too far out there. You have to get closer because you can't think realistically of those things.''

Gordon's last win here was in 2007. He has finished 35th and 12th in his past two starts.

-- David Newton

JJ on Daddy duty, not Triathlon duty

Jimmie Johnson's plans to run the "Over the Mountain Triathlon" in Kings Mountain, N.C., the morning of the May 18 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway have changed.

It has nothing to do with the shape he's in.

It has everything to do with him being a father.

"Unfortunately, Evie has a dance recital on Saturday," Johnson said. "It's at 9 o'clock and the triathlon starts at 8. That is going to be a little tough to pull off. I even tried to see if we could move the show to later in the day and it's not going to work.

"I have four months of training invested, but it's all good. I really do enjoy pushing myself from a fitness standpoint. It's something that I've had my eye on for years."

Johnson still will get a workout, sort of.

"I'm bummed I'm not going to be able to make that race, because I'm ready and prepared for it," he said. "At the same time I will be running a camcorder of sorts filming Evie dancing around. It will be good."

-- David Newton

Tough start to Danica's weekend

Not a great start to the Darlington weekend for Danica Patrick.

First her hauler broke down Thursday on the short drive here from Charlotte, N.C. Then during Friday's first practice she pancaked the right side of her No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing car.

The crew immediately went to work getting the backup out.

-- David Newton

What not to say?

Drivers are starting to get an idea of where the line is on what they can and can't say without being fined.

The latest message came this week when Ryan Newman was not fined for taking a shot at the governing body for all the craziness that happened after restarting Sunday's Talladega race following a lengthy rain delay.

"They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls," Newman said after Kurt Busch's car went airborne and landed on the hood of his car. "But they can't get their heads out of their a---- far enough to keep them on the racetrack, and that's pretty disappointing.

"I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race. Our car was much better than that. That's just poor judgment in restarting the race, poor judgment. ... I mean; you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain. That's it, thank you."

Earlier this year, Brad Keselowski was not fined for calling out the integrity of the sport after NASCAR confiscated the rear end housing of the Penske Racing cars before the Texas race.

The only fine has been the $25,000 hit Denny Hamlin took for perceived negative comments about the "Gen-6" car and quality of racing at Phoenix.

Jimmie Johnson said most drivers will continue to say what's on their mind regardless because "the majority of us don't have that filter."

"There are certainly some that come to mind quickly that don't have that filter," he said, without naming names. "We do have a format to speak our mind. I think the question at the end of the day really is in the responsibility falls on the drivers' shoulders. Is this going to help our sport?

"Me taking this microphone right now and saying what is on my mind, is it going to help our sport? Some can call it a cop-out, they can call it whatever they want, but at the end of the day we need to protect our sport and grow our sport."

-- David Newton