The Frontstretch: 5 Points to Ponder: Hamlin The Hunted, Pastrana/Patrick Peril, And To The Aggressor Go the Spoils by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday November 16, 2010

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ONE: I Was Wrong About Denny Hamlin

Fresh off what was admittedly an incredible performance at Martinsville in the spring that landed him a grandfather clock, I penned a column that Denny Hamlin – as impressive as his effort was the race prior to having knee surgery – had effectively ended his year by deciding to undergo such an invasive procedure midseason.

Denny Hamlin set about making fools of just about all his critics this year, never even blinking after that doomsday knee surgery en route to eight wins and the precipice of what would be a first Sprint Cup title for he and his No. 11 team.

To say Hamlin proved me wrong with his performance was an understatement. Only two races into his post-surgery run, he won at Texas. And despite having an injury that medical experts and writers alike concluded should have left the No. 11 team looking to 2011 as their next shot at a Cup title, the preseason favorite to unseat Jimmie Johnson now sits 400 miles from doing just that.

Posting eight wins, seven of which came after ACL reconstruction, is impressive enough. But doing it and mounting such a serious challenge for the Cup is nothing short of miraculous. There’s no groundbreaking analysis here; that post-Martinsville column that I pronounced the No. 11 team’s season dead was about the most incorrect prediction that I’ve ever published. And, win or lose Sunday, Hamlin’s had one hell of a 2010.

TWO: The Hunter Struggles As the Hunted

The entirety of 2010 has seen Hamlin as the hunter, not the hunted. Until he took the points lead at Texas last weekend, Hamlin was running down prey in Jimmie Johnson that no driver has managed to outrun since 2005. But as the leader, the No. 11 team suddenly was in a situation that for all their talk and hopes, had never been in before. They had to play defense.

That role hardly seemed to suit this group. Granted, the on-track performance was there. Hamlin’s Toyota sliced and diced through the field early to get to the front, and from there led the most laps. But when push came to shove at race’s end, Hamlin and team left the gamble and a shot at the win on the table to play it safe, take a splash-and-go and settle for a conservative 12th-place finish. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson and Co. turned a good day into a great one, gambling on their fuel mileage to stay on track and score a top-5 finish that saw them cut their points deficit in half heading into Homestead.

Hamlin was visibly upset after the race, punching his dashboard in the car and violently hurling a water bottle after exiting his machine. For once, his emotional outburst was in fact the correct response. He knew full well how big an opportunity his team missed to put the No. 48 team down for good.

That’s the reality of being the points leader. The fact that Johnson has won four consecutive Chases is all the more monumental in that his No. 48 team has so effectively played defense year after year. But for the No. 11 team, it seems like on Sunday, after all the hard work paid off at Texas, after finally rising to the top this late in the game, that it was actually at Phoenix where the team finally comprehended just how big the task they were undertaking really is.

There was more than frustration evident in Hamlin and his team at Phoenix after the race was over. There was fear, and well-founded fear, that their opportunity to pull off this championship took a major hit in the desert. Hamlin and Co. are right to be confident in having a leg up on the No. 48 team at Homestead… but Johnson proved even when trailing, he’s not forgotten how to go on offense. The No. 11 team missed with a haymaker on Sunday… and now must spend this entire week covering up. The momentum has swung back to the No. 48, even if the points lead hasn’t…yet.

THREE: Travis Pastrana Setting Himself Up for Failure…Like So Many Before Him

Granted, there is far from a long list of X-gamers that have tried to make it big in NASCAR, but there’s nothing to see here short of another novelty product that’s going to produce plenty of marketing dollars and ESPN hype…but no results on the race track.

Just like Danica Patrick, Pastrana brings a legion of fans and a new presence that could go a long way towards enhancing NASCAR’s image and enticing a new crowd to taking in big time stock car racing. But, just like with Danica, there’s absolutely no patience here, no plan to develop as a driver. Rather, the idea is to jump into a part-time Nationwide Series schedule and learn this whole stock car thing as it happens. Meaning that no matter the sponsors coming in, no matter the TV coverage, the performance isn’t going to be there.

Look at Danica as an example. Has she gotten better since the start of the season? Absolutely. But NASCAR’s next big thing can’t be any driver, man or woman, whose best effort is a finish outside the top 20. Unlike Patrick, Pastrana doesn’t even have all of his racing experience on four wheels.

Now granted, the purpose of moving to NASCAR may well be to do more marketing, make some money, score some TV time, and treat it as a side gig. If so, Pastrana’s going to be in for a very successful 2011 no matter how he runs. But by treating racers like Pastrana as marketing tools instead of aspiring stock car drivers, the teams and the sport are robbing them of any real chance for a long-term future within NASCAR. That’s not good for the teams, and more importantly it’s not good for a sport that’s struggling to come up with any sort of driver development these days.

