The only sure thing as the Sprint Cup season roars into its second half is that there's plenty of racing to come. For now, here are five questions to consider
1. And your 2008 Cup champion will be...? After his road course win at Sonoma on June 22 there seems to be little that can stand in the way of Kyle Busch taking his first season title -- except, perhaps... Kyle Busch. With five wins in the first 17 races, the Shrub has excelled on just about every sort of venue, from Talladega's superspeedway to the Monster Mile at Dover, and he has a 67-point lead in the standings over second-place Jeff Burton.
The biggest threat Busch might face in the second half is a serious case of burnout. Besides his Cup races, he has run a full schedule in the Nationwide Series and driven in eight of the first 10 Craftsmen Truck events as well. His 11 wins across the three circuits are just three off the alltime record set by Kevin Harvick in 2006, but such relentless racing (and the travel involved) has taken a toll. Last month Busch ran races in each of the series in a single weekend, and in the process showed why most of the top Cup drivers eschew the practice. On Friday, June 6, he finished second in a truck race at Texas. The next night he ran 20th in a Nationwide race at Nashville. And on Sunday he ended up last in the Cup race at Pocono.
The following week Busch announced that he would not continue a full campaign for the Nationwide title, saying, "We are just going to have fun now and win the races and not stress."
The prospect of a rested and focused Kyle Busch should really stress the rest of the Cup contenders.
2. Will this be the final season for Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing? The two-time Cup champ has been rumored since early in the season to be on the outs at JGR, where he is under contract through 2009. Part of Stewart's dissatisfaction is with the team's move from Chevy to Toyota this year. Stewart has driven GM cars nearly his entire career, and the manufacturer sponsors his open-wheel sprint car team. Beyond that, Stewart seems intent on acquiring an ownership stake in a Cup program, and he says he has listened to several offers. One scenario has him leaving JGR for a 50% interest in the fledgling Haas CNC Racing team, which currently runs the number 66 Chevy in the Cup series. While reiterating that Stewart is under contract for another year, the folks at Gibbs seem to be preparing for his departure, hinting that 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano would be in a Cup car by the end of the season. If Stewart leaves, it's likely that Logano would inherit the ride in the number 20 Toyota.
3. What's the problem at Penske? No team got off to a better start in 2008 than Penske Racing. With Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch finishing one-two in the Daytona 500, the operation seemed set to continue its momentum from last season, when Busch won two races and made the Chase, and Newman had five top 10s in his last 10 starts.
But since Daytona the team has sunk into mediocrity, beset by inconsistency and engine problems. Even after a lucky win in the rain-shortened New Hampshire race last Sunday, Busch ranks only 18th in points. Newman hasn't finished better than fourth since his Daytona win and is mired in 15th place. Rookie Sam Hornish Jr., who switched from Penske's IndyCar team last winter, ranks 33rd.
Newman, who has had engines fail in two races, recently told SI.com that his mechanical difficulties have him thinking about leaving Penske when the season is over. "The performance of our team and [the Penske] organization will make or break my position," he said.
According to Tim Cindric, the president of Penske Racing, the problem isn't just the engines. "We're behind on what we do relative to the geometry of these cars," he says. "The guys who've had winning streaks this year -- Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne -- each of them found something before anybody else. These cars are so similar, a small change gives you a big advantage."
4. TV ratings are up, but attendance is down. What's going on? After two years of decline, television ratings for most Cup races have been up this year, with the just-concluded Fox broadcasts showing a 2% jump from 2007. That's good news for a sport so dependent on sponsorship and advertising. But does the rise have anything to do with a drop in attendance? Tracks don't release such figures, and NASCAR says that Cup races continue to average 120,000 fans per event, but empty seats have been glaringly visible at most races this year.
Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's director of corporate communications, says that nobody in his office is drawing a direct line between attendance and TV numbers. "TV ratings fluctuate," he says. "What we have found is that fans are waiting longer before they make the commitment to buy tickets." Poston theorizes that ratings are up because the series has stopped tweaking its cars, its points systems and its championship format. "It's time to let those changes mature," he says. "Fans have been able to focus on the racing."
Maybe, but the simplest explanation for an attendance drop might just be the high cost of a tank of gas. NASCAR says that RV parking spots continue to sell out early, but if ticket sales have slowed, it's a pretty clear sign that people are spending their money on other things -- or just trying to save it. And watching the races on television doesn't cost a thing.
5. What about the lawsuit? The $225 million suit brought by former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant on June 10 charging NASCAR with racial and sexual discrimination and harassment, is a shot to the gut of a sport that has tried hard to change its Old South image by diversifying its workforce. So it was a surprise that NASCAR's reaction came off so clumsily. On June 14, CEO Brian France spoke to the media for a half hour. He stressed that NASCAR works to prevent the sort of behavior Grant alleges, going so far as to require all employees to take part in yearly sensitivity training. He made appropriate points, but lessened their impact when he seemed to lash out at Grant, noting that she made the suit "about money," disputing her contention that she reported the alleged problems and saying, "Anybody can say anything that you want and hire a p.r. firm."
NASCAR would be better served by simply reiterating that it takes Grant's charges very seriously and is conducting a thorough investigation -- and not get bogged down lobbing counter-charges. NASCAR will get a fair hearing in the courtroom.