COMMENTARY | What do Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards have in common? Besides all being stars in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, all three drivers had 2012 seasons that were not quite up to par with standards they had set in past seasons. What's the common thread linking these three sub-par seasons? A cut-back in their racing schedules.
Joe Gibbs Racing star Busch, who also owns Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, missed this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup by three points, stuck outside the top 10 following three-straight races with engine problems in the middle of the "regular season." His one win this season wouldn't get him a wild card spot, so Busch was left to battle for 13th place in points, which he took easily after a stellar run in the Chase.
Richard Childress Racing's Harvick did make the Chase on the strength of 11 top 10 finishes in the first 26 races of the season - with no wins. Through the Chase, Harvick found himself eliminated early, but managed to pick up his only win of the season at Phoenix and salvaged an eighth-place finish.
Roush Fenway Racing's Edwards, last season's Chase runner-up, also didn't make the cut. He had just 13 top 10 finishes on the season, two of which came during the Chase, and no wins. He finished 15th in points - a far cry from 2011 and losing the title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker.
All three of these drivers, who fans are used to seeing in victory lane not only in the Sprint Cup Series but also in Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series competition, cut back their racing schedules this season, mostly out of necessity due to various outside factors, but the lack of competition has been costly on their Cup Series on-track performances.
Busch, who averaged 75 races in NASCAR's top three series over the last seven seasons, made only 61 starts in 2012, a total that was scheduled to be even lower. With the dismissal of Jason Leffler from his Truck Series team, Busch added three Truck Series races to his schedule, and brother Kurt's ever-changing teams in the Cup Series have put the younger Busch in the Nationwide Series car for the rest of the season. Incidentally, when Busch's racing schedule picked up during the Chase, he earned eight top 10 finishes in the Cup Series, seven top 10s in the Nationwide Series and two in the Truck Series. Busch addressed this situation in the post-race press conference at Texas: "At the beginning of the year it was told to me that I should cut back on my extracurricular racing because it distracts me from my Cup effort. Then I come out and qualify in the top three in all three series (at Texas)."
In 2008, Busch ran 84 races (36 Cup, 30 Nationwide, 18 Truck) and finished 10th in the Chase and sixth in Nationwide points. In Busch's most productive season - 2009 - he competed in 86 races (36 Cup, 35 Nationwide, 15 Truck Series), and while he didn't make the Chase, he did win the Nationwide Series title. In 2010, he ran 81 times (36 Cup, 29 Nationwide, 16 Truck) and finished eighth in the Chase and third in Nationwide, in spite of not running a full season.
Harvick, who has averaged more than 62 races each season over the last 11 seasons, made only 52 starts in 2012. Part of the reason: he sold his team, Kevin Harvick Incorporated, to his Cup Series team owner Richard Childress in the offseason; he's also likely had a few sleepless nights this season as his wife Delana gave birth to the couple's first son in July of this year.
In Harvick's most productive seasons - 2001 and 2006 - Harvick ran full-time schedules in both the Cup Series and Nationwide Series, winning the Nationwide Series title both seasons and finishing in the top 10 in Cup Series points (ninth and fourth, respectively). In 2010, he ran 70 races (36 Cup, 28 Nationwide, six Truck) and finished third in the Chase and sixth in Nationwide points.
Edwards, who has averaged 71 races a season over the past seven years while racing full-time (or as close to it as possible) in both the Cup and Nationwide Series, cut back to just full-time in the Cup Series in 2012, making one cameo appearance in the Nationwide race at Watkins Glen in August - a total of just 37 races in the 2012 season. Prior to this season, Edwards had missed the Chase just once, in 2006, finishing 12th.
While competing in at least 70 races a season between 2005 and 2010, Edwards finished in the top three in points all six seasons in the Nationwide Series, winning the title in 2007; he also had finishes of third (2005), second (2008) and fourth (2010) in the Chase. In 2011, the first season Edwards could not run for points in two series, Edwards lost the Cup championship in a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart and had the best Nationwide Series season in his career - 27 top 10 finishes in 33 races, including eight wins, as well as six poles.
There are those who believe that focus should be placed on one series - and drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have had great success with that theory. There are others, however - like these three drivers and last year's Sprint Cup champ Stewart, who moonlights with his sprint car team around the country - who just need to race.
Source: "Transcript: AAA Texas 500," NASCAR Media, November 4, 2012
Paula is a longtime NASCAR follower who also covers the sport for Examiner.com and Skirts & Scuffs.