Figures like Danica Patrick and Travis Pastrana wanting to try stock car racing is a very good thing. But for them to have a lasting positive impact on the sport, they need to perform. The long list of drivers that have tried simple immersion in upper level stock car racing that have failed goes on forever, from Dario Franchitti to Sam Hornish, Jr. to Jacques Villeneuve. All of them had considerably more accomplished racing resumes than either Patrick or Pastrana.

It’s a shame that for all his accolades, so little attention is being paid to Ricky Carmichael’s continued development as a stock car driver. Unlike the figures being discussed here, he went from motocross to a late model before tackling the big time. As a result, he’s gone from a daisy-fresh rookie to four wheels to a legitimate top-15 fixture in the Truck Series. Seat time works. Teams, and even NASCAR, would do well to incentivize drivers with such potential and fan bases to take their time making it into the sport instead of pursuing a sugar pill high.

Because finishing worse than 20th every week doesn’t build fan bases…unless the name is Earnhardt.

FOUR: The Closest Chase Ever Yields NASCAR…Nothing?

Yes, the 15-point gap between Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson heading into Homestead is the closest gap between one-two in all of the Chases that have been run. Yes, for the first time since 2005 Jimmie Johnson is not leading the points heading into Homestead. Yes, for the first time since 2004 Brian France’s inbred love child is actually spawning a title chase that could realistically come down to the season’s final lap.

Shame that’s not translating into any measurable benefits for NASCAR. Attendance at Phoenix was down 16% from last season. The purse was down nearly $150,000, and barring some sort of unexpected miracle, the ratings for Phoenix will mark the ninth consecutive Chase race that didn’t meet the mark it set in 2009.

Just as a points chase that is close solely because of an officiating reset with 10 races to go in the season doesn’t seem to be doing anything for race fans, it’s not doing anything for NASCAR’s bottom line, either.

Tell me again why we’re stuck with this joke of a points system?

FIVE: To The Aggressor Goes the Spoils

Jimmie Johnson has had his share of trading paint this season – especially when it comes to Kurt Busch. But the Hendrick driver knows one wrong move at the wrong time could rip a fifth straight title right out of his grasp.

Just like Sunday’s Cup race features three drivers all within striking distance of the series title, last month saw the ARCA Racing Series championship come down to three drivers in the final race. And there’s a lesson to be learned there. Because on that day at Rockingham back in October, Patrick Sheltra raced for the win, points lead be damned… and took home the crown, even after Craig Goess mounted an impressive late-race charge. Meanwhile, third-place driver Tom Hessert III had a top-15 day, that, while solid, proved too little to mount a serious challenge for the big prize, a season full of consistency notwithstanding.

It seems to be a very apt metaphor for the upcoming Cup battle about to hit south Florida… or, as Bruton Smith coined it, “north Cuba.” Because at 46 points back, Harvick is looking to be an also-ran when this Chase is said and done — a season of top 10s and the points lead coming up short.

That leaves the final fight to be Johnson vs. Hamlin in a 400-mile game of chicken.

If Phoenix meant anything, one team already flinched.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
FREE NEWSLETTER! BREAKING NEWS ON JEREMY MAYFIELD AND BRIAN FRANCE! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Everyone BUT The Big Three
No Bull: Hold On, Who’s Winning the Points Race? Does Hamlin Know It?
ABJ (Anyone But Johnson): Who Would Be the Best 2010 Champion?
Talking NASCAR TV: Pointing Out ESPN’s Obsession With Points In Phoenix

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?
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Robin1
11/16/2010 06:25 AM
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I have nothing against Travis Pastrana but I see this as nothing but a publicity stunt. This is just another example of someone being able to “buy” their way in to NASCAR while the real NASCAR drivers who put in the blood, sweat, and tears week in and week out are left without a ride in 2011 – one of the most talented being Justin Allgeier. He’s the one that most truly deserves a ride – NOT Mr. Pastrana.

MJR in Springfield Va
11/16/2010 07:11 AM
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“Tell me again why we’re stuck with this joke of a points system?” Well, gosh be golly you said it already – because it’s Brian France’s inbred love child. And who could throw out such a cute little bastard?

Jacob
11/16/2010 08:06 AM
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Randy Nacho: Suddenly YOU are the victim? YOU have spent this entire season attacking everybody, that doesn’t agree with the crap that brian france and his inbred pr team push upon REAL NASCAR fans.
YOU are the one that goes on the attack every week. It is YOU that contributes nothing to the debates. It is YOU that nobody agrees with. (Unless, of course, you count your other screen names) It is YOU that screams (like Kyle Busch) about your “First Amendment Rights.” And then, it is YOU that wants to claim to be the victim when it all boils to a head.

