Sometimes a gesture of good faith that you really don’t want to take blows up in your face. This could very well be the case with NASCAR when it comes to the decision to allow Kurt Busch to be eligible for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup should he meet the requirements necessary.
The 36-year-old Busch was suspended indefinitely on the Friday prior to the Daytona 500 (February 20) after the Kent County (Delaware) Family Court commissioner released a finding that shows he believed that Busch did indeed commit an act of domestic abuse against former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. The court also had earlier in the week issued of a protective order against Busch.
When the Delaware Attorney General decided not to pursue criminal charges against Busch on Thursday, March 5, NASCAR took some time and then reinstated Busch the following Wednesday, ending what effectively was a three-race suspension. When NASCAR announced the end of Busch’s suspension, it did so by also saying that if Busch qualified for a spot in the Chase, he would be permitted into the field.
To qualify for the Chase, a driver has to be one of the 16 drivers with the most wins (or basically at least win one race in the season’s first 26) and be inside the top-30 in the points standings. The other way to qualify is if there are not 16 different winners in the first 26 races, the Chase field is filled out by the drivers with the most points and zero wins. In 2014, that meant finishing in the top-10 in points.
One caveat to qualifying for the Chase has been that the driver must not only fall in one of the above categories, but must also attempt to qualify for each race unless NASCAR gives them a waiver. Last season, NASCAR gave a waiver to Tony Stewart after he missed three races following the incident that led to the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. Stewart ultimately missed the Chase. This season, NASCAR decided to waive that rule for Brian Vickers after the driver was forced to miss the first two races of the season due to health issues. Vickers has since experienced more health issues that have again forced him out of the car.
And then NASCAR granted that same waiver to Busch.
After missing three races, Busch was 42 points out of 30th-place and was 85 points out of 10th-place if we use 2014 as a measuring stick. To be in the top 16, Busch would need to make up 77 points. That would not be an easy task. And this is something that had to be going through the minds of those in charge at NASCAR.
For NASCAR, it looked like a good gesture. And one that was worth taking.
By waiving the rule about attempting to qualify for all 26 races leading to the Chase and allowing him to take a spot in the Chase should he overcome a huge hole to qualify, NASCAR admitted to an extent that maybe it screwed up and acted too soon in suspending Busch. Even if they didn’t really want to see Busch in the Chase because of the offseason issues, it seemed like a stretch that Busch would be able to make up enough ground to make the Chase, especially within the first few weeks. After all, he hadn’t even been in a car since before the first race of the season.
Making itself look good by offering an olive branch while also figuring that Busch wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the opportunity? Sounded like a win-win for NASCAR.
What the executives at NASCAR didn’t expect was for Busch to go out and finish fifth in his first race back at Phoenix. And they sure didn’t expect Busch to go out the next week and take the pole and finish third at Fontana. All of a sudden, Busch was in 28th-place in the standings after just two races. That would make him Chase eligible if he could just pick up a win.
Oh, that win? Yeah, Busch almost grabbed that in the race at Fontana.
Busch led down the stretch and was headed for victory when a caution flag flew for debris. And then with Busch leading on the green-white-checkered attempt, NASCAR decided not to throw a caution flag when Greg Biffle wrecked behind the lead pack. That was in direct contradiction to what happened in the Daytona 500, when NASCAR threw the caution flag on the green-white-checkered attempt, allowing Joey Logano to find victory lane. After the caution didn’t fly in Fontana, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick passed Busch, who finished third.
While I don’t believe there was a conspiracy in place from NASCAR to keep Busch from winning, I do believe that there were some happy campers in the NASCAR offices. They were able to keep Kurt Busch out of the Chase for at least another week. You have to think that some of the higher ups who make all of the decisions within NASCAR have to fear the thought that Kurt Busch might make the Chase, which would bring his offseason back into the spotlight. And there is no way they wanted to see Busch win in just his second race back with the scab still fresh.
In his third race of the season last week, Busch finished 14th and pushed himself into 24th in the points standings. He sits 21 points clear of the 31st position, giving him enough of a cushion for now to go after the win that would make him Chase eligible.
Busch has to be making the NASCAR executives uneasy by showing that he still has the equipment and the ability to compete at a high level and just possibly enough to pull off a win and crash the Chase party, something NASCAR can’t possibly want to have happen. NASCAR would prefer not to have any distractions during its “playoffs” and would like to avoid a situation where the non-race stories overshadow the actual Chase, unlike what happened in this past season’s NFL playoffs.
If you remember, Ray Rice was a topic of conversation each time the Baltimore Ravens played. And then who could forget the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, which was loaded with stories about deflated footballs and Marshawn Lynch’s treatment of the media. People didn’t bother to talk about the actual game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots, just the stories and the drama that was happening around the two teams.
If Kurt Busch is able to make the Chase, there is no doubt that the focus of the stories surrounding him would be the suspension and the off-track stuff that has happened. There would be more talk about whether NASCAR was wrong or right in its original suspension and then discussion on if NASCAR was right to reinstate him and allow him to become Chase eligible.
The last thing NASCAR wants is negative attention taking away from their precious Chase format that it feels is finally done correctly (for now). NASCAR would rather stand on a pedestal and tell you everything that is right about the sport and try to sweep the stories that leave a black eye on the sport under the rug. But if Busch makes the Chase, there won’t be a housekeeping crew that is good enough to sweep away the stories that will arise.
As much as NASCAR may not want to admit it, they don’t want Kurt Busch in the Chase. But by giving him the opportunity to be eligible, there may not be anything they can do to stop him.