Kurt Busch on roll heading into NASCAR playoffs

Updated September 14, 2017 - 3:29 pm

Is there another Tribe on the warpath in NASCAR?

With top-five finishes in each of the three races heading into the NASCAR playoffs that begin Sunday in the Chicago suburbs, there’s a Cleveland Indians analogy to be made about the sudden turnaround of Kurt Busch and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

“I wouldn’t exactly call us the Cleveland Indians, but we have turned a corner,” the 2004 Cup Series and reigning Daytona 500 champion from Las Vegas said via telephone Thursday as NASCAR continued gearing up for its second season.

“I felt like over the years teams save different things, aerodynamic and engine upgrades, before going into the playoffs. I said, ‘Let’s go to try to win this marquee race’ at Darlington.”

Busch, who will driving in his 11th NASCAR playoffs, finished third at Darlington and was fourth at Richmond last week in the final tuneup for stock car racing’s tiered playoffs. He said a lot of the top teams hold their cards close to the vest before the playoffs, but the No. 41 team was OK with laying theirs on the table.

“Let’s put everything into the car now,” Busch said of the mindset. “I’m very thankful to see results.”

Busch is a free agent for 2018 as sponsorship negotiations continue to play out. He said that while the NASCAR playoffs often are compared to those in other pro sports, they also borrow from NCAA’s March Madness with important early rounds in which there are no byes.

And unlike in the stick-and-ball playoffs in which only two teams compete at once, there are 36 teams running on the same truck for race wins within NASCAR’s complicated postseason system.

“You still gotta watch out for those Appalachian States,” Busch said.

Gragson not set yet

Kurt Busch isn’t the only NASCAR driver from Las Vegas with an uncertain future, as Noah Gragson said it hasn’t been determined if he’ll return to Kyle Busch’s Truck Series team in 2018.

Gragson, who won Saturday’s Super Late Models race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring on his off weekend, is ninth in points, but probably needs to win Friday night’s race in the Chicago suburbs to make the eight-team playoffs. The 19-year-old might have to seek another Truck Series ride should Busch shutter the doors to his shop amid restrictions limiting Cup Series drivers from competing in lower divisions and sponsorship issues.

“I don’t think I’m ready for the Xfinity level now,” Gragson said of the steep NASCAR learning curve.

Two sides of Danica

Exhibit A about Danica Patrick not returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, and her auto racing legacy — if, indeed, her auto racing legacy has run the course:

She won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500; she won an IndyCar race in 2008, she is the highest finishing female driver in Indianapolis 500 history (third in 2009); she is the only woman to lead laps in the Indy 500 and Daytona 500; she is the only woman to win a Cup Series pole. (She also made racy ads for sponsor GoDaddy that ran during the Super Bowl.)

Exhibit B: It has been said the only guy a driver truly has to beat is his (or her) teammates, something Patrick rarely did in NASCAR. She’s 28th in points, whereas teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer — running the same equipment — are sixth, 12th and 17th.

New driver for Schmidt

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the IndyCar team headed by Henderson’s Sam Schmidt, will partner former Formula One team owner Didier Calmels in fielding a car for French driver Tristan Gommendy in the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

Calmels in 1990 was sentenced to six years in prison for fatally shooting his first wife. The French courts ruled it a “crime of passion” — more severe than running over an air hose in the pits, one supposes, but a sentence from which Calmels was absolved after serving two years.

“The matter is of public record, and we have been aware of it throughout our discussion,” Schmidt said in a statement to IndyStar.com. “Didier has fulfilled his obligations and gone on to become a successful businessman and team owner in European motor sport.”

Ron Kantowski’s motor sports notebook appears Friday. Contact him at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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