Gordon Kirby

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Busch bounces back to take title

Whatever you may think of NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ play-off system, it produced an excellent title duel at the Homestead-Miami Speedway Sprint Cup finale in November. Defending NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick chased Kyle Busch all the way to the chequered flag, but couldn’t get close enough to challenge. Busch, 30, took his first Sprint Cup championship in his 11th year in NASCAR’s premier series.

Touted for many years as one of NASCAR’s most talented drivers Busch, known as ‘Rowdy’, has won more than 150 NASCAR races over the past decade in the Sprint Cup and its support categories. But Kyle had never finished better than fourth in the premier series and prior to Homestead had never won a ‘Chase for the Cup’ round.

But Busch quickly emerged as the man to beat at Homestead, eventually leading more laps than anyone else and pulling away from the final restart to beat Harvick by four seconds. His success was remarkable because he missed 11 races at the beginning of the year after crashing at Daytona in February, breaking a leg and foot. Back in the cockpit by May, Kyle was immediately competitive and went on to win five races and lead 736 laps as he took Joe Gibbs Racing’s fourth championship and first in 10 years. 

Gibbs’ four-car team is the factory Toyota operation and this is Toyota’s first Sprint Cup title, so it was particularly gratifying for the team and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) in California, where the engines are built. Gibbs’ Toyotas won more races than anyone in 2015, taking 14 of the 36 Sprint Cup races.

Runner-up Harvick was the man to beat all year and would have won the championship for the second straight season if any kind of conventional scoring system was in use. Harvick has established himself as the lead driver at Stewart/Haas Racing. He took three wins, 13 second places and also led 2,294 laps, almost twice as many as anyone else and 157 more than the record he set in 2014.

In total Chevrolets won 15 races in 2015, one more than Toyota, making the US firm the champion manufacturer. Fords won seven races, all with Penske.

Meanwhile, the crowds at many races and NASCAR’s TV ratings continue to glide steadily downhill to record low levels. Ratings and crowds at most races have been in decline for seven or eight years and show no sign of bottoming out. TV ratings on NBC Sports were down 15 per cent from 2014 on ESPN and the ratings declined for all 19 Sprint Cup races broadcast on cable last year.

One of NASCAR’s bigger problems is that it has too many races – too many long, 500-mile races in particular. Yet this aspect is also impossible to change because none of the 23 tracks that stage the 36 Sprint Cup races has any interest in cutting back. Crowds may be down, but Sprint Cup race weekends continue to be the biggest event and most important source of revenue by far for every track.

Another element in the declining interest in NASCAR was the arrival, starting in 2007, of the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ and ‘Generation 6’ spec cars. Despite each brand of the Gen 6 car receiving individual nose treatments, the spec car has made the cars more identical than ever, reducing a key historical draw for many NASCAR fans.

Yet NASCAR remains by far America’s largest, most successful form of motor racing, light years ahead of IndyCar and IMSA sports car racing. The Sprint Cup series may be a weakened animal, but it will continue as the big dog of American racing for many years.