Hell yeah, I went on the offensive today, because I will NOT stand idly by and allow you to pretend to be the victim when you are the aggressor. And if the editor hasn’t banned YOU for your seasons worth of atrocious behavior, I am betting he won’t ban me for setting you straight.

Jacob
11/16/2010 08:20 AM
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Bryan,

Nobody can be sure if the 11 flinched in the desert. Imagine if they gambled on the fuel and came up 2 laps short. Harvick could be in second now with Jimmie leading. Just because Jimmie made it on his fuel, doesn’t mean Denny would have made it with his.
At this point, Denny heads into the final race with a slim lead. Homestead is, historically, a better track for Denny than for Jimmie. It is reasonable to assume that Jimmie will not be running rough-shod all over the field on Sunday, and all Denny needs to do is run his Talladega strategy. Attach himself to Jimmie’s rear bumper and follow him all day long. If he does that, and his equipment holds together, he will be the next one to claim the ability to call himself the winner of brian france’s inbred love-child.

Buzz
11/16/2010 08:59 AM
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I agree with Jacob about the 11. Tell-tale sign is that Kyle Busch had to make a stop too. You think he’d have gambled if he was close on fuel? Probably. So that’s two Gibbs cars that couldn’t go the distance. I think the 11 had no choice but to pit.

Oh, and one other thing going against Pastrana is that he doesn’t have boobs. Nobody really wants to see him flirting with a guy in a cop suit on TV commercials for web hosting. It’s gonna be a much tougher road to hoe than it was for Danica.

VolcanoNacho
11/16/2010 09:04 AM
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Question… is excessive use of BOLD the same thing as excessive use of caps? I’m just saying… I feel like my eyes are being accosted.

VolcanoNacho
11/16/2010 09:07 AM
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On a Nascar Related Note, I think Danica and Travis should get together. Just imagine the Nascar story! And if the future two greatest drivers in Nascar had a child, can you imagine the amount of pure raw driving talent that kid would possess. Makes Dale Jr. look like… well Dale Jr.

Craig
11/16/2010 09:24 AM
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It’s funny that IndyCar and Formula 1 had exciting close points battles and didn’t need a “playoff reset”. Maybe NASCAR should learn from them and adopt a similar system. The Chase was a band-aid on the main problem most pre-Chase points battles weren’t close, the driver’s point system. The system doesn’t provide enough points to the top finishers. The winner should get more than 15 points, there should also be similar intervals between 6-5 and 11-10. Now it’s not enough to beat a points leader on the track, you need the leader to have trouble too. Get rid of the Chase and restructure the points (look to IndyCar as a model).

Bill B
11/16/2010 11:01 AM
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To the Frontstretch webmaster….
In addition to banning people who attack other posters can we also have anyone using multiple IDs banned as well? Unless someone can provide a legitimate reason why someone would need two IDs. I think it is a deceptive practice that has no purpose other than to mislead others participating in the conversation. It would be nice to know that each person’s comment is a unique voice.

VolcanoNacho
11/16/2010 11:15 AM
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Bill, I’m no rocket surgeon, but I think it is entirely possible that some of the posts that you think are from one individual could be coming from more than one poster.

Thank god al gore invented the internet though, so we dont have to publically give our IP addresses when we post to forums.

Gordon82Wins
11/16/2010 12:22 PM
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Rocket surgeon?

Bill B
11/16/2010 12:28 PM
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Volcano,
I am just tired of people claiming (including Matt) claiming that the same person is posting under different names. I don’t know if it’s true or not and I don’t know who to believe, but I’m tired of the speculation and accusations. It seems like it should be a simple thing to control if there is someone paying attention. It would be nice to not have to ever hear someone accusing someone else of posting under multiple names.

Craig
11/16/2010 12:28 PM
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I wouldn’t look to IndyCar for much, ARCA out draws it on TV. But I like how they award driver points. Everyone complains about the Chase but the way NASCAR rewards driver points is broken, and makes it easier for a leader to sit on his lead. I also think they should look to Formula-1, and consider a point cut off in the finishing order (25th, 30th place for example). The teams that consistently finish that far back don’t care about the Chase or the title anyway.

Bill B
11/16/2010 12:35 PM
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Volcano,
Yes, Al Gore is a god. Even though you don’t have to give your IP Address, they know and that’s why they can ban people.

