“He is extremely talented, he is among the lap leaders and then you look at his top-fives [finishes] and top 10s,” Craven told the BDN Monday night. “The only thing he hasn’t done yet in his career is managed September, October and November very well. That has been his Achilles heel.
“But it is just a matter of time [before he wins the points championship] and this is the year for him,” predicted Craven, a recent Maine Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
Busch, who finished second to Matt Kenseth in Sunday’s race at Chicagoland and is in second place in the points, eight behind Kenseth, leads the Sprint Cup drivers in top-fives with 12 in 27 races and he is tied for first in top-10s with 16. He is tied with Jimmie Johnson for second in wins with four and is third in laps led with 1,169.
Kenseth leads in wins with six and in laps led with 1,238 and Craven has been impressed with Kenseth.
“Here’s a driver in his 40s who has already won a points championship but, to me, he has never looked better,” said Craven. “I’ve never seen him more relaxed. This is his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. Roush Racing had been the only home he had ever known. He is really comfortable in the car. He and his crew chief [Jason Ratcliff] are really connected. This is the most wins he has ever had in a season.”
The Sprint Cup Series was forced to endure a major embarrassment that threatened its credibility two weekends ago, but Craven said NASCAR took appropriate action in disciplining race teams that deliberately tried to manipulate the outcome of the Sprint Cup race at Richmond on Sept. 7.
It was the last race before the Chase and spots in the prestigious and lucrative Chase were up for grabs.
The Michael Waltrip Racing team was judged to have deliberately tried to alter the race to get one of their drivers, Martin Truex Jr., into the Chase.
Late in the race, Clint Bowyer, a driver for MWR, received a suspicious request using code words from his crew chief Brian Pattie. Moments later, Bowyer’s car mysteriously spun out with seven laps left and, even though there was virtually no damage to the car, Bowyer pitted and didn’t return to the track for two laps.
That caution sent race contenders to the pits and definitely affected the finishing order.
Another MWR driver, Brian Vickers, was instructed by MWR general manager and spotter Ty Norris to come to the pits with four laps to go which, initially, didn’t make sense to Vickers and he said so on a radio transmission. He was eventually told that his team needed a point (to help get Truex in the Chase) so he honored the request. Vickers also inexplicably drove 30-50 mph slower than any other car in the field.
Truex Jr. did get into the Chase at the expense of Ryan Newman, who was leading the race at the time of the caution but came out fifth after pit stops and finished third.
However, when NASCAR docked Bowyer, Vickers and Truex Jr., 50 points apiece, Newman supplanted Truex Jr. in the Chase field. MWR was also fined a record $300,000 and Norris was suspended indefinitely for his radio instructions to Vickers.
Jeff Gordon also missed the Chase but was eventually added as the 13th driver in the Chase after NASCAR learned of a deal between Front Row Racing and Penske in which Front Row’s David Gilliland was asked to allow Penske’s Joey Logano to pass him and earn extra points to help him land a Chase spot.
Gordon had also been victimized by the MWR fiasco.
Front Row and Penske were also sanctioned by NASCAR and at a Saturday meeting of drivers and crew chiefs at Chicagoland, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said drivers and teams must give 100 percent in every race. Any attempt to manipulate a race would result in punishment.
“NASCAR did the best they could under really ugly circumstances,” said Craven. “Gordon was in position to make the Chase with 10 laps to go at Richmond and it looked like Newman was going to win the race and get into the Chase [before Bowyer spun out].”
He doesn’t see NASCAR suffering any lingering effects, noting that the sport has overcome difficult situations in the past.
“In 1969, the [top] drivers decided not to race in the inaugural event in Talladega because there were [safety] concerns about the tires,” said Craven. “But [NASCAR chairman and CEO] Bill France [Sr.] said he could still get enough drivers to hold the race and that’s what he did.
“Then, in 2001, we lost Dale Earnhardt [Sr.] at the Daytona 500,” said Craven, referring to the death of the popular driver when he hit the wall.
“He was an icon. It was an extremely difficult set of circumstances for all of us,” said Craven.
Craven said he continues to love his gig as a NASCAR analyst, regular contributor to NASCAR Now and, this Saturday night, he will be in the booth as an analyst for the Nationwide Series race in Kentucky. It will be his third Nationwide Series race this season.
“I really enjoy what I do. ESPN has been very good to me,” said Craven.