Two weeks ago, Chip Ganassi Racing's entire two-car NASCAR organization learned they'd been sold. The new owner, Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing, will only keep a portion of the current employees as he's got one driver and team already with Daniel Suarez. That leaves Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain, among others in-house, openly battling each other for a spot in 2022. Frankly, there's no guarantee anybody gets a job.
Dysfunctional teams would crumble in the face of such adversity. CGR? They earned two top-10 finishes July 4 at Road America before teaming up to earn Kurt Busch the win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That's some impressive cohesion, led by the leadership skills of a driver in Busch once fired 10 years ago by Team Penske over rampant immaturity.
"This shows that I can win at any age, at any time," said the 42-year-old Busch, the latest in a long list of 40-something athletes to break through in 2021 (see: Brady, Tom; Castroneves, Helio). "This team, with the way our back was against the wall… I rallied everybody the best that I could."
Apparently, that includes bringing in a two-star general to talk motivation in the face of all these distractions. After an awful start to the year, momentum turned in June, five top-10 finishes the past six races catapulting Busch into playoff contention.
But it was Chastain who got CGR over the hump at Atlanta, securing a postseason bid and a victory for the eldest Busch brother. In position to get lapped, Chastain's No. 42 held the high line in front of leader Kyle Busch, slowing the No. 18 just enough Kurt was able to sneak by after losing the lead initially during final green-flag stops. As Chastain explains his rationale here, "To see a Chip Ganassi Racing car go to victory lane with the last few weeks, what's happened… one team, one goal and that's to win."
"That was exactly what a teammate needs to do," Busch added, at one point referring to the duo as "Shake and Bake!" from Talladega Nights. "Ross did that in a way that gave me a sense of pride on the education and mentorship that I have helped Ross with this year. It was a perfect give-back."
It's the type of connection you never thought Busch would have with a fellow driver in his younger days. But age has mellowed the 2004 Cup Series champion out, leaving him with wisdom and experience to take two middling programs (at Stewart-Haas Racing and here) to the Round of 8 within the last three seasons.
The teamwork strategy left his younger brother none too happy, Kyle complaining he just "smoked it behind the 42, obviously. Shows you what kind of driver [Chastain] is." But these type of teammate tricks are nothing new in a sport where multi-car operations share notes and plan pit strategy together. What did Kyle expect in that situation? Did he think Ross was going to turn down low and block Kurt instead?
"It's an awesome, genuine battle between the two of us," Kurt said about his 1-2 finish with Kyle. "We've had some friction over the years, but as we get older, we've gotten a slightly bit wiser and we've raced each other with a ton of respect on track to almost be teammates, even though we race for different organizations.
"With COVID and the process last year and sharing a lot of flights and a lot of time together with Brexton (Kyle's son), the two of us have gotten really close. Chastain helped today from the teammate side, but that's my brother. He can take one, sit on the side. It's all right, buddy, you can finish second, and now we're tied on Busch Brother one-twos with two wins apiece."
Green: Kyle Busch. Kyle can complain about the loss all he wants. Here's the big picture: four straight podium finishes in Cup and a win in what Busch claims was his final NASCAR Xfinity Series start. He ends that NXS career with 102 victories and a perfect 5-for-5 win percentage in 2021.
Yellow: Kyle Larson. Larson returned to the place he led 269 laps in March, suffered a speeding penalty and never contended (18th). It's only been four races since the No. 5 team won but recent history (Kevin Harvick, 2020) raises concern this team may have peaked too soon.
Red: Daniel Suarez. Trackhouse should have good vibes flowing these days with their pending expansion. Instead, bad luck has been everywhere: mechanical woes at Road America followed by a wreck not of their making at Atlanta. Two straight weeks of earning a single point put Suarez in win-or-bust territory to make the playoffs.
Speeding Ticket: Denny Hamlin. A penalty with 97 laps remaining cost the point leader another top-5 finish. Running 13th, he's now gone a dozen races without a podium finish while Larson, Kyle Busch and other title contenders are winning on the regular.
The big drama at Atlanta this week was an announcement the track will repave and redesign its 1.5-mile oval next season. The width of the track will be reduced by up to 15 feet and banking in the turns changed from 24 to 28 degrees.
Only one problem with that plan: no one told most of the drivers what was happening. That seemed to rankle the rank-and-file superstars who felt their input could keep new track development from turning destructive.
There's one thing we know for sure: it's been clear for years this 1.5-mile oval needs work. A 19-minute red flag Sunday offered proof once pavement was literally getting torn off the racetrack.
It's been 24 years since Atlanta had new asphalt. The key is whether the track can break NASCAR's trend of making pretty new construction an ugly sight for on-track competition.