Snowgod
11/16/2010 12:43 PM
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Nascar doesn’t need more points in it’s system it needs less. Too many points means less of a chance for a team with a bad day to come back into the fight. Chase races need a 12 point system and should only score points against other chasers. The chase should be eliminated but thats another issue. Get rid of the top 35 and franchise the teams. Change to 6 or 4 cylinder engines and segment the races with an intermission. points leaders start at the back and bring back the old tracks.

Craig
11/16/2010 12:51 PM
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Well the Chase format has the wrong priorities too, the championship format’s main priority is crowning the proper champion, not excitement at Homestead for the sake of excitement. Formula 1 and Indy seem to have good points battles year after year, and they don’t need to hit the reset button with 10 races to go. However, the current Chase is fine compared to the 15 driver elimination Chase that’s being proposed. Ideally NASCAR could have a cumulative point format with a new driver’s point system and get the same effect as the Chase without robbing a deserving points leader.

Doug
11/16/2010 12:56 PM
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I still hope Jimmy Johnson wins the CHASE championship again, and continues too every year, until NASCAR finally understands what a true year long champ is!

VolcanoNacho
11/16/2010 01:36 PM
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I for one am a fan of the IRL system. We took the amazing Danica from them, why cant we take their points system?

Shayne
11/16/2010 02:22 PM
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Let’s see what Travis P. can do. He’s extremely driven and hates to lose. Y’all better hope he doesn’t get the hang of driving fast and turning left.

Carl D.
11/16/2010 02:25 PM
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Pastrana may be setting himself up to be the next next sizzle-to-fizzle failure just like Danica Patrick; I don’t know. If I am recalling correctly (and I may not be), Tony Stewart spent one year (1999) in the Busch series and didn’t win a single race (due to Tony’s IRL schedule, Bobby Labonte drove the #44 car to the team’s only win that year at Darlington). Of course, the difference between Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick is that Tony is a former IRL champ while Danica is more a marketing tool than a championship-caliber racing talent. I don’t know enough about Pastrana to make an informed assessment of his stock car potential. Should be interesting, though.

Bill B
11/16/2010 02:31 PM
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My main gripe with the chase is that the points reset is an entitlement of sorts. It gives guys points they didn’t earn and takes away points (relatively) from those that did earn them. You could conceivably fix this by changing the points system during the regular season and after the chase starts. Actually the points system should have been revamped dramatically as part of the chase implementation. Instead NASCAR threw a half-assed idea out there and walked away. Also, the chase guys should have their own points system once the chase begins. There’s a lot of other problems I have with the chase but I don’t feel like writing a complete article here and boring everyone. All those who hate the chase knows the list of problems with it.

EZ
11/16/2010 02:43 PM
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The Chase sucks just as much now as it did in the beginning. Except in the minds of the na$car pr people.RG??

Kevin
11/16/2010 02:57 PM
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I have been a NASCAR fan since the early 90’s, and I must admit, I don’t have a problem with the chase. I have found myself looking forward to each race waiting to see how the points positions were going to end up, and hoping that someone finally beats Jimmie Johnson. I’ve got to tell you, as much as I’d like to see the 29 win the championship, I can’t say that I’d turn down an invite to do something on sunday should the point standings look as follows.
1)#29-Kevin Harvick, 5109
2) #48-Jimmie Johnson-295
3) #11-Denny Hamlin-365
As it stands now, I know exactly where I’ll be come 1:00 sunday afternoon.
The chase isn’t any different than Baseball, Hockey or Basketball. Throw out the points after the regular season, and let 1vs8, 2vs7etc. battle it out in a best of 7.
The only complaint that I have isn’t the fact that there is a chase, I just wish they’d leave it alone. No amount of tweaking is going to make it more accepted amongst those who hate it. It is what it is, & I still love watching my race on sunday afternoon!

laxbro
11/16/2010 03:20 PM
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Completely agree with kevin

VolcanoNacho
11/16/2010 04:22 PM
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I’m with Lax and Kevin (and stupid).

Bill B
11/16/2010 04:42 PM
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danica is racing nascar?

Doug
11/16/2010 07:33 PM
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I got an idea for the NFL, for the Super Bowl this year if one of the teams is blowing out the other, at the two minute warning, lets reset the points so the game is close!

Wingcars6970
11/16/2010 09:55 PM
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F the points…..F who the champion is….. Make the RACE matter. Winning. The desire to win. All the drivers fighting for the win. Wouldn’t that be something exciting to watch rather than the 26 races of riding around, playing it safe points racing. The have sucked the life out of the fierce, competitive sport Nascar used to be. I don’t care about the – “Oh – Blah Blah Blah the Champ was crowned with 10 races to go”. Racers race – not ride around playing it